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Friday, 31 December 2010

Volunteering with IHF in Kenya

When people ask about my year of directing an orphanage for the International Humanity Foundation in Kenya, their most frequent question is, “Was it hard?”  They mean “Was it hard to have spotty electricity?  Did you miss flush toilets?  Was it difficult to live where air conditioning was a breeze in the shade and there were no heaters to keep you warm when the temperature plunged at night?”

 

I guess so, but I got used to all that.  It was annoying for the first month or so, but then it became normal.  I adapted and didn't notice what I was missing anymore.

 

Not that living abroad was easy.  That year was the most difficult in my life… no exaggeration.  It's just that the greatest difficulties weren't of the physical sort, three bouts with malaria withstanding.

 

I went abroad to learn about poverty, to live a different life from the one I had known all my years on earth, to make some change for the good in the world.  My fellow directors and I were responsible for over one hundred children.  They were of the Pokot tribe, one of the poorest and most discriminated against in Kenya.  Drought struck their homeland, and their P1070126parents couldn't feed them and all their brothers and sisters.  Some parents were considering selling their daughters as wives to feed their other children.  Some children desperately needed medical attention and were not going to find it in a community where cholera outbreaks were normal and bleeding a goat was a valid treatment.

 

Instead the children came to live with us.  We fed them and kept them safe.  We woke them up in the morning for school.  When they came home in the afternoons, we taught additional classes in English and math to prepare them for entrance exams to secondary school and university.  There were computer classes to familiarize them with the wired world.  They learned to type and use Skype to speak with the children from the Foundation's other centers in Thailand and Indonesia.  Our nurse kept them healthy and we played soccer with them and gave them our love. 

 

Taking care of these children who had already known such poverty and abuse in their short lives and needed special attention was alone a full-time job, and there was so much else to do beyond it.  A staff of twenty needed management, sponsors and donors needed to be recruited, and the farm and animals needed tending.  I had hardly the energy to enjoy the hour of privacy I had at the end of every day.  I was always exhausted

 

P1060929Once a month we conducted a famine feed in the children's homeland.  After hours of driving over dry river beds and along roads that were no more than wheel tracks in the dirt, we distributed maize flour and cabbage to fend off malnourishment as the drought continued in four villages.  In special circumstances, we bought chickens, goats, cows and camels with donations from all over the world and gave them to those villagers in the greatest need.  They could use the animals to feed themselves and their relatives or sell them and use the profit to subsist on.

 

 

 

 

You would think this work would be appreciated by the government and authorities – that someone else cared and provided for its most vulnerable people.  You would be wrong.  Threats to close the center were regular, and demands for bribes were just as frequent.  Several times the center's electricity was cut.

 

My year abroad brought me in contact with the worst of humanity.  There were those who thought only of their own gain, even when they had plenty, and they took without thought or concern from the mouths of children to feed their already swollen guts.   Before food could be distributed in East Pokot, chiefs demanded their favorites receive extra.

 

Then there was the best of humanity.  There were directors who worked long hours to exhaustion to assure that the children were cared for as best as possible and that enough money was raised to support them.  They paid for their own airfare to the center and received no money for their work.  And there were the children themselves who had suffered so much already in their lives but were taking advantage of the opportunity given them to make the best of their lives.

 

I went abroad to make some difference in the world.  I think I did that.  The children were healthy.  Their English improved.  They progressed from never before touching a computer to being competent typists.  But more than any good I personally did was the good done to me.  I learned a new appreciation not just for little comforts like flowing tap water and safe roads but the things that are not so obvious, like a society that conforms to rule under law.  I learned a new patience when things don't go according to plan.  And, of course, there were the children who shared with me their tribal songs and dances and invited me to join their games.  They came to visit and talk with me at the end of the day and let me know through their mere presence and smiles and hugs that the work I did, even if they didn't fully understand it, was appreciated.

 

SAM 0307Should you be interested in voluntourism yourself, consider strongly the International Humanity Foundation.  It takes seriously its mission to “educate the educated about the poor.”  Its six centers throughout Indonesia, Thailand and Kenya each offer a unique perspective on poverty and its myriad forms.  Spend a month with IHF and learn about the realities of urban poverty in Jakarta or tribal poverty in northern Thailand.

 

IHF is run entirely by volunteers and has no administration costs to assure that all donations go toward those who most need them, the children, and to keep voluntourist fees low, making it an affordable option for everyone.  Furthermore, IHF is flexible in visits by voluntourists.  You can stay for as little as a week or make a longer commitment.  To learn more, please visit http://www.ihfonline.org.

 

 

©Chris Heinrich

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