Chirongo threw the frisbee again...this time a bit more accurate than the last. Still, with a bright smile across his face, he turned to me and asked, "That is good?" I laughed, picked up the frisbee, and threw it well over Chirongo's head...to his delight of course. He again turned to me, this time restating his question as an affirmative: "That is good."
This intercultural exercise took place each afternoon until Chirongo returned home at dusk...walking 2 kilometers along a red dirt road back to his humble homestead. I knew I would see Chirongo again each morning. After all, we were now friends.
Our group - consisting of 13 selfless volunteers - arrived to the rural village of Egu on August 7th, nestled just a few short hours outside of Mombasa in the peaceful African bush of Kenya. Once again, I had joined another service expedition with CHOICE Humanitarian. Our intention was not to "save" the village of Egu...or "rescue" the villagers living therein. Instead, we traveled across the Atlantic to support the villagers in their own progress toward self-sustainable development.
The residents of Egu had determined that an 8-room dispensary (or rural health clinic) was their next greatest need (second to potable water). As a result, we were asked to work with them hand-in-hand throughout the week, all while broadening our global perspectives in the process. In a brief period of just one week, we worked together to clear the land, measure and stake the perimeters, and dig the entire foundation 2.5 feet deep...all without the help of industrial equipment or heavy machinery. Yes, this is what we refer to as authentic manual labor!
Our daily routine was simple. We awoke to a breakfast of passion fruit and mango...and we dined in the evenings with plates full of chapattis and pilau. We worked hard in the mornings...but we slowed down in the afternoons...eventually finding ourselves on the sidelines watching the native men and women chop through dirt without breaking a sweat. The day was not complete without at least one visit to the pit latrine - an experience one must live to understand. Of course, a late night shower was always rewarding for those that dared to bathe naked behind a curtain of dried corn stalks and beneath a pitcher of warm water...all while underneath the gleaming stars of the African sky. Then, it was off to bed on the cement floor of the schoolhouse for some intermittent sleep thanks to the squealing bats overhead. Ahhh...the mornings couldn't come soon enough with its fresh passion fruit and mango.
Although important, the project itself simply served as a catalyst for the deeper intercultural exchange which took place during the week. For some, the most significant experiences occurred away from the project site...during a soccer game, an English lesson, or a cultural celebration of song and dance.
Such was the case for me as I ventured one afternoon outside of camp with the loyal companionship of Chirongo, a local 12-year old boy void of anguish for his surroundings, and instead, full of happiness and curiosity for life. Here is a description of our tour at dusk...off the beaten path in the rural outskirts of Egu:
The sun began to set in the distance, amidst a motionless horizon of native sisel plants and acacia trees. Chirongo and his friends were more than excited to lead me in the direction of the descending sun, along winding trails that curled past towering termite hills and desiccated crops, both of which populated the arid landscape. We encountered multiple homesteads where giggling children and smiling parents gathered outside their modest huts just before we passed...eager to greet us with a warm wave and welcoming "Jambo!"
We arrived to the village watering hole and watched as various women gathered water for their families...often walking great distances of 10 kilometers or more. Adorned in native fabrics of brilliant color, these women approached the subtle ledge, climbed down the rock's surface, and stretched their arms into the water to fill their weathered buckets. In a matter of minutes, the women were back on the trail again...returning home with full buckets of vital water now balanced upon their heads. It is not uncommon for one woman to perform this time-consuming task 3 to 4 times each day.
As a humble observer, I could not help but respect and appreciate the work ethic of these village women and mothers...all of whom performed their maternal duties with a smile. A fellow volunteer and I turned around, still a bit contemplative, just in time to witness the sun disappear behind the massive boulders in the foreground. This brief trek was well worth our time.
After taking a few quick snapshots, I turned around in the other direction to see little Chirongo waiting for me back on the trail. There were no other villagers in sight. He alone was going to lead us back to camp. I couldn't help but smile as I descended the rocks and returned to his side. I held his hand, as he requested, and began walking back...spotting an occasional howler monkey along the way.
Chirongo was still barefoot and unconcerned over the occasional cactus or potential snake. I decided to join him. I kicked off my sandals to feel the fine dust beneath my feet, tickling my instep and leaving a soft powder of red in between my toes. I took a couple more snapshots of our contrasting feet in the dirt. What an experience this had become.
I assumed Chirongo spoke just broken English since our interaction was largely limited to laughter and smiles. When attempting to ask him questions, I often got confused looks in return, accompanied with a perplexing comeback in Swahili. Yet, as the night concluded, Chirongo looked at me and said, "I hope you return one day...with your wife."
I'd love to, Chirongo. I'd love to.
I could go on and on, reflecting for hours over the infinite highlights of this expedition. On a cultural level, I was relieved to see such a high sense of tolerance and civility in the village. After all, both Christians and Muslims lived together in Egu...playing, studying, and working in harmony. Being the month of Ramadan, Muslim families returned home at dusk to break their fast over iftar meals. Yet, there was no division. There was no contention. There was no judgment from either side. It was simply...refreshing.
I soon left the village of Egu and returned to Mombasa for a final night along Nyali Beach. The next morning, as I sat in the white sands of the coastline and stared into the Indian Ocean, I pondered one simple truth that is reassured with each expedition: Those born into greater privilege are also endowed with greater responsibilities to improve the world and help those with greater needs...and that alone should be all that matters.
For a similar life-changing experience, please contact me at CHOICE Humanitarian (801-474-1937) or visit our website: www.choicehumanitarian.org.