From 'Me' to 'We'
Teen gets new perspective on life after helping in Kenya
An inspirational speaker named Spencer West addressed students at Foothill High School last December, during my junior year. His moving speech described his experiences in Africa as a volunteer for the Me to We organization, which offers service abroad trips and sells books, clothes and jewelry to profit the Free the Children foundation.
Like my fellow classmates, I felt awe and gratitude toward our guest speaker, but it was also an unsettling experience. I longed for the passion and self-fulfillment Spencer radiated. Restless and eager, I signed up for Me to We's service abroad trip to Kenya last summer, admittedly uncertain as to what I was looking for. What I received was a true learning experience -- about Kenya, about our own community, and about myself.
The purpose of the trip was to construct a new school for a community called Eor-Ewuaso. The building process was extensive -- digging trenches, mixing cement, wheel barrowing, making mortar, laying bricks, cutting the wiring, crushing rocks, covering the foundation -- but the end result was the formation of both the school and the first piece of my newfound identity.
Some of the other pieces are still difficult for me to come to terms with. My deepest insight into the hearts of the locals came during a water walk with two of the moms in the community.
In many respects, they did not seem so different from the moms of Pleasanton. They talked about how they were proud of their children, and wanted them to do well in school.
But when we reached the river and I watched them fill their canisters with murky, brown water, all commonality fell away. As I carried the 20-liter, 50-pound canister on my back, one of the moms walked beside me.
"We are lucky that the river is so close," she told me, smiling, "Most people must walk 6 kilometers."
I asked her how many we had to walk.
"Just one," she replied, as if she was extraordinarily lucky in her fate.
Water scarcity has become an alarming issue. Globally, a child dies every eight seconds from drinking dirty water, and in Kenya alone half the population lacks safe drinking water. Yet despite grim statistics, educating the community is difficult. When I told one of the mothers that she should boil her water, she dismissed it as impractical.
"Boiling water requires firewood," she told me, "and there is neither time nor energy for that."
I insisted, claiming that her children would get sick. She shrugged.
"They are at first ... and then after a couple years, they stop," she said.
But my facilitator offered perhaps the most shocking story about a well Me to We had constructed in a local community only a couple years earlier.
"At first, everyone was just really confused," she said. "They'd never seen water so clear before. They didn't even know what it was."
Yet amid these types of problems I came face to face with, living in an African village also showed me the true meaning of harmony within a community. The unity of EorEwuaso was unlike anything I had ever encountered. Friendships with neighbors are not only polite; they are the essential fabric that binds people together.
The people have even developed a "Merry-Go-Round" system, in which all the families put as much money as they can afford into one cumulative stockpile at the end of the month. The entire sum goes to a different family each time, allowing them to purchase a larger investment, such as a donkey or a bicycle.
To put it simply, people are never isolated from another, be it physically or emotionally. The strength of their bonds is encouraging, uplifting and something from which even our own community can draw inspiration.
EorEwuaso has made me redefine the true meaning of generosity.
"We will all pray that you have a safe flight back to America," the principal of the local school told us Me to We volunteers during our goodbye ceremony. "You will always have a home here in Kenya."
The women then presented each of us with a handcrafted, beaded bracelet. The beads alone must have cost them half their monthly income.
The principal ended his speech with one final statement: "We will never forget what you have done for us."
When I came back from Kenya, people had one general statement to make to me: "Wow, now you must really realize how lucky you are." And I wholeheartedly agree. Service abroad trips allow us to fully appreciate the opportunities in our own lives once we see those who are less fortunate.
But I have realized that there are also things we can learn from the less fortunate. Despite the poverty and hardship the people of EorEwuaso face, they also carry with them the purest ideals of friendship and hospitality.
As a town, it is important for us to be reminded of these ideals and to emulate them. After all, we too are striving for a community bound by what is important: generosity, warmth, compassion and hope for an even brighter future.
--Monika Petkova, a senior at Foothill High, is starting an online fundraiser for sponsoring a well in Africa at www.thewaterproject.org/community/profile/monika-petkova for people to donate money directly to her page to help her fundraise.