Understanding the purpose behind volunteer trips

Special to Western News

Struggling to navigate through the airport due to the weight of an enormous 20-kilogram hiking backpack, I was panting as I reached my group of 28 university students in front of the check-in gate, a crowd equally excited as I was to be embarking on a 20-day Me-to-We trip to Kenya.

Given this unique opportunity by RBC, through the Students Leading Change Scholarship, I had been anticipating this moment since May 2015. I was thrilled to be offered the chance to explore the local Maasai and Kipsigis culture, gain first-hand knowledge of many global issues that I advocated strongly for at home, and work on sustainable projects developed by Free the Children.

Yet, despite these promising aspects, a question nagged at the back of my mind:

Will this trip make a change in the world, even in the slightest way?

The first few days into my stay in the rural Maasai Mara region, I was plagued with this thought. Although the local staff at the Me-to-We property and the community members received us with kindness and enthusiasm, I wondered if I was simply intruding on their daily lives. When visiting the homesteads of two women in the Kipsigis community, Mama Alice and Mama Joyce, I stood ashamed knowing the $5 T-shirt I was wearing was equivalent to a family’s week of spending money for food and necessities at the market.

Despite interacting with playful and motivated students at Emorijoi Primary School, I felt uncomfortable pulling out my camera, taking a photo that only I can hold on to.

Ultimately, I was guilty of the ‘privilege’ I seemed to embody.

As the trip ran its course, my initial discomfort and concern faded away as I was able to better understand the purpose of my visit to Kenya.

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Breaking ground for the dormitory of a new all-boys secondary school, our group, who were dedicated to pickaxing and shoveling red soil and oddly shaped rocks two hours every day, may not have been the most effective in comparison to the local construction workers. I came to realize my biggest impact was not made on the build-site or during my stay in the community. In fact, my pickaxing and shoveling was a very small portion of the change encouraged by this journey.

The purpose of my short time in Kenya was to learn and to understand the history, culture, hardships, joys and progress in the community, because, how can one initiate effective and sustainable impact without seeing and comprehending the reality and diverse conditions of the world?

This trip allowed me to bring authenticity and further motivation behind the global issues I wish to advocate for. Now, after witnessing the happiness and pride of a community leader when he revealed his son, first in his family, will be able to pursue a postsecondary degree in electrical engineering, I will be able put a face and a memory behind a textbook statistic about access to education. Moreover, I want to share my learnings with my peers, professors and friends, because the most prominent change I will make from this trip is not in Kenya, but at home, in Canada. Here, we do have a privilege above most of the world.

However, it is not productive dwelling over guilt. Rather, it is important to transform that particular emotion into fuel to promote understanding, raise awareness, start initiatives and make an impact.

Jia Li (Betty) Wang, a first-year Information and Media Studies student, received the RBC Students Leading Change Scholarship. As part of that, she traveled to Kenya through a Me-to-We Trip with Free The Children.