Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Insights on Volunteering Globally:
A Personal Perspective From Kenya

--Feature: "The Humanitarian Brief w/Need Magazine"--

On December 27, 2007, the disputed re-election of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki spurred an outbreak of ethnic and political violence around Nairobi and Western Kenya. Subsequently hundreds of thousands of Kenyans fled their homes, and now live in or around crowded displaced persons camps.

Rafe Steinhauer volunteered in Kenya for more than two months with the Global Volunteers Network (GVN). He taught math, English, and soccer at schools in Nairobi and Maasailand and helped aid missions into displaced persons camps after the post-election violence. In Nairobi, Steinhauer taught at a rehabilitation school for teenage boys who had committed nonviolent crimes. I asked Steinhauer some questions to find out what his experience was like.

Q: Tell us about the atmosphere in Kenya. What were the people’s needs? What were the difficulties?

A: The atmosphere in Kenya was very tense. I didn’t witness any violence associated with the post-election crisis, but it obviously dominated the news and all conversations. Over 300,000 people lost their homes as a result of the violence, and many of those people remain in camps even though it has been over a month since the last account of violence. People need to realize how infeasible it is for these people to move back to their former neighborhoods. The perpetrators of the violence are mostly at-large and unknown. Is it really possible to ask people to move back next to people who killed their relatives and burnt down their houses? The international community has three responsibilities: to support a program of relocation for the displaced persons; to keep the IDPs alive until this scenario can be executed; and to push for programs that encourage people to identify themselves as Kenyans rather than members of a specific tribe – similar to the programs implemented in Rwanda after the genocide.

Q: Describe one person or one moment that demonstrates how the work you were involved in impacted that person and/or the people in Kenya.

A: Although the work I did fundraising for the IDP camps did the greatest good from a quantitative standpoint, the moment I felt most rewarding occurred on my final day of work at the Boys Rehab School. I bought a bunch of phone credit and let each kid make one call – only realizing the ironic similarity to US prisons as I’m writing this now. Most of the boys called numbers sadly out of service, but many successfully reached parents they hadn’t talked to in months. That night, I received two calls from parents just wishing to thank me for letting them talk to their sons. One mother cried as she voiced her appreciation. I’m usually a thoroughly dispassionate person, but that moment really touched me.

Q: How did this trip affect you?

A: I used to really enjoy having a structured and routinized life. I was already on the road to enjoying the unpredicted, but living in Kenya for a couple months blew away any OCD tendencies possibly remaining. I already had a good sense of the living conditions in the third world, so I’m not sure I came away with a raised awareness or anything like that. But I now strongly encourage everyone to visit the third world and can’t wait to get back myself. [People] owe it to themselves – not to mention to people in need – to visit a developing nation and do some short-term volunteering. The Global Volunteer Network is a great organization to do it with. Their minimum volunteering length is two weeks.

Q: What would you tell someone who was thinking about doing what you did

A: I would tell someone thinking of doing what I did, “yes!” Go do it and chill out because everything will be fine. People worry too much. One more specific word of advice I’d give to someone volunteering is to make sure you are working on a project or towards a goal. It sounds obvious, but a lot of volunteers I saw just showed up for work and did what they were told by the orphanage or school leader, which was often something unrewarding and menial. Doing menial work can be part of the deal if you’re volunteering, but the true aim is to be as helpful as possible. You will often have a better idea of how to be useful than the director of the placement will. And usually it involves working towards some goal and not just being a punch-card employee without wages.

To read more of Steinhauer’s amazing stories about living and volunteering in Kenya, visit his profile at Volunteer Journals.

A Look At the Global Volunteers Network's Work in Kenya

Global Volunteer Network Ltd

PO Box 30-968
Lower Hutt
New Zealand

*The following post was originally contributed by Adam Hanson via NEED MAGAZINE on May
20, 2008

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