There and Back Again, a tale by volun-traveler

This, I guess, is going to be my last post on this blog for quite some time, unless I pack up and head off to another adventure.

Looking Back

As I said more than one year ago, at the very start of this blog-post, the weeks have been rolling by. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been 3 weeks and 4 days here. Not at all. It feels like I’ve never left. As if Kenya was all a lovely, remote dream. If life were a straight line, Kenya would be one huge balloon tied to it on the 24th year, and kept tied to it by a thin piece of string.

I guess it’s just the brain’s way of dealing with it.

Here we are back to ‘normality’. Job-seeking, rat-racing, stuff-consuming, master-applying normality. I don’t feel like I’ve just spent one entire year working in one of the world’s greatest slums… and yet, what should I expect? that the world changes around me as I have changed? Or that people look at you in a different curious way? Not really. One is, yet again, a number in a crowd of millions, moving about their daily life.

It is hard to explain what it feels like at times. Imagine yourself walking down the Main Street of Valletta, Malta. Or the busy street just away from Piccadilly Circus in London. Or the road near Hilton, Nairobi, for that matter. See the throngs of people moving in one direction or the other, walking on, and on, with or without purpose, but with an aim or a self-defined determination. And suddenly, you stop and stare around you. Everyone keeps going on to wherever she or he wants to go, but you decide to stop, look around and in your mind, a voice is screaming.

It’s hard to explain. We too are part of the rat-race, oblivious to all else, walking on or walking back or going to wherever we decide to go. Most of the time, I guess, we don’t even know we are alive, that we breathe, and that our hearts are pumping 5 litres of blood all around. We hardly realise that trees look at us pityingly as they gradually soar up towards the sun, sucking in our polluted air. Or, to look at it less poetically… we hardly realise that we are WE and you are YOU and that we all are lovely people to discover, but we are too busy to have time to do so.

Welcome to the 21st century society, I guess. Or to the urbanised world. What does this have to do with my year in Kibera, one might ask? Not much, I guess. But leaving the current and veering off on a tangent to a totally different world, and an alien culture, makes you see things that others don’t. I remember the many times in Kenya when I felt guilt, a senseless guilt based on not what I had done, but what I wasn’t doing. And guess what I wasn’t doing? Living the rat race. I was refusing it. I was an outsider, to it.

One example is Malta, where the mindsets are perhaps more traditional than most other countries. You do well in your A Levels. Of course “Don’t be silly” – with those good grades, choose medicine. You torture yourself through 5 years of intense study and make it. You graduate. You work in hospital for hours on end. In the meantime you find a wife, marry her and have kids. When you reach the age of 61 you retire, find something to do and age gracefully. And then you die.

Period.

And if you decide to veer off that path, even for a little while, most people look at you with hostility, as if you’ve done something terrible. You want to be different? Prepare to be treated differently. Even when you come back, most people tell you “How generous of you to do what you did. Ohh, how nice!” Then you realise, with the words that follow, that what they actually mean is “Now you are back and you have to go back to the way it was before. You played your “crazy-time”… now is the time to be back. Join us. It’s terrible, you know, but we hate different people, so join us”.

How have I experienced this? I’ve experienced this not through my friends, who are quite jealous of me sometimes. No, I say it because society in general and people around me still question why I don’t want to work in hospital. Why I would “abandon a work of prestige, good pay and status” for another wild card. I understand them as much as I disagree with them. Life is not easy, and can never be. However, I have a right and possibility to make it as interesting and exciting as possible – why would you negate me that chance?

It’s hard to express how I feel. I remember on the second day back from Kenya, I went to watch a film in the cinema, all on my own. After that, I was strolling down Bay Street, Paceville, and headed to Mc Donald’s “Coz I hadn’t tasted Mc Donald’s for over a year”. I remember having the most unsatisfactory meal of my life, and feeling extremely nervous. People all around you, consuming for consuming’s sake. Eating, chatting, talking, Gossiping, Noising, Shopping, shopping, shopping. I felt so strange – 1 year in Kibera changes your perspective on things. Suddenly you become and outsider to the world. You are “part of the world, but not OF the world”. This doesn’t mean I’ll turn into a Greek cynic or something. But I have heard it so many times – “I hate my job”, or “I can’t keep living like this”, or “I haven’t been to the countryside in months” and all I can tell them is “Go for it – change your job, dream, wish things. Don’t be overafraid. And yet, most of us are too addicted to not wanting to discover ourselves and each other. That, perhaps, is why so many youths of my generation simply live for the weekend and then drink themselves to a stupor. They don’t realise they CAN enjoy life, and out of fear, they stay where they are, and drink themselves out of their own consciousness. It is no wonder that we, in the west, live very stressful lives. We may have a great life expectancy and tons of comforts, but we may not have the quality of life enjoyed by someone in the middle of Turkana desert, who lives for perhaps 50 years, sleeps with cattle and can see the stars in all their splendour every night.

Enough preaching.

People back in Kenya

I am still in touch with the many people we lived with and went out with in Kenya. Kenyans, Italians, Koreans, Mexicans – once you meet such people, who are sharing the same experiences you are, you realised that a bond is formed that cannot be broken. I call them my family in Kenya – the family I had there, the brothers and sisters who I met in my daily life – be it to give English lessons to, or to watch a film with, or to do a home visit to. In such situations, bonds are formed that go beyond “being acquainted” – they are bonds of a deep understanding, though we do not understand. I remember the many times we had conversations with other volunteers there about one issue or another, and we never really reached a conclusion. But we can understand one another, on a deeper, soulful level, because we are living through the same inner mind-conflicts. Isn’t that, in a way, what makes a family?

Evaluation Weekend

I’ve just come back from a 2 day evaluation weekend which, contrary to my admittedly low expectations, proved quite useful in organising my experience a bit, in my mind. I realised that the goals I had set off with on that cold December day, 2009, had been met, though differently to what I had expected. I also realised that one of my main aims – to find out where I’d like to forge a path for myself – had been met. I now know that my dream, at least, is to go into the world of the Environment. There, to me, is a passion of sorts – I have grown to realise that protecting and enhancing the environment is the one great challenge of the 21st Century – and that if we lose it, we lose our souls, our sanity and our very selves in the process. I want to be part of that world – to do my best to encourage a more harmonious balance in life – be it through promoting solar technology or protecting wildlife, or even using my medical background to discover what diseases or effects pollution may bring about, and ACTING upon it.

Additionally, this weekend, shared with the volunteers from Egypt and Ethiopia, made me realise that I am not alone. That there are many people, just like me, who dared be “crazy” in the eyes of the world and did “crazy” things which most people tend to ridicule, and that we can find comfort in each other in the fact that life is uncertain, that our lives are uncertain and that we are uncertain of ourselves as much as we are certain of our experiences. It was good to know that. It was also good to admit to ourselves that we did not change the world, though the little impact we made DID actually serve for something, and something good. We also, now, will try to share this experience in any way possible, not just because it is part of our EVS contract, but because it would be selfish of us to keep it for ourselves.

Epilogue

This is why I wrote this blog. In these many posts, I wanted to share with you, dear reader, a little taste of what such an experience is about, in all its beauty, adventure and miserable occurrences. I wanted to share with you what it means to be “crazy” in the eyes of a world that is blind except to itself, and, I believe, loses itself along the way in the orderly chaos of everyday life. I wanted to challenge people into thinking about what the world has to offer, and how prejudiced we all are, starting with myself.

And what I can tell you, finally is this. If you hate what you’re doing, and if you have opportunities ahead of you, just go for them. Don’t overthink. Don’t worry too much. Things will turn out well, even if most of the things you imagine don’t turn out to be the way you wish them to. Just go for it, and don’t let anyone tell you what you SHOULD do.

Go for it 🙂 It will be the best thing you will ever do. And when you’re back, you will feel alive 🙂

John

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One Response to “There and Back Again, a tale by volun-traveler”

  1. chrissy Says:

    Hi I am from kenya and I have loved reading your blog!hope you got admitted into your master program!was googling directions for mwagaza in karen then saw your photos of the place and as I started reading got hooked!

    Thank you for sharing!

    Ps…I loOooove nairobi with all its craziness!

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