Five months in Kenya
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Five months in Kenya

Changing lives for the better - including her own

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In her first week on the job, Natalie Draisin poses with her office staff. Courtesy Natalie Draisin

When you step off a 15-hour plane ride and face the stark realization that you will be without running water, a flushing toilet, electricity, a refrigerator, a microwave, or air conditioning for the next five months, that is when you know you have stepped out of your comfort zone. When you realize that you are unexpectedly the only white person in the village in which you will be living, let alone the only Jew (my coworker thought we were extinct), that is when you know your comfort zone is worlds away.

This is how I spent much of the last half-year, and I loved it. You might think I am crazy, and I will not disagree with you. However, when you throw yourself into a culture half-a-world away from your own, forcing you to challenge your own beliefs, you live in constant fascination at how the world operates so smoothly – after you learn to shower properly with a bucket, milk a cow, slaughter a chicken, and cook over a wood-burning fire, that is.

The American Jewish World Service Organization (AJWS) Volunteer Corps placed me in a rural village about four-and-a-half miles outside of Kakamega, Kenya, a medium-sized town in the Western province. Volunteer Corps sends Jews (and non-Jews married to Jews) to volunteer for three to six months in a developing country, pairing them with nonprofit organizations in need of a volunteer with their skills. The purpose is to transfer sustainable skills, which can sometimes be more valuable than transient financial donations. This season, 11 volunteers ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s set out for Uganda and Kenya, all of them in urban settings.

All, that is, except for me, and that is the way I wanted it. AJWS gives you a choice of three placements, and I was the only volunteer who chose a rural one. I wanted to get a feel for international public health work at the grassroots level, not only working in the community, but also integrating myself into it. I wanted to understand why AIDS is sometimes believed to be a result of witchcraft; why people sometimes treat malaria with the boiled bark of a tree instead of a 50-cent medication; why people get teeth with cavities pulled for $2.50 instead of getting them filled; why women are forced to deliver babies on the side of the road; and why children are at home missing their education because it is impossible to come up with school fees of $80-$180 at the last minute.

I wanted to become a part of the community in which I volunteered. I did not realize, however, the extent to which I would be welcomed, protected, respected, feared, and revered just because of the color of my skin. It sometimes made me uncomfortable, but it also put me in a unique position to transfer skills to an organization.

The organization I worked with originally began in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, sending community health workers to the affected and infected. It later grew to respond to the disease more comprehensively, addressing interrelated issues such as gender-based violence, hunger, and the resulting need for women’s empowerment and financial security. The organization operates on donor funding and income-generating activities, but donor funding is not easy to obtain. In fact, some of the community health workers even had to be taught to read and write in order to fill out the necessary paperwork. The funding allows a salary of about $70 per month for each of the eight office staff, and the community health workers receive no salary, acting as volunteers.

‘Invaluable experience’

Working with a community-based organization with a network of over 1,000 community health workers who deliver care to over 1,000 people living with HIV/AIDS and 3,000 orphans and vulnerable children was an invaluable experience. I ran proposal writing workshops, taught computer classes, organized income generating activity trainings, wrote grants, created brochures for potential funders, and developed a five-year strategic plan and budget.

I refocused the organization’s work into four areas – gender-based violence, community health and development, women’s empowerment, and household nutrition and food security.

The need for the organization’s work became evident quickly by observing the issues people brought into the office. For example, community health workers, suffering from food insecurity (the unavailability of food), requested banana seeds to start a plantation to feed their families and the orphans they were raising.

A girl came in reporting rape, but a paralegal could not be assigned to her case because she could not afford the police report, medical check, and transportation fee to the hospital, about $20 total. Instead, she settled the case with the rapist for $20.

A four-year-old girl who was raped for months by her stepfather could not find any justice in a court system fraught with corruption. The judge refused to hear the case unless a birth certificate was submitted by the girl. A birth certificate, however, is something most Kenyans do not own because it is too expensive to give birth in a hospital, where they would be given a birth certificate upon delivery. The girl’s mother only exacerbated the situation by refusing to fight against her husband in support of her daughter. The little girl ended up in an orphanage.

Hopeless situations

Women are especially at risk for food insecurity, poverty, disease, and violence, even though they were recently granted rights in the new Constitution passed in 2010. Gender inequality is still shockingly ubiquitous. Women would come in during the day with open, gaping wounds from being beaten and raped by their AIDS-infected husbands, holding the hands of their malnourished children who were not in school because they could not afford the $1 exam fee. We would help them seek legal aid and health care, and they would usually seek refuge from their husbands by staying with their families for a while until things calmed down. Then, they would go back to the situation they came from, because they had nowhere to run and no money to support them. That is why the five-year strategic plan I created contains provisions for a women’s rescue center.

Like women in many other cases we handled, when their husbands die of AIDS, these women will be evicted from their land. Although women were recently granted the right to inherit land, that right has yet to be fully realized. Their husband’s brothers will inherit the women and their land, as well as the death sentence of AIDS. Then, the brother will spread the virus to his two other wives, and their newborn babies.

You might think this would be depressing, but the way in which people are able to overcome tragedy is quite inspiring. You will find these same women walking through the market with smiles on their faces, and if you show up at their doorsteps unannounced, tea and snacks will magically appear as if they have been waiting for you. If you stay a while, they will even try and fatten you up with what little means they have, to send you home as proof of food security. I am carrying around eight pounds of evidence.

Perfect example

My friend Jacob’s mother serves as a perfect example of this phenomenon. I almost never knew her, though; Jacob and I were almost never friends. I was terrified of him. He was homeless for three years, incarcerated for four months, and living in the same compound where I had been placed with three other Kenyan men in their 20s. The potential for horror stories mirroring my family’s worst fears about my trip to Kenya led me to avoid him and stay with my other friend’s family for his first week at the compound. I did not trust him or his friend who was also living with us, and had been homeless and in jail for a year. He perceived that I felt this way, and forgave me for it. I am embarrassed to admit that I had many preconceived notions about formerly homeless and incarcerated individuals.

What I did not understand was that in a country riddled with corruption, people are thrown in jail for unsubstantiated accusations if they cannot afford to bribe the police. Jacob was jailed for a crime he did not commit, because he chose to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence (he was certain to be convicted). He was homeless because his alcoholic father could not afford his school fee, so he dropped out, walked 220 miles to Nairobi, and took a bus across the country in search of a job to support his sisters through school. He was at the top of his class, but had to stop at the equivalent of sophomore year of high school, and wanted to ensure that his sisters did not have to do the same.

Jacob was so poor, he licked pineapple rinds from the trash, ate food crawling with worms because it was better than no food at all, and sold his only pair of shoes to pay his sister’s school fees. Jacob is now trying to become a music artist, spreading the word of anti-corruption, and inspiring street children to let God help them get off the streets as He helped Jacob.

Rude awakening

Last summer, Jacob stumbled upon his mother’s HIV/AIDS medication. He had noticed that she had lost a lot of weight, but did not know why. He thought the weight loss was only a result of her diet – she could only afford a cup of porridge per day on her $60 per year salary, similar to that of 46 percent of Kenyans who make less than a dollar per day. She probably got the disease from her husband, who silently contracted HIV while disappearing with another woman for a while. He drank and beat her, as did her other son, who also gouged out his wife’s eye. She had returned late from the market one night after looking for food for dinner, and he drunkenly decided that an eye for tardiness was an appropriate punishment.

You might expect a woman in such a situation to commit suicide, start drinking, or go straight to a therapist, a rare occurrence in Kenya. Jacob’s mom did just the opposite; she carried on with life as usual, trying to earn a little money to feed her three children and one grandson who live with her. Unfortunately, these circumstances are all too often normal, and representative of the population served by the organization for which I was working. She welcomed me with the biggest smile she could muster and a meal worth most of whatever savings she had. As her visitor, I was a blessing, she said, before sending me off with gifts for my mother and an open invitation to come back unannounced – her house was mine, too.

Jacob and his mother’s situation is representative of countless others in Africa. ‘Sadly’ is a subjective term, however; Jacob and his family do not feel sorry for themselves, and they do not appear to be struggling. Like many Kenyans, they will literally give you the shirt off their backs, make you feel at home, and never ask you for anything. They do not see problems in life, just challenges, and despite all of them, they are happy and making the most of what they have in life. As Jacob said to me one day, “In Kenya, even when you’re crying, you’re laughing.

Another kind of wealth

If people got upset about everything there was to get upset about, they would never be happy – so instead, they laugh. As a result, many people are financially poor, but rich in happiness. They remind us that financial wealth is not always directly correlated with spiritual wealth.

I believe I walked away from this experience leaving my judgments behind. Jacob’s lack of education, money, and consequent lack of opportunity did not mean he was any less intelligent than I, or less capable. It meant that the environment in which he lived did not allow him to realize his potential, imposing restrictions that I was blessed never to have known. Although this may sound like an obvious realization, it is not an easy one to reach when you are the only white person in town, sharing walls with a person who was formerly in jail and living on the streets, while putting up more walls of your own. Similarly, it is not an easy one to reach while sitting in your comfortable home in one of the wealthiest areas of America.

Why I was born in a comfortable, happy, loving environment rife with opportunity instead of a situation such as Jacob’s or his mother’s has always dumbfounded me, and continues to do so. Jacob was born at his grandfather’s funeral, as his mother buried her father. Dirt was shoveled over the grave while Jacob came to life right next to it. My very opposite, fortunate situation makes me feel not only unbelievably lucky, but also obligated to work with those who were not born in such surroundings. I believe that understanding how much environment affects our lives is essential when it comes to social justice. We must realize that the opportunities we have been given are blessings, and that it is our duty as Jews to step out of our comfort zones and work towards achieving social justice, because we can.

When I stood at the Natzweiler-Struthoff Concentration Camp in France last August right before I left for Kenya, that was the thought that affirmed my decision to volunteer with American Jewish World Service. This is the camp where 86 Jews were gassed to make a “members of an extinct race” exhibit. These prisoners were only there because of their environment. Like impoverished people suffering from HIV/AIDS, facing evictions and beatings from their family members, or lacking money to send their children to school, their circumstances were a direct result of the world around them – not the kind of people they were. Had they been in different situations, they could have thrived.

A Jewish ‘mission’

Jews and Africans alike have a long history of overcoming social persecution, and as the Jews who escaped it, it is our responsibility to fight persecution and injustice wherever and whenever we have the chance. We cannot see ours as a responsibility to stop only anti-Semitism – for ethnic persecution, poverty, or any factor which restricts the opportunities afforded to an individual all fall under the umbrella of social injustice.

I knew that as much as I could offer to the community, I would be taking more from them than I could ever give. I think that I came back a different, better person, and I hope that in the future, that I will be more cognizant of the little judgments I sometimes unknowingly make when I fail to recognize that a person’s current situation is merely a product of each opportunity they were blessed with or denied along the way.

I will try my best to emulate the unparalleled Kenyan hospitality, and most of all, I will be more grateful for everything I have in life, from a solid education and family that has never known violence, to a refrigerator filled with food and a flushing toilet.

Volunteering in a third world country with other Jews striving to advance social justice will hopefully change the lives of those you are there to help, but inevitably, it will change yours for the better, as well.

Former Jewish Standard intern Natalie Draisin is currently working as a consultant in Washington, D.C. She graduated from The Johns Hopkins University and majored in public health, combining her interest in health, development, and policy. American Jewish World Service allowed her to combine her education with her previous experience in health policy.

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