What’s In A Year?

It has been one year since I departed from my home, to Denver, to Toronto, to Kenya and spent an amazing twenty days surrounded by wonderful people in an equally wondrous place.

It is strange to think that it has been an entire year. While it feels like it’s been more than a year, it also feels as if I was just in Kenya yesterday.

When people ask how Kenya was, I still don’t know how to explain everything.
I’ve had a year to contemplate the trip and winning Microsoft’s Challenge for Change competition alongside four driven, funny, talented, intelligent people. I know that the world is full of issues of which I am very aware, but I also know that based on the people I met and people I still keep in contact with, I have a great deal of hope that we can work together to tackle each and every one of them.

Kenya gave me a lot of things.
Courage, mostly.

I thought I was courageous and independent before the trip, but it really took me being away from the US, from my family, from my friends, from everything I had known before, to truly feel the kind of courage I needed to improve some really difficult things in my life.
I thought I was empowered and wanted to change the world before. It took Kenya to push me into really knowing that was what I wanted and needed.

I think a lot of times people get big ideas and huge dreams, which is a great thing. It is necessary to have dreams to accomplish anything in life. But I also think that changing the world can seem like an impossible task. I think that people still see things in black and white–that you either change the world for the better or don’t do it at all.

But everything is trial and error. When people want to improve things, it can’t be immediate. And even the best of intentions do not do what they need to do for the people that need it most.
And admitting that, especially when you have big dreams and big goals, is a really difficult thing. People don’t like admitting the things you’re trying to do to improve things is actually not making things better. Especially humanitarians. Especially people who are seen as selfless, strong, good people. Especially me.

And it has been a year.
A whole year.

A long time, but a short time. And I have realized that I have made contributions, good and bad, to this world. And that the impacts I have on the people around me are large and varied, and important, even if I don’t think they may be at the time.

Kenya gave me courage to cut the things from my life that were holding me back, making me sad, giving me strife. It also gave me the courage to admit my initial goals and dreams may be flawed and self-righteous. It then gave me the courage to look inward and start from scratch.

Starting from scratch can be the scariest thing in the world, but sometimes, a lot of times, it is necessary.

A year ago, I thought humanitarianism and international development were clear cut. I thought if you give things to poor people, it solves everything. I was much more eurocentric, less critical, less understanding of different perspectives. I don’t think I was ignorant, but I was set in my ways because I wanted so badly to do good for the world. And being set in your ways and being convinced of your own do-goodery can be the worst thing for the people you are trying to uplift.

A year ago, I didn’t know or understand that completely.

In Kenya, I saw firsthand how that kind of sentiment can be so detrimental to everyone involved–both beneficiaries and benefactors.
I realized that it is GOOD to be critical, as long as you can supply and work towards a shift in mindset. It is not negative to question structures that are in place, especially in a non-profit, development situation. It is necessary, in fact, to push the envelope, question what people’s intentions are, and give the impoverished a space to use their OWN voice.

A year ago, I was very proud of my accomplishments in terms of Microsoft’s Challenge for Change and my research with a close professor. And it’s not to say that I shouldn’t have been proud or that I am still not proud. But being proud slows down the process. It’s not that you shouldn’t be happy and confident of your skills or abilities. But I think that a year ago, the prize was at the forefront of my mind, not the journey or the process. And the process is a long and arduous one, no matter what social justice issue you’re tackling. A proud accomplishment is just another step on the ladder. You are never done with the work you are doing, and in a way, that is a very nice thing. There is always something to improve, some injustice to battle, some minds to shift. It gives you things to work towards. A year ago, this idea would have been very frustrating for me.

A year ago, I did not know the wonderful people I would come to befriend and grow so much from. Being one of the oldest people on the trip, I did not know what to expect. I thought I would be a mentor and source of guidance. I felt a little entitled, to be honest. But I learnt a great deal from everyone on the trip. I got into so many situations that angered me, from seeing poverty porn in action to the oversimplification of some of social justice issues in the modules we participated in as a group. The anger I felt really showed me how much poverty alleviation and inclusive social justice is a passion for me. And, the best part was that I could air out my frustrations with my close friends on the trip and they knew, understood, and allowed me to have a safe space to engage in conversations about everything that bothered us.
A year ago, I didn’t have these friends.
Now, even a year later, I still do.

Kenya was honestly one of the best trips and experiences in my young life. A year later, and I can still say that. There are, of course, details that are fuzzy in my mind. Sometimes, names blur from my mind, but I have Facebook to assist me with that. But there are very poignant moments from the trip that I don’t think I can ever forget. I will still remember the Kenyan salesman at a gas station that tried to sell me a painting by speaking Chinese to me. I will still remember the multitudes of late nights, laughter, huge bugs, mosquito net mishaps, toilet adventures, and dancing to Shakira. I think some of the most memorable things were those that I could have done anywhere else in the world, but it wasn’t anywhere else in the world. It was in Kenya. It was in the Maasai Mara. It was in Mwangaza, where a part of my soul will constantly remain. And I was thankfully with an amazing bunch of kiddos that I am so glad to have met, befriended, and bonded so deeply with.

Kenya and each person I crossed paths with gave me the courage I needed to do the things I needed and still need to do.

A year later, and I am still and always will be grateful.

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