I want to reflect on my first time abroad to an underdeveloped country. I was a sophomore in college and I was making really good grades–something I couldn’t say the following years. I remember I needed to update my resume but I didn’t really have too much to replace things I had done in highschool. So, I immediately started volunteering at places: Ijams Nature Center, Young Williams’ Animal Clinic and Remote Area Medical (RAM). The latter of these is an organization made up of volunteers (ranging from people like me to medical professionals) that provide health, dental, and vision care, and veterinary services around the US. I really loved this organization and what it did. All I did as a volunteer was organize rooms of medications and label and consolidate boxes of medical equipment and eye glasses. RAM also did emergency response to other countries. In a hallway of this former school that RAM had made into its headquarters was an outline done in masking tape of the storage area of a plane that RAM would send to Haiti because of the recent Earthquake. I was stoked thinking that what I was doing would eventually come to help people suffering in Haiti. After my volunteering shift was over I went straight to the campus library and saw how devastated Haiti was and this had a huge impact on me. I saw that RAM had scheduled another trip to a different country and I badly wanted to be a part of it. I started looking up how to get a passport and had calculated how much it would all cost (I was always broke during college so this was important!). I just knew in my mind that I was about to go to another country to volunteer with RAM. Well, it never happened because I realized that they only took medical professionals…that makes sense now that I think about it. A few weeks later I went home for a holiday break or something and I was talking to my friend about a mission trip to Zimbabwe that he had just committed to. He quickly got my name added on the list and I was in! I got my passport, all my shots, and had raised the money and I was ready to go.
We were warmly welcomed in the Harare airport by our folks and we were driven to meet the families each of us would be hosted by during our time there. Within the next couple of weeks I knew that traveling was what I wanted to do with my life. I met some of the nicest and most sincere people I have ever met. I enjoyed learning the local language and I loved getting to know a new culture different from my own. My favorite part of the entire trip was the children. Each day we went around the neighborhood gathering the kids with music and singing. Literal floods of kids rushed out of every house and alley in between. These kids’ smile made me so ecstatic. No matter what pain they felt, no matter what worry they had, they had a gleaming smile from ear to ear because we were there to dance and sing, give them sweets and make sure they were having a great time. And we did! I can honestly say that many of those kids had the time of their lives. It was known that I always had jolly ranchers or suckers in my pocket or in my backpack so anytime I came around a corner there was a swarm of kids and I happily gave them out one by one as we smiled at each other and I continued on my way patting myself on the back for making them happy. I knew this was what I wanted to devote my life to.
I’ve been in Lesotho for almost five months now and I don’t really have that same feelings that I had in Zimbabwe. I don’t have the same wide smile when kids swarm me. It’s because over the past few years I’ve learned a little bit about sustainable community development. I’m constantly reminded of that one seed that I planted (among many great ones that I am proud of). I’ve learned that community development doesn’t really have the same instant gratification. It takes much more time, many more frustrations and a lot of planning.
When kids here ask me for candy (or demand it, as is the case most times), I realize that it was me that taught them that this was okay to expect. This seems harmless on the surface, I’m sure, but it is a true issue when it develops into a constant expectation for handouts. It is a small seed that can grow into so much more. In college I liked giving out food and blankets to homeless people. It was a good thing to do I think and I don’t regret it. But when people, more specifically a culture, develop a dependence on these handouts that’s when we as the givers need to reevaluate if we are really helping people (long term) or just making ourselves feel good. When I think about my own life and what truly helped me develop as a person, I think about the time people invested in me. Countless lessons from my uncle, many one-on-one talks with professors, and deep relationships with my friends are what made me want to be the person that I aspire to be today. ‘Ntate Mokhele has been a huge person in my life here in Lesotho. Earlier this week I had a frustrating conversation with an older shepherd out in the fields about “white people being more clever and wiser because they giving Basotho so many things.” I became angry with this person because he was very obviously okay with being dependent on other people. I wanted to hold this mans opinion as the opinion for all Basotho. That was until I went to ‘Ntate Mokhele to tell him about this conversation. He quickly showed me that everyone here is not like this man. He told me that his grandma and pop-pop were the most important people in his life. He said they were harsh but that they taught him to not be dependent or always ask for things from people. He quit school after Form 3 (10th grade) to go work in the mines. He started making money and fully supporting himself. I interrupted him to ask if he regretted quitting school and he quickly said no. He said if he didn’t do that then he probably wouldn’t have gone through all the things he has and be the man he is now. I liked that answer! He is a very intelligent man and has apparently learned a lot through life experiences. But he told me he wouldn’t accept anything from his family. He humbly told me, “I never took any of the animals they offered me. All the animals I have now I bought myself. Everything I have I worked for it and bought myself.” He held out both of his hands with open palms and said, “Basotho have to stop saying ‘Mphe (give me). They have to get up and start working for themselves.“
So, the next time kids ask me for candy…if I have some I may give it to them, but I realize that more has to come after that. Playing sports, teaching life skills and giving them motivation towards their aspirations are key for the next generation to learn to be independent and thrive in this ever-changing world.