Three years ago, I hacked away at a series of deepening trenches, taking breaks from swinging my pick ax to build small fires on top of rocks deep in the ground too heavy to lift.What I learned from my Kenyan supervisor Simon in those trenches was that once you add intense heat to a rock, followed immediately by pouring water on it, the rock is then as soft as a rock can be; ready to be smashed into little pieces with a sledge hammer.
That was the experience I had my first time I came to the African continent, helping dig trenches for the foundation of a school in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region. I wasn’t therefor months, but for weeks, really only sampling the place. Those weeks helping build a school and going on organized tours felt like nothing less than a perspective-altering eternity.
I tell this story of me pick axing away, feeling fantastic about the tangible impact I was making, as since those weeks spent in Kenya three years ago, my perspective on development and the broader world has grown dramatically. I feel like I no longer resemble that same eager, keen, and quite naive 17 year old I was those three summers ago. As those who know me can attest to, I have not lost my eager and keen characteristics, and I am still naïve about a lot of things, but I am a fundamentally different person then I was those three years ago in Kenya.
On the campus (JUCAVM), where I spend most of every day, new fiber op internet cables were being put in, and the result? A number of young men pick axing away on the edges of the roads and paths I walked on every day. When I saw those young men working away, I realized that since my first exposure not only to Africa, but to ‘development’ three years ago, I have changed and grown in ways I never would have imagined. In retrospect, it was never really about working to build the foundation for that all-girls secondary school,it was an experience solely focused on building my very own foundation, a foundation for an education that has now brought me to Ethiopia. It has taken me from digging a trench, to studying the ins and outs of development at university, to debating the effectiveness of the United Nations in Boston and New York with students from countries like Tunisia and Pakistan, to right here in Ethiopia, where I work as a volunteer once again, but in a very different form. I am now here in academia, far away from the rural school I helped dig the foundation for in southern Kenya. Assisting with university projects, developing and conducting my very own research study; those are the things that occupy my new East Africa to-do list. Which is better for ‘development?’ I am not going to attempt to answer this question, as there are arguments for both sides, and even arguments for neither. What I do know, and have learned in the last 45 days, is that every one of my experiences in the wide world of ‘development’ has been invaluable, and has allowed me to be in a place today where I feel confident in my dream to work a life dedicating myself to bettering those of others.
Over the last 45 days here in Jimma, it has not been the knowledge I learned in a development classroom that has benefited me the most, but it has been the seemingly random skills I have acquired while bouncing from one opportunity to the next that have proven invaluable. A rudimentary understanding of technology education through my experience with CompCamp, what I learned developing and mentoring students through the Dalhousie’s Student Union’s Innovation Program, those are the skills I use on almost on a daily basis here in Jimma.
So, what I have taken away from all this? ThatI have no idea what I should know for my future pursuits, or what those future pursuits really will be, but here is what I DO know. Everything I have done over the last three years since my first experience in Kenya has made me the person I am today, and the biggest impact I have having here in Ethiopia? It’s using those skills that I learned at a program, a conference, or starting a business I definitely did not have time to work on. So, with all this being said, I really don’t know what works, or how I get the opportunities I do. All I have is one piece of advice, if something comes up, and you get excited just thinking about it, maybe a nervous excitement for doing something completely foreign to you and that you are not at all qualified for, or something that you know if you said “Yes” to, your Mom would be decisively convinced you were going to run yourself into the ground and fail out of university– when you get that feeling that won’t go away, say yes and GO!
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive” –Howard Thurman
P.S. In the comments section: What are the most valuable skills or knowledge YOU have? And where have they taken you?
P.P.S I will be leaving Jimma on a university trip next Saturday, which will be followed by all sorts of other adventures, most likely lasting somewhere between 3-4 weeks to the south east, and then north of Ethiopia, from my home here in the southwestern city of Jimma. What does all this mean? I hope to keep up with my once a week blog posting, but depending on finding internet cafes with a solid connection along the journey, that may not happen. If so, I apologize in advance, and I will be back in Jimma in the first few days of August with plenty of stories to tell!
Thank you for reading, seriously, thank you so much for taking the time to be right here with me on my journey through Ethiopia and beyond. As always, from Ethiopia with lots of love!