By Mae Hanzlik, current member of HOTC’s Board of Directors and former member of HOTC’s Youth Advisory Board
“So, how’d you spend your summer?”
Those six words unleash a rush of emotion, passion and nostalgia for me after I spent this past summer on a little island in Kenya. Mfangano is an mountainous island on Lake Victoria. It is an island where there is limited electricity and only one dirt road that connects the small villages. Transportation is by foot, boat, bicycle or motorcycle. The citizens of the island live in basic mud homes with no running water. Additionally, the HIV/AIDS infection rate on the island is estimated to be over 30%, which is due to the culture of poverty where fish is traded for sex.
Some background on me and how I arrived on Mfangano. I’ve spent a solid chunk of my nineteen years on this planet participating in, organizing, and learning about volunteerism and service learning. Like many people, volunteering brings me joy and inspiration. It makes me feel good knowing the positive impact I can make. One year ago, I would have never predicted that I would be making that impact in Kenya.
But it happened. Each year a student group that I am a member of here at the University of Minnesota, Nourish, partners with grassroot organizations abroad to combat poverty issues. Last year, Nourish partnered with Organic Health Response (OHR) stationed on Mfanagano Island in Kenya and supported a reforestation project. OHR strives “to turn the tide against the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS” which they do in a variety of ways. One way is through their EK community center where they offer access to many resources, such as the internet, in exchange for being tested and knowing your HIV status. Another way is through education on the importance of trees and reforestation. For example, a Kenyan that plants a tree when their child is born and harvests it when the child is of school age, can use the money they earn from the tree to pay for their child’s secondary school education. Our Nourish team of volunteers (three U of M students) collaborated on OHR’s reforestation effort. Our project consisted of three parts: educating secondary students, building tree nurseries and broadcasting tree related information on the local radio station.
While there, I learned a lot. Everything from ideas on development, to the benefits of agroforestry, to fishing Omena and cooking ugali. I made wonderful friends, from my caring host mother Berlin, to the resident tree expert, Olambo, and the enthusiastic radio announcer, Nancy. I miss my newfound friends, the beautiful Luo language and Mfangano.
Being back in the US has given me countless opportunities for sharing my stories and experiences.
Development and volunteering can sometimes be confusing and frustrating. My dear friend Ana (a fellow volunteer in Kenya) shared the following: she said simply that we, the people in this amazing world, are all in this together. As humans we should be there to help, to receive that help, to share and to learn. Hopefully by doing that our world will be a brighter place.
Reflecting on this experience, I think that I positively impacted Mfangano and its people. Almost as much as they impacted me. They are a group of people that despite huge challenges and obstacles remain positive and optimistic about their future.
I’ll leave you with some food for thought from the UN Development Program’s Human Development Reports
“Human development is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means—if a very important one—of enlarging people’s choices.”
Read more about Mae’s experience from her blog at http://mfanganoandmae.blogspot.com/?view=flipcard
Interested in Nourish Minnesota? like their page at https://www.facebook.com/NourishMinnesota
Project Recap : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mh2TGrB9zEI