Vol. 1: First and Last
For the last 16 months, I have hopped between my apartment in Detroit to five different developing countries as a buildOn Trek Coordinator. Moving from Senegal, Nepal, Nicaragua, Haiti and Malawi has been remarkably exhausting, but the most rewarding and transformational work I have ever done.
Trek is not a hike or a camping adventure, but an intensive cross cultural experience in which volunteers live and work in solidarity with rural communities and support the construction of a government primary school. These volunteers may be students from Detroit or other high schools across the country; they may be families; they may be young professionals. Regardless, as the leader, I facilitate this experience so that it is not just healthy and safe, but mutually meaningful for the local village and the volunteers.
Read about some of my reflections on this experience here.
My favorite moments of Trek are the first and last. For me, that’s where the transformation happens.
On our arrival, we scale dirt roads, mountains, streams and valleys to reach the village. We leave the capital cities, the populated areas, the tourist towns and we go to where the horizon meets the rice fields. This is what buildOn does after all: we work in communities on the outskirts, where other international development organizations may never reach. We arrive.
On our arrival, there is always fanfare. There is chaos, confusion, parading, drums and dancing. There are banners and decorations and big government leaders, village leaders, children who make speeches, welcoming their guests. Sometimes we may even be the first foreigners ever seen. Sometimes they may be the first foreigners we have ever seen too.
On the first night, translators by my side, I visit each host family.
Folks are nervous. “Have I made the food correctly? Is it too spicy?” asks the host mom. “How do I use the latrine?” asks the student. “Do you know each other’s names?” I ask them all.
This night is long and dark: I am tucking in mosquito nets, filling up water bottles, making sure everyone is as comfortable as possible in their new home, with their new family. It is awkward, it is strange, and most folks don’t sleep very well, but between the day’s dancing and the night’s stars, I feel the most at home.
On the last day, we are sunburned, tired and full of bliss. We have a ceremony, much like when we arrived, however this always feels different. Many days and nights have passed, and we can see the walls rising on the school we have constructed together. We have played with the children who will attend that school, we have learned about each other’s lives. We know each other’s names.
The last night is when I feel the most.
Again I visit the host families, translators alongside me. Now the host mom has learned the exact spice to make for her daughter’s dinner, and the student can properly use the latrine. Now the families are laughing about the night they played Jenga for hours and they are proud of the progress of the school. Permeating above all, however, is the mutual question, “Will we ever meet again?”
This night is also long and dark, and is usually blurred by my own tears, as I wipe the tears of the volunteers and host families. Everyone is comfortable now, and I am facilitating gratitude, comforting sadness, and providing reassurance.
One of my last night memories is like many others. A student from the east side of Detroit is thanking her family in Senegal. She says, “I’ve never been loved like this before.” The family says, “It is the same for us.”
Trek is so big, but it is also so small, just like love. As a human race, often we exist in grid lines without ever confronting those that may be foreign to us. This transformation on Trek, rooted in the human right of education no less, is what I believe can change our world. When we viscerally understand that we are all of the same feelings, we are empowered to protect the rights and dignities of all communities.
From our arrival to when we scale back down through the mountains and valleys and streams, this is what happens. We are transformed to love more profoundly than we knew possible.