When I was young my mom put me in a choir where we wore navy blue uniforms and china doll shoes; she also sent me to choir camp and volunteered me to sing in a church quartet. She had dreams of me becoming a little soloist.
But in junior high—when every part of me was awkward—I realized I hated having someone listen to me sing. Especially when my choir teacher would put his big, hairy ear near my mouth. Ugh.
Once I finished junior high choir, I promised myself I would never sing in a group small enough that my voice might actually be heard. I have managed to avoid all types of karaoke, Christmas caroling, or even singing “Happy Birthday to you” in small groups since.
Then three months ago, I found myself singing, “This is the way we wash our hands …” and “Brush, brush, brush your teeth, morning and at night …” in front of hundreds of little Kenyans. The students were so loving I wasn’t even self-conscious during my solos. And all it took was a trip half-way around the world to conquer my fear!
But don’t expect any American Idol auditions anytime soon.
I went to Kenya with the humanitarian group Reach the Children. We mostly visited primary schools in western Kenya and taught twenty-minutes classes on hygiene. Part of the lessons included singing little songs to the students to help them remember to brush and wash.
The twenty-four of us each taught about twenty classes, and we passed out more than 15,000 toothbrushes to the students we taught. Sometimes it was the first toothbrush the kids ever owned—they used sticks instead. One of my favorite memories is a group of first graders clapping and cheering, “THANK YOU!” (clap, clap) “THANK YOU!” (clap, clap) the entire time I passed out the toothbrushes.
The heat was tiring and sometimes the drives on the bumpy dirt roads between schools would take hours. Often we would just visit one school, break for lunch, visit another, and head back to our guest house as the sun was setting. We also participated in a few community events that promoted self-reliance; toured two hospitals and handed out hygiene kits; and visited some orphanages.
The last two days of the trip we went on a safari to the Masai Mara. I saw lions (there were a couple mating!), elephants, wildebeests, monkeys, zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocs (=scary), impalas, ostriches, warthogs (we sang “Hakuna Matata” to them), storks, vultures, and water buffalos. We stayed at a place where we had to tie our tent’s zippers (which were really nice tents, with a toilet and a shower) otherwise the monkeys on the premises would break in and steal shampoo. One monkey was even gutsy enough to steal my friend’s dessert off her plate when she left the table for a minute.
So my trip to Africa included mischievous monkeys, solo concerts, bumpy dirt roads, and the sweetest culture I’ve ever encountered. It took about thirty hours to fly there, but overall it was so worth it. Here are three more reasons why you should consider becoming a voluntourist.
1. You really connect with the people
I loved working with the primary school teachers. I loved painting a cement community center with other locals. I loved hearing a nearby church choir practice in the evenings as I was getting ready for bed. I loved driving through the villages and seeing the women carrying sacks on their heads. I loved watching a dance performance with drums and clapping and then being invited to join in and shake my booty.
Although I was in the middle of nowhere, I was so immersed in working with the people that felt like I was at home.
2. You don’t have to stress over the details
You can’t just go to Africa. It takes preparation; immunizations, for example. I got seven vaccinations in order to go. (I almost passed out the day I got six shots!) Reach the Children guided me through the preparation and took care of other details: registering me with the U.S. Embassy, providing travel insurance, supplying water bottles, giving tips on what to pack, etc.
The group also interviewed and hired local drivers to accompany us on the expedition—they also were our safari guides. They were super friendly and at times downright hilarious. There are not many road signs outside of Nairobi, so having a driver is crucial.
The other nice thing about having the group plan everything was that they shouldered the logistical stress. I just showed up and went to work.
3. You leave a better person
I’m a firm believer in service—it has a way of melting unselfishness and growing gratitude, which are two things our world needs more of.
Since being back, I’ve decided to spearhead a fund-raiser for one of the Kenyan orphanages we visited. I’m raising a few thousand dollars so a greenhouse can be built on the orphanage’s premises. This will provide them more nutritious food and allow them the opportunity to sell the extra food locally, which can give them more money for medicine and education.
A lot of the children I met in Kenya didn’t have any shoes. Now, when I find myself coveting $100 shoes, it’s easier to remind myself what matters most and how lucky I am to have multiple shoes in my closet.
I love Gandi’s quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It felt good to experience and fall in love with the Kenyan culture. It felt good to learn how universal things like smiles and waves are. And it felt good to combine the thing I love most—seeing the world—with something that did some good.
Reach the Children