June 2014 was the last time I was in the Soweto slums outside Nairobi, Kenya. It was our final day on the Vessel of Hope school project, and we all were working furiously to get things finished.
We added a cement roof earlier, replacing the corrugated, rusty tin sheets, which was a major accomplishment taking the entire community to get completed. We now wanted to brighten up the inside, making the school a true safe harbor for the children to learn and develop themselves.
We had a small team this year, only six of us, but we were determined and had so many locals helping out that we felt invincible, at least most of us did.
I had a gnawing dark cloud eating away at me. A feeling that this would be my last time here.
So I held my friend’s hand a little closer, hugged a little longer, and listened closer to the stories of life in the slums from those around me.
The poverty here always overwhelms me no matter how many times I see the cruel depravity, yet I never hid from it. Instead I seemed to immerse myself, like a sinner before a baptism, the reality of life here seemed to cleanse my own soul.
Yet our work never seemed to be enough compared to the need. The Kenyans know when the last day of the project is, and they are forced, due to the instinct of mere survival, to increase their requests for financial help as they never know when we will be returning. Being the project co-leader this year, I was also in charge of our finances, and I knew we were over budget because we all wanted to do more for Vessel of Hope, for the Soweto slums, and for Kenya. Project team members were buying more supplies than we had funds for. So I burned through my personal savings account to cover the cost, as you don’t have credit in the slums.
The school was able to get more than we had hoped for, and everyone thought I was a financial wizard for being able to stay within our budget.
No one knew the truth, and without realizing it at the time, a seed of resentment was planted within me. This seed grew as more requests for money kept coming, months after I had returned home.
Which was why I suddenly ended all communication with everyone. I sealed myself in a vault, emotionally and financially spent.
I felt guilty as hell, as though all the work over the previous six years was for nothing. I came to question the purpose and legitimacy of Non-Governmental Organizations as a whole, as serious doubts about the long term positive affects we have on the communities we are trying to serve if we only come in for a few weeks once a year, thinking we can sustain year round change?
I also knew that my fellow Kenyans are strong and resilient, more so than I may ever be. I just didn’t want to be the same as many other Americans they have met, yet I felt as though I failed at that.
The dichotomy of the joy at our final day with Vessel of Hope compared to my inner feelings that have grown since has been unbearable. I felt failure, anger, sadness, remorse, and betrayal all compounding within me. My dream of truly making a difference was falling apart in monumental fashion.
A tumor has been spreading throughout my mind and body ever since, and it could have eventually been my demise if it wasn’t for a sound I heard in the most unlikely of places, the Carlisle Cathedral in the United Kingdom…