Welcome to our new interview series, The Ripple Effect. The Ripple Effect explores the emotional impact of volunteer travel and its lasting effect on people’s lives. Over the coming weeks, we will be interviewing adventurous volunteers who have given their time, compassion, and sweat equity to make a difference. Today, we’re speaking with Paul and Anne Jeschke. They traveled to Kenya with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for local families. In the process they learned how important it is to give back. Paul and Anne are an inspiration for volunteers of any age.
How did you decide on traveling with Habitat for Humanity?
We’re longtime donors to Habitat and strongly support their mission to improve living conditions for impoverished people everywhere. Decent housing is a basic human right and Habitat for Humanity gets home construction done efficiently and effectively. But sometimes forking over money isn’t enough. We think it’s important to show solidarity and support by joining in the physical effort of house building.
Was there something specific that attracted you to Kenya?
The project in Kenya was one of many attractive work and travel opportunities Habitat offers. We’d never been to Africa and knew it would be a fascinating place to visit. We coupled the Habitat portion of the trip with a wildlife safari to the Oldarpoi Maasai Safari Camp, a permanent furnished tented camp just outside Masai Mara National Reserve. It is on the edge of one of the world’s greatest wildlife safari parks.
Could you talk a bit about what the experience was like?
In addition to the two Muir Beach residents, the volunteers consisted of a Philadelphia lawyer, an IBM programmer, a radiology technician, a General Motors executive, a New York management consultant, a new college graduate from Alaska, a self-described “empty nester” from Los Angeles and a British citizen who has lived for 50 years in Japan. Not a lot of construction expertise here, except for our Habitat leader, Sheila Crowley, and a couple of volunteers who previously participated in Habitat building projects. When we weren’t moving bricks, we were mixing cement, sand and aggregate and carrying the finished concrete to the construction site.
We ate lunch daily at the work site. The homeowner and friends did meal preparations with assistance each day from a Habitat volunteer. Food was generally very bland and almost always included small amounts of meat, a few vegetables and large amounts of ugale, a tasteless, dumpling-like dish made from boiled corn.
Children who lived nearby were initially shy and would run away if approached by volunteers. “They’re afraid of you,” said Teresa Ombaba, a large, joyously spirited woman who is head of the local cooperative. “Your white skin looks so tender. They’re afraid you will bleed to death if they touch you.” The children were eventually won over by the chance to see themselves on the video viewfinders of cameras that were constantly pointed in their direction.
How do you feel the experience changed you?
This Habitat for Humanity experience reinforced the overwhelming conclusion that life can be cruel and unfair for millions of people and it is the ethical and moral obligation of the more fortunate to help in very basic ways.
What were some of the challenges you faced, either during your travel or during your the volunteering itself?
All but one of our volunteers eventually developed gastrointestinal problems that inevitably led to quick trips to the on-site pit toilet. We were warned in advance to secure all personal belongings since keys, money, iPods and even passports have disappeared into 30-foot deep pits, never to be seen again.
While we blamed our stomach problems on vegetables and utensils rinsed in unboiled water from the river, our hosts were certain we were getting sick from the purified, bottled water we brought with us from Nairobi. Fortunately, no one’s distress lasted more than a day.
As excerpted from The Beachcomber, March, 2010
Do you have plans to volunteer again in the near future?
Now that the aches and pains have healed, we’d consider another Habitat build — but only if the leader understood our physical limitations.
What advice would you give to a volunteer about to embark on her first international journey?
Always be ready for things to go wrong or awry — that’s when travel really gets interesting and great experiences become possible.