May 4-May 17, 2013 - A service learning journey that has just opened up the meaning of 'service' and 'learning' that I will hope to carry on for the rest of my life.
I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya on the 4th of May, with some of our team mates, and made our way to the Orphans Overseas Karibu Center in Thika the next morning. That morning was the first time we got to meet our entire team over a sumptuous breakfast overlooking the breathtaking African Savannah! The energy around the patio was amazing as we got to know each other - folks from different companies, different geographies, different cultures, and yet here we all were - half a world away in Kenya on a mission to deploy disruptive technology through philanthropy in a developing country (Team4Tech's mantra). As we entered the gates of Karibu center in a very rural and verdant part of Thika, I got a feeling that I was embarking on an important adventure. Meeting the 22 beautiful orphan children who live full time in the center's care was an awesome way to start this service learning journey. We also got to meet the founders of Orphans Overseas, Jorie Kincaid, and some of her family. Luke and Tad, her sons are the directors of their 2 centers in Kenya, and Vietnam. Once we settled in and unpacked, the afternoon flew by as our team (techies and non-techies alike) under the guidance of the Intel team got to work swapping out hard drives on the classmate PCs. Talk about learning! we had to learn fast and under pretty interesting circumstances later on as the power went out and we used torches to complete the work for the day! We had a hard taskmaster in John, but he always worked the hardest and tried to prepare so much in advance just to make it easier for us to do our tasks! John bore the burden of the mission on his head with a ready grin.
Day 3 at the Karibu Center found us deploying a Teacher Training Academy which was the first part of our project - imparting teacher computer training for approximately 60 teachers in the 4 field schools in Thika (around the Karibu center). Its been a humbling and rewarding experience teaching basic computer skills to the local teachers. Could not help feeling deeply overwhelmed with all the connections we are making with the teachers, the community, the precious children at the center, and seeing them embrace technology! One of the surprises of this trip was to really experience the local culture through eating the same meals and living with the local staff at the center. I was looking forward to the rest of this journey !
Every evening at the center was a special time as we gathered around the dinner table eating, talking, sharing our experiences for the day and planning for the next day. We also spent time reflecting on a thought, an idea, or an inspiration under the guidance of Nicola Acutt and this was one of the most personally enriching experience. It was a 'quiet' time to think about how the day impacted one's own self, what the day taught about oneself in the midst of a group of highly motivated and caring individuals, and what I could take from this experience into my future. As the night sky lit up with stars and the buzz of crickets and night critters grew louder in the dusk, the group got quieter and more introspective, a beautiful way to bring an end to each busy day.
By the end of the first week we had successfully completed the teaching training and judging by the laughs, the sheer joy of learning computer skills, group hugs, high fives, and singing and dancing that erupted on the final day, I have to say, it was a complete success ! It was a wonderful and very humbling experience being a part of this community of teachers who want to do the best for their students and spent their valuable time after school to participate in the teacher training academy to learn new skills and to be able to teach their students the best of 21st century technology! As was the case throughout our stay in Kenya, all this was achieved while navigating multiple hurdles and challenges due to the local situation - power outages, intermittent internet access, and client/server network issues. One of driving factors of our success was the leadership of the powerful duo - Julie and Lila. Julie with her calm demeanor managing to keep nerves at bay, and Lila with her boundless energy was literally everywhere at the same time helping all the sub-teams!
And it was time to play! the weekend was a lot of fun, with outings to nearby waterfalls and shopping and then a trip to Lake Naivasha to see wildlife. One of the surprises for me was to actually travel through the Great Rift Valley, a sight that jumped straight out of my sixth grade world geography book in India. We all chilled, relaxed, climbed trees, took goofy pictures, ate different food, even saw wild nature at work with a huge python threshing its glistening body in the lake as it swallowed a cormorant!
The second week was very hectic indeed as we completed our second part of the project which was to deploy the early childhood development (ECD) software installed in the Classmate PC's in 2 of the slum schools around Thika - Barracks and Kenyatta. There were nail biting moments when we were not even sure if the power connections would be built in time in the Baracks school computer lab but the power of education and educated minds can work miracles. The principal of the school took a personal loan to get the electricity department to install power lines to the school computer lab and on Monday morning, there was power! Monday and Tuesday were so overwhelming for our team of volunteers as we actually saw learning via technology happening in the 2 field schools in Thika. Juat to see the children light up as they moved their tentative fingers over the laptop keyboard and started working on the software learning program in English, Maths, and Science was a joy! The feeling of accomplishment and completion were on all our faces.
Our last night at the Karibu Center arrived rather quickly and it was with mixed emotions that I would be leaving Kenya the next day! I was looking forward to getting back to my family but I would be leaving another family of precious children, staff, and teachers here in Thika. My heart is filled with a lot of hope and excitement for the future of the children of Thika (with plans to replicate our efforts in more schools in the area in the next month), as I made the transition back from Kenya to the Silicon Valley. It has been an incredible journey for all of us and it seems more incredible that all of this transpired in the space of 11 gorgeous sunrises over the Athi river behind our volunteer dorms!
We built a lot in Thika, Kenya - computers, computer labs, confidence in the teachers as they learnt computer skills, lasting relationships with our teammates, and everyone at the center. But it was not so much about the huge list of things we built during the project, as much as it was about the promise of a different future for some of the children in the slums of Thika, Kenya (as perfectly commented by Tad) that brings the sense of accomplishment in my heart, and a spring in my steps these days.
It is surprising how much one can learn and apply in our everyday work life from an intense shared experience of two weeks. You realize the ability to bring change at work if you work as a team across functions and not in silos. This is specially true in my work life, implementing and deploying systems and applications in Finance. Our Kenyan experience also drives the importance of communication and a way of communicating which is effective in aligning people. We moved past language barriers, technical barriers through 'soft communication' - presenting and communicating our efforts in a way that made our team and the broader community in Thika act as one team working towards a common goal. A particularly personal learning skill that I am trying to develop myself in my work life is what I saw exhibited by one of our colleagues which is humility in leadership, to lead a group by believing in the strength of the team to learn and deliver and enabling them, rather than instructing or creating elaborate action plans.
Signing out from Kenya - Reema.