THE people of the slums in Nairobi, Kenya, have turned the tables on volunteer aid worker Heather Henderson – giving her as much, if not more, than she gives them.
Hailing from Brisbane, she’s there as a volunteer for Palms Australia, living among the poor and working at a primary school.
And the experience is changing her life.
Arriving in May last year, Heather said initially “all I could think of was how we in the modern west only ever hear about the struggles of violence, poor health, poverty, abuse and shocking living conditions”.
“I was determined to bring the good news and positive messages,” she said.
“Yes, all those negative things are there but the community deal with them in such an optimistic way.
“There is always a smile, a shrug and a deep belief in God.
“If it is too hard, you will see a shrug, followed by a smile and a ‘God will find a way’.
“This deep spiritual conviction has touched me and shown me that in even the toughest situations, these people can always find a way through.”
Heather said the Kenyans of one of the biggest slums in Nairobi – Mukuru kwa Ruben – “have welcomed me with wide arms and open hearts”.
“These people have become my family, the biggest family you can imagine,” she said.
“They share everything with me … I do not want for anything and everything is given from the heart. The support I receive is heartwarming and I am never left alone.”
The people of the slums “have so little”, but Heather said nothing she asked for “is ever too difficult”.
“I only have to ask and it is done for me.”
It’s an attitude that could not but have a life-changing effect on Heather.
“I have learned to live so simply and yet be so happy and I find the less I have the less I have to worry about; as long as there is food and a warm bed at the end of the day,” she said.
“Three meals a day is no longer the norm.
“I eat when there is food and, when there is not, I wait until the next meal comes. Food is not the focus; it is the people around you.”
Heather’s come to this point from a comfortable life in Brisbane where she was a teacher for 20 years, starting in primary school and moving into middle school.
“My interest in working with troubled students led me into behaviour support where I worked in programs supporting the students who were at greatest risk of falling out of the education system,” she said.
Still, there was something more that Heather needed to try.
“Throughout my life I always had a desire to travel the world and work in areas of need,” she said. “I have always had an acute social justice awareness.
“This is what finally led me to take the step to work as an international aid worker.
“I felt a very strong calling as I was constantly led into situations that spoke to me about taking the step outside of my community.”
That’s what led her to Palms.
She volunteered first to work in the small village of Atabae in Timor Leste and, at the end of her two years there, she wanted to continue as an aid worker.
When she found another placement with Palms in Kenya that was like “a childhood dream finally realised”.
“Also in a serendipitous way, I was to be working with the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers,” she said.
“I had always dreamed of working in their street kid education program in Brisbane.
“I had never dreamed that I would instead be working in Africa for the Edmund Rice Foundation, in one of the biggest slums in Nairobi – Mukuru kwa Ruben.
“My education about slum living began.”
At Ruben Primary School, Heather is overseeing the delivery of the Ruben Improved Scheme of Education (RISE), and assisting with staff recruitment, program evaluation, model management systems and “team teaching” in the classroom.
“I no longer have spare time as every waking moment is taken with work, giving to people who are so thankful for what I have to share in skills and ideas that will help to improve their lives in some of the smallest ways,” she said.
“I am a photographer and my skills are used in mentoring or videoing youth, helping them to realise their dreams as models, photographers or rappers.
“I have also found my way into educating and mentoring women and girls who struggle each and every month because of lack of resources for managing their monthly cycle.
“This has taken me far outside Nairobi into villages where tribes are still living traditionally.
“During the week, I am mentoring teachers at the Ruben Centre and relishing the opportunities to work with their classes and the amazing students.
“The sum of these experiences has made me take a step back to listen.
“I hear stories that are very challenging to process.
“I have learned that one must come into these situations without judgement.
“Things cannot be changed from without, but must be changed from within the community.”
Heather said mentoring had become a passion and she was examining closely what a good mentor did and the qualities needed to succeed.
“Empowering individuals in communities who then go forward to instigate change is the most powerful tool,” she said.
“‘Listen, don’t lecture’ is my mantra. Pose questions don’t judge. Allow people to examine their own values and traditions in order to manage the change they believe is needed within their culture.
“It is not for us to tell them and it is not we who make the change.
“Be the one to shed some light through education for examination to occur.
“Judge not and serve with an open heart and mind.”
At the end of 12 months in Kenya, Heather said she was “in awe of the strength of the people here who are battling daily against corruption that permeates through every crack of society”.
“The only holidays they have is their national day and Christmas day,” she said.
“No work, no food. But you will always find a smile in Kenya.”
To learn more about international volunteering with Palms Australia, visithttp://www.palms.org.au/volunteer/enquiry/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org
By Peter Bugden