Just over a year into her second Palms Australia placement, Heather Henderson describes the things which drive and inspire her work: A very personal statement but one all volunteers can relate to.
Throughout my life I always had a desire to travel the world and work in areas of need. 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. Sadly, my marriage came to a close through a mutual agreement as I was growing in a different direction and the relationship could no longer be accommodated. I knew it was time to follow my heart to do work in developing communities. 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. Through careful research and consideration, I found the best fit for me personally was Palms Australia.
I first volunteered in a small village in Timor Leste – Atabae. After 2 years there where I faced both challenges and enormous rewards, I realised that going home was not an option and I needed to continue my work as an aid worker. Once again, I looked at my options and was again directed back to Palms but this time in Kenya. A childhood dream finally realised. Also in a serendipitous way, I was to be working with the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers. 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. In the first 12 months, 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. 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.
The Kenyans have welcomed me with wide arms and open hearts. These people have become my family, the biggest family you can imagine. They share everything with me from food to beds and families and children. 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.
These people have so little, yet nothing I ask for is ever too difficult. I only have to ask and it is done for me. I have learned to live so simply and yet be so happy and 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. 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.
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. 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.
Mentoring has become a passion for me and I am examining closely what a good mentor does and the qualities needed to succeed. Empowering individuals in communities who then go forward to instigate change is the most powerful tool. 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.
I have a strong belief in attracting the right people into my life by living faithfully to the values I hold; being the best I can be in service to others, where I can learn as much as I teach. Judge not and serve with an open heart and mind. My spiritual life long ago took a path away from organised religion, so living in a culture where there are more churches than schools has been a challenge. I keep an open mind and make no attempt to convince anyone that they are right or wrong in their convictions. I live by example and believe in actions not words alone.
Watching people with the strongest Christian values I have witnessed who also believe in curses and black magic people is another challenge. How can the whole idea of a spiritual power and belief in the power of God sit beside a belief that someone can curse them? The challenge is to show them that these things are not possible for those who don’t believe in magic. But the power of the mind and cultural framing is strong and in my opinion and experience can be shifted only through education.
After 12 months here, I am in awe of the strength of the people here who are battling daily against the corruption that permeates through every crack of society. They tell me, they work to eat not eat to work, that ugali (a staple made from flour and water to be eaten daily to fill the stomach) makes them strong and they cannot live without it. Chapattis are so good yet something that is special and a cob of roasted maize will help to sustain them until their next meal. This is their McDonalds and fast foods, bought from the street vendors as they rush by on their way to somewhere. The only holidays they have are their National day and Christmas day. No work, no food. But you will always find a smile in Kenya.