VOLUNTEERING IN AFRICA / RAFI RYKER
"A little less than a year ago, I peeled my army uniform off for the last time. The same uniform I’d been wearing continually for over four formative and challenging years in the Israel Defense Forces.
I was full of motivation and energy, and I just wanted to devour the world. I wanted to travel, explore, question everything, and simply ‘experience’ life. I envisioned trekking in the mountains of Nepal or sunbathing on the coast of Costa Rica. My plan was to simply indulge in the time off, allowing myself some much-needed rest, and finally beginning my journey of self-discovery. After what had become an excruciatingly long routine of working weekends, extended lockdowns, and very little real time for myself, beginning a period of rest and relaxation was key.
As it did for many, the global pandemic changed not only reality as we knew it, but ultimately my own destiny as well. The closing of airports and skies threw a major wrench into my plans. Eventually however, the skies partially reopened, and of the limited destinations, the entire African continent became a travel option. At no point had I considered Africa among my post-army destinations, but the need to travel was powerful, and the importance of ‘where’ became secondary to ‘anywhere at all’.
So there we were, my best friend Refael and I, getting our various vaccinations and precautionary medications, and then off we went, the two of us facing the great big world! From the very first moment, we couldn't believe where we had landed. Almost everything surprised us in a consistently positive way. Not a day went by during which our curiosity wasn’t peaked by a specific experience or intrigued by people we met along the way.
Speaking of the people, it’s almost impossible to explain their joy and love of life. A happiness that depends on nothing material. If we judge their poverty by the standards we in Israel and the Western world use to determine poverty, they are ‘poor’ by every measure. But it’s hard to consider someone who is constantly smiling, and who has bright, sparkling eyes, and who is always welcoming and warm toward others to be poor. It is hard to be poor when you consider your own life to be so rich.
One of the places we came upon was Malindi, a medium-sized village in the Osambara range in northern Tanzania. We set off on a three-day hike in and around that area, and while wandering through Malindi and its sister villages, we were fortunate to meet Eliya, the village's new chief.
Eliya is only 33 years old and has been in office for the past six months. He was excited at the sight of Israelis and began to flood us with questions about the State of Israel, education in Israel, the economy, and the way of life. It was quite shocking the depth of his interest. We never expected questions of this sort in a place this remote; matter-of-fact questions that were asked honestly and with a deep desire to learn. Questions asked of people who have a better understanding of how the wider world works, asked by someone who seeks improvement, and asked of young men who believe that such change is possible.
The exchange enabled us to ask him some questions of our own, so we could learn how things worked in Malindi. When it came to the topic of education, we were horrified to hear about the situation in the education system in northern Tanzania. The school system takes responsibility for eight schools for the approximately 30,000 residents of the region. Each class has between 100-150 students, an obscene number. Desks designed for two students are actually shared by five kids, and there still aren’t enough to go around, so everyone else is forced to stand. What little paint was once on the walls of the school buildings is mostly peeled off, and the walls themselves are crumbling. There is no electricity, and there is no running water. Currently, the students do not eat or drink from the moment they leave their home in the morning until they return in the evening.
Needless to say, it is not an environment that encourages learning.
It was clear to see how irrational it is for students to even bother attending under these conditions, let alone any expectation of success. We offered Eliyah a few simple suggestions for streamlining the educational process and improving classrooms, such as painting and planting recreational fields. Nothing too groundbreaking; just little things that could have a great influence.
We parted ways, but the experience stuck with us throughout the rest of our trip, whether we were trekking, diving on safari, standing on overlooks peering at incredible views, or just relaxing.
When we returned to Israel, we realized that while we had left home on a great adventure, we hadn’t been granted the freedom we had hoped. Our conversation with Eliya had a grip on us, and we found that we were frequently talking about it, considering what we could do. Why is it like this in Africa? Why do most of the locals accept the situation instead of trying to improve things? Any troubles we are facing here in Israel suddenly seemed trivial in comparison. We realized we wouldn't be able to move on as long as we were haunted by the problems we had seen, so we decided we needed to go back to Malindi, and not just the two of us either.
We recruited eight veteran officers, and we raised quite a bit of seed money, so that we could start this crazy project. We had no intention of approaching this in a condescending way, nor arrogantly to think that we were coming to save the world. Instead, we believed that it makes no sense for humans to live like this, and if we could help them, why not do so? The needs are so much more basic than what type of house to build or what new car to buy.
We were thinking about organizing clean drinking water for the village to prevent children from dying from abdominal infections. Putting light in classrooms so the kids aren’t learning in the dark. Installing a proper ceiling in the school building so the students don’t have to get wet when it rains, and so they can hear what the teacher is saying despite the bad weather. Organizing a table and chair for each kid, even though there still might be 100 children per class. Add some paint, and maybe some cheerful artwork and decorations to brighten the atmosphere and provide a bit of happiness in the schools. We know we're not going to be able to change the world in a single instant, but we recognize that whatever can do for the people who live in Malindi has the potential to be life changing. It is just so hard to grasp that in this day and age there are people who live like this.
"The poor of your own city come first" is a rabbinic concept that stands as the first and foremost challenge toward embarking on a project such as this. Every one of the volunteers here agrees with this adage and stands behind it. There are certainly enough problems in the State of Israel that there will always be something or someone in need of help here. But we gave an awful lot of ourselves to the State of Israel both before and during our military service, and we will continue to contribute to our country in the future. We feel we have earned the right to look beyond our own borders. A guiding principle of our project and for our efforts to continue this project into the future is that the deep bond between us and Israel does not stop because of our commitment to Malindi, but rather becomes stronger. From one day to the next, the work here only strengthens our appreciation of what we have back home.
Beyond that, we wholeheartedly believe that the situation here in Africa is unique. People here are dying of infections; they are living under such poor conditions and are suffering to such a degree that we simply cannot ignore it. These are not First World problems, but rather issues of basic existential needs. It is crazy to think that for the same sums that we in Israel will pay for a vacation in Eilat, we can supply filtered, clean water to an entire village. We might not be able to change the world in an instant, nor in a week or even a year. But we have to start somewhere. Help where you can.
We never aim to make the inhabitants of Malindi into anything other than what they already are. We have been exposed daily to the magic of their way of life, to the simplicity, to the joy in their lives, and to the love they show to their fellow man. We do not assume that our Western way of life is necessarily the right one, or God forbid that that the White person should impose his changes on the less developed world, and yet, we still feel that there is an opportunity here, in true partnership with the locals, to provide a basic and worthy standard of living.
The thinking here is different, and the education is different. In Israel, we are used to hearing criticism, and we want to change even the slightest bad situation. Aim high and know that if you want something badly enough, you can achieve it, come what may. But the thinking in Malindi is often the opposite. A bridge can collapse and cut off an entire village, and no one thinks to do anything about it, even though the solution amounts to 50 NIS and a half day's work. And yet, once they saw our efforts to make improvements, the locals followed our lead.
The residents here are amazing. Besides being so happy, they are now eager to find ways that they can help. They, too, want to participate, to take an active role in changing the status quo. There is no way to describe the excitement that the old ladies of the village bring with them on the first day of a new project, whether it is plastering the walls of the buildings, carrying buckets of water, or digging trenches. Everyone does what they can, so that the progress in this village is shared. Everyone pushes, encourages each other, and promotes the project, such that the result is communal action and communal achievement.
Muslims and Christians in Malindi live side-by-side, share in each other’s joys, attend shared schools, and respect each other. We were shocked when we first met in this situation. When we asked Eliyah about the partnership between religions, he couldn’t even understand our question. It is just taken for granted that everyone gets along. Life really is that simple for them, and yet we never stop learning from them.
We've been in Malindi for a week and a half, and we’ve accomplished a lot. We renovated classrooms, built bathrooms, brought running water to the school, and even cleared room for a volleyball court. But the work here never stops."
Our project "AFRIKAN"
Our primary mission is to be present wherever we are, do what we can here and now, and do it together. We attend council meetings and sit with the village leaders and school administrators, so that the residents decide where it is right to invest our time, labor, and money.
Right now, we're in the middle of crowdfunding to enable us to keep working and to ensure that we can finish this project. This project is a pilot for the organization's continued activity and is already beginning to consolidate and establish the organization's mission and spirit.
We aim to promote our expedition to other ambitious young people in the coming months, so that they can also take part in this amazing opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the locals. And we strive to return to Malindi after our pilot project to continue the process, continue to learn, and continue to improve. The locals here really want a better life, and they deserve it.