JiaLi (Betty) Wang knows full well of the number of stories of students going to Africa to do “good work.”
She’s always had a humanitarian streak, but when the opportunity came up through an RBC scholarship, the Fraser Heights Secondary grad had concerns about whether going to Kenya for three weeks would do any good.
Would she be welcome there? Would the community resent her and her clothes and camera? Was there real value in her laying the foundation of a building with a shovel and pick-axe?
“We’re not skilled labourers,” she admits in an interview 10 days after her return home to Surrey.
Wang, 18, was all too aware of the idea of so-called “voluntourism,” the modern-day notion of groups of Western students going overseas for projects that are torn down and rebuilt for the next batch of students – feel-good activities with no lasting impact for locals.
“I was very skeptical about this concept, but I always wanted to try it out for myself.”
The trip was from May 5 to 25.
Wang kept her eyes wide open, wary of doing, or being, the wrong thing.
For a while, she didn’t even take any pictures of kids she saw – the recipients of the schools that her sponsor, a humanitarian charity called Free the Children, had already built or were constructing in a rural area outside of Nairobi, the Kenyan Capital.
Gradually, she relaxed and took in the experience.
She learned how to make a rungu, a Masai throwing spear.
She ate Githeri, a boiled stew of corn, beans and vegetables, and was one of the few among her 28 fellow university students to enjoy Uji, a cornmeal porridge that most of the others found bland.
As for her humanitarian nature of the trip, she says that while the students didn’t technically do much that couldn’t be done with local manual labour, she took some important lessons home.
“Poverty is the same everywhere,” she says, recalling stories of how her father grew up poor in rural China.
She also determined that education is critical in breaking the cycle of poverty.
In Kenya, only primary school is free, making high school education too expensive for many.
The government also only allows one teacher per school building, meaning that local education systems must rely on more one-building school houses to allow for more teachers to be hired.
Wang also observed that in the school houses, there were kids of many ages in the same grades – but at least the newer schools built by Free the Children were built of brick, unlike the mud-walled older structures.
Wang won the Me to We trip through a the 2015 RBC Students Leading Change Scholarship – plus $10,000 that funded the tuition of her just-completed first year at the University of Western Ontario in London.
Wang is double-majoring in arts and humanities, as well as business, and plans to eventually work in the non-profit and humanitarian sector.
“I think it’s the experience of being in that environment and putting a face into what I wanted to go into,” she says.
Photos above and below by JiaLi (Betty) Wang.