Kenya school building helps University of Toronto alumni change the world, a brick at a time.

Daryl Chow, Christina Cheng, Janice Yeung, Jessica Moy, Enna Kaplun at Centennial College April 2011

by Janice Yeung

Could traveling change the world and boost a good cause?  Darryl Chow and Enna Kaplun think that it is possible.

They were both involved in a Free the Children trip in February, where two dozen people, mostly alumni of the University of Toronto, paid thousands of dollars to go on a trip as volunteers to build a school in rural Kenya.

The 12-day journey, which is sponsored by Manulife Financial, took the group  to an indigenous community in the Maasai Mara in the country’s southwest, where participants worked on the ground, building classrooms at Emorijoi elementary school, part of a larger Free the Children development project in the area.

“Having an opportunity to visit these communities really hammers home the gravity of the situation of poverty,” said Chow,  who is manager of the university’s corporate partnerships and relations with donors.   “To continually experience and understand how the world got this way is something that I struggle with every day.  This makes me even more convicted to try and do more and contribute more, whether in my community or elsewhere.”

Kaplun, a director of account management at Manulife Financial, told  journalism students at Centennial College April 6, said her company has since offered to provide lunches for the students for a full year at the school she helped erect with her own hands.

“We were involved in parts of building that I never thought that I would ever participate in: mixing cement, carrying rocks, tying rebars and plastering,” she explained. ” My husband is in renovations and when I came back and told him that I had did this stuff, he just was floored.”

Apart from poverty, gender inequality was also a major issue in the villages where  Chow and Kaplun visited, and even  personally experienced.

Kaplun described ‘the water walk’, which was a one-day programme while they spent the day with a local woman who must walk along a one-and-a-half-kilometre route to a river to get water for the community.  The women make this trip carrying buckets with 10-20 liters of water on their backs, at least eight times every day.

At the time, Kaplun noted how local women were working hard lugging water and working in the fields, while their men were simply standing around and drinking beer.  Chow also wondered what the village men were thinking when they saw him pick up and carry the heaviest bucket on his own shoulders because he felt the obligation to do so.

He was assured by the local Free the Children facilitators that other tour groups also experience similar unease, but slowly, the local men and more likely, their children, might begin to change their traditional customs.

But apart from lugging water and plastering buildings, the trip wasn’t all hardship .  The group would spend some of their nights at the five-star Karen Blixen Coffee Garden resort and dine at the famous Carnivore Restaurant.  They also explored the grasslands of the Fairmont Mara Safari Club and toured around Nairobi, the capital and largest city of Kenya.

Some critics have said this kind of two week vacation doing “voluntourism” isn’t a legitimate method to aid developing countries. But  Kaplun disputes that, saying the experience was part of a learning process where participants were allowed to get familiar with local culture.  She mentioned a memorable event visiting elephant orphanages where baby elephants whose parents have died are being rescued.

“The fact that we’re here talking to you today, we wouldn’t be here otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to share this knowledge [of the situation there],” Kaplun said.  “I’m hoping us, imparting this knowledge, will make you want to do something similar, to learn about places like Kenya, and to find out what can be done, how can I help and so on.”

One of the biggest similarities that Chow found between the local children in the villages in Maasai Mara and metropolitan Toronto was the genuine smiles on the faces of the children.

“They see the change that is happening.  Although it is slow, but it’s incredibly positive and it’s giving them a lot of hope,” he said.  “On the level, we’re just people and you could see a lot of common ground [between us].”

When asked if they would go back, both of them replied, “In a heartbeat.”

With more Kenya trips being conducted every year, it is hoped that this new type of overseas volunteerism will inspire more people like Kaplun and Chow to bring the spirit of change back home to contribute to both local and global communities.