In the shadow of Mt. Meru, with Mt. Kilimanjaro’s hazy, ice-bound crown in the distance, I am carrying stones. A river rock in each hand, I walk back and forth between our worksite and a large pile of stones that was dropped off by a truck a few days prior.
A group of teenagers from the United States, another leader, and I are in rural Northern Tanzania to help construct a classroom at the Maji ya Chai primary school. We carry buckets of water, buckets of sand, buckets of mud, buckets of stones. We break the dense clay ground, shovel soil out of the way for the foundation, lay these stones for the foundation, mix and pour concrete for the foundation and the floors, and mortar brick walls.
All this work is done with a team of fundies (as they are known in Swahili)- skilled local construction workers. A few parents of the schoolchildren also assist us. And when classes are out of session, the youth form a crowd around us, giggling, making faces, some just staring. Occasionally they help as well, their little hands adeptly handling pickaxes and shovels.
Walking the twenty minutes of dirt roads and farm paths from our rented cottage to the school, we are greeted with “hujambo” (hello) and “shikamoo” (hello elder) from the children who clasp our hands in theirs, and their parents wave and shout “habari” (how are you) and “asante sana” (thank you). Walking back and forth along these trails for two months, I become quite familiar with the faces I pass.
In this beautiful situation, I am undergoing an intense transformation.
This experience of service work is a pressure cooker for my ideas of who I am, who the people I am helping are, and what the relationship between the two should be. I am pushed physically, mentally and emotionally in this work. I struggle with the complexity of our impact on this community. I feel inspired by the relationships I form with the school community. This project is a grueling and exciting forum for exploring my sense of self.
As an urban planner and public health professional, I have devoted my career to understanding how we can design our cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas in a way that makes it easy for people to live healthy, fulfilling lives. My experiences with The Road Less Traveled laid the foundation for this work: I saw firsthand the rejuvenate power of real food, exercise, hydration, clean air and water, beautiful vistas, and silence. I also learned how to be successful in what I do: to be a caring leader and team-player, to communicate clearly and consistently, to celebrate successes and learn from failures, and to always be prepared for unforeseen crises. In the grand tradition of mountaineers, world travelers, river rats, and climbing bums, I have willingly given up the small comforts of the familiar, for the deep fulfillment that comes from connecting with unique places, with unique people, with my greatest self.