Helen SukIf there’s one lesson I’ve gleaned from my 15 years of solo travel, it’s to expect the unexpected. For those of us who wander, it’s one of the inevitable—and often challenging—realities of travel.

So when my plans to volunteer at an HIV/AIDS clinic in Kenya suddenly unraveled when I arrived in the country, I quickly improvised.

From Mombasa, I made my way to Watamu, an east-coast town on the Indian Ocean. There, I took up a room at a resort where a staff member, sensing my disappointment and eagerness to don my volunteer hat, graciously offered to take me to three nearby orphanages on her day off. I had only one week left in Kenya but, by the following day, I was enthusiastically accepted as the first Western volunteer by the orphanage with the least amount of funding and assistance out of the three I visited.

That’s where it happened.

I was standing in front of a classroom of teenagers one afternoon, teaching the history of European colonization when, without a prelude or warning, a student dropped the question with the precision of a research scientist and the innocence of a lamb:

“Madam? Do you believe AIDS is a punishment by Jesus?”

Classroom at the Orphanage

Silence.

I had to catch my breath.

Kenya’s struggles with HIV and AIDS are well documented, but how was I to abruptly abandon the history of Old Ghana to answer a question about life, death, disease and Christ? As a traveler, I take curveballs as they come but, instead of “What kind of music do you like?” or “What’s your favorite country?” I was confronted with a megalithic question.

When cultures and world views collide, travel pushes boundaries, rattles the system of our core beliefs and tests our limits. It will answer questions—but then compel us to ask more.

Does the orphanage, which struggles to simply survive—to clothe, feed and provide school supplies to the 180 children—even have protocols in place to address such confounding subject matter? There was no time for conjecture. Ten pairs of brown eyes were on me, and they were waiting for a response.

In classic Socratic style, I turned the question back onto them: “Do you believe it is?”

“No,” they replied, collectively shaking their heads.

“And how do you think people who suffer from HIV or AIDS should be treated?”

“With fairness,” replied one student. I breathed a hidden sigh of relief.

Helen Suk - Helen with Children at Kenya Orphanage

By my next class with a new group of students, I was curious. It was their game time, and I posed the question: “Do you believe AIDS is a punishment by Jesus?”

One student was quick to respond. “Yes!”

I asked what the punishment is for. She exercised silence.

“So if you learn that one of your friends in this class has a parent with HIV, would you still be friends with that person?” I asked the class.

“No!” Their voices reverberated against the walls.

So deep-seated is the stigma of HIV and AIDS—the “curse”, I was later told it’s called—that, despite the fact one third of the children at the orphanage are HIV/AIDS orphans, no child would dare reveal the truth. It would be an act of social suicide.

With my Western presence came other questions that could only have magnified the gulf between the haves and have-nots

I presented a hypothetical situation. “So if I told you my mother has HIV, you wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore?”

Related:  Seeing Hope and Beauty in Kenya

Suddenly, the students who vied for my attention all week began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. I had burdened myself with the curse. They snickered as they shot glances at each other.

And all I could bring myself toBreak do was underscore the importance of kindness and acceptance.

When cultures and world views collide, travel pushes boundaries, rattles the system of our core beliefs and tests our limits. It will answer questions—but then compel us to ask more.

And when we pair travel with acts of service, we have the opportunity to give a part of ourselves and leave an indelible impression on those we serve.

When it came time for me to leave Kenya, I was offered two coconuts by some of the students as a farewell gift. I melted.

But something else unexpected happened.

As much as I felt welcomed and appreciated by the staff and children of the orphanage, I still wonder if I left a stain on these young lives instead of the intended positive impact.

Girls in Classroom With my Western presence came other questions that could only have magnified the gulf between the haves and have-nots: How many countries have I travelled to? How much was my camera? What did my flight to Kenya cost? I answered truthfully. And, as the students processed the figures I gave them, they gazed at me in disbelief. I had become a reminder of the wealth outside the walls of the orphanage to which they do not have access.

Then there was the afternoon I taught students how to shoot selfies with my camera. One of them excitedly suggested, “Madam, when you come back, you can bring the pictures!” I confessed I didn’t know if I would return to Kenya. Her face sank into disappointment, as if betrayed for the 100th time. And my response, “But I promise to mail the photos,” seemed of little comfort.

 

Kid Running

More than ever, travelers are embarking on voluntourism trips to gain a deeper insight into a country and its people, and experience the feel-good sentiment of helping those in far-flung, “exotic” corners of the world.

But, while my experience was invaluable and enriching, it was also shamefully unsettling. Through the process, I’ve had to admit to myself that perhaps, despite my desire to give and my capacity for compassion, I made my fleeting time as a volunteer in Kenya more about me than those I wished to support. That I placed more self-indulgent importance on wanting to feel I made a difference than understanding the bigger picture and ensuring the impact I make will be truly beneficial and sustainable. A growing body of research tells us giving is good for our psychological and physical health, but do we focus on these benefits while neglecting those of the people and communities we want to help?

Break with Kids Waving In the months following my return home, I launched a local fundraising campaign. By Christmas, I sent all the proceeds directly to the orphanage.

And, as promised, I did mail those photos to the children. They captured that brief moment in time I stepped in and out of their lives. And I hope the difference I made, if I made one at all, was positive.

But I can only hope.

 

 

Words and photos: Helen Suk. See more of Helen’s writing and photography at Not Without My Passport.