Congratulations to Amanda Hurlbut, a 12th grade student, who since 2009, has led Kids with Sole, in coordination with YAI to send 3000 pairs of sneakers to children in Liberia.
It is a year since I began my internship at Youth Action International and what I thought would be an easy task is very difficult. I do not know where to start in talking about my experiences over the last one year. To save myself from overworking my young brain trying to think about my experiences, I will use this medium to extend my gratitude to Kimmie and the Youth Action International family for affording me the opportunity to grow and develop in a more responsible leader.
I’ve been thinking about what to write since I came back from Liberia. I am from Spain and English is my fourth language – I also speak Spanish, Italian, and Catalan. So as you can imagine, it took me forever to put all my thoughts in order in English.
My name is Esther Rodriguez-Brown. My husband, Michael, and I are the founders of The Embracing Project, a non profit organization we created to educate inner city youth about the similarities between genocide and gang activity. One purpose of this journey is to expose inner city youth to the experiences of children soldiers in different parts of the world and then to create a pen-pal relationship between both groups.
Every year, Kimmie Weeks embarks on a nationwide speaking tour to motivate young people to become pioneers of change. To date, thousands of students have heard his message and many of them have gone on to start their own humanitarian organizations or have joined other change-making programs.
Contact Natsumi Ajiki: natsumi @ peaceforkids.org
“What have I gotten myself into?”
This is a question that has come up many times on my journey to Africa.
I suppose to clarify, and so as not to sound like a cynic, I should explain a little bit about myself. I’ve been a photographer for two and a half years now. When I first picked up a camera the only thought that went through my head was “Awesome, now I have a big chunk of metal, plastic and glass that will allow me to take clearer photos and I’ll soon be rich and famous as a result of having this camera!”
This was not the case as I am neither rich, nor famous (side from my own delusions of grandeur.) Anyways all of that is beside the point. If someone had told me the day that I picked up that camera that it would eventually lead me to post war West Africa, I would have laughed in their faces. Not because traveling to West Africa is a crazy idea, but simply because I did not see myself ever getting past the stage of “hobbyist” photography.
And yet, here I sit, in Sierra Leone, thousands of miles from home (6168 miles approximately) volunteering as the photographer for Youth Action International.
Now in regards to Africa, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia, I don’t think that anything could have really prepared me for what I would experience here. This is including Kimmie’s ‘worst case scenario’ description of Liberia.
I wish I had been more diligent about documenting my experiences and reactions in Liberia, but I seemed to always put off the act of writing. I always told myself I was too tired or busy, but the truth is that I had a very difficult time reflecting on the barrage of experiences at the time. Throughout my time in Africa, I realized that I did not once shed a tear. It was only once I was on the plane from Accra to New York, on my way back to my privileged and comfortable life, that I was able to absorb the memories and the pictures that I was taking with me. As I looked through the pictures I had taken on my camera, I cried for a half an hour straight. I cried thinking about the hopeful faces on the small children at Temas Orphanage that I was leaving. I cried for young people of Grand Bassa County who do not have the opportunity to go to school. I cried because I realized that my life would be changed forever and I cried because I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
A cross-section of observers, traditional and religious leaders, local and international media stormed Ri-Kwangba last week to witness the historical moment were Joseph Kony, the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) leader was supposed to sign the final peace agreement. The rest of the world held its breath to witness the day that northern Uganda would finally get to normalcy after 20 years of conflict between the Government of Uganda and the LRA rebels.
“Aren’t you nervous?” my dear friend carefully asked me when I told her that I’d be visiting Uganda. That’s how my parents reacted at first. I told myself it is not because Uganda is part of Africa that they are worried for my travel. Traveling to new places is always uncertain to some extent. However, I couldn’t deny that part of me was more worried than usual. What would I see? How would I feel? What should I expect? Am I mature enough? Above all, the question was ‘why would I want to go visit Africa’? I cannot tell Uganda story leaving out the influence of Kimmie and Youth Action International. I actually met Kimmie at Northfield Mount Hermon High School where Kimmie graduated from.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an Acholi-based opposition group led by Joseph Kony has been fighting first against president Museveni’s government, and currently against other Acholi peoples. The Acholi are an ethnic group who live in Northern Uganda. Though Kony, leader of the LRA reportedly believes he has been chosen by God to overthrow president Museveni and establish a government based on the Ten Commandments, and a purified Acholi race, the LRA has yet to explain its goals or put forth any sort of political agenda.
I wasn’t promised an African sunset. When Kimmie Weeks invited me on a humanitarian mission through post-conflict countries, what came to mind were the stunning landscape pictures my friends had brought back from the ranch in Kenya. It was how I had envisioned this beautiful continent. Streaks of red and orange, firing up the night sky of deep blue and purple: a kaleidoscope of color. Instead, I found another kind of sunset. I found the African people wasting away, dying brutal, horrific deaths at the hands of war, disease, and poverty. I found the sun setting on their lives. Not fading into the night with brilliant lights, but being shredded into a nonexistence wracked with pain and suffering. Continue reading