When I first met Maia, almost 2 years ago now, I was struck by her smile and openness. Her face was literally an invitation to talk. When I discovered her passion for travel and volunteering, I knew that open face had to have been earned, at least partially, through human experiences, and sometimes tough ones. Imagine my delight when I learned that she now has a blog where she writes about her adventures! Because I think she can inspire many people, and because I think we all love a little bit of good food for thought and beautiful smiles in our lives, I offer you, passerby and client alike, this interview with Maia Williamson, traveler extraordinaire.
Caroline C Stolzy-Maia, say something about how you came to be interested in international volunteer work within less developed countries, and what it has done for you…
Maia Williamson-For starters, I’ve always loved travelling. Who doesn’t? In some ways though, I think I see travelling a bit differently than most people. While some travel to see different places, my main motivation has always been to meet different people and learn about the uniqueness of a culture.
When I was younger, I did a fair bit of volunteering and knew one day I’d go abroad and try it on a larger scale. However, when my mom died about 8 years ago, that was the push that told me to go. And go. And go again. Basically, I couldn’t believe that she was robbed of a life, so I told myself I would live mine for the both of us and really make mine count. So, I did…and do.
And I’ve always been mildly obsessed with Africa, so it was the logical place for me to start. Since going on that first trip to Tanzania, I was absolutely hooked. I loved the people, the country, the communities that I spent my time in and the pace of life there, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a one-time thing. I also learned just how much there is to learn about development work if you want to do it properly. Therefore, I decided to go back to school and get an MA in International Development, so that I could basically help more and help better.
Volunteering has taught me how much more we are all alike than we are different. Whether you live in a hut in the African desert or the rice fields of rural Cambodia, almost everyone wants the same things in life –a decent job to support their families, an education for their children, good friendships, and the ability to feed guests until they practically blow up. :)
My experiences have also taught me how my own actions can have a ripple effect on others, so I take what I do very seriously. I also really look at it as a privilege to work with some of the communities and people that I have. It’s such an honour to be let into their lives, especially when many of them are in really vulnerable situations. I’m always amazed at how much I learn and gain in the process despite the fact that I’m slated as the one helping, teaching etc. It’s quite humbling.
Caroline-What else has it taught you, or made you realize about yourself?
Maia-People often ask me what I find to be the hardest part about volunteering. For me, it’s all about keeping calm and together and taking things as they come. I’m definitely not a go-with-the-flow type of gal in my regular life. I’m very structured and organized and in charge, so I’m always a little surprised at myself when I get into one of these communities and am able to roll with the punches pretty well. I don’t think you can be any other way if you want to make any kind of a difference.
Another difficult aspect for me, which I’m still working on, is trying to keep it together in some instances. I know I’m a tough cookie for what I have seen and been able to adapt to, but other times, I just can’t do it. I crumble. I just got back from a few weeks in Haiti, which was really rewarding but difficult. One day I visited a pediatric ward of a local hospital and within minutes of being there I was sobbing. It was really tough to see and hear the need. A part of me hopes I never lose that sense of shock and sensitivity because it kind of humanizes what I do, but at the same time, I can’t let these things consume me.
Personally, I’ve gained a lot of patience and humility, and have really learned what it means to live a life of integrity. On the whole, I try not to sweat the small stuff anymore because it’s usually really, reeeally minor and trivial when you think about the big picture. I’m not impervious to forgetting though, so sometimes I need reminding. When I feel myself complaining about work too much or freaking out in traffic jams, I take them as reminders that I need to go on a trip.
Caroline-What can Westerners learn from Africans and African cultures? What are some of our misconceptions about them?
Maia-I think the biggest misconception is that they are incapable of driving their own change or worse yet, they want the West to do it for them. That is just simply not true. First off, I think the West underestimates the intelligence and know-how of African communities. Yes, there are systemic issues across the continent such as poverty, lack of education and poor infrastructure to name a few, which preclude many Africans from enacting the change they want to see in their communities; however, it’s not due to a lack of ability or desire. They just don’t have some of the tools that we have, which has more to do with birthplace and bad luck than anything else. A common notion that floats around development circles is that most people from impoverished communities are generally looking for a hand up, not a hand out. We assume the opposite too often based on the need, but it’s wrong.
Furthermore, I think we can learn how to be truly happy and prioritize when we see how the other half lives. I’ve been in so many communities where people have nothing by our standards. However, I’ve never met happier, more contented people in my life. And that happiness is based on friendships and family and what they do have and expressed through food and gatherings and greetings and nature – all things that are worthless yet priceless, if you know what I mean.
I think it’s a case of irony, albeit a sad one, that we have so much ‘stuff’ in the West and it’s never enough for our appetites to accumulate more stuff. I think the state of our society shows that all that ‘stuff’ doesn’t make us better people, and clearly doesn’t make us happy. To be frank, we’re in a society where our gratitude is tied to our abundance, but again, we’ve got it all wrong.
Caroline-What do Africans think of us, in general?
Maia-This is a tough question because I don’t like to make generalizations about people; I think that’s where stereotypes come from. I can only speak about my own personal experiences, but I think they see us in the West exactly how we are – sometimes too preoccupied with stuff and also quite privileged. I also feel that the pace of life in our culture is different from theirs, and they see that. I don’t think it’s necessarily negative though.
Caroline-What sorts of obstacles and challenges needed to be overcome in helping launch a school? What did you learn and what surprised you?
Maia-The school that I was involved with in Tanzania was started by a Tanzanian couple who still run it and then taken on by an American girl when she volunteered there. I volunteered there randomly a year or so after she did, and I stayed heavily involved with the school and also became a board member on the NGO she started that supports it.
There were quite a few obstacles and surprises during my tenure on the board, which is probably why I’m not still on it (lol). The biggest obstacle for me was learning how hard it is to work with people that don’t share in your same vision. Regardless of everyone coming at a program with good intentions, there has to be a shared outlook and goal because that will be the driving force behind all of the work that you do.
To be frank about my own situation, it was important for me to abide by what the community wanted and try to foster their independence, not their dependence. I didn’t see eye to eye with the president of the board on some of those fundamental aspects, so I left the board. I still think they’re a good organization that does good things, but it just didn’t line up with my principles in many instances.
I keep in touch still with the school and Tanzanian owners and they are thriving, which is all that really matters at the end of the day. It was all such a good experience that I don’t regret it for a minute. I’m truly thankful for what it’s taught me about the field of development but also myself. Both, a work in progress..:)
The biggest surprise was just how much work goes into such an initiative. It requires a massive amount of time and effort that, in my opinion, cannot and should not be done from afar. I’m sometimes skeptical of Western organizations that start projects but are not physically present or directly involved. Success takes much more than financial backing; what you really need to invest is your time. The majority of the successful programs and projects I’ve seen started by Western-led NGOs have someone who is committed to being there and committed to working alongside the community on their vision.
It’s funny because I’ve learned so much about teamwork in development since that initial experience when it didn’t work out so well. I’ve seen many other organizations where it is a staple, and it’s a beautiful thing when done properly.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having individual goals but the collective is so much more powerful. What’s that quote by Louisa May Alcott…”It takes two flints to make a fire” or something like that.
Caroline-You have a special burn mark on your arm, is it possible to talk about this? What does it mean?
Maia-If you really want to help a community, I think it’s important to fully understand and connect with it’s culture and traditions. During my first visit to Tanzania, I was fortunate enough to visit a Masai village a few hours from the city I was volunteering in. They were such beautiful, gracious hosts and it was amazing to learn about their culture and ways of life. They served us a traditional tea and actually slaughtered and cooked a goat for us. We were also offered to drink the goat blood which is tradition in their community. Only a few out of our group were crazy enough to do it….admittedly, I was one of the few. I never thought I would ever do something like that, but in that situation when you are being offered something so sacred and significant from people who are extending such kindness to you, how can you say no?
There is also a tradition in Masai culture where boys who hit puberty undergo a circumcision ceremony that signifies their transition into manhood. Prior to the ceremony, a boy will also get two nickel-sized burns (which is like being branded, essentially) on each of his cheeks underneath his eyes that eventually scar over and are visible forever. I’ve seen women with them as well, so I’m not sure how that fits into the culture and traditions. Our group was offered the burns as a sign of kinship and brotherhood, so of course I got those too – certainly not on the face, but I did get two on my right arm. And yes, it hurt like hell.
I don’t regret getting them even though they haven’t faded as I was told they most certainly would. It’s funny because I catch people looking at them all the time, especially because as a teacher I’m in front of a classroom moving my arms around all the time. I can actually see people focusing on them, often with a furrowed brow like, ‘what the heck are those things?!’ Most people think they are some crazy vaccination scars. I even had a student once ask me if they were bullet holes. Lol. I usually wait a while before I kill the mystery and just come out and tell them what they are. Much less exciting than the stories they drum up.
Some people think I’m a little extreme for getting them and a few other things I’ve done in communities, and that’s okay. It’s how I choose to immerse myself in a community and what feels right to me. I do have my limits though, just not that many.
Caroline-What do you think halts many people from pursuing their dreams and big ideas?
Maia-I don’t really know. I can only assume it’s the fear of the unknown or failing. I don’t think failing is so bad though because it means you’re trying. When I think about development work specifically and how many people are trying to make the world a better place, it’s pretty powerful. Could you imagine what the world would be like if nobody tried to make it better? Scary thought.
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