This post was guest authored by Shelbe Van Winkle.
I’ve been sitting at my computer for hours, writing, erasing, and rewriting, trying to figure out how to best write this piece. My feet are bouncing to the Zambian music coming through my headphones, and my roommates/coworkers are laughing at my stationary dance moves. We’ve been brainstorming for days, trying to understand how to put everything we’ve seen, done, and learned into words. How can I possibly put everything that I’ve experienced on paper? Our experiences in Zambia don’t easily translate. We’ve gone back and forth on ideas about fundraising, mentoring, and supplemental academic help. Our discussions are constantly interrupted by kids knocking on the door, some young, asking to play, some older, asking for help in math, and some just coming to say hi. I’m wearing my favorite worn t-shirt, with a comfy pair of sweatpants, lounging in our indoor hammock with my computer in my lap. A song written by one of the students we’ve been working with starts to play from my iTunes. The music is upbeat and fun, calling for a spontaneous dance party. We’ve been “working” all day, but in my mind I haven’t worked a single minute.
I’ve known that I’ve had a passion for working in education since the summer after my senior year of high school, when I interned at a non-profit organization in Nicaragua. There, I observed a seven-year-old girl named Wendy struggle to play the card game “go fish,” because she couldn’t recognize the letters or numbers on the cards. I helped her the rest of my time in Nicaragua to learn the alphabet, spell her name, and ultimately kick butt at “go fish.” Little did Wendy know, she would shape my college career and help me discover what I want to do with my future. Education is something I’ve always had. Graduating high school with honors and going to university was assumed, rather than questioned or worried about. Wendy opened my eyes to a world where education isn’t always easily accessible. She helped me realize that there are kids just like me, and younger, that have to beg, work, and fight to go to school.
On a recent Dialogue of Civilizations, a Northeastern University field study program, I found myself in Zambia for the first time, learning about non-profits and NGOs that are helping facilitate access to the human right of education. Flash forward to current time, and I’m sitting in my hammock in Zambia, working for modzi, a non-profit started by a recent Northeastern grad that helps vulnerable youth in Zambia gain access to a quality education. We work everyday – morning, night, weekday, weekend, it doesn’t matter – but none of it feels like a job. They say “get a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Working at modzi has allowed me to understand the true meaning of this saying.
The job is just one part of a bigger picture; actions, events, and people are all major contributors to my love for this work. Everyday has been a learning experience for me, introducing new concepts that I hadn’t faced before. I’ve seen kids wake up at five o’clock in the morning to start the six kilometer trek to school, I’ve felt heartbreak when watching kids who just want to go to school struggle against corruption, and I’ve heard the purest form of laughter in the wee hours of the morning as our young neighbors play outside. I’ve read statistics and facts about different parts of the world, but experiencing them is much more humanizing. Each unique experience here has added to my love for the work even more. There is a reason I have chosen to be in this field, and everyday it becomes more clear.
Wendy and Nicaragua helped me realize what I want to do and whom I want to work with. But since then, I’ve been able to hone in on why I like working with kids. They carry a unique sense of innocence with them, and truly just want to be happy. Even the children who have experienced hardship and trauma are still looking for something to smile about. I’ve watched kids here in Zambia gather all their peers around, just to make them laugh, and met others who can’t wipe a smile off their face for more than two seconds. While their smiles and laughter draw me in, what impresses me the most is their dedication to friendship and family. Many youth in Zambia have lost loved ones, been orphaned by diseases, or for some other reason forced to fend for themselves. As a result, they have created their own family with their peers and mentors. In an impoverished area where one could easily only look out for himself, I’ve seen ties of brotherhood hold young boys together and help them succeed. These tough situations can make my work challenging – but laughing alongside these kids makes it all worthwhile.
I’ve come to learn that work doesn’t have to be laborious. It doesn’t have to be dull. It doesn’t have to be isolating. I’ve come to learn that work should be something you want to do. Work should be experience, learning, growth, and compassion for the relationships you create. modzi has taught me that a job holds much more than just work, and that it also contains real people, real stories, and powerful experiences. So as I sit here in my hammock, listening to Zambian music, exchanging words and laughter with the kids who come to visit, I am doing my job. A job that I love… and can’t ever see being “work.”
Shelbe Van Winkle is the Project and Partnership Co-op with modzi. Check out the modzi website to learn more about the modzi movement! Also be sure to follow them on Instagram, Twitter (@wearemodzi), and Facebook!