When you give, you receive: The Kikoneni Experience

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Every Muslim has to give in charity.” The people then asked: “(But what) if someone has nothing to give, what should he do?” The Prophet replied: “He should work with his hands and benefit himself and also give in charity (from what he earns).” The people further asked: “If he cannot find even that?” He replied: “He should help the needy who appeal for help.” Then the people asked: “If he cannot do (even) that?” The Prophet said finally: “Then he should perform good deeds and keep away from evil deeds, and that will be regarded as charitable deeds.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Hadith 524

For the past one month, Donge La Mombasa Welfare Group (a CBO based in Mombasa, Kenya, that I am involved in) has been collecting donations in what is officially called the ‘Ramadhan Iftar Donation Appeal’. Set up as a special Ramadhan charity event, the purpose of the donation appeal is to donate food to local orphans and impoverished residents of Mombasa and its surrounding villages during this holy month. Our financial expectations were modest (expecting to receive enough to feed a village one weekend), so we were pleasantly surprised to find that after just few weeks we had collected enough money to feed a village each weekend of the month. Kikoneni, a small and impoverished rural community in Kwale district, was selected to be the first recipient of the Iftar drive. After supplies were purchased (bales of flour, rice, legumes, and oil), Donge members made their way to the remote village. Once there, they were met by the village elders and residents who welcomed them warmly into their community. One by one, the pre-packaged Iftar packages were unloaded and delivered to the doorsteps of the Kikoneni residents.

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The local children were also treated to kid-friendly treats such as biscuits and sweets…..

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After a long day carrying and distributing heavy packages under the hot equatorial sun, the Donge pickup truck was finally empty. Exhausted and disheveled but humbled nonetheless, Donge members bid the Kikoneni villagers goodbye and made their way back to Mombasa.

For the volunteers at Kikoneni, the day turned out to be one that they would not forget in a long time. The feedback that we got back from them was overwhelmingly positive:

“The best experience of my life!”
“I had so much fun; it didn’t feel like work. I also met new people and have established new friendships”
“This was the first time I feel that I spent my pre-Ramadhan celebration (mfungo) wisely…The smiles on people’s faces made me feel like I had accomplished something great”
“Volunteering made me feel grateful for what I already have”
“I hope I have many more opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life”

Donge volunteers lent their hands to help people that could probably never pay them back, but what they got back was infinitely more than what they gave. Kikoneni gave them a sense of joy-a spiritual, mental, and emotional high-that only comes when you dedicate your time, energy, and financial resources to those who are less fortunate than yourself.

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DLMWG has a lot more work to do this Ramadhan, and we hope that the proceeding charity events will be better than the last. About twenty people were present at the last event; we hope the number will double in the next event. If you are interested in making a financial donation or in volunteering your time to feed the needy in Mombasa, please let us know by following the link provided below:
http://anubillu.wix.com/dongelamombasa#!get_involved/c8k2

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The Smile That Sparked a Revolution

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While social media has helped bring people together, let’s face it-sometimes our virtual lives can get uncomfortable and overwhelming. Sites like Facebook has brought people together but they have also created a stream of non-stop chatter, some of them highly charged with egotism and negativity.  Sometimes when I finally log out of Facebook, I feel like I have just left a warzone.  While I believe that everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, the anonymity and lack of face-to-face contact that people are afforded online unfortunately also encourage plenty of dramatic and ‘I don’t care who you are’ exchanges. In the virtual world, words are weapons and people are using them pretty recklessly.  This virtual anarchy has seeped into well-intentioned social groups. Instead of building bridges, we are burning them.  Donge La Mombasa was such a group. While we (the members) were well meaning and intent on producing positive change in our native city, our social tango was a hot mess. Metaphorically speaking, we had the right dance moves but our lack of cohesion made for a dance troupe with dancers constantly tripping over each other.  Arguments were plenty and accusations were almost a daily occurrence.  Needless to say, our Facebook group was in pure chaos.

Recently, one of the group members posted a video of a young quadriplegic man from Tanzania asking for financial assistance in buying a wheelchair. Posts of pleas are fairly common online but this particular one not only changed our virtual group dynamic, it united people from all over the world. It was the smile that revolutionized our little community.

The name of the young man in the poster is Ahmed and he was injured in a diving accident that paralyzed his body from the neck down.  His physical injuries were evident, but what of his mental and emotional scars? Honestly, I think anyone who has been through what Ahmed has been through has every right to wallow in self pity.  Total paralysis; words fail me in my attempt to imagine the unimaginable.  But what does Ahmed do instead? He smiles.  He smiles with courage in the face of tragedy, hope against all odds, and a determination to live joyfully no matter his circumstances. I had an opportunity to talk to him on the phone and honestly if it wasn’t for my prior knowledge about his condition, I would have thought that everything was going great for him.  I would have thought that he had a ‘normal’ life.  Charming, courteous and ever so cheery, Ahmed is the kind of guy that leaves you with a sense of joy that lingers long after you’ve said your good byes. I wasn’t the only one that was captivated by him. Pretty soon after the video was posted in our group, members rallied together to help him out. The noisy members focused their energy on fundraising discussions and the dormant ones jumped out of their hibernation holes and started participating too.  Our personal differences no longer mattered in our pursuit to achieve one common goal-to raise enough money to buy Ahmed his wheelchair.  Posters and videos were produced, emails and text messages sent out, and phone calls made. In a matter of hours, the fundraising video had gone viral.  Ask anyone who has connections to Mombasa and Tanzania about Ahmed and chances are they know him now.  People in places as far flung as China were sending in their donations.  Men, women, poor, rich, powerful, ordinary-people stood up in solidarity with Ahmed.  After a mere 48 hours, we had raised enough money to buy him the wheelchair that he so desperately needed.  In a further fortunate twist of events, Ahmed was also reunited with long lost relatives living abroad who recognized his name from the forwarded posters and video.

There is a popular analogy that compares life to a ripple in a pond. When you throw a stone onto a pond, it causes a ripple, and subsequent ripples goes on to cause bigger ripples, and so on and so forth.  One ripple, no matter how small, has the capability of changing the energy of the entire pond. Ahmed’s smile was the one tiny ripple that changed our community for the better.  It reminded us that while we may not have the ability to control what life throws at us, we have the ability to choose our reaction to life’s wrenches.  We may not end up with the life that we dreamed of, but our attitude towards it will determine whether we live in the pain of the past or in the joy of the present.

Ahmed may have gotten his wheelchair but we gained much more.  We gained the realization that when it comes to community, unity is everything. Unity, or lack of it, will determine the survival and continuity of our community, and indeed, identity in general.  Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is quoted to have said “The faithful, in their love for one another and in their having mercy for one another and in their kindness toward one another, are like one body; when a member of it ails, all the parts of the body call one another to share the pain through sleeplessness and fever.” (Muslim)

The social environment in Donge La Mombasa has been cozier and less abrasive lately than in the days past, but as with any family, we are bound to have our share of dysfunctions.  I have no doubt that there will be disagreements along the way.  I only hope that when that time comes, we can pull back Ahmed’s smile from the archives of our memories and remember that in the end, love is all that matters.

The Fear Monster: What, Why, When, Who?

I have made the maybe-not-so-remarkable observation that most of us are very, very afraid. We wake up with dread of an undefined disaster and sleep from the exhaustion of the anticipation of this disaster. Our fear of fear has become so pervasive that sites like Facebook have been inundated with constant streams of ‘conquer fear’ quotes. Believe me, I have done my fair share of reposting such status updates. People are more wary than ever of establishing relationships out of fear of being hurt, parents are clinging on to their children more tightly out of fear that danger lurks in every corner, citizens fear their governments and governments fear their citizens…… The list goes on and on. Today more than ever, the culture of fear is alive and thriving.

I have my own fears and sometimes they can be paralysing. Most psychologists recommend that whatever it is that is paralysing you, sit down with it like a little child, look at it in the eye and try to understand it. And reason with it. So, I sat my little (umm, big) monster of fear down and started the conversation:

According to Dictionary.com, fear is the “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined“. Keywords? ‘Real or imagined’. The ‘real’ part is perfectly logical because fear has it’s merits in evolutionary biology. We developed certain fear-based mechanisms in order to ensure our survival. Our run-in with that wild animal that almost killed us made us develop more cautionary day-to-day survival instincts. The ‘imagined’ part of fear is the wildly exaggerated and irrational construct of our imagination, the Chicken Little in us constantly screaming out, “‘the sky is falling on our heads!”

While fear has always been present in our lives, 911 raised this emotion to new heights. What might have been a perfectly reasonable and polite thing to say before 911 is now only said after a long and thoughtful pause (or not said at all). We imagine that ‘they’ will hunt us down, whoever ‘they’ is. We’ve given each other labels to help us supposedly identify the ‘threats’ from the ‘non-threats’, governments are spending billions in defense programs, millions of innocent lives lost domestically and internationally because someone thought that someone else was going to harm them first. We threaten one another in order to induce fear and make others succumb to our selfish desires. Fear may rule relationships on micro and macro levels, but it has also turned our societies into chaotic and dysfunctional ones. Sadly, both the fear-monger and the fear-recipient hurt in the end. I’m sure if there were aliens looking at us from outer space, they’d think earth was some big freak show.

In a fascinating video lecture, Scilla Ellsworthy describes an incident where Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s longtime pro-democracy figure, was leading a group of students on a protest. The protesters came upon a row of soldiers pointing machine guns at them. With their fingers shaking in the triggers, Aung San Suu Kyi quickly realized that the soldiers were in fact, more scared than the protestors were. She walked calmly towards a soldier, put her hand gently on his gun and gently lowered it and no one got killed. In my own personal life, I have come to the realization that people who threaten me are most likely also really afraid of me. They are afraid of what they perceive I represent and I am afraid of that they represent. In the end we are like dogs chasing our own tails, all afraid of each other.

We are also afraid of ourselves, thinking that our decisions will ultimately lead to our very destruction. What if I say or do (insert perfectly reasonable word/action here) will make me (insert perfectly disastrous outcome here)? The need to control outcomes, be they in form of decisions or relationships, is ultimately what feeds the Fear Monster.

Psychologists advocate the practice of surrender as the antidote to fear. In order to fear less, we need to let go of the notion that we are in complete control of our lives. In one of her always inspiring articles, Martha Beck offers practical insights on how to surrender:

“…find a place in your life where you’re practicing experiential avoidance, an absence where you wish there were something wonderful. Then commit to the process of getting it, including any inherent anxiety or sadness. Get on an airplane not because you’re convinced it won’t crash, but because meeting your baby niece is worth a few hours of terror. Sit on the beach with your mocha latte, humming the song you shared with your ex, and let grief wash through you until your memories are more sweet than bitter. Pursue your dreams not because you’re immune to heartbreak but because your real life, your whole life, is worth getting your heart broken a few thousand times.”

Or in other words,

“Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk” (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama).

When fear makes your choices for you, you become a prisoner of own self. But if you choose to embrace fear, rather than run away from it, you will ultimately experience peace. And it may just be that perhaps this inner peace will eventually translate to a greater sense of world peace.  Replace fear with a healthy dose of curiosity.  If someone makes you nervous, attempt to know him/her better.  You might just find out that you share more similarities than differences.  If you are scared of being authentic because you fear that some people won’t like you anymore, remember that being you is the surest way of weeding out the unnecessary weight in your social circle.  Pursue your true path with the assurance that actions born out of the purest intentions are like pathways in the constellation of the night sky-they will always lead you to where you need to go.  Let go of the false sense of control and accept that that life (or God, if you believe in a higher power) may not always lead you to where you want to go, but it will lead you to where you need to go.  Surrender, surrender, surrender. Surrendering is probably one of the hardest things you’ll do, but it just might be the very thing that shrinks the Fear Monster.

Mr. Mraz Teaches Love 101

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This week I’d like to talk about love. Specifically, what Mr. Jason Mraz has to teach us about it. But first, look at these freaking girls:

Isn’t that the cutest/most awesome thing you’ve ever seen? That much talent so young…whoa. I could squeeze their little cheeks straight off.

Now that we’ve got that cuteness out of the way, let’s talk about how this song is basically all you need to know about what you should want in love. That’s right. Mr. Mraz just covered the whole kit n’ kaboodle in one pop song. Impressive, sir. Impressive.

So, let’s break it down. Here’s what you should be looking for in love:

Someone Who Thinks You’re Freaking Amazing

When I look into your eyes
It’s like watching the night sky
Or a beautiful sunrise
There’s so much they hold
And just like them old stars
I see that you’ve come so far

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