Finding My Ikigai: 10 Life Lessons Learned on a Volunteer Trip Abroad

Apr 10, 2018 | Culture and Engagement

There’s no denying that I’ve just returned from a trip that has forever changed my life. “Mom I’ve left a piece of my heart in Tanzania!” These were the words from my 15-year-old daughter as we said our goodbyes and boarded our return flight home. I left wondering who benefited more from our volunteer trip abroad. While their hearts were full from our contributions, we as volunteers also left with overflowing love, gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our life.

I’ve learned that life’s biggest lessons often find us when we least expect it.  Most of us don’t consciously search for our true sense of purpose in life.  Instead we quickly watch life pass us by, approaching our days with blinders on to our precious commodity of time.

It’s often the unexpected and profound events in our life that pushes us to take our first step down a path of self-discovery, unveiling what truly matters in life and what it means to savour every moment of being alive.  I can attest to the power of these moments that gave me a renewed sense of purpose, spirit and direction.

Ikigai – What is it?

The term ikigai originates from Japanese words meaning life and worth.  It is a Japanese concept exploring the balance of life and illustrates the reason for living or being.  Focusing too much in one area, depletes you of benefiting from another area and an opportunity of living a long, happy and fulfilling life. It’s finding that balance that we are all in pursuit of.

  • Image: Toronto Star Graphic
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My Personal Story – A Volunteer Trip that has Forever Changed my Life

It’s easy to get bogged down in our day to day lives. Our relentless pursuit of wealth and success has taken away from appreciating the precious moments and simple pleasures in life. With increased demands both at work and at home, many of us have fallen into the trap of stress and monotony with a diminished focus on what truly brings us happiness, meaning and fulfillment.

Putting myself back on my list was a conscious choice and more importantly a necessity.  The daily routine of putting in 12+ hours a day on the job and being glued to my phone and laptop to put out fires all eventually caught up.  It was mentally and physical exhausting and draining. I knew that my life was imbalanced.  In fact, my Ikigai was imbalanced – my focus was on my profession and vocation, with little to no effort spent on discovering or fulfilling my passions and mission.  What were my passions?  What was my mission?

From the moment I heard about a ME to WE volunteer-based trip to Tanzania, I knew that this trip would be a life changer on so many fronts.

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I boarded the plane and embarked on this journey with an open heart, excited at the opportunity to not only give back on a global scale, but to also grow on a personal front – seeing the world through a different lens and really understanding the day-to-day life, challenges and approach to living in a foreign part of our world.  It turns out that every second of my time in the remote areas of Tanzania was a life lesson.  Here are my top ten lessons I learned during my volunteer trip abroad:

Lesson #1: Even small efforts can make an impact.

“If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.” Kofi Annan

As we arrived in our camp in Oldoyowasi, a remote area near Arusha, Tanzania, we were greeted by school children, their parents and local community members who welcomed us through song and dance into their community and homes.  We were there for ten days to assist in building a teachers’ accommodation on school grounds to help attract teachers to the remote area.  The school was made up of 873 students and less than 5 teachers.  Every day, we headed to the construction site, grabbed our tools and got to work.  We sifted dirt, mixed cement and laid bricks.  Within those ten days we built four more layers to the teachers’ accommodation.  While in our eyes, this was a small feat, in their eyes including the headmaster, his staff and the children, they were one step closer to finding two new teachers to impart their knowledge on these children who each day looked forward to and yearned a formal education.

Those four layers of bricks equated to hope and a more promising future for the almost 900 schoolchildren who dreamed big and worked hard each and every day to bring these dreams to fruition.

Picture above: Our group on the last day of our build.

Lesson #2: Finding gratitude even through the hard times is a choice.

We were privileged to have been welcomed with open arms into the communities and homes of many of the local families.  They willingly shared their stories and experiences.  These are families, who face challenges and obstacles each and every day, yet find solace in each other and gratitude and blessings despite the hard times.  Their reality was no accessible water, no electricity, no medicine, poor housing and a daily struggle to feed, house, clothe, educate their families. Despite this, they exuded deep warmth, gentleness and contentment and an undeniable appreciation for the simple things … being able to get food on the table, being able to afford school uniforms and supplies to send their children to school, being able to harvest goods and raise cattle to sustain the family, being able to access clean water despite the long distances to fetch it.

There is so much to be grateful for.  Sometimes we need a nudge to remind ourselves of what we have – a house, a family, a job …

Picture above: On the water walk.

Lesson #3: A sense of community and belonging is important.

During our first day, I had the chance to get to know not only our guides, our local Masai, our headmaster, but also the children who attended the local school.  I soon became “Mama Sofia!” in the village.  Each hike, walk, tour into the local communities, you would hear “Jambo Mama Sofia!”.  I was a newcomer to this local community yet felt like I belonged and felt like I had been a part of this special community for much longer than 10 days.  We learned from locals that they were able to overcome challenges and obstacles because of their commitment to helping one another.  There was a deep sense of connection to one another that made even the darkest times a little bit more palatable.

Promoting a sense of belonging and connectivity will ultimately lead to a greater community – whether at work, school or home.  People want to feel included and be a part of the greater good of a community.

Picture above: The local community organized a farewell party on our last day.  They gifted this goat to us as a thank you gift for our contributions.

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to dream big and take that leap.

As I spoke to the children, I learned about their dreams and aspirations.  Some wanted to be doctors, some wanted to be teachers and some weren’t too sure just yet.  One thing remained consistent and that was that the children weren’t afraid to dream.  They weren’t afraid of being vulnerable.  While I tried to converse in Swahili, they too tried to converse in English.  They had a deep desire to learn, knowing that this knowledge would be instrumental to bettering their families, communities and future.  They approached education with a contagious appreciation and yearning for learning.  Many of these children walked long distances to attend school and did so without complaints but rather a spark of energy, desire and passion for knowledge.

Opening oneself up to failures is the only way to progress, learn and grow.  Why not dream big? Why not take that chance into the unknown?  Rather than living a life of regret, dream big and work hard at living a life of meaning, growth and purpose.

Picture above: Some of the many beautiful children who chose to dream big!

Lesson #5: Find your passion and put it into action.

From a young age, I felt destined to help others.  I wasn’t sure in what capacity but knew that I felt a greater sense of accomplishment and fulfillment through helping others.  This volunteer trip confirmed my passion of wanting to devote time, energy and efforts to helping others – either locally or half way across the world.  Each of us volunteers were passionate about different social causes – immigration/refugees, poverty, workers’ rights, children, food and health access etc.  Throughout our trip, we committed to putting our passion into action now and long-term.

Self-discovery is an interesting path. Finding what drives you and motivates you will bring about a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Lesson #6: Never take anything for granted.

No accessible water, no electricity, no medicine, poor housing and a daily struggle to feed, house, clothe, educate their families.  We joined the local mamas on their water walk – completing only a small portion of their daily commute to fetch clean water.  The long distances they travel, the heavy jerry cans they carry home – sometimes up to 5 times per day was unchartered territory for us.  The ten days had a profound impact on how we viewed the things we take for granted – water, electricity and yes, wifi!  After ten days of camping, coming home to clean shower facilities with warm water and running taps was overwhelming.  I realized it’s these things that we see as a necessity but are considered a luxury in other parts of our world.

Take a moment to appreciate the simple things. Walk away from your office, desk, daily mundane tasks and consciously take in your surroundings.  You can find the silver lining in everything.

Lesson #7: Authenticity, genuineness and kindness are magnetic.

Connecting with others is not dependent on speaking the same language but rather demonstrated through actions.  Being authentic, genuine and kind attract others to you and helps you to not only immerse yourself in deeper human connections, but also more meaningful interactions.  Every member of our volunteer group was fully invested in the experience, opened their hearts and minds to their surroundings including the new culture, language, people and landscapes.  This authenticity and genuine interest in others was magnetic.  The locals reciprocated with the warmest hospitality.  I left Tanzania with newfound friendships and connections.

Approach all interactions with authenticity and genuineness.  This will lead to increased connectivity, deeper and more meaningful communication and interactions.

Picture above: Special moments with mamas who so kindly invited me and others to their daughter’s wedding.

Lesson #8: We are all more alike than different.

 “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Wise words from Maya Angelou.  We travelled across the world, over 20 hours of flying, over 3 hours of bus trips to get to our destination.  Yet once there, the humbling fact was that we are more alike than we are different.

  • We work hard to fulfill our basic needs of food, water, shelter, education.
  • We care about our family and friends.
  • We want to belong and connect with others.
  • We all aim for success and greatness in our own right.
  • We take pride in our accomplishments.

Our journeys may look different, but our quest to live the best life possible transcends all boundaries.

Lesson #9: Be a good global citizen.

Muhammed Ali once said “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”.

It’s easy in our daily routine to get stuck in just our immediate surroundings.  There’s so much else out there.  So many places to go, people to meet, cultures to immerse yourself in, stories to hear … Offering a helping hand to our local communities and global communities is not only self-fulfilling but also contributing to the betterment of the communities in which you serve.  We are faced with social issues that are on both a local and global scale.  Show compassion and be kind.  Two important traits I choose to live by and instill in my children.

Treat others the way you wish to be treated.  It’s as simple as that!

Lesson #10: Every experience can be a powerful lesson.

Oprah Winfrey said “No experience is ever wasted.  Everything has meaning.”  This trip taught me many important lessons – ten of which are captured in this blog.  The people I met in the remote areas of Arusha, unknowingly gave me the greatest gift of all.  That was a renewed sense of passion and mission.  My Ikigai is more in balance.  A trip that has changed my life forever.

Ten important lessons in ten days.  I’m already planning the next volunteering adventure … you in?

Sofia Arisheh

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