It’s Never Too Late to... Discover the World (and Help It)

Leila Al-Maeena packed up her life and moved to Kenya
Tuesday , 12 July 2011
Leila Al-Maeena
Leila Al-Maeena
Leila with the school kids in Kenya
Leila with the school kids in Kenya

Think you’re too stuck in your ways to change direction? As this Dubai woman proves, you can enter a whole new world whenever you want.

Saudi-born Leila Al-Maeena, 33, was tired of her life in Dubai and wanted to see a different side to the world, leading her to pack up her things and travel to a remote village in Kenya.

“Last year was a difficult time for me. Changes were happening at work and I was going through some relationship problems and everything felt so unstable that I just wanted to feel excited by something again. I felt I really wasn’t where I was meant to be in life and that something drastic had to happen soon.

The idea of going abroad came about when my friends and I went to a meditation class. But instead of meditating, I was struck by the story the class instructor told us about her time in Kenya. Sitting in our meditation poses, she told us about the people there and what it was like to live with no modern conveniences. After the session, I approached her to find out more about volunteering in Kenya. She explained that she and her business partner had set up a non-profit organisation that helped to pair up people with volunteer missions, doing anything from helping to teach in schools in Africa to agricultural projects. I knew it was what I’d been looking for. After making an initial payment of Dhs5,500, which went towards the village, but also included my accommodation, food and travel to and from Nairobi, I told my boss I was going on a 10-day trip. Two weeks later, in August 2010, I was on the plane with my grumbling 17-year-old brother whom I’d dragged along with me. I wanted to show him a different world from the one he was used to in Saudi.

We’d been paired up with a school expansion project and with a host family who lived 10 hours outside  Nairobi, in a remote town near Kilgoris. When we arrived I was a little shocked by how grimy and busy the city was, but as we travelled on a bus outside the city outskirts, we saw some of the most spectacular views and scenery I’d ever seen in my life.

We were greeted in Kilgoris by our host, Emanuel Tasur who was also the founder of Sirua Aulo Academy – the school we were volunteering at. Our home for the duration was a round stone hut set on the same land as our host’s and had a wall running through it with bunk beds on either side. There was no running water or electricity and we washed with a bucket of cold rain water. It was a far cry from what I’d grown up with in Saudi. However, we soon got used to it and being away from technology and going back to primitive means made us realise how much we take for granted back home – like a sink and hot water.

We started each day with a banana, followed by a 20-minute walk to the school, where we’d be greeted by gorgeous, happy children. The school housed around 100 children, aged between four and 14. The teaching days lasted around six hours and we’d tutor the children, teaching them maths and history, or help with building an extension for the dorm rooms where they slept.

Our evenings were spent with our host’s family, where Tasur would regale us with stories about the Masai tribe that he was from. Again, I was struck by how contented they were with such simple lives.

When I got home, I couldn’t believe how much I’d changed. Before, life was ‘all about me’ – but Kenya opened my eyes to the plight of others. Now, whenever I have a bad day, I remember how happy the people were with just the basics around them. I’m planning to visit a new territory each year now. Nothing puts things into perspective better than getting out of yourself and experiencing a more challenging life.”