“We listen. We learn. We hear wisdom in the voice of the elders, and sometimes in the voices of children.”
By Christi Walter
For that reason, I recently sat down at a little coffee shop Walnut Grove with a former professor of mine who still inspires and challenges me. Ruth Anaya is Assistant Professor of Cross-Cultural & Leadership Communication & Development Studies at Trinity Western University and a current Ph.D candidate. Her days are abundantly full teaching and researching, while she’s also a wife and mother to two teenage boys. Still, she has another foot planted in a Kenyan village, worlds away from the Canadian suburbs.
Ruth is warm and sincere with fair skin, freckles and a smile that reaches her eyes. I won’t soon forget the first class I took of hers: a travel study to Guatemala. Since the best way to learn Cross-Cultural Communication is through personal experience, Ruth takes Trinity students to either Central America or Africa every year. The program is packed with hands-on learning. We explored the cities, spent a day learning a craft from local artisans and met people from all walks of life. Ruth imparted her passionate belief in the importance of relationship and communication in development work.
Ruth has been to over 30 countries and worked in Africa for several years. Since settling down in BC, she’s been back several times, both with her family and on her own. During her travels, Ruth and her family built a deep connection with the people of Muhanda, a village in Western Kenya.
“Their hospitality is absolutely amazing,” says Ruth.
Ruth and her husband Petra, a Kenyan native, were inspired to come alongside the village and help in any way they could. In 2009, they founded Hands On Development Initiatives (HODI), a non-profit dedicated to finding innovative ways for rural communities to end the poverty cycle.
The couple partner with a variety of people from business owners to government officials and more. Many of these people owe their success to the community’s generosity and are eager to give back. So far, HODI has given Muhanda access to clean water, opened a much-needed maternity clinic and created scholarships to help students complete their education.
Although Muhanda is one of the poorest places in Kenya, Ruth was struck by the radical hope, ingenuity and generosity of its residents. Her work with them has grown organically out of relationship; a symbiotic partnership. HODI’s website says, “We listen. We learn. We hear wisdom in the voice of the elders, and sometimes in the voices of children.”
It was by listening carefully that they learned about local AIDS orphans living with their grandparents, and were able to help them. “They were just destitute,” Ruth says. It’s the invisible ones HODI seeks out, she says. Those who can’t advocate for themselves. This is why they focus on projects that help the whole community thrive. ‘That way no-one gets left behind,” Ruth says, quietly but emphatically.
Ruth barely gave her coffee cup a glance as she talked animatedly about the village’s history. When Kenya was under colonial rule, the British didn’t see any economic advantage to educating girls, she explains, but the local missionaries believed in the value of educating women. Their school taught many Maragoli women, including some of Petra’s female relatives.
Hands-On Development Initiatives International is built on a similar ethos of equality and empowerment. After recognizing the brutal lack of care for women during pregnancy and childbirth, HODI is facilitating the construction of a maternity hospital. The best estimates show 14,700 Kenyan women and girls die from pregnancy-related complications every year, and the lack of maternal healthcare weighed heavily on this mother.
“Many of these women were giving birth with no help,” Ruth says. “They were dying from minor problems. No woman today should have to go through that.”
HODI is about holistic community collaboration, so Ruth and her family prefer to “stay in the shadows” as much as possible. They bring supplies every visit, but they give them to trusted community leaders who give them to people who need them most “We keep track of it all,” she says, “But we don’t ever want it to be ‘O, the Canadians are here.’ There’s a temptation toward heroism in situations like these, but that’s not what it’s about.”
For years, Ruth has ushered students out of the classroom and into radically different parts of the planet, to meet and learn from the people there. Today, several students and alumni intern and volunteer with her non-profit, taking part in this vital work of reconciliation. Ruth’s excitement and enthusiasm for building bridges between different cultures has led to deeply meaningful work.
I don’t mind telling you, it’s pretty contagious.
Find out more about HODI at www.hodiinternational.com
Christi has a Communications degree from Trinity Western University. She loves stories and feels privileged to have heard some truly incredible ones while interning at Childcare Canada. Christi hopes to figure out how she can best use her gifts to impact the world around her. Her greatest passions are writing and travel. She’s just come back from recent travels in Australia.
Photo credits: Christi, by Cecilia Flaming