Drew Barrymore describes her enlightenment on a trip to war-torn Africa when the excesses of the Western way of life were suddenly brought into focus by the plight of thousands of children, victims of the seemingly endless military and political skirmishes that plague the continent. She describes the joy of discovering that “doing something the best you could was better than cowering at the vastness of it” and not letting the perfect get in the way of the possible. Taken from her recent book, Wild Flower, she gives us all the inspiration that we can make a difference in other lives if we can just recognize our humanity and make a start.
The refugee camp was huge. Our bunks were in a fenced-in secured makeshift UN compound, with tiny concrete structures, about ten by ten feet, that each had a single cot and a small wooden table and lamp.
That’s it, and yet it was very hospitable.
Again, in comparison to what other people are living like, it is a great luxury. And you are well aware of every gift you get.
We were given dinner, Ethiopian food and a beer. Tusker beer. And we drank one under a tree that had falling bugs. They would cascade right down on your head. The bugs were so large that you would get up out of your folding chair and run at least ten feet, and everyone would laugh at you for getting so scared. But these bugs were the size of small bats, and I couldn’t help but flip out, even though they said they were harmless.
I will never forget that night. It was a moment to decompress and yet be accosted by giant raining insects.
The next day we got our start. I was on a tour of schools again, as I wanted to refine my dedication. Schools specifically are what I was passionate about, and they were a contained target. I felt like I could be effective there. It was ironic that I didn’t have school as my main priority in my own life, and was so moved by how these African kids fought to be here.
I would go to different ones and find out what they really needed. What they were lacking. And what it was that was making them thrive.
Some kids had to walk too far, and that made it dangerous or difficult. Villages that didn’t have water were a major issue. Schools that had a boarding aspect were more desirable in more desolate parts, and yet in the dense, overcrowded cities the problem was sanitation.
Again, it can get very overwhelming very quickly, but I went around for three weeks really studying what needed to be done.
The World Food Program introduced me to an Olympic athlete, Paul Tergat, who was a product of the school feeding program. It was because of the food he was able to train and have the energy to run, and because of the education, he understood what it was going to take to get himself to a place where he could have opportunity. He took me to his original school, and he and I planted a tree there. It was a very happy school with a little bit of land, and the kids were so vibrant and fun. We went to his old house nearby and I met his family.
It was amazing to now be working with someone who was proof of what was possible, and he had important things to say about how it all functions.
We moved on to several areas of Kenya. And I fell in love with the village of Kiltamany. I could see that building a borehole here would transform the entire place, and bring water where people had to walk at least five miles a day to fill up a small pitcher.
And there was a school, and lots of kids, and it seemed like a wonderful place to build upon. The people were so kind and informative. There was a community. And it affected me and made a lasting impression.
When I was leaving this time, I spoke very seriously to Ben and Lionello about what we could do first. How much it would cost, and what were the priorities.
First, it was money to sustain schools in the areas for a year. Then it was helping build these advanced boreholes, which brought water to places in need. Then it was consideration of building my own school and, if so, where.
Again, I had been to so many places at this point—where did I feel a connection to laying down a foundation that could be sustained and monitored?
It was a lot to process and I didn’t want to just give money and not see where it went, but I also understood that so much money was needed. How could I be most effective?
And when I went back to America, I went to the UN in New York and got my full ambassadorship. I worked with a woman named Bettina, and she and I planned out ways to bring awareness to the program. I got a UN passport, and it was the greatest day.
I felt so proud and excited to be part of a place with such meaning and effectiveness. And so I went out touring places on the World Food Program’s behalf and tried to get the message out.