31 reflections as I come home after 2 years in rural Kenya
Feature photo (left to right): Team Leader Alex Martin, Nuru Kenya Country Director Pauline Wambeti and Nuru International CEO Jake Harriman at Nuru Day on June 5, 2015, celebrating the milestone of expat exit.
“I’d rather drink a warm beer while being self-deprecating than a cold beer while being self-serious.” – Alexander Martin
Last night, I laid down in the wet grass outside my small cinder block house in remote rural Kenya and stared at the wine dark sky. I counted the stars and satellites passing through the night. They were many and bright. I reflected on the strength of the Kenyan farmers who had become my friends over the last two years and my excitement to return home to San Diego and jump into the cold Pacific Ocean. There is a sense of deep, rich satisfaction for accomplishing what we were charged to do when Nuru started in Kenya 7 years ago. I felt grateful to work for a place as inspiring as Nuru.
And so I drank a cold Tusker beer and stared at the edge of the Milky Way – thinking about all of its stars as huge masses of energy held together by invisible gravity – and also about big, faraway, complex things I’ll never fully understand. My thoughts then settled on life in rural, remote Kenya and what it’s like for those in neighboring regions still living in extreme poverty. I’ve learned about both galaxies and extreme poverty since living in rural Kenya and felt sad to be transitioning just as I was understanding more about both.
I was feeling the beer and remembered I hadn’t yet called my mom. She always taught me that honest, self-deprecating humor is key to a good life transition – and I was experiencing a big one! She also taught me that SHE is the one who brought me into this life and so SHE could take me out of it. Because I’m not quite ready to transition from either – this life or Kenya – I gave her a call. We laughed and she made fun of me and I made fun of her and then we got to the heart of the matter: my sadness about my current transition. She challenged me to think of this chapter’s end as just the beginning for Nuru Kenya and our farmers. The end of my team’s time in Kenya was – by deliberate design – always the plan. And this made perfect sense! Good (life-threatening and funny) mothers always do…
I woke up today feeling good. Dehydrated, but good. Because my past decade has included major transitions – including leaving the Marine Corps after 7 years of active duty service and joining Nuru International as Team Leader in Kenya – I’ve found it’s imperative to reflect on what has happened in order to transition well; and so I sat down to write one last reflection as Team Leader. Life is, afterall, a patchwork of interesting stories marked by transitions that can be meaningful if we simply give “the end” the attention needed for our next beginning. In that spirit, here are a few of my life lessons:
- Take more pictures. Savor more moments.
- Hold on tight and grow meaningful connections.
- Take risks. Seriously. Take more risks.
- When you’re tired and want to go to sleep…drink more coffee and get it done.
- Call your mom. Tell your dad you love him. And, tell your mom you love her too.
- Don’t be ashamed of your past. Be you.
- Read the greats. Read a lot.
- Talk long walks.
- Keep your house clean.
- Fall in love.
- Get up early. Work hard. Don’t complain. Be nice to people. Repeat.
- The sounds of rain on a tin roof is the perfect prelude to a great nap.
- Grief changes shape, but never ends.
- Sometimes…do the wrong thing for the right reason.
- Make a plan. Adapt it. Execute. Revise that plan. Execute.
- Learn the language of the people you work with.
- Always have a joke ready. Tell it often.
- Listen to music and sing along loudly.
- Build controls that keep honest people honest. Trust but verify.
- Believe in something bigger than yourself.
- Know the difference between sympathy and empathy.
- Know what you believe in. Have a personal vision statement.
- Character is a muscle. It’s gotta be exercised to grow.
- Be a problem solver. Hire people that solve problems. Scale those solutions.
- Manage with compassion.
- Listen to the advice of your team.
- As a leader, be ruthlessly enthusiastic and supportive of those you lead. Love them.
- The end-state of good leadership is strategic influence which enables action and results in positive impact. Period.
- Believe in your cause. Remain in relentless pursuit.
- The most important gift we can give each other is to recognize our search for meaning.
- Don’t be afraid of the transition, no matter how hard. It’s just the beginning…
These past two years have been the most enriching, challenging, humbling, rewarding, exhausting, captivating, exhilarating, just plain difficult and meaningful time of my life. I give sincerest thanks to Nuru staff past and present who have served on Foundation Teams, who likely feel this same way. As we expats leave, we are confident that the Nuru Kenya team will scale impact in a greater way than we ever could and in this way my heart feels light.
Somewhere between the complexity of a galaxy’s stars and the simplicity of a mother’s love, I discovered this truth:
Just because the universe is cold, dark, unforgiving and ambivalent, doesn’t mean WE need to be. And in that lesson is a simple call to action: do one small thing each day to make someone in your life – or a stranger not at all in your life – smile, breathe easy, laugh, feel protected or feel like they matter. Life can be as dark and hopeless for a human soul in San Diego as it can be in rural Kenya. Life’s meaning is derived from truly caring for your fellow human being. And so:
DO SOMETHING GOOD FOR SOMEONE ELSE.
Also, stare at the stars…and listen to your mother.
About Alex Martin
Team Leader, Kenya — Alex graduated with distinction from the US Naval Academy and went on to lead infantry, reconnaissance, and special operations units in multiple combat deployments. In July 2013, Alex was given the opportunity to join the Nuru family and to serve as a Foundation Team Leader in Kenya.Read More Stories of Hope