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The idea of ‘helping’ is an interesting and abstract concept; one that before felt much more black and white. It’s my reason for being here. Before arriving, the idea of helping felt simple. I came with drive and a willingness to help. I told myself that no matter the size of the impact, if I could just make a small difference in an individual life, that would be enough. I came with a personal willingness to put in the effort, which before seemed enough to fulfill the mission of the project.

Now, being about halfway through my time here in Cabo Verde, I have uncovered some nuances and intricacies of service and helpfulness. Effort is not a one-way street. I feel the irony in coming somewhere to help, but not holding the skill set to adequately help alone.

We have been working in the mornings at a children’s camp through the university in Cabo Verde. My specific age cohort is 5-6-year olds, where I work alongside local university English students to teach the kids bits of English and create hands on projects they can bring home.

Despite taking language classes while being here, my capacity to communicate is very limited and only existent in the memorization of a few key words and phrases. With that, my ability to communicate with kids was a barrier from the start. How can I contribute anything meaningful to these kids when I don’t understand them? How could I help them learn when the fundamentals of most of our interactions are over exaggerated gestures and confusion?

We have designated our class animal as a bee, meaning that we refer to our students as buzzing bees and decorate our class with pictures of these little creatures. On the second day of our class, we decided that the kids would make little bees out of hearts. We cut out the hearts and gave them to each student and helped them as they glued the pieces together. A little girl came up to me and mumbled some words I didn’t understand. I looked down to see that she was holding her bee and holding an open notebook. She repeated a word I don’t understand a few times before pointing to her bee and pointing back at the notebook. I grabbed some glue and pasted the bee into her notebook, hoping that’s what she wanted. She then handed me a pencil and gestured to her notebook. I took the pencil and wrote out ‘bee’ and said the word as I wrote it. She began to mumble ‘thank you’ in Krioulu before stopping herself and finishing the phrase in her best English.

Sometimes I’m nervous I’m somehow hurting the children by making them feel misunderstood. My biggest fear is making the children feel worse leaving than when they came, harboring feelings of frustration and defeat. But, despite my gentle nods of confusion that I offer with a smile so they know my puzzlement isn’t purposeful, they smile back towards me. They offer me hugs and the cutest, sweetest ‘good morning’ I’ve ever heard in my life. They continue to repeat things slowly to me, comically overstate their words, and point at what they want. Just like the little girl, they are willing to help me understand and explain things the best way they know how.

I have learned that what I can provide is so dependent on the willingness of others to first help me. Helping is a partnership, where each side plays a crucial role. Without the effort, aid, and kindness of the Cabo Verdean people, I would have nothing to offer.