I was very little, but I remember like it was yesterday, the afternoons after school when my brothers and I would sit in the back seat of the car and look at that big pot, bigger than us. It took up almost the entire trunk of the car and smoke came out of it with a very good smell. We took care of this pot with affection so that nothing happened. We were bodyguards for something very valuable. That was the soup that would feed many people in the community. There were soups, distribution of food, clothes, visits, support, conversations, organization of parties and solidarity Christmas. I had the privilege of growing up in communities, social projects and more than that: in the midst of people who taught me a lot about life.
I don't remember any moment in my life when I didn't do social action. And as an adult, every day I became more and more interested in helping others and understanding how non-governmental organizations worked. It was with this curiosity that I began to participate in the volunteer selection processes of larger NGOs, such as Make a Wish and História Viva.
On the day I presented my thesis in graduate school, I got the maximum grade and also graduated as a storyteller at História Viva. It was such an important and happy day. In that same order: important for having the highest score on the final paper and happy at the Institute's graduation party. It was during the visits I made to hospitals and nursing homes, where I transformed elderly stories into children's stories to take to children in hospitals, that I realized that volunteering had transformed my life. Among all the social actions I did, I worked and studied, but the social was the most important: it was what fulfilled me, it was where I found great friendships and found myself in the world.
But it was in 2011 that everything began to change more intensely. In my process of self-discovery, I went on a trip and chose to stay the entire month of my work vacation in Cuba. At the time, traveling to Cuba was crazy. After a month without the internet, listening to stories and experiencing that country, I was not the same Mariana again. And so, right after that, I felt the need to take another vacation and get involved in that way again.
So I decided to volunteer in a place other than Brazil, for one simple reason: I've always believed that we are all one, that love has no borders and that we're only fine if everyone is. I wanted to understand and experience, in different places, how people in vulnerable situations lived and what they had to teach me. Because I've learned, since that time when the soup was distributed, that it's people who teach me about life.
On this second trip, I chose Guatemala. The first two days in Antigua, I just cried. Visited church and cried like a baby. I had no idea why I was crying so much, but the fact was, after 25 days of teaching English to the shepherd community, I, once again, was not the same person. In Brazil, I spent four months in bouts of frequent crying. I didn't know what was happening, but I felt deeply that cycles in my life were coming to an end. I felt the immense need to change. Continuing to live my privileges and ignoring everything I've experienced was no longer a possibility.
I always enjoyed my work, but it just didn't fulfill me anymore. I had already lived so many transformative experiences, met so many people. Change was inevitable. I embraced my values and my whys, I faced my fears closely and understood that I needed to go further. And that's how I decided to quit my job and spend three months traveling around Southeast Asia. This desire of mine to travel to non-traditional places comes from the need to see life through the simple. I like to explore and live the everyday simplicity of a culture that is not mine, a place I don't know, a language I don't speak. It is through these experiences that I reflect and understand more about my own life. This is how I realize that our similarities are greater than our differences.
After this season in Asia, I decided to return to Brazil and the job market. I spent months looking for a job and was never called for an interview. Meanwhile, I did freelance photography for children and it was when, in 2014, I saw a photograph of Sudan on Instagram that deeply moved me. And, practically overnight, I decided that I needed to go to a country on the African continent. I just didn't think at the time that a woman traveling alone to that destination might not be so simple. And that I didn't have enough money for that. "Details".
With that big decision taken, I gathered my possibilities and in four months I made bingos, sold photographs I took in Asia and created a crowdfunding campaign with the objective of raising funds to help existing projects in Kenya and Uganda, on a trip that would last 2 months. I had a successful campaign and managed to raise the money I needed for this new adventure. A friend decided to travel with me at the last minute and we rented an apartment to spend a month in Kenya - negotiated through Facebook, the first act of courage and trust. I bought the ticket and on April 1, 2015 I arrived in Nairobi, believing that this would be another volunteer trip and that after a month in Kenya I would go to Uganda.
And as you might have guessed, I still don't know Uganda.
Everything changed when I arrived in the community of Kabiria, which is located in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. I got to know this community through a local project and on my first day there I knew that my plans were going to change. It was talking to people there that I understood that public education was not free - and that this made it practically impossible to break the cycle of poverty. Uneducated and very hungry, the children were on the street, dreaming of going to school. And I, who studied my whole life in public school, was grateful for the opportunity to be Brazilian and couldn't help thinking, every moment, what I could do. That reality shook me to the core. I cried and prayed thinking that going back to Brazil, to my life of privilege, was unfair. But at the same time I thought: who am I to do something?
Faced with that reality, I surrendered and let my heart guide me. And with the amount I collected for the trip, I decided to rent a space in the community, buy a stove, chairs, plates and spoons. All this within a month of arriving. And that's how, on May 5, 2015, Hai Africa was founded. I get goosebumps just remembering how it all happened. It was so intense, I was so scared. But a month after opening, what was supposed to be a play space became a children's school. We had hired a teacher. Now, we were a school.
Almost six years have passed and my record still hasn't dropped. Today Hai impacts and transforms the lives of more than 100 families. We have a team of people willing and dedicated to creating tools and all the necessary support for people in the community to be protagonists of their lives, stories and transformations. Today I have a family in Kenya who teach me what love is every day. I feel that I chose the right path, despite all the challenges involving social issues. Still, I followed my heart. I am fulfilled every day when I realize that, despite being a difficult journey, the power that blossoms in me blossoms in many lives. In this way, I find the strength to continue, transforming with love. And may that never change!