I Do This Because: Milli Chennell

by Milli Chennell on July 5, 2012

Ed Note: “I Do This Because …” is a series of guest essays on this site by adventurers, entrepreneurs, and brave explorers of experience, uncharted territory, and life. As the title indicates, the essays offer the authors’ reflections on why they chose the path they did, and why they continue on that path, despite all the challenges, costs, and discouraging moments that come with any uncharted adventure.

For more information on the origins of the “I Do This Because” essays, see my own entry. And, as always, if you know of anyone you think would make a good guest essayist, or have your own answer to why you’re pursuing the particular, challenging path you’re pursuing, please share it!

About the Author

Milli Chennell Milli Chennell is a volunteer Peace Corps worker who is just finishing up two years of living in a small village on the island of Fiji, in the South Pacific. That might sound like paradise but, as she relates, working in a poor village on Fiji is a very different experience than staying in a beach resort. However, this is not the first experience Milli has had, living outside the United States. She was raised in McMinnville, Oregon and got her commercial pilot’s license there, but she lived in Germany as a child, lived in Costa Rica following college, and then spent 15 months teaching English in Japan. Before joining the Peace Corps, she’d worked as a caterer, chef, waitress, tutor, teaching assistant, airplane mechanic, and watershed manager.

“I could probably be described as having a wanderlust, rather than a thirst for adventure,” she says–although anyone following a passion for wandering and exploring the world is almost guaranteed to find adventure, whether they’re looking for it or not.

What will she do when she leaves Fiji next month? She says she’s interested in solving environmental problems and working in international development. But really, she says, what’s next, at this point, is … “The Unknown.”

Her adventures, in other words, are far from over.

For more information on Milli and her work and life in Fiji–including some great photos–visit her blog.

I Do This Because …

ana-and-bu-drinking-coconut…of smiles.
Of children understanding.
Of women excited to do something for themselves.
Of youths thanking me for an opportunity.
Of officials knowing someone is helping these people, too.
Of expats who are amazed by our dedication and perseverance.
Of men who know change has to come.
Of people who will remember me for helping.
Of Americans who don’t have the courage, or opportunity but wish they did
Of the world that needs people to understand one another
And because if I didn’t, I would have failed my own commitment to myself and to everyone else I’ve helped show that there is another way; that they can do it, that they are cared for and that there is someone willing to do the hard jobs.

This morning, like many of you, I woke up, had breakfast, fit in a workout, cleaned up and went to work.

For me–though–work is quite a changeable thing. One day it might mean leading an aerobics class and attending the workshop on how to make virgin coconut oil that I encouraged the women’s group to hold. Another day it could be sitting on a veranda preparing pandanus leaves for weaving.  And some days, it’s enough just to get the laundry washed and on the line before making lemon muffins to share with people in the village.

Weaving

This is the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in Fiji. My life. It is in turn frustrating, boring, confusing, lonely, tedious and slow. But I do it. I do it because it’s rewarding.

The first three months were hard. Who am I kidding? The first NINE months were hard! I couldn’t find my place in the village, I had no idea what I was supposed to be accomplishing, and I just watched from afar as friends back home got married, had babies, changed and grew. I felt like I was stagnating. But every so often something happened to make it worth it, like dressing up for Halloween and teaching the kids to carve pumpkins, celebrating Diwali (the Hindi festival of lights), or being chosen as a bridesmaid for a village wedding. Those days, few and far between, would bring my spirits up for a while. But soon I’d be back to wondering why I was here.

And then, miraculously, after eight months, something happened. I don’t know how or why, but things started falling into place. I had a project–or two or three–to work on, the women’s group started working closely with me, and I found Laite, my champion, without whom I couldn’t get anything done.

Bread OvenThat isn’t to say everything’s easy now. But at least I have a target. The EASIEST thing I do is teaching aerobics–something I have NO experience in. And even that doesn’t pan out sometimes–there are days when half the village is attending a funeral or when it’s a good day for fishing and aerobics gets put on the back burner. More complex projects are exponentially harder–like building a bread oven when the men doing the work refuse to follow the (very detailed and self-explanatory) plan. Or even setting a date for the virgin coconut oil workshop that was originally supposed to happen six months ago.

This is what I want to leave these people: the empowerment to do what they want to do and the knowledge that they can do it themselves if they want to. I want to build the capacity of the women in the village so that they have the space, the resources, and the mindset to reach for their goals. But–man–sometimes I want to quit. Sometimes I go straight home from a frustrating meeting where I only half understood what was going on, but it was clear that NOBODY got what I was saying. I shut the door, flop on the bed and try to convince myself that it doesn’t matter. I’m not the one who decides, it’s not my project, it’s not my village, it’s not my life. For the most part, it works. It’s how I’m able to keep doing this–keep waking up and going to work. Because if you feel like giving up, what you have to do is give up your expectations, give up your attachment to the end result, but don’t give up trying.

Kites

On the other hand, the challenge makes it even more rewarding. Imagine what it’s like to bake bread for the first time in an oven you had to agonize over. Imagine the looks on the women’s faces, imagine the pride they’re feeling when they realize they’ve done something that at one time seemed impossible–and that they did it themselves. All I did was encourage, guide and help them find motivation. Imagine the doors that open–the sense that they can do anything if they try hard. Of course it’s fun to prance around in aerobics class–hey–maybe it’ll help raise awareness about healthy lifestyles and prevention of heart disease and diabetes. Compare that, though, with the satisfaction of having submitted an application (written by the village women) for funding of a new Women’s Resource Center and (hopefully) eventually receiving the funding! Every step on the way to submitting the application there were trials; the quote the carpenter gave wasn’t applicable to the project, for instance. But every time we meet an obstacle with ingenuity and find the ability to overcome it, the women I work with are more empowered.

This is why I do what I do. This is why I’m here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rdt7 07.10.12 at 6:14 am

Milli, this is an excellent and honest essay. You are so right that you do this for the many Americans who can’t or won’t do it - myself included.

One thing I’m sure of: these people you are helping will remember you forever.

2 Claudia 07.23.12 at 9:29 am

Bula Mili!! Really nice enrty!!! Ia…Leaving in am month?! Why are you leaving early?? It hasn’t been 27 months yet…?

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