I recently began reading a book called Kabul Beauty School, written by Deborah Rodriguez. The book tells of her experiences in post-Taliban Afghanistan where she trained women to perm, highlight, cut and dry their way to self-sufficiency in that war-torn country. Kabul Beauty School brings back all kinds of memories for me, not only about my days spent volunteering in post-war Nicaragua but also about my experiences - sad, funny and bittersweet - as a cosmetology student whose punk aesthetic spelled her doom.
What makes Deborah Rodriguez's book so compelling is the apparent absurdity of her decision to go to Afghanistan in the first place. The lone beautician among a team of doctors and dentists who had gone to provide aid, one can only assume that her presence there must have had a few people scratching their heads. I remember feeling that same way in Esteli, Nicaragua when my efforts to work on a farm and a construction site made me wonder if I had anything to offer the people I was trying to help. On the construction site, I'd sent a bunch of bricks tumbling down the side of a hill and on the farm I sprouted blisters after about half an hour of hoeing. I was supposed to be removing weeds from a vegetable garden but I didn't know a weed from a plant and I killed about equal amounts of each.
Fortunately, I soon found out (like Deborah) that we all have something to offer. I was pulled off manual labor and ended up doing some much needed translation, assisting at a Salvadoran refugee arts cooperative and working with Nicaraguan teachers in their classrooms, all areas that played to my strengths.
Like me, Deborah was initially asked to do work ill-suited to her abilities. She took blood pressure readings for the medical professionals until she realized that her real value to the Afghan women was her skill in cosmetology. The beauty salons in Kabul had been shuttered by the Taliban, who controlled every aspect of women's lives, down to the details of their personal grooming. The women who formerly ran the salons had lost their way of earning a living. Deborah's decision to start a beauty school, when taken in the context of the social and political situation in that country, becomes an act of courage and a means to empower other women.
Video: Deborah Rodriguez Shares Her Experiences in Afghanistan in "Kabul Beauty School." http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m2ZRCFOEW2ZDX2
These days, I'm a stay-at-home mom with no time to run off and break bricks in foreign countries, but I still volunteer at my daughter's school, and this year I've also signed up to volunteer at Phoenix's own version of Comicon. I'm not building houses, giving kids new smiles or saving lives, but I am doing what I can and it feels good to do it. In fact, it seems as if my whole family has been inspired by the unusual situation we find ourselves in (living in different states) and has been doing a lot of volunteering lately. My husband worked at the Houston Food Bank this week, helping to fill and seal plastic bags with over two tons of rice that will be distributed to hungry families. He’s also been working adoption fairs for homeless puppies with an organization called The Pup Squad. My daughter volunteers at the library and helped them raise several hundred dollars at a book sale last weekend. All of us are convinced that these experiences enrich our lives. That's the funny thing about volunteering, you never feel like you're giving, you feel like you're getting.
When I left Nicaragua, I knew I'd had an experience I'd never forget, one that would change my view of the world forever. That continues to be true. I try to remember that what we do best is often what we enjoy most, so I don't worry so much about not being able to build houses. I have my own set of talents, my own wealth to share and I'm going to share it.