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The People Who Spark Joy

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

By Rachel Jones, Associate Country Leader, Djibouti

A few years ago, Marie Kondo’s organizing principle of touching everything in your house and keeping only those objects which “spark joy” was all the rage in the USA. Over the past few months in Djibouti, Tom and I have touched every single object in our house as we packed and prepared to leave the country after more than 20 years in the Horn of Africa. I spent hours dividing items into “keep”, “sell”, “toss”, and “give away” piles. Books, kitchen supplies, local handicrafts, books, our children’s collections of mementos (how many seashells and volcanic rock do kids need?!), more books. Some of it sparked joy, some of it we were thrilled to get rid of (i.e., half of the seashells).

But as I packed and sorted, I was continually struck by the people my mind naturally associated with so many of our belongings. And while some items sparked a bit of joy, it was these human beings, the relationships and the memories, that eventually moved me to tears.

REI's Djibouti Team 2018

Leading the REI work here for so many years has given Tom and I the immeasurable privilege of investing deeply in the personal and professional lives of REI staff and local coworkers and friends as we worked to build people to build their nation.

Here are some of the memories that spark joy.

I touched a chair and remembered one of our young staff sitting there. I announced that staff lunch would be a waffle bar and she burst into tears out of pure delight. One of our greatest joys has been investing in young people as they develop a vision for their lives.

I touched a book, When Helping Hurts, and remembered the discussion, debate, challenge, and growth toward holistic work this book caused in our trainings. We can always do better, and want to keep growing.

I touched a bread pan and remembered the Djiboutian women I taught how to make banana bread, and who taught me how to make lahooh, a local flat bread. Food, a tie that binds.

I touched our box of sports equipment and remembered the tennis coaches, judo masters, football trainers, swimming lesson and Somali dance class teachers, the all-girls running club I’d helped launch. There’s nothing like a sweaty workout in already-sweaty Djibouti!

I touched an old Djiboutian Ministry of Education Handbook and remembered Tom’s coworkers, the professors who hosted us for holiday dinners and helped us navigate a new university culture, the Djiboutians serving on the board of directors of The International School of Djibouti, the hundreds of students who have come through Tom’s classes. So many who welcomed and partnered with us well.

Tom & two ISD staff members

I touched our pile of language learning materials and remembered the laughter with tutors as we fumbled through French and Somali, tangled up verbs, and said things like, “Yes, I will marry your husband!” by accident.

Many of our items we passed to coworkers and the next country directors, the next school director, and friends. But even more than our items, our hope is that this next generation will take up and continue our work of building, continue growing, continue experiencing the joy of investing in people. They will press on in their own way, with their own skills and gifts, and we are excited to see what sparks joy for them and what the next season has in store for REI in Djibouti.

Rachel and a friend

The Jones are returning to the U.S. this month after serving in Somalia and Djibouti for twenty years. Among other things, at the request of the government, they started the International School of Djibouti, providing world class education for local and expat students. The school has grown from 6 students in 2016, to 104 enrolled next semester. The Jones are currently determining their next adventure.

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