Normality Amongst Abnormality
An early rise, rewarded with views of the breathtaking Mt. Kilimanjaro, coupled with the blazing heat from the powerful African sun and a soothing breeze that drifted down from the mountain. The exchange of smiles and handshakes, shared with sincerity and meaning, despite a language barrier and no audible exchange of words. A warm welcome home, after a long day of work, from a loud and bustling household full of good food, stories, and hearty belly laughs. Standing proudly amongst a room-full of young women, encouraging and empowering them to fight for equality and justice, hearing their dreams of a future in which they can make choices for themselves, and watching them start to believe in their abilities and love who they are.
These are some of the memories that I miss every day. Memories I wouldn’t trade for the world. Memories I would choose to revisit and relive over and over again if I had a time machine. They became such a normality amongst the abnormality of a new environment, culture, and experiences.
It’s been two months since returning to the UK, and, without fail, I can still experience each flashback of nostalgia with perfect clarity.
Living and working in Kenya was an experience like no other. From working with traditional Maasai communities and teaching them important knowledge and life skills, to making chapattis with my Kenyan Mamma and learning to speak Swahili, each day slowly changed my life in one way or another. I’d be lying, however, if I said that every second was easy. Culture shock was definitely something I experienced. Its pretty much inevitable when moving to a country with a completely different language, temperature, environment, living conditions, customs and expectations.
One of the challenges I struggled with the most was the language barrier. Often, it was no problem at all, and I would either get a Kenyan volunteer to translate for me or just ignore the fact that I had no clue what was going on. However, there were times I felt isolated because of my inability to understand Swahili. For example, in the host home — being the only person unable to understand what my family was laughing hysterically at did make me feel excluded at times. To overcome this, I had to adjust my way of thinking. And, with time, I found that I no longer felt left out or worried they were talking about me, but instead used it as a way to learn more Swahili by guessing what the conversation was about. So, despite there being challenges in my adjustment to living in Kenya, I can say that, without a doubt, the highs greatly outweigh the lows, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
A Normal Week
Twelve weeks flew by in a busy blur, with so much happening that I wish I had kept a journal of all the tiny details of my days there. With just Sundays off, the rest of the week was packed with school visits, women’s skill building classes, community outreaches, writing weekly newsletters, and managing our team’s social media sites (as I was a member of the media committee). However, no two weeks were the same, and there was always something new to experience, a new project to get stuck into, or a new challenge to overcome. Consequently, I found that, within me, there was always a constant hum of excitement and curiosity at what was to come. And at times, it was tiring, yes. But overall, I enjoyed being busy, and the rewarding feeling of accomplishing so much. Seeing the impact our work was making, was the driving force that kept me going!
VSO’s work in Loitokitok, Kenya, focuses on bringing about a positive change to disadvantaged communities, with a focus on improving the access to and quality of education. As VSO says, “Knowledge is power,” and this is something that my team and I focused our development work on — we aimed to empower communities with knowledge and skills that would enable them to bring about sustainable changes within their own lives. Changes that would continue for generations and result in a stronger, fairer, and more inclusive community.
Over the three months, I had the pleasure of working in many different schools, within a range of communities. During these visits, my team and I conducted peer education sessions with large classes of students, on topics that they don’t have access to within their schools or at home. We covered subjects such as self-confidence, gender equality, accepting diversity, peer pressure, stress management, HIV & AIDS, child marriages, early pregnancy, contraception, sexual health, mental health, healthy living, female anatomy and the menstrual cycle, making reusable sanitary towels, gender based violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, relationships, hygiene, first aid, climate change, the importance of education and staying in school, career choices, and business skills. Through equipping Kenya’s youngest generation with knowledge on these important topics, we believe that each individual now has the ability to change both their future and the future of their country. By inspiring young girls to fight for gender equality; by empowering young men to encourage their sisters, partners, mothers, and daughters to go for their dreams, enter politics, or start their own businesses; by addressing and breaking down the stigma surrounding illnesses, disabilities, and differences; my team and I have challenged thousands of young Kenyans to fight for a country of equality and reduced poverty.
Teaching business skills to traditional Maasai women was another big part of an ordinary week for me. Through translated conversations, facilitated by my Kenyan team mate, I was able to help teach a group of twenty-two women about business skills, the importance of saving, and book keeping when running a business. We also helped them set up a bank account with Kenya Women Finance Trust Bank, and worked alongside county government officials to get them access to a space within the local market to sell their business products. Furthermore, we taught them useful life skills such as first aid, soap making, spraying homes for bed bugs, and making fly traps. Through teaching these, we aimed to improve the quality of life for these women and their families, as well as giving them the tools to work towards building a brighter and more sustainable future for themselves.
Through these weekly session, I learned that Maasai women carry out a very traditional role within the household — cooking, cleaning, and raising children are their main responsibilities. However, there are some women who have begun seeking their own job opportunities, in order to reduce the dependency they have on their husbands. This is something we were encouraging, because a rise in equal working opportunities and a reduction of women’s dependency on men will increase their worth within society and the economy, furthermore increasing gender equality. Yet, although this sounds achievable over time, it is crucial that the men are also educated on the positive effects of female education and empowerment. This is due to reports of increased domestic violence following women’s attempts to achieve independence and equality. Therefore, this is also something my team and I worked to address too.
Additional events that we put on throughout the three months were community outreaches, community action days, and active citizenship days. For community outreaches, we visited marginalised communities to teach them vital life skills that will help improve their standards of living. For example, teaching mothers first aid, which we decided to run due to the tragic death of a local child which took place during our time in Loitokitok. Community action days involved large scale events, in which we reached out to hundreds of people to raise awareness on topics that are internationally recognised, such as International Women’s Day and World Health Day. Finally, active citizenship days happened once a week, where volunteers would run an educational talk on important topics that must be addressed in order to reach the sustainable development goals. For instance, gender equality, quality education, and sustainable agricultural practices were just a few. Seeing the hundreds of community members come together during these events was amazing, and my eyes were opened to the realisation of how big of an impact we were having on these individuals. It was through these moments that I received fresh revelations of how important development work is, and how much of an impact our actions can have on the lives of those in need who are lucky enough to receive it.
Although development work was the focus on my trip, I was blessed with other aspects that made my time away so insanely special. Having an amazing host family, being a part of an incredible volunteer team, and receiving continual support from family and friends at home were some things were so important to me during my three month placement. Also, a special part of my ICS journey was falling in love with the work I was doing, and having the realisation that I wanted to make this a part of my everyday life. And that its something I could actually do!
Reverse culture shock
Returning home from Kenya was, in fact, a step that I could’ve delayed for another few months…I was so sad to leave and felt so at home there. The goodbyes were emotional to say the least. I cried a lot. My mamma cried a lot. Us volunteers all cried a lot. And, to make the send off even more emotional, I was blessed with some gorgeous gifts — an amazing traditional Maasai shucka and earrings from my mamma, a stunning piece of Kenyan artwork from my grandma, and my counterpart, Monica, gave me her own necklace so I could always remember her. So, after copious hugs, more hugs, and even more hugs, we set off on our last drive through the giraffe laced African desert, wondering what we would all do without each other’s constant company in the UK.
A moving floor? Why do airports need a moving piece of floor, right next to a perfectly good other piece of floor? — My first thought when stepping into Heathrow Airport.
In all honesty, struggling to adjust to the Western way of life was something I didn’t expect. But reverse-culture-shock is so real. I remember getting internally angry as I watched a woman loose her temper in a supermarket queue, just a day after I’d returned. I had to hold back my annoyance at her ungratefulness for even being able to be in the shop, let alone afford the amount of things she was buying. A few days later, I caught myself being completely shocked by a woman throwing her half-eaten food onto the floor, which her son then proceeded to copy and do with his own.
“There’s people who can’t afford food,” I muttered under my breath.
It was acts like this that really made me notice a difference between the attitudes of people around me…as well as my own! I was starting to notice little things that I never would’ve noticed before, things that were now shocking me and making me question myself and how much I take for granted. It was a big eye opener.
Now, two months after leaving Kenya, I would like to say that I am more aware of appreciating things I never would have before. I remind myself when doing the mundane, ordinary things such as getting on a bus, buying myself a coffee, going to the beach, or even expressing my opinion within a conversation. Each are things that some people will never get the chance to do; they shouldn’t be taken for granted.
My experience has inevitably given me a new perspective on life. It was from the revelation that even the smallest of actions can have the largest of impacts, that I realised the importance of the decisions I make in life and how they impact others. And this realisation has caused me to think more carefully about each choice I make.
So, with this being said, I urge anyone reading this to notice how their actions can impact others. Every little thing you do has a consequence, and I pray that you would use your actions to better both yourself and those around you. Maybe that means volunteering with VSO? Maybe that means cutting down on single use plastic? Maybe that means petitioning for what you believe in? Or maybe it’s just being more aware of your influence in the world?
Life’s too short to sit around and let the world fall apart right in front of our eyes. Lets do something about it.
If you are interested in volunteering with VSO, and you’re between the ages of 18-25 (to volunteer) or 23-35 (to volunteer as a team leader), you can apply online — https://www.vsointernational.org/volunteering.