One Month in Kenya

Arriving

I’ve been in Kenya for a month. I can’t quite believe it but it’s true. From meeting the rest of the voluntary team, settling into life with my host family, and starting work within the community, so much has happened in the time I’ve been here. I’ve been working alongside 17 other volunteers – 7 UK and 10 Kenyan – within schools and women’s groups in marginalised areas surrounding Loitokitok, Kenya.

Training

It all started in Nairobi, where the UK volunteers met the Kenyan volunteers who we’d be working with. In total, our team is made up of 8 UK volunteers, 10 Kenyan volunteers, and 2 team leaders. Following our attempts to sleep off the travel tiredness and being eaten alive by mosquitos, we all bundled into a bus, with our luggage hauled and strapped onto the roof, and set off for our in-country training. For this, we found ourselves at a place called ‘Teen Ranch’, where we got to know each other whilst receiving training on the work we would be undertaking over the next 3 months. 

The training was intense but valuable. Our team leaders and placement supervisor, Yvonne, taught us about life in Kenya, the culture and customs, introduced the 6 different areas/towns we would be working in — both schools and women’s groups  (teams of women that have come together to try and support themselves and each other through life and the running of personal businesses) — and how to assess them to find solutions to their problems. We also found out more about the major issues being faced in these areas, which include: FGM (female genital mutilation), child marriages, early school drop outs, HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, low self-esteem and confidence, lack of awareness, acceptance and support surrounding diversity and disability. With all of these problems being prevalent within the 6 placement areas (Loitokitok, Kimana, Entonet, Namelok/Isinet, Entarara/Illasit, and Rombo), our roles as VSO volunteers is to combat these issues by supporting, teaching, and empowering children and women, to equip them with the skills and knowledge to improve their lives.

Getting a Kenyan family  

Following training, all volunteers were matched with a ‘counterpart’ – a  volunteer of a different nationality who we’d be living with for the next 3 months. This was something I was nervous about, but I couldn’t have been more relieved when I was matched to Monica – we get on amazingly well!

Once we had our new sisters and brothers, we headed to our new home town, Loitokitok, via matatus (a Kenyan form of public transport, which looks like a ‘mini  bus’ to us UKs) to meet our host families.

My host family is lovely! I have a Mama (Mama Helen), 17 year old sister (Helen), and 10 year old brother (Colins). Here in Kenya, Mothers are referred to as ‘Mama’, often followed by the name of their first child. This is why, despite being called Carol, our Mama is known as ‘Mama Helen’. 

Kenyan living

Settling into the Kenyan way of life has taken some time. Interactions, respect, politeness, relationships, food, time-keeping, language, and many other things are very different to that in the UK. Even after a month, I’m still finding myself surprised by things on a daily basis, but being open minded and ready to learn is allowing me to adapt quickly. 

Living situations are very different here. After walking down a winding dirt path, which weaves it’s way through corn fields, I find myself faced with a large wall of corrugated iron, fashioned into a giant square. These are  the walls to my compound. Walking through a hole in the iron barrier, a small path appears lined with closely built houses. The houses are short and small, with brick or wooden walls and iron roofs. My house is at the end of the path, which means I always get a warm welcome home from the neighbours as I pass their open doors. 

Space within our home is limited, so Monica and I share a room. As do my host siblings. The bathroom is not so much a bathroom but a bucket in the corner,  hidden by a curtain. And the toilet is an outdoor drop toilet (a hole in the ground), shared by all the homes in my compound. To be honest, I really don’t mind the bucket showers and squat toilet. The hardest bit about it was finding the best way to wash my hair, which has led to me just sticking my head into the bucket like an ostrich. 

The kitchen is small, but my Mama has managed to make use of the space by hanging things from the walls and stacking pots like she’s playing Tetris. To cook, we use a gas canister with a single ring. And when we need to cook multiple things at once, we use a jiko – a small, portable stove fuelled by burning charcoal. My Mama is a great cook, and every night she loves to teach me as I help her prepare the food. 

The first month of work 

Working in Kenya is both one of the toughest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done. The extreme poverty I’ve seen here constantly breaks my heart, whilst the joy and kindness of the people absolutely overwhelms me. The placement location I work in is called Kimana. This town is about a 20 minute drive from where I’m living in Loitokitok, so travelling to work each day requires getting a taxi or a matatu (a type of Kenyan public transport). I work with two other volunteers – Maya (UK volunteer) and Joshua (Kenyan volunteer) – and together we are working to help solve the problems faced within the 3 schools and 1 women’s group. 

On each visit to the schools and women’s group, the welcome never fails to amaze me. At the school, children run to us, holding out their hands to be shaken or hi-fived, shouting ‘how are you?’ whilst giggling and smiling from ear to ear. Children from Maasai tribes offer their bowed heads to be touched — a sign of respect to someone older than themselves. The fascination with mzungu (white person) skin and hair never ceases to disappear, and I find myself being constantly prodded and stroked when I’m in reaching distance of any little hands. School teachers are just as welcoming, declaring that  it’s “a blessing to have visitors”. Similarly, at the women’s group I’m blown away by the kindness and hospitality. My team and I are taken into the small tin homes and offered fresh milk and tea, with the women wanting to spend time getting to know us despite the language barrier. 

Within the primary and secondary schools, my team and I have carried out multiple peer education sessions on different topics – hygiene, relationships, self-acceptance, healthy living (including mental health), peer pressure, bullying, career choices and goal setting . VSO believe that ‘knowledge is power’. Therefore, by teaching the children important information and skills, we are able to empower and encourage them to use what they’ve learnt to create a change in their own lives. Unlike leaving them with material objects, knowledge offers a sustainable change which can be passed on for generations. 

At the women’s group, we have been working with 22 Maasai women to help improve their running of personal businesses and the daily struggle of supporting their families. Teaching them business, marketing and sales skills has been vital in equipping the women with tools to benefit their businesses. In turn, this will hopefully increase their incomes and, therefore, enable them to more easily provide their families with food and send their children to school. 

Moving Forward

With 2 months left in Kenya, I know there’s a lot more excitement, adventures, and challenges to come my way. It’s been full of surprises so far, and I know they won’t be stopping any time soon. I’m excited to see what more we can do for our placement schools and women’s group. As a team, we have a lot planned and have high hopes for the positive changes we will bring about within each of them. So, here’s to the next 2 months…

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On Home Soil

Pre-placement preparation and internal thoughts.

Choosing to volunteer for VSO was an easy choice. After reading further into the work they do, I found out that VSO tirelessly strives to support and improve the quality of living in disadvantaged and poverty stricken communities all over the world. This is something I was so keen to be a part of. I wanted in. So I applied to volunteer for them. And that was just the beginning.

My journey with VSO began with an application. It was something I’d been mulling over for a long time; it was something I never really imagined would become a reality. I’ve submitted applications for voluntary organisations on multiple occasions, each time answering their replies with a blank stare of disbelief and a swift drag into my junk mail. It always felt like a huge commitment. One I  just couldn’t make. I would justify my rejection with ‘when would I go?’, ‘but I’m still in education’ and ‘it would just never happen’. So, when it came to my VSO application, I thought nothing of it. But with their first response, an invitation to an assessment day, I found myself unable to ignore their opening line: 

“Congratulations on taking your first step towards this once in a lifetime opportunity and challenging yourself to change your world.”

I was transfixed. This time, I couldn’t delete the email. I had to go, I just had to. So, I did.

Before I knew it, after responding to my invitation, I was travelling to London for an assessment day. It was an intense, day-long assessment and interview process, with around 30 other applicants joining me. The thought of this would normally be enough to make my stomach convulse like a hedgehog attempting to take cover within itself.  However, I felt excited. And the excitement didn’t ware off — meaning I loved every second of the endless group activities, discussions, and presentations that were hurled our way.

Following the assessment, within mere days, I received an email to congratulate me on being selected as a volunteer. I almost exploded with excitement! This was when I started to realise that I was actually doing it…after all those years of dreaming, I was finally seeing it come to life.

Next, I received details of my community placement location. Loitokitok, Kenya, it read. I squealed out loud. Since a young age, I’ve always had an interest in Kenya, with its Maasai community and exotic wildlife absolutely captivating me. So, the new reality of finally being able to visit stirred up 10 year old me’s uncontrollable elation. It was as if my whole childhood fascination and awe had been stored up in a jar and released all at once. I was SO ready for this! 

The next few months tumbled past in a blur. Fundraising, training, and more fundraising. It felt as thought I had both tonnes of time and no time at all. The fundraising part scared me. Firstly, because I knew nothing about fundraising and, secondly, because I hate asking people for money (even though it was for VSO and not myself). However, despite my nervousness, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I reached my £800 target, and continually found myself amazed by people’s generosity. Amid the fundraising, I had to go to London for a three-day-long pre-placement training. It was a jam-packed and hardcore learning experience, but one which left me even more passionate (I didn’t know that was possible) about the work I would be doing in Loitokitok, Kenya.

Throughout each training day, I learnt more about VSO, Kenya, and what my daily life on placement may look like. This ranged from gaining further knowledge about VSO’s extensive international work, to learning protective and practical skills I will be using on placement — for example, how to sterilise drinking water, how to make my own rehydration drink, and how to perfect the tricky toilet squat position for Kenyan ground-hole toilets. Yep…this involved twenty-one volunteers practicing their squats in a meeting room. All squatting aside, the most valuable thing this training has left me with is a greater understanding of our own ability to bring about change within our lifetime. What a way to motivate someone to fundraise and volunteer, eh? 

With training and fund-raising all complete, packing was my last step before setting off for Loitokitok, Kenya. This was when it finally started to sink in: I’m packing 5 million plasters (well, that’s what it felt like)? Okay then. Will 4 bottles of suncream be enough for my pasty skin? Probably not. It’s going to rain in Kenya?! Yep, I’d picked Kenya’s rainy season. 

As the time got closer and closer, I thought I’d start to get more nervous. But that was the opposite of how I felt — instead, I found myself getting more and more excited (the complete opposite to my parents’ growing worry). I was surprised, because I’d always thought of it as such a huge thing to do on my own, and expected the nerves to be piling up by the minute. However, I was enjoying it. I’d never felt so ready to do something so far out of my comfort zone. But maybe, I was beginning to realise, it was that my comfort zone was much wider than I’d thought. Maybe I’d forced the idea of my capabilities into a small box, because then I could always see them and know what I could and couldn’t do. Thats better than diving into something head-first, not knowing if I could do it, right? No. Whats the point in only trying something because you know you won’t fail? I guess you’d never be disappointed, you’d always know you’d succeed, and you’d probably find satisfaction in getting a job well done. But that would mean never pushing yourself to be the best you can be, never surprising yourself with abilities you didn’t know you had, and never feeling pride over completing something you struggled with. Its subjective, but I know which ones I prefer. 

So, with that realisation, I took on the journey to Kenya with the mindset of ‘I don’t know what I can do, but I’m going to try damn hard at whatever it is. And I’m going to enjoy every second of it’.

Challenge Yourself to Change Your World

3 months in Kenya with VSO.

Finding out that I’d been selected to volunteer with VSO on an International Citizen Service placement in Loitokitok, Kenya, was a moment I will never forget. Thrilled was an understatement. I’d been impatiently awaiting news from VSO, after attending an assessment day, hoping the email would greet me with the warming ‘congratulations…’ rather than the patronisingly sympathetic ‘I regret to inform you…’. Luckily, I received the former — I’d been accepted onto a 3 month volunteer placement, starting at the end of January (23/1/2019). Working with VSO is something I feel passionate about. This non-profit organisation’s mission is to combat poverty within some of the most disadvantages communities across the world, focusing on bringing about sustainable change to the lives of those who need it most.

Within my placement, I will be working on an Inclusive Education programme. This project focuses on supporting vulnerable children and young adults by working in community-based organisations, schools and social enterprises. Within these organisations, my team and I will be working to improve the provision of inclusive education — increasing its availability to marginalised groups of people, regardless of age, gender, disability, language, religion, and social status — in order to provide Kenya’s youngest generation with the knowledge, skills, and ability to better their futures. This project is an incredibly important step to improving the future of Kenya’s youngest and the development of the country itself.

Throughout my placement (if the internet allows it), I will be posting updates of my experience and the work that we are doing in Loitokitok, Kenya. I can’t wait to see what’s in store! 

So, stick around if you’d like to hear all about it. I cant wait to share my journey with you…

 

Further information on VSO and its partner organisation ICS, follow the links below. 

https://www.volunteerics.org/

https://www.vsointernational.org/