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.
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’.
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.
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…