8 Tips to Being a Successful Kenya Volunteer
So you’ve done your research, applied to your chosen program, paid the registration fee and you’re super excited to become an IVHQ volunteer in Kenya. I don’t blame you! I definitely was before my trip a few months ago. But I also remember being nervous and not sure of how to prepare myself. What were the things that I should know beforehand? What exactly would it be like, once in Kenya? Well, as a previous Kenya volunteer myself, I picked up some tips and tricks that I hope will help you to be a more successful Kenya volunteer.
- Ella Capek
1) Come prepared AND be flexible
Sounds like contradicting advice, right? But it definitely can be done. Do some research beforehand on your chosen field of work and ask yourself what you’d like to accomplish while there. Start brainstorming ideas and figure out how you could possibly execute them. For instance, if you’re going to be working in Sports Education, think of games and activities that will interest them and what resources you might need. But also keep in mind that your original ideas might not end up being possible, or that you may be asked to contribute in a way that you didn’t anticipate. Trust yourself that you’ll know how to adapt, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and go with the flow.
2) Learn some Swahili
Despite English being an official language in Kenya, Swahili is definitely the most commonly used. For instance, small kids won’t have basic proficiency in English yet, so you’ll likely have to communicate with them in Swahili. Luckily, Swahili is a very easy language to learn and you’ll be picking up the basics in no time. There’s a great selection of Swahili phrases in your information booklet and you can write down any new word that you learn while there. I had many moments where I managed to impress locals with my basic Swahili skills, so know that your effort will be very much appreciated.
3) Ask before taking pictures
It’s only natural that you’d want to document every moment of your trip. It’s fun to share your experiences with actual visual evidence. But just because it’s culturally acceptable to whip out your iPhone at any given moment in your home country, doesn’t mean it is in Kenya. There, it’s still considered disrespectful and would feel to them like an invasion of privacy. So always ask for permission before you point and click.
4) Get accustomed to “African Time”
This is a phrase you’ll come to know very well, if you haven’t already. Life in Kenya moves much more slowly and no-one is in any rush. There’s definitely something to be said for a slower pace of life, but it may be frustrating when you’re trying to get a new project off the ground in a limited amount of time. Just be patient and try to stay on top of things. The local staff will always be there to help, so don’t give up.
5) Don’t be startled by “Mzungu”
Mzungu is a Swahili term that means “English speaker” and you’ll likely come across this often. Even if you’re not a native English speaker, this might be the way that a local in the street addresses you, because you’re a foreigner and they assume that you don’t speak Swahili. It’s usually well-intentioned and never malicious, so there’s no reason to be alarmed. They simply know that you’re not a local, and they want to acknowledge you and say hi. Don’t be afraid to say hi back as locals are very friendly, and expect a lot of enthusiastic interest from the kids especially. They love to shake hands, high five and chant, “HOW AH YU?!”.
6) Be respectful of cultural differences
This might seem a little obvious but I’m referring to something very specific. In your home country, you may be passionate about women’s issues or an advocate for LGBT rights. That’s very commendable if you are. But in Kenya, sexism still exists and the country is generally homophobic. If a local expresses a sexist\homophobic opinion, rather than passionately informing them that they’re wrong, try opening up a mutual discussion. Be respectful of their opinion and express how\why you think differently. For example, you can use sentences like, “It’s interesting that that’s how you see women. In my country, we see women as…”. Keep in mind that it’s because that’s what they were taught and not necessarily because they’re ill-intentioned.
7) Get to the know locals
There’s no better way to familiarize yourself with the country and culture that you’re in, than through its people. From conversations with locals, you can receive some very valuable insights that will help you understand what life is really like in your host country. Get to know their stories and ask them about what problems they face in their community. Not only will your level of understanding of their culture increase, but your interest will be much appreciated and your relationships with them will likely deepen as a result. And who knows, something they say may even give you inspiration for a new volunteer initiative to work on.
8) Enjoy yourself!
You are embarking on a whole new adventure and it will be an experience that you’ll never forget. Go with an open mind and an open heart, and be present for every moment to take everything in- the good and the bad. Volunteering is definitely a two-way street and you will end up getting so much out of it as well. So don’t be surprised that you come home from this trip a completely changed person, with even more motivation to volunteer in the future. This is an opportunity of a lifetime so enjoy it!
If you’d like follow my journey as I travel and volunteer around the world, feel free to visit me on my travel blog.