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How I Caught The Africa Travel Bug (And Why I Love It)

IVHQer Volunteer of the Year explains how she feel in love with volunteering in Kenya

_Lauren Jackson is the recipient of the 2016 IVHQ Volunteer of the Year Scholarship. She is from Perth, Western Australia and is currently completing her Law degree. She volunteered with IVHQ in Kenya in 2015 and is returning for the second time as part of the scholarship. Since her first trip, she has established a charity, the Children of Maasai.

My First Encounter Volunteering In Africa

I made the decision to go to volunteer in Kenya in 2015 when Ebola was at its peak and threatening to move into East Africa, and not long after an attack at a university in the north of the country. Needless to say, my parents were less than thrilled about my plans. Too bad for them though, because I’d already made up my mind (and paid for my flights).

So, at the end of June 2015, I found myself disembarking a plane at Jomo Kenyatta Airport and being siphoned through a makeshift entrance and into the main, and only, terminal of Kenya’s largest airport. I was incredibly excited and rather nervous. I was traveling solo for the first time and had no idea what to expect.

After passing security and collecting my bag, I was met with dozens of Kenyan’s standing behind a barrier holding improvised signs, all trying to grab my attention thinking I was their ‘mzungu’ they had to collect (mzungu is slang for foreigner). I found the IVHQ team and was greeted with the warmest African welcome you could imagine, and so began my African adventure.

IVHQer Volunteer of the Year volunteering in Kenya

The Culture Shock

Despite having researched the area and how I thought my placement would be like, I still experienced some culture shock. Power outages were frequent, running water was non-existent, and it was quite normal to wake up with a chicken in your bedroom. For a few days, I was freaking out because I’d been so accustomed to creature comforts back home in Australia. But after a while, it grew on me. It was nice being able to appreciate simple things in life (as cliché as that sounds). When you have to stand in a shallow tub of lukewarm water and use a cup as a sporadic shower nozzle, the importance of fresh running water really gets to you.

I think that is part of the allure of Kenya. It has a simplicity in the most majestic kind of way. It is everything I ever dreamed Africa would be. I remember getting up one morning and Mary saying to me ‘Toto, did you hear the elephants last night? They walked past our house’. I thought that was the most magical thing ever, that Africa still exists in harmony like this, despite the rapid development everywhere else in the world.

The other side to this, however, is the poverty that comes with a lack of development. Maasai people are traditionally cattle herders, and when it has been dry, the cattle get sickly and die, and their herders lose their only source of income. Primary school is free in Kenya, but students still must pay a small fee to sit exams and supplement teachers’ salaries. During the second week I was there, I remember asking Jackson;

‘Baba, where is Siyiote?’ - she was a student in my Class Two - ‘I haven’t seen her in almost a week.’

‘Pole sana,’ very sorry, Jackson replied, ‘she has no Father you see, and her Mother’s cattle have died. They cannot sell anymore to pay for her fee’s, so we had to send her home.’

Of course, I replied, ‘how much does she have left to pay?’

It was only 250 Kenyan Shillings, or $2.50 USD. I paid for her fee, and she came back to school the next day. How absurd! That money is loose change for my friends and family back home.

IVHQer Volunteer of the Year volunteering in the classroom in Kenya

Hope

What struck me the most was the absolute hope in the face of adversity. Many children would not get three meals per day, maybe two if they were lucky. Despite this, they were so grateful for what they had. Education was extremely valuable, and they thought it was the bee’s knees that I had traveled all the way from Australia just to help teach them. They fascinated over my long brown hair, and pale white skin, and giggled at my poor attempts at Swahili or terrible sporting ability. I truly felt so privileged to be able to share my knowledge with these children who were just so appreciative.

The Africa Travel Bug

I knew then that Africa had well and truly got me. I had caught the Africa bug (metaphorically, not literally – luckily). I hope that everyone who goes to Kenya also catches the Africa bug because it’s the best one to get! I never want to get rid of it! I fell in love with the culture and kindness of Kenyan people. Never once did I feel vulnerable or scared. In fact, it was the complete opposite. I remember one time I caught a matatu into Nairobi by myself to meet up with my orientation group for safari. I had rung the taxi driver to tell him to meet me at the main matatu central in the city, and he told me he was going to be late (of course, it is Kenyan time after all). Naturally, I panicked at the thought of having to wait in the busiest place in the entire city as a small white girl who has all her most important belongings on her. But when we pulled up, the matatu driver turned and said to me ‘Jambo mzungu, where are you going?’ I told him I had to wait for my taxi driver to arrive to take me to another homestay and he said ‘eh no, hapana, you can stay here. Hakuna matata. Let me call your driver so I can explain.’ And he waited with me for twenty minutes of his own time, telling me about his family so that I wouldn’t feel afraid.

IVHQer Volunteer of the Year with her host family

An ‘Average’ Day Volunteering In Kenya

I was placed with Jackson and Mary at Oliorum Lutheran Primary School in Kajiado County, as part of the Maasai Teaching placement. This is how an average day would go:

Time A typical volunteer day in Kenya
7 am: Wake up early to the sound of my host mum Mary signing sweetly through my window: ‘Nashipae, time to get up Nashipae, baby girl!’ (Nashipae means ‘the happy one’ in Maasai).
7:30 am: Make my way to my host parents’ room for ‘mendazi’ and ‘chai’ (deep fried doughnut dough and tea).
7:40 am: Say goodbye to my little host brother, Gady, as he caught the bus to school.
8:15 am: Jackson and I would catch a matatu (the equivalent of a very cheap, and very crowded taxi – I had a goat sitting on my lap once) to the school about thirty minutes’ walk away. Jackson was the Head Teacher at the school there.
8:30 am – 2:30 pm: I helped to teach the Class Two’s. The ages and understanding of English varied greatly depending on if they had been able to go to school often. I would teach a whole variety of subjects, from religion to maths, science to drama.
2:35 pm: Walk back from school through the savannah to the little village I was staying at.
3 pm: Watch Nigerian soap operas on TV and play with the kids.
5:30 pm: Help Mary prepare dinner and eat anywhere between 6 pm and 10 pm!
9 pm: Share stories on life in Kenya and Australia. My host family was enthralled at my attempts to explain technology we take for granted – dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, even fridges! And when I suggested to Mary once that she should buy a potato peeler instead of using a knife her response was ‘what’s that?’.
10:30 pm: Bedtime.

IVHQer Volunteer of the Year with her host mum in Kenya

My Return

So, it is only natural for me to be brimming with excitement at the thought of returning to my second home. My Kenyan family are quite literally part of my family now. I have fundraised back in Australia, so I can help the kids that taught me so much about life. We are working with other charities around Kenya and the world to give as much back to the community as possible. We’ve purchased re-usable sanitary kits with Days for Girls, to distribute at the school I’ll be placed in. We have organized for Lions SightFirst Eye Institute Nairobi to provide a free eye clinic for the children, and we are setting up a branch of Roots and Shoots as part of the Jane Goodall Institute in the schools in the community. I cannot wait to go back. The friendships and connections that I have made are lifelong. I encourage anyone considering volunteering with IVHQ to take to leap and just do it.

Pretty soon I’ll be back in Kenya, and I’m so looking forward to it. It’s a consequence of having the Africa bug I guess - now Africa has me forever!

IVHQer Volunteer of the Year with her host family

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