Liz Hesterberg shares her experience as a volunteer abroad in Kenya and explains how one trip turned into three… and led to an international internship!
Two years ago when I first decided to volunteer in Kenya I had people ask “why Kenya?”. Mostly, my answer was “I’m not entirely sure - I have always wanted to travel to Africa and why not Kenya?” Fast forward two years… now when people ask “why Kenya?” I respond, “There is just something about Kenya! I love it, I love the people, I love the country. It gets better and better each time!”
Yes, each time! I have in the last two years traveled to Kenya three times and you could call me obsessed! My friends and family certainly do!
I had recently finished my undergraduate work at University and was debating on applying to graduate school, although not entirely sure of which direction I wanted to go. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect! So I went for it. I knew a few people that had volunteered through IVHQ, so after doing some research I applied to volunteer in Kenya for 2 months (looking back I wish I stayed longer). I signed up to volunteer with the Women’s Empowerment program.
The first few days in Nairobi were both exciting and overwhelming. There was so much information being thrown at me, and I was doing my best to absorb everything, so that I wouldn’t forget it! On my first day I went on tour of Kibera - one of the largest slums in the world; my second day I went to orientation, and my third day I climbed Mt. Longonot (oh and saw my first wild giraffes!) My placement was at the WEEP center located in Kibera. The center works with HIV positive women, who are taught trade skills. Each day there was something new to experience; as volunteers we tailored our day around what the ladies needed help with. On the weekends I think I did everything the IVHQ local staff had to offer- safari, outreach weekend, city tours, markets, climbing mountains, traveling to the coast. I remember saying to myself - just do it, when are you ever going to be back in Africa!
In the midst of my volunteering, I realized that I wanted to go back to school to get my Masters degree in ‘Intercultural Relations’: being in Kenya and working with the group of ladies at WEEP had inspired me. The strength each and every one of them had made me want to do more. I found a program for ‘Intercultural Relations’, and ‘International Higher Education’ in Boston, and I decided to apply, why not? Next thing I know I am being contacted to have an interview, only problem is – I’m in Kenya…so instead I had a phone interview during a taxi ride through Mombasa.
After two months I wasn’t ready to come home, but as I’m waiting at the airport I get an email - I have been accepted to the Masters program!
A year later, I was talking with my academic advisor; trying to figure out what classes I should take over the summer. I tell him how I really want to travel back to Kenya and he suggests that I just do an independent research project in Kenya over the summer for credit. Of course I jumped at the idea!
So, school leads me back to Kenya for the second time. During this trip I worked with the same group (WEEP) and lived in the same house with my house Mamas. I made amazing friends just like first time. The major difference between this trip and my first one was school. This time I was able to apply what I was learning in the classroom to my experiences in Nairobi, and I was able to research and interview the ladies I was working with.
There’s just something about Kenya… I’m hooked! So when it came to finding my internship for school, of course I hoped I would be able to be in Kibera working with Women’s Empowerment. And yes, I was lucky enough that my third trip to Kenya became a reality and I had the privilege of interning at The Power Women Group. The Power Women group consists of 15 HIV positive women who came together to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV as well as create lives free of dependency. They also own and run a shop in which they sell their handmade products. The shop is located in Kibera and products are also sold online. During my time with the ladies, I was able to speak to customers, and share with them the story behind the group. Along with two other volunteers, we repainted the shop with the help of the ladies, and I worked on setting up the books for the women’s micro-finance project.
One thing I have found to be extremely important in both my volunteering and interning is communication. Talking with the people you are working with, asking what their needs are, what their goals and aspirations are for both themselves and the project proves to be an important aspect of communication. I had a chance to talk with the ladies I was interned with, and discovered that none of them had medical insurance. After learning about this need, I met with a local doctor to find out the cost and process of getting each lady insurance. I set up a “GoFundMe” account, and was able to raise enough money to buy each woman and her entire family medical insurance for a year! Had we not had this conversation, I wouldn’t have thought of doing this.
Looking back, choosing to volunteer in Kenya two years ago was the best decision I have ever made! For more on my experience, check out the video below where I was interviewed by IVHQ while in Kenya!