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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, an Australian who is currently completing her Law degree, first volunteered with IVHQ in Kenya in 2015 and returned for the second time as part of being an IVHQ Volunteer of the Year. Since her first trip, she has established a charity, the Children of Maasai, and continues to be part of the community she volunteered in 3 years ago.

My First Encounter Volunteering In Africa

I made the decision to volunteer in Kenya when Ebola was at its peak and threatening to move into East Africa. 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

The African mindset

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 and the volunteer work in Kenya. 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 On The IVHQ Kenya Program

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

Returning To Volunteer Work In Kenya

It’s 8:30 at night and you’re traveling in a mini-bus along a mostly deserted road towards Tanzania, after leaving Nairobi at 2:30 pm in the afternoon. The words ‘don’t worry, you’ll get there by six thirty at the latest’ are replaying in your head and you’re starting to feel hungry again, after eating a bunch of bananas from a woman with a pineapple printed head-wrap forty minutes back down the road. Black smoke is continuously billowing out the back of the bus, and the driver is maintaining a constant 60 kilometers per hour speed in a 100 km/hr zone. Every 15 minutes or so we have to pull over to get out and crowd around the engine with our phone lights to make sure we won’t be marooned half-way between villages.

What you’re picturing was my ‘welcome home’ to Kenya. In 2015, I volunteered in the Teaching Maasai project with Mary and Jackson in their home in Kumpa, Kajiado County. It had taken me two years but I was finally coming back to continue my work there and I could hardly contain my excitement.

As we were getting closer I couldn’t stay in my seat. Mary, my host mum, was meeting me at the road and I could see the lights of the town nearing us in the distance. I’d stayed in contact with my host family after I left, and spoke to them almost once a week on social media. The bus made it over the final speed hump and rounded the corner into the main and only road through the town. I spotted Mary instantly, standing there in clothes that I’d sent her for Christmas, flanked by some of the teachers and friends that I’d made when I was here last. The bus hadn’t even slowed to a stop before I threw open the door, leapt out and flung myself into Mary’s arms.

Word had spread that ‘Nashipae, Mary’s white daughter’ (Nashipae is my Maasai name) was returning to Kumpa and I had so many people come to greet me. The driver and another volunteer stayed for dinner before leaving, and I was left to enjoy the rest of the night of singing and dancing and feasting – Kenyan style.

My first day at school was a whirlwind of day. Some of the teaching staff had changed since the last time I had been there, and so had the children. But most of them remembered me. I had heard there was a drought in East Africa before I left. I knew Yemen and Somalia were badly affected but I wasn’t prepared for how hard it had hit Kenya.

I’d come back to Kenya with a plan. I had raised a lot of money and wanted to help as many children as I could. Seeing the extreme conditions that the community were going through, I knew that I had an obligation to help. I asked the teachers to identify 60 girls who miss school when they get their period. Then half an hour later, sixty girls aged between 11 and 14 filed into the school hall, all wondering what they had been summoned for. Before I left Australia, I ordered 60 reusable sanitary kits from the charity ‘Days for Girls’ and collected them from their micro-enterprise in Nairobi when I arrived. As part of handing out the kits, I explained to them about things such as menstrual hygiene, handwashing, safe sexual practices and self-defense. The entire time, the girls hardly even said a word and I was thinking to myself if it really was a good idea to have a strange white Australian lady explain to these quiet African girls about very intimate parts of their lives – even if I did have two of their teachers helping me out. But when I got to demonstrating how to use the Days for Girls kits, I could see the girls perk up and edge a bit closer. When I was demonstrating, I had a pair of bright pink panties held up above my head in one hand, and a reusable pad in the other. When I clipped the pad onto the panties… of all things, they started clapping for me! I could hear the ooh’s and ahh’s of amazement and the murmurings to their friends that were drowned out by the applause. I was so humbled by the experience and completely taken aback. Clapping for me, for bringing sanitary pads that we all have access to in Australia?

With the help of the teachers, we handed out all the kits to the girls and they all split themselves off into groups examining the contents, giggling and grinning at one another. After we let them go, one of the girls came up and personally thanked me, she explained that she was so grateful because she won’t have to miss school every month anymore. I knew it would make a big difference to their lives, and if I had have gone home then and there, then I know I would’ve accomplished something great.

Over the next few weeks, in between helping to teach classes at the local primary school, we met many inspirational people and organized many events to help the community. We de-wormed two entire primary schools in the area, as well as giving vitamin A to the lower primary to encourage their healthy development. We ran an eye clinic with Lions SightFirst Eye Hospital at two schools, and gave free reading glasses to those who needed them. We continued our school uniform program and bought uniforms for those children at school who needed them.

We used the local doctors to run a two-day free medical camp for the community. One day in the town where I was based, and the second day ‘over the hills and far away’ where we had to stop for giraffes, zebra and ostriches to cross our path on the way there. Over the course of the two days we saw 616 people. As a snapshot: two babies had severe pneumonia, one lady had septicaemia from an infected thorn prick, four children had severe acute malnutrition, 31% of the patients on day-one had cataracts, and 446 people were given free medication.

I think what the community valued most however, was just the fact that we had voluntarily taken time out of our lives to help. I believe this is what had the biggest impact. It’s not about how much money you raise, or what donations you can give to your host family, at the end of the day – you care about that community. Your kindness is appreciated more than we realise, and I am so grateful to have been a part of that. Kenya is an amazing country. The culture is unlike anywhere else in the world. I’ve never felt more welcomed and appreciated anywhere else! I would encourage anyone thinking about getting involved with IVHQ to just take the leap of faith and 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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