Volunteering in Kenya

DSCF9843When we made the decision to return to traveling, we knew that we didn’t want to move as quickly as we had during our first trip.  Moving through 39 countries in 24 months was much too fast.  Also, when we were first discussing the possibilities of what we would do while traveling, Mac had brought up a desire to give back to the communities through which we travel rather than simply consuming what they have to offer.  These two aspects motivated us to pursue both short and longer-term volunteering opportunities while in Africa.  With Colburn’s background in education and mine in healthcare, we thought that it would be easy to find programs which would benefit from our professional expertise.


Many hours of searching brought up some interesting options for us – teaching and working at a rural health clinic in Namibia, a reef conservation project in southern Madagascar, teaching at a university-based nursing school in Uganda, a combination school and health clinic in rural Malawi, a program in South Africa which supports street kids, an organization which mentors teachers as they integrate technology into the classroom and many more.  Each opportunity seemed interesting for different reasons and was difficult to weed through the programs.  Many of the “volunteering” programs are set up for 18 to 20-something year olds on a gap year.  While those experiences can be invaluable for people without work experience and exposure to the broader world, we wanted to do more than play sports with kids after school and pick up trash on the beach. Our goal was to find opportunities to share our professional abilities in new environments.

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We worked diligently to assure that they understood that we are mid-career professionals traveling long-term as a family, so the adults didn’t want low-skill activities yet the kids needed to have active engagement as well.  The second part seemed to be the more challenging for programs to understand.  In the end, we settled on three options we felt were pretty solid – marine conservation in Mozambique, a community development project in Kenya, and a nursing school and a community development project in Uganda.  All were eager to include the kids in a substantial way, seemed to be able to use our professional skill set, and provided hands-on experiential education for the kids.


As I have written about before, our time in Mozambique exceeded expectations in all ways. Not only did we get to solidify our scuba skills, the science director had set up a mini data analysis project for the kids to complete while we were there.  It dove-tailed with the marine science course the kids been taking over the summer leading to the perfect integration of instruction and application we had hoped for in this trip.

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Our second volunteering opportunity was considerably less organized than the first but seemed to have great potential.  The coordinator could never provide specific information about what we would be doing or how our time would be spent, but the programs seemed to have strong educational connections with Teachers2Teachers in the U.S. so we were hopeful.  Arriving in Kisumu, Kenya after our Serengeti self-drive, we were eager see what the program would involve.

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From the very beginning, it was awkward.  We spent the first night in a small two room apartment with two men in their mid-twenties who work for the program.  The kids had one room and Colburn and I shared the other so the men both slept on a cluttered couch in the main room.  They were kind and welcoming but we were awoken early the next morning by sermon being broadcast at maximum decibels over the loudspeaker right outside of our window.  It wasn’t a great way to begin. The service began as a musical piece, gently rising in volume.  Having traveled extensively in predominantly Muslim areas, we are accustomed to the early morning call to prayer and initially mistook it for that.  It wasn’t until we heard the first “praise the lord” and “amen”s emanating below that we realized it was not Islamic.  We kind of chuckled initially as it was the first Christian call to prayer we have ever heard!  Quickly, however, the marginally competent organist with a pre-recorded rhythm track was drowned out by a screaming, scolding sermon delivered at full volume over a tinny loudspeaker.  The preacher had launched in to an angry tirade against the oppressors in the government, people who did not believe in Christ’s salvation, and the world in general.  She was yelling full volume, scolding people for not taking to the streets to push back against the injustices.  Never before have we experienced such anger in a place of worship nor one which was broadcast to the entire neighborhood.  After an hour or so, the screaming and bad music stopped so we went on about our business.

The coordinator had planned on showing us the tourist sights of Kisumu on our first day, so we loaded in to our truck and drove down the main boulevard to town.  Within minutes, we reached a roadblock where several angry men in dirty jeans and tank-top undershirts had blocked traffic with large rocks across the roadway.  The men yelled at us that ‘the government had killed Mguma Mguma’.  In reality, the government had not killed the man but had him in custody and not brought him to be arraigned as ordered by the court.  Once we understood what was going on, we thought we would simply turn around and use an alternate route but the men saw our white skin and “fancy” truck and started banging on the hood and sides of the truck demanding money from us.  It was the first time in all of our travels that we felt anything more than the tiniest bit uneasy.  There was one time in Morocco where I had a fleeting thought for about 10 seconds that we might not be in a good situation, but that was quickly dispelled when we entered our hotel.  Those feelings were based more on the fatigue from a 24-hour flight than actual risk.  This was different – there was anger and rage in the morning sermon and now in the protests being held.  The men were not just angry at the government but also demanding that we “owed them something” because we were white.  Somewhat shaken, we considered our options and decided to leave the city and to go in to the quieter countryside that afternoon

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As we settled in to life in a rural Kenyan village, we felt very comfortable and welcomed but found that there would be barriers to our participation.  The government had recently set limits on how long ‘visitors’, especially foreign visitors, could be involved with students each day in order to protect them from becoming a human zoo.  This meant that we could not be in the classes for more than 20 minutes each day, effectively eliminating our ability to assist with teaching.  Additionally, the faculty are not invested in the learning of their students, preferring instead to simply read from the government-approved syllabus and have students write down lines verbatim.  This meant that neither Colburn nor I could use our skills.

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The best part of this volunteering opportunity ended up being Mac and Lucia’s project – afternoon computer literacy lessons with the local kids.  Each evening around 5:00 or 6:00, a group of 10 or so kids would show up after doing their chores (herding goats, carrying water, gathering firewood, caring for younger siblings) to learn how to use laptops.  Plastic lawn chairs would be brought out of a storage hut, laptops hooked up to the power source in our hut and our children would show the local kids the basics which kids in western countries take for granted (using a track pad, turning on a computer, navigating to different programs, etc.).  There are only two donated laptops for them to use so one kid would operate the computer while the others watched intently and offered advice as needed.  It was actually really cool to observe because you could see them teaching each other and problem solving as a group.  A few exceptional children became super-users and would mentor the ones who did not pick it up as quickly, some of the older kids who had better English skills would translate for the younger ones who did not, and they all seemed to work cooperatively on the process.  There were no fights for who was next, when one kid would be using it for too long, the other kids would bring it to their attention and they would hand it over to someone else.  It was quite encouraging.


We also got to meet Mama Sarah Obama, President Obama’s Kenyan grandmother, which was pretty cool.  She is likely more than 100 years old but doesn’t know exactly when she was born other than “under King George”.  We were able to talk to her about her life, her accomplishments and challenges, and the slew of grand kids, great grand kids, and great-great grand kids.


Two weeks of what Lucia termed as “living the hut life” took a toll on us though.  While we enjoyed learning about life in a rural village, there was little for us to do except an hour or two of computers in the evening.  Colburn’s volunteering fell through.  My volunteering fell through.  It was hot and dusty.  We shared a single squat hole long drop latrine with the entire family and several resident spiders.  The continual stream of people asking us for donations and money wore us down.  Every interaction came with a hidden or not-so-hidden request for money – the ladies of the village wanted a new processing machine, the ladies in the city wanted us to sponsor a new shed to do their sewing under, a young man in the village asked us to give him Lucia’s iPhone, etc.  It was very disheartening in the end as we had come to share our skills and all they wanted was our money.  We left with a bittersweet memory – wonderful and kind people who really just wanted our money.  We would be more discerning in the future.




1 response to Volunteering in Kenya

  1. Peter Altmann says:

    Hi All,
    Bummed that the time in Kenya turned out this way, and I hope as time goes on it will become an increasingly valuable “failure.”

    It reminds me of especially Birgit’s experience in RSA

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