Over the past year, I have been sharing stories of my travels and the amazing work I have witnessed being done around the world. I have shared pictures of gorgeous vistas and incredible people that I have been fortunate enough to experience. Yet there is much that I haven’t shared. I didn’t write about hiding in my room in Bogota for entire weekends; wishing that my roommates would leave the apartment so that I could let the dark and silence envelop me. I didn’t write about sitting by myself in a bar in Australia, rapidly gulping down a pitcher of beer, trying to drown the anxiety and frustration. I didn’t write about being surrounded by a group of people that I felt had finally seen through my projected image and had realized how bad of a person I really am. I didn’t write about walking through a museum in Africa, on the verge of a breakdown for no reason other than that I was convinced I am an absolute failure.
May has been Mental Health Awareness Month, and I have been struggling for weeks about whether or not to write this blog entry. I finally decided that if by some chance, it may help someone, anyone, then however painful it might be to share this, it would be worth it. I am not going to write about the specifics of my struggles. Rather I just want to make it clear that I have had, and continue to have, them. One of the main themes of the month is fighting the stigma of people dealing with mental issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has focused on “CureStigma”. This is why I am writing this blog post.
The dark secret of this entire journey is that it is actually rooted in one of my lowest points. After a combination of multiple personal and professional failures a few years ago, I began to think to myself that if I could get together enough money, I would just disappear. I would leave my old life behind and roam the world aimlessly, never to return, living out the rest of my life in a nomadic existence on the fringes. Over time, this idea took more and more of a hold and I began to take it seriously and started to make efforts towards it.
Luckily, at some point, I was able to find more of a purpose, and decided to make the journey about volunteering to help others, rather than focusing on my own issues. It has helped, but that has not led to a sudden “cure” or anything, as I have continued to have my bad days, as I mentioned above.
Throughout my journey, I have come across many people who have had their own struggles with mental health in one way or another, whether it be themselves or a family member. I’ve met a veteran that struggled with PTSD, many people with numerous family struggles, others with addiction issues, young people that have dealt with bullying. I once had a long conservation with a fellow traveler that had left home with the intent of committing suicide. None of these people should be shamed or pitied. Rather, others should recognize the incredible strength in each of them. The strength that allows them to regularly fight demons that others can only imagine. The last thing they need in addition to that struggle is to fight another battle against the stigma that too many people may place upon them.
Too often, that stigma and fear of judgment keeps people from seeking the support they need. A cultural shift must occur in order to better help our friends and families facing these issues, whether they may be long-term or temporary. I have been to therapy and I have been on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. I absolutely have the desire to keep that kind of information secret. But I also realize that is part of and feeds the stigma.
For those of you fortunate enough to have not ever had to face any such issues or had a friend or family member deal with it, I recommend you to still read about it and prepare. You never know when someone close to you may suddenly need help. And there are definitely wrong things you can say in such a moment.
I wish I had some words of wisdom to better help anyone reading this that is facing their own struggle. However, I’ve learned that each person’s struggle is unique. I can only say two things. One is to plead you not to try and fight alone. I understand that temptation and have often struggled alone myself, but please take advantage of any support and resources you can. The other thing I have to say is that you have an ally in me. What that may specifically entail for you, I have no idea. But I am ready and willing to support you in any way I can.
As a start here are some resources dealing with Mental Health and Mental Health Awareness Month:
I highly recommend this website for everyone. It is a resource website both for people struggling with some issue and for friends & family of people struggling. At a minimum, you can read up on how to talk to a friend or family member that is facing a mental issue in case such a scenario ever arises.
Barnabas picked me up from the Marafiki house on a Monday evening, after I had picked up my new passport from the Nairobi embassy. Barnabas was the local coordinator for Global Crossroad with whom I had booked my next volunteer excursion. I was fortunate to have found them. My original plan had been to do a program at Victoria Falls, but due to my passport uncertainty, I had decided a few weeks before to stay in Kenya longer in case there were any issues with it.
Specifically, I was looking for a program that would allow me to be involved in African wildlife, and this Elephant and Wildlife Program fit the bill. I would be working near the Tsavo National Parks in southeastern Kenya. For those of you near Chicago, the Tsavo “man-eating” lions that terrorized railroad workers in this region over 100 years ago are on display at the Field Museum.
That first evening, Barnabas and his associate Jackson took me to Barnabas’s apartment where I had dinner with his family, along with two other volunteers from Portugal, Phillippe and Inesh. They had started out on a medical placement, but it had not worked out, so they were going to be working at a school that Barnabas supported in his home village.
Early the next morning, all of us piled into the car and drove out to the school, about an hour and a half out of Nairobi. Around mid-morning, we arrived at the small compound. The ruins of an old car sat out in front and the building was an “L” block around the yard, with a toilet building set on the corner opposite the school building. Barnabas introduced us to the principal, a few staff, and a couple of the other volunteers. Then, we were taken around to the classrooms.
The rooms were small and simple, as well as rather dark, only lit by light from the window. The walls were only decorated by hand-made posters, and the students sat at simple wooden desks and chairs. After we were introduced, the students were prompted to sing a song to welcome us, often softly and shyly. A bit later, during their lunch break, as we were preparing to leave, many of the students would wave at a distance, feeling more confident playing in a large group of their friends far away from us, than they were in the confines of their classroom. We stopped at Barnabas’s home in this village, where the girls would be staying while volunteering, to drop off their bags and have some food and tea. Then we dropped the girls back off at the school, and the rest of us returned to Nairobi.
Early the next morning, I packed up my things and Jackson took me to the bus station. I was going to take the bus towards Mombasa, but getting off at Voi, which is the main city near the Tsavo National Park. Later that afternoon, I had arrived at the Lumo Wildlife Conservancy, just outside of Tsavo West National Park (Tsavo is divided into East and West sections about an hour or so away from each other).
Upon arriving, I met some of the staff and other volunteers. As it turned out, some of them were planning on going out camping in the bush that night. I hadn’t really had a chance to get settled, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. I did some quick transferring of stuff in and out of my small backpack, and soon I was in the back of a pickup driving down the dirt roads of the wildlife sanctuary in the fading twilight. Then, only a few hours after arriving in this part of Kenya, I was building a campfire in the middle of nowhere, under a dark sky.
When I woke up the next morning and walked out of the tent, I saw that there was just savannah as far as the eye could see, with no other sign of human life. As I became familiar with the area over the next couple of weeks, I learned that there were actually a few lodges not too far away, but they just happened to be out of sight from where we had camped.
Upon returning to the ranger and volunteer housing, we got ready to go on foot patrol with some of the rangers. Lumo is a wildlife sanctuary that was began and is run by the local community. While they work with Tsavo national park and the Kenya Wildlife Service, they do not get much financial assistance from them. As such, money is a scarce commodity, and they have limited resources. My first few days there were only foot patrols, because their only 4×4 vehicle was being repaired.
In my time at the conservancy, there were 3 rangers and a few trainees. During the patrols that us volunteers accompanied, we would be looking for any snares or other signs of poaching and any animals in distress. Additionally, the trainees would be recording animal sightings and locations, and we would pick up litter that visitors may have left along the trails. The normal routine was to go on two patrols each day, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, avoiding the heat of midday.
The patrols were an amazing experience, especially once we got the 4×4 back and could drive along the safari trails throughout the sanctuary instead of being limited to where we were able to reach on foot. But even the foot patrols were amazing, knowing that you were in the open along with elephants, African buffaloes, zebras, giraffes, impalas, and hartebeests at a distance but still with no barriers between us except for a few hundred meters or more of savannah.
While I was there, we never found any poaching or snares, although Elvis, the head ranger, had received word of poaching one day so we went to a specific area to look. Instead, we found a small illegal mine that someone had dug on their own. Another day, we came across some visitors that needed a hand. Their tire had gone flat, and when they had gotten the tire off, the jack had given out. Luckily, this was after we had gotten the 4×4 back and had the necessary tools to help them.
One bit of excitement during our patrol was when the rangers spotted hippo tracks. Hippos don’t live in the conservancy as there is not a good enough water hole for them to stay long term. So, it must have come out of Tsavo. We spent the next day looking around different water holes to try and find the hippo. The next morning, the rangers found fresh tracks around a water hole. They walked around the hole and were about to leave when Hanna, the other volunteer with us, noticed a little bit of movement in the water. We waited a bit longer and sure enough, we again saw just the tip of a hippo nose come out for air. The rangers then notified KWS and plans were made to hopefully tranquilize the hippo at the next opportunity to move it back to the park. Unfortunately, this did not occur. That night, the hippo moved again, and then came across and was aggressive towards some people, so the hippo had to be euthanized.
As mentioned earlier, Lumo is a community run organization. There are a couple of lodges and campgrounds in the area that work together with the rangers and the community. This has also helped to establish a local school. Previously, children in the area had to travel much further, usually almost an hour’s walk to go to school. We were able to meet the wife of one of the rangers, (he happened to be away at training while a I was there), and their two children who were extremely sweet. One afternoon, a couple of the volunteers and I went for a walk, and the family joined us. She led us to the school, about a 15-minute walk away, and told us a little bit more about the school and the community. The lodges also help to provide food for the children at the school. The school was like the other schools I had seen in Kenya, a simple building with simple classrooms and handmade décor. There was an outhouse for the toilets, and another out-building that served as a “kitchen, really not much more than a space for some pots and pans and a cooking fire. It is humbling to see children strive for an education in such basic conditions, while in the western world we too often take for granted all the technology and educational opportunities available.
Soon enough, my time was up at the conservancy. I took a bus back to Nairobi and spent my last day there doing some sight-seeing. While walking around a park, an older man and then a child came up to me to beg. Not that different from many other places around the world. But what made this different was that in both these cases, other locals chased them off. A similar thing had happened my first week in Kenya, but I hadn’t given it much thought. This time though, combined with other experiences from my time there, I realized how much pride the Kenyans have. They did not like seeing someone begging from a mzungu (someone of European descent) because it obviously looks bad on the nation. One night during dinner at Lumo, Dennis, one of the rangers, was passionate about Kenya’s stance against poaching and the ivory trade. He mentioned how some have criticized Kenya’s annual ivory burn as a waste. But he was adamant that it was the right thing to do, and that Kenya would lead the way. The conviction was clear in his words as he spoke, and it was inspiring to hear him say such things, with the sounds of the African savannah in the background.
After Kenya, I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa. I had hoped to do some short-term volunteering there, but it did not work out, and I was only there for a week. While I was unable to work there, it was still a humbling experience to be in Cape Town and visit places that have an almost sacredness to them because of their role in the struggle against the inhumanity of slavery and apartheid. It was moving to be in the District Six museum, the district where persons of color were forcibly removed in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for new development by the white government. It was surreal to be in a jazz club beneath St. George’s, the home church of Desmond Tutu, with a small apartheid gallery as you walk into the club, and then listening to a multi-racial band sing an incredible cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. And, of course, the historic weight of visiting Robbin Island, where Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his imprisonment, along with so many political prisoners, including seeing a small cave in the limestone mine which was used as the bathroom by the prisoners, and do to the heat and the smell was never visited by guards, so it was the only place these future national leaders could speak freely.
Of course, even though apartheid ended almost 30 years ago, there is still a staggering amount of economic inequality in the country. While going out a couple of nights in Cape Town, I realized that it was eerily similar to my nights out in Los Angeles. I went to “First Thursday” where many art galleries were free and open, and many bars displayed art and had live music all within walking distance, very similar to LA’s Downtown Art Walk. But beyond that, it was mostly a bunch of well-to-do white people, with attractive and well-dressed mostly white bartenders making craft cocktails, while the other serving work was done by native Africans. Substitute the native Africans with Latinos, and you basically have a night out in LA. Obviously, that is a far from perfect comparison, and I know there are vast amount of differences in both situations, but it was still another surreal experience.
Even though I didn’t do any work myself, learning more about South Africa personally, including some organizations still working to help the many people struggling economically, was an incredible experience. Between the inspiration of the incredible leaders of South Africa’s struggles and the proud self-reliant people of Kenya, I came away from Africa with such a heightened respect and role models that we could all be well-served to learn from.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu
From India, I flew to Africa to begin the next part of my journey. My African travels had to be changed around due to a rather fortunate problem to have: my passport was rapidly filling up with stamps and running out of space. My original itinerary was to begin in Kenya, then go to Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border, and finally to South Africa. For those of you that don’t know this, the USA no longer adds pages to passports, so a new passport is needed. Luckily, I noticed the passport issue before leaving India, and I was already going to be working on a project in Nairobi. So, I made an appointment at the US embassy in Nairobi, and found another program in Kenya so I could stay there for some additional time. Unfortunately, it meant that I had to cancel my Victoria Falls plans. That just gives me something to return for.
I arrived in the evening at the Nairobi airport and was met by a young man with a broad smile (which over the next few weeks I never saw leave his face) named Bonaey. He drove me to the Marafiki house on the outskirts of Nairobi. I booked my travel through Agape Volunteers, but Marafiki was the local partner organization that would oversee my placement. Marafiki means “friendship” in Swahili and they are involved in a variety of activities around Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya. That night and the next morning, I met other volunteers staying in the house and from a variety of countries. There were a few Americans and Brits, as well as others from Canada, Chile, Bolivia, Australia, and Spain.
These fellow travelers and volunteers were working in a variety of projects that Marafiki was involved in or connected to. Many were involved in health care (doctors, nurses, and EMTs in their home countries) and served in some of the clinics in the area. Other volunteers served at childcare centers, helping as teachers or in the direct care of children, as some of these centers also serve as homes. One young woman from the US was teaching women computer skills at a local community center. Others were helping at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons outside of Nairobi. In the aftermath of the disputed 2007 election in Kenya, there was violence around the country and many people fled to other parts of the country and are still living in these camps.
As usual, it was inspiring to meet all of these people who are willing to spend their precious vacation time helping others, and learning about the work they are doing and the struggles and triumphs they are experiencing, ranging from the limited education that a group of children are facing to the empowerment and new found confidence of a woman that has mastered a new computer skill.
As for myself, I worked on a few different projects with Marafiki. Originally, I was going to be working with an HIV/AIDS program in Nairobi. However, I was rather limited in that realm since I was only going to be there for a couple of weeks. Ideally, I would have volunteered with them for a month or more. Then I could have been trained and certified to do HIV testing and counseling independently. Instead, I spent just a few days at the clinic at the Kivuli Center. I sat in on the testing and counseling sessions, listening to Judy, the counselor, talk with the patients that came in and recording information in the log book. It was a humbling experience to be in the room with these people who were at such a vulnerable moment in their lives. People came in for a variety of reasons: routine testing (which has been strongly promoted in recent years), finding out that a partner had cheated on them, or exposure in some other way. For example, one young man had recently been involved in a fight and was bitten. People reacted to the test, and the counseling discussions, in a variety of ways. Some were calm and matter-of-fact about everything. Others, would avoid eye-contact and laugh nervously to personal questions, and their leg would be shaking throughout the session, especially while waiting for the results of the test strip.
Fortunately, due to medical advancements, as well as government efforts, HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence that it was 20 years ago. That being said, Kenya (along with Nigeria, South Africa, and many other African nations) are still dealing with the devastating effects of the spread of the disease and trying to stem the tide. All the tests performed during the 3 days I was at the clinic were negative. However, Judy told me that positive results have a range of reactions: calm acceptance, anger, denial. She told me that many people have become physically ill at the news. But part of her job is to help them with the transition and acceptance of this new reality.
Judy was one more example of the best of humanity. She is currently studying public health and wants to serve these communities because she has seen the pain and suffering that many go through, and how often HIV-positive patients can be ostracized, even within the healthcare community.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make the best impression on Judy. My first day at the clinic happened to be the same day as my morning appointment at the US embassy. I awoke early that morning to go to the embassy, grabbing a piece of toast on my way out and taking my malaria medication. I then went straight to the clinic after my embassy appointment and sat in the small office with Judy and the first consultation of the day. The day began to heat up, and the office started to feel stuffy. Then, I believe the malaria medication started to have a negative effect on my near-empty stomach, and I started to become light headed. I excused myself to go get some fresh air. I pulled the door shut behind me, and the next thing I knew, I was half-laying on the ground outside the door, with a woman yelling “Judy! Judy!” as she pounded on the door. As I came around, I made my way to a chair, telling the woman and Judy that I would be fine, I just needed to eat something. Judy fetched me a snack cake and a drink, and I sat in my shame, realizing that on my first day, I had been more of a burden than any kind of a help.
While at Kivuli, there were a couple of other experiences aside from the HIV testing. The center runs multiple programs to support the community. There is a school for boys, a workshop for refugees to create and sell handicrafts, even a small radio station that broadcasts news in some of the various tribal languages. I met a man named Genesis who overcame living as an adolescent in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa and is now involved with Kivuli as well as other programs, including in his home village.
As it happened, a couple of days after meeting Genesis, I visited Kibera with the Marafiki group. We walked through the refuse-filled streets following our guide Benta. When viewed from a distance, the slum, of about 1 million people, seems to almost have been built by placing a countless number of tin shacks upon a giant landfill. Benta took us to a few workshops, similar to that at Kivuli, where people make trinkets to sell when they can. But more importantly, she took us to her organization in Kibera: the Julie Hope Children & Rescue Center. The organization operates as a school and general child welfare group, including housing for a few of the children. The important aspect of this organization is that the children have been affected in one way or another by HIV, whether it is a parent or themselves that is infected. Benta openly acknowledges being HIV-positive herself. But if she was ever distraught about her diagnosis, that must have been long ago, because she was one of the most glowing and optimistic people I have ever met. We bought some food for the school to bring with us and brought it to the shack that doubled as a school and home for Benta and a few of the children that are HIV-positive. Benta monitors the children’s medication, as the children at the center, at least the ones we met, are around ages 4 to 9. The children welcomed us with a song as well as the common phrase that many of us recognize from The Lion King: “Hakuna Matata”.
One boy caught my eye. He was one of the younger children, maybe 5 years old, and wearing a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. I wanted to get my picture taken with him. He obviously felt special to be singled out, although I’m sure he had no idea why. The reality of the situation, though, is not all that happy. It was a ragged T-shirt, with “Fukodome” written on the back; a player from about 10 years ago. The shirt was donated at some point, and the boy probably has little to no idea of what it really is. He might not even like it, but that is the shirt that he wears because it is the shirt available to him.
Since I wasn’t going to be as much help as I had hoped at the HIV testing center, I decided to volunteer my second week in Massai land. The Massai are one of the more than 40 tribes in Kenya, and one that has most strongly held on to its culture of herding cattle. Images that may pop into your head if “Kenyan tribe” is mentioned: slender men in red cloth holding a long spear; that is Massai. Additionally, the Massai-Mara natural reserve is the Kenyan side of the Serengeti and home to many of the African safari animals.
Early Sunday morning, a group of us climbed into a 4×4 vehicle to leave Nairobi and take us into the bush. Some were simply doing a 3-day safari around the nature reserve, while Kyla, a young woman from Canada, and I would be staying with them the first 2 nights, and then going to another village to help at a local school that Marafiki helped to construct. As we came closer to our destination, and entered the savannah area, we began to see the African wildlife, zebras, giraffes, and a variety of antelope species, gently ambling alongside the dirt roads we were traveling.
Izzo, the director of Marafiki, has been busy in the Massai area, and has many plans. He is in the process of building a mid-range safari camp both for tourists and volunteers. As part of that more permanent physical presence, they have already set up a new water supply for the village, piping in water from a spring up in the hills, so that it is much cleaner than the stream that runs openly by the village. They are also working on some agricultural education projects to help the local farmers increase their productivity. These include using a new type of grass and feeding method for goats in order to decrease the grazing impact on the area. In support of this, the task for Kyla and me during our time there, while the others were on safari, was helping build a goat pen. This would be used to raise the goats in this new way to serve as a demonstration for the local populace, as they need to see results before being willing to adopt a new style of raising their animals.
After a few days of fencing the pen, and many resultant cuts and blisters, it was time for our next project. While the safari-goers would be heading back to Nairobi, Kyla and I were to head with Sheldon and Dan, two of the Marafiki workers, to the next Massai village. However, there had been steady rains over the past few days, washing out the roads to the village. So, the 4×4 vehicle couldn’t make it. Instead, we would be traveling by “peeky-peeky” which are the local motorcycle-taxis.
We each got behind a driver on their beat-up bikes, along with one other bike that was loaded with more of our luggage and supplies. Then we headed through the countryside of Massai-land. Passing groups of people walking along the roads, who would smile and wave at the passing “mzungus” (white people” on the motorbikes. We occasionally had to make some interesting water crossings, sometimes by getting off the bikes and wading across after the motorbikes were carefully driven across. It was a fun new experience of travelling through this country. I even was allowed to take one for a quick spin myself a couple of days later.
After about an hour, we arrived at a tiny village seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We were taken to a group of three “manyattas”, traditional Massai dwellings, which are made of sticks, mud, and cow dung. This was to be our home for the next few days, sleeping on mattresses laid out on bed frames fashioned from sticks.
While enjoying the simple life of this rural village with the African plains spread out before us under a wide-open sky, we walked a few hundred meters each day to help at the small village school. We didn’t work with the children directly, but rather did simple tasks that had been on the back-burner around the school: painting, making up posters, attaching protective covers to the textbooks. This is one of the key features that most people need to understand about “voluntourism”: often the necessary tasks where you can be of the most help are the simple behind-the-scenes jobs. It doesn’t make for great Instagram posts, but it helps thing work better and frees up the teachers and staff to focus on educating the children.
However, occasionally we would interact with the children. Many of them would often walk miles to attend the school. They would walk by our manyattas and smile and wave. Some mornings, I would walk to the school to collect water from the rain cistern around the same time some children were arriving. I would talk with them, although they were often extremely shy, giggling and looking away if I spoke directly to one. I played a couple of games with them, and sang simple songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” just to have a bit more interaction than just them crowding around and watching the mzungu.
It was striking to see the simplicity of the school. The students would run around and play in the open grassland around the school during their recess. (One of our tasks was to clear away the thorn bushes that were so prevalent). They had no playground equipment, other than perhaps a soccer ball and a makeshift jump rope. They were called back to class with an old-style hand bell. There were no computers or technology of any kind, only desks, books, posters, and chalkboards. It was basically the type of classrooms you would expect in the first half of the 20th century. However, there is truly a desire for education amongst many people. Dan, the Marafiki worker staying with us in the village, is Massai. He actually left home because, while his parents wanted him to settle into the traditional lifestyle, he wanted to continue his education. He enrolled the help of his grandmother to argue his case. Not because his grandmother had a particularly noble view of education. Rather it was because, like grandmothers around the world, she was willing to give her grandson almost anything he wanted!
Our last day at the village, we walked up into some of the nearby hills, where the savannah plains turned into an almost jungle like atmosphere. This dense forested area is where the local boys will leave their families for an extended period of time during adolescence as part of their journey into manhood. Early the following morning, I left with Sheldon to make our way back to Nairobi. Kyla and Dan were returning to the original village we stayed at in order to join up with a new safari group.
I spent a couple more nights at the Marafiki house with the volunteers, including a St. Patrick’s Day night out. That Monday morning, I went back to the embassy to pick up my new passport. Then, in the evening, I was picked up for the next part of my African experience.
Marafiki: The local organization in Kenya I worked with during my first two weeks in Kenya
Kivuli Center: A local community center run by the Koinonia community outside of Nairobi that offers a variety of health and education services. This is where I worked with the HIV testing & counseling.