Into Africa – Part 1

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.

Looking towards Nairobi from the Marafiki house

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.

Volunteers socializing at the Marafiki house

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.

The HIV counseling office at Kivuli center

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.

Health services offered at the Kivuli Center

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.

Judy carrying some necessities for an elderly woman in need

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.

Children playing in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa

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.

On the way to Massai-land

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.


The goat pen I helped build, and the water tanks that Marafiki set up to help the local Massai village

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.

Travelling through Massai-land on a “peeky-peeky”

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.

One of our “manyattas”

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.

Kyla, Dan, and Sheldon helping out at the school

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.

Children playing in the open field in front of the school

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!

A cave where adolescent Massai boys will sleep when preparing for manhood

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.


More Information

Agape Volunteers: The website/organization I used to book my program in Nairobi

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.

Julie Hope Children & Rescue Center: A children’s organization in Kibera that is focused on children affected by HIV.