After an acquaintance (who traveled through the Galapagos Islands with me in 2012) suggested I start doing things for myself, I decided to take a trip to Africa. Consulting my proverbial bucket list, I concluded that Africa was not to become a holiday destination — the trip was an effort to rediscover myself, to remember who I am and what excites me. To that end, I explored the possibilities for turning it into a volunteer working vacation.
After much due diligence, I made arrangements through International Volunteer HQ, a New Zealand firm that provides volunteer programs in developing countries worldwide. I selected a three-week program that would fit my Christmas holiday schedule, opting for volunteer work at an orphanage in Kenya.
I chose the Kenya Masai Mara program because it fulfilled many things on that bucket list.
Jane Goodall was in the wings
At a very early age, I had fantasized about working alongside famed British anthropologist Louis Leaky after learning of the 1974 discovery of “Lucy” by Leakey's team in Kenya's Great Rift Valley trench. I got to see Lucy, whose skeleton is said to be 3.2 million years old, in Nairobi's National Museum. I thought that perhaps I could be another Jane Goodall, who got her start with Leakey. After all, she was just a young college student who happened to be at the right place at the right time; she was given the task of studying the Bonobo monkeys in the Congo, and — well, you know the rest.
Additionally, I have always wanted to go on safari. After an eight-hour venture into the valley, I and other volunteers got to see the animals loosely termed the Big Five – the lion, the African elephant, the Cape buffalo, the leopard and the rhinoceros – up close and personal. I enjoyed my one hot shower on the entire trip in my safari tent!
And what about the tall, beautiful Masai people? The contrast of the Masai draped in colorful red and orange cloaks and beads against the greening pastures, blue skies and acacia trees kept our cameras busy.
Nairobi, San Diego are similar
As my favorite movie of all time is “Out of Africa,” I was thrilled to stand on the front porch of writer Karen Blixen’s home and imagine what it was like to live as she did during a patriarchal period of modern African history (Blixen, who died in 1962, penned her account of her life in Kenya under the name of Isak Dinesen). I enjoyed a sloppy kiss from a Rothschild giraffe and laughed as the baby elephants playfully enjoyed their lunch at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, located near Nairobi National Park.
After 24 hours, several in-flight movies and a span of 18 days, I concluded that Nairobi in general is very similar to San Diego. The climate and vegetation seemed familiar, and I found Kenyans to be very friendly in general, quite beautiful and of the Christian faith. English and Kiswahili are the official languages, and most Kenyans have their own tribal language as well.
I was not chosen to be sent to a rural community for my volunteer work, as I had hoped, but found myself staying in the second largest slum in Nairobi. My homestay was in a (fairly) western-style home. I bunked and volunteered together with a lovely young gal from Canada (half my age) and shared the (cold) shower and bathroom with several young volunteer adults from various parts of the world.
A mountain of potatoes
I had the privilege of sharing the home of Pastor Regina and her husband Pastor George (who ran the orphanage at which I volunteered), and their two younger children, McKenna and Vicki. I became good friends with Jane, the housekeeper. Most things we needed were available in the slum, including bottled water, an electrical current converter, flip-flops, toilet paper and fresh fruit and veggies. Each morning, we enjoyed Chai tea, which consists of milk cooked the night before, mixed with brown sugar and tea and made with love.
Grace Academy Lighthouse orphanage was a 20-minute walk through the slum. Our work included wrapping protective plastic around new textbooks, teaching classes and art projects, such as stringing beads for necklaces and bracelets (a favorite among the kids), peeling a mountain of potatoes and playing an invigorating game of basketball. Most of the children are HIV orphans, blessed by the good work of orphanage founders.
The orphanage has a rainwater system that provides water, warm quarters to sleep (often two to a bunk), a solid meal a day and a full curriculum. All the money to run the facility comes from local donations and church members. Many orphanages do not fare as well – no running water, little food, poor accommodations and greedy overseers, resulting in sickly, unattended children. Meanwhile, the volunteers visited the local mall, picking up supplies such as writing paper, scissors, pencils, knives (for peeling potatoes), tape and tape dispensers, books and whatever we felt was needed.
The boys need to visit Africa
The children were gracious and well mannered. People go out of their way to open their homes to you, even if the home is a one-room apartment with a charcoal stove. The Kenyans' strong Christian beliefs sustain them during difficult times and provides hope for the future.
I traveled to Africa to give of my time, with the hope of making someone’s life a tiny bit better. What I brought back was so much more than I could have imagined (my first desire upon returning home was to send my two boys to Africa for a dose of humbling).
We are a gluttonous society, so caught up in our material world, working harder so we can have more, while too many people have too little or nothing at all. The Masai have survived on the milk and blood of their cattle, and the millions of slum dwellers live day to day hoping for a meal. I saw orphans who feel blessed to have a warm bed at night and count on a meal the next day. They feel lucky to be given the chance for an education. I met people who appreciate the kindness of others and are not concerned about the type of car you drive or what designer purse you purchased.
I may have put a smile on a child’s face or provided some temporary supplies for one small orphanage, but what I brought home made an impression on me that will last a lifetime.