My first 3 days in Kenya were totally overwhelming and incredible! I had registered for a volunteer placement with IVHQ at a Special Needs Centre and had zero idea what to expect. Here's an account of my first 3 days. I hope it can give you an insight into what to expect if you are travelling to Kenya or volunteering for the first time.
Day 1: First day in Nairobi
I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Airport at 8pm and boarded a bus on the tarmac to be transported to arrivals. The visa on entry was US$50 and customs was a breeze. Once I’d made my way outside to the arrivals area, there was nobody waiting to pick me up. A lady approached me and kindly called the volunteer company for me. Another girl who overheard our conversation was volunteering with the same company, and happened to be from Sydney. We waited about 15 minutes for Moses to arrive, who had been on the other side of the airport picking up an Irish girl. We had already experienced our first TIA (This is Africa) moment, with I'm sure many more to come.
Coming out of the airport at first, the area seemed more built up than I had been expecting with billboards, car dealerships and shopping malls. The further we travelled out though, we passed more stalls on the side of the road and people out and about on the streets in the middle of the night. The traffic was organised chaos, but honestly not as bad as I’ve experienced in South East Asian Countries. And naturally, seat belts and indicators are optional! For anyone that has travelled to SE Asia, Africa at first impressions is not as much of a culture shock as you’d expect.
We spent the first night at a homestay in a gated government compound with armed guards, about half an hour out of the airport. There were quite a few volunteers that had arrived earlier in the day, as well as volunteers who had been placed there for weeks. Among them, a guy from China, one from England, two girls from England, and two girls from different states in America. The two English girls, on a music teaching placement, were up creating music task books to leave for the kids, and had also planned a choir concert for their last day. They stayed up all night to make sure every child had their own book and it was clear that the volunteers here all want to leave a lasting impression. We stayed up for a while to get to know everyone in the lounge room, but still turned in fairly early due to exhaustion.
I woke at 5am to a rooster screaming its lungs out, and decided to freshen up and head down to the lounge room to get my bearings. The water in the shower barely ran at all, so I ended up having a baby wipe and deodorant shower for the most part.
Breakfast is simple in Kenya, usually some bread and a bit of fruit… but we were also spoilt with Mandazi, which are basically like cinnamon donuts. More volunteers arrived in the morning, making about 20 of us all up.
We had a 4 hour orientation for the volunteer program. The staff greeted us with a song and we learnt about the origins of IVHQ and their partner organisation, NVS, as well as safety information, and information about our individual placements. Another family of 3 from Canada were also doing the Special Needs program, however they were placed in Kibera and I was off to Rongai, solo. We were given a wholesome lunch of stew, rice, greens and chapati and sent off on our separate ways.
Driving through the ever-changing landscape of Kenya in the day was a tad more bizarre than I’d realised the night before. For half an hour we were driving on dusty, rocky paths lined with stalls, people, cows, chickens, goats and donkeys… and then suddenly we were on a highway lined by trees and wilderness. One thing I noticed in the clothes stalls, is that a coat hanger is placed in the dresses to stretch out the curves and hips… I LOVE IT!
By the time we arrived in Rongai, there were no sidewalks, traffic lights or signposts... Just people, cars, vans, animals and motorbikes everywhere!
I was thrilled to arrive at my homestay to the huge grins of the two cutest toddlers you have ever seen in your life! As soon as I got out of the car they squealed at the sight of my Simba pillow pet and immediately claimed it as their own. I was so overwhelmed with excitement that there were kids at my homestay, the nerves of staying in a completely unknown place with a family of complete strangers totally washed away! I didn’t even have the chance to put my bags down before there were children climbing all over me! I spent the afternoon sitting on the doorstep while the 2 house-help girls, Angela and Faith, did each others hair, and the kids played with tyres and empty water bottles... basically whatever they could get their hands on. I was also extremely lucky to find that my homestay had electricity, a functional toilet, and a running shower… music to my ears, as many of the other volunteers were given placements with drop toilets and bucket showers.
Hours later, the mother of the house, Diana, and an older volunteer from California, Vickie, walked through the gate. Diana was so apologetic that they were late, as they’d been to the market for food, but dinner wouldn’t be ready until late. She was so lovely and welcoming in every way, and I was so glad to have another volunteer around to show me the ropes. Immediately after dinner I went to bed, still jet-lagged.
I noticed a folder in the bedroom, that had been written by past volunteers, it had vital information about the centre, the homestay, the children and anything we could do while we were there to help leave the centre better than we left it; I read it as thoroughly as possible but I can't say that my exhausted brain absorbed very much at all.
Day 2: First day of placement at Ongata Special Home Care & Training Centre
So the daily routine is:
- Wake up at about 7am
- Breakfast at 8:30
- Walk up to the centre by 9 (about a 5 minute walk)
- Feed the children breakfast
- Take the children outside for some sunshine
- Feed the children lunch at 12
- Take the children inside for some TV
- Take a lunch break around 2 - go out, stay in or go home
- Back to the centre to spend time with the kids
- Feed the children dinner at 5:30
- Home by 6-6:30
- Dinner around 7:30
Of course I was anxious going to the Special Needs Centre (Ongata) for the first time, but I tried to go in with no expectations. I had attempted to remember as much as possible from the volunteer folder I’d read the previous night, however nothing could have prepared me for what I walked into.
As soon as we walked through the gate, there was wailing and screaming coming from the house. The yard was predominately dirt. The first person I met was Simon, an older boy who is wheelchair bound and loves sitting outside and just soaking up the sunshine. I was apprehensive to approach him, but Vickie went straight up and fist-bumped him and said ‘WASSUP SIMON’, and he broke out into a smile from ear to ear. It really put my mind at ease as I went in for another fist-bump and he introduced himself.
I met some of the staff who were around the back, doing laundry and dishes out of buckets on the floor. We put our bags away in the office upstairs, and I took a deep breath before opening the doors to the main room where all the kids were. It was mayhem! They were so excited to see us, they all started screaming and making noise.
We arrived just as they were finishing breakfast so there was mess everywhere! Many of the kids can’t swallow or keep food down properly, so there was food everywhere. The screaming was coming from one of the girls, Hannah, at the back of the room, who does this almost non-stop every day.
I walked around, following Vickie’s lead, introducing myself to all the kids - many of whom are deaf or don’t understand, but we made sure to shake each of their hands, touch their arm, or their head to say hello. Something suddenly crushed my foot, I looked down and there was a large boy (probably late teens, or even early 20’s - it’s impossible to tell the age of some of them), David, crawling over the floor to get into the hallway.
Godfrey, who is permanently chair bound was the happiest boy I have ever seen in my life - laughing hysterically at every move we made. There were other children splayed over the floor, if they had rolled off their mattresses or had given up crawling halfway across the room. It was certainly an overwhelming experience walking into this place for the first time, and one I can never fully describe.
Majority of these kids have cerebral palsy, some with brain injuries, and even one that was just abandoned on the street and has severe behavioural issues. I have been volunteering at Very Special Kids (VSK) in Melbourne for months, and it’s incredible to see the vast differences between the centres.
Firstly, VSK is a hospice which takes a child for up to two weeks of rest. Ongata is an orphanage for children that are mostly abandoned, and some whose families are just incapable of caring for them. VSK only ever takes 8 children at a time, and at minimum has 2 registered nurses, an office lady, a cook, a cleaner and 1-2 volunteers. Ongata cares for 26 children, and has a permanent staff of 1 teacher, 3 carers, 1 cook, the 2 owners (also my homestay parents) who are in and out all the time.
VSK has world-class equipment, basically everything they could possibly need for their children, adjustable beds, high-tech wheelchairs, braces, hoists to get into the bath etc... Most of the children at Ongata wear diapers that only get changed once a day (due to lack of supplies) and will never experience a bath in their lifetime. I could go on and on about the differences! However the one universal similarity is that all any of these kids really want is to be loved. You can see that the staff love each and every one of the children, but they work so hard that they really don’t have the time or energy to show each child the attention and affection that they need.
As a volunteer, we are not expected to change diapers, lift the children or do anything that we’re not comfortable, all that is asked of us is to show them affection and attention. Of course, we help wherever we can by feeding them, changing them if they’re dirty or lifting them outside to play. One thing I never really felt at VSK was needed… they have so much help and time offered to them, and so many staff on call, sometimes I would literally stand there looking around for something to do. Of course, in a place like that, no matter if you’re in Kenya or Australia, there is always something to do… but I would feel lost! Here at Ongata, there is 20+ kids vying for your attention all at once, laundry to be done, dishes to be washed, floors to be mopped, equipment to be fixed, dinner to be cooked, you name it! One thing I certainly did not feel was lost.
I spent the morning outside, trying to learn as many names as possible, and shadowed Vickie, even though she’d only been there for three days before me. Just before lunch, I went inside to find that a class was taking place with just four of the children. It’s so hard to know which of these kids can comprehend teaching in a conventional manner, but if there’s one thing I learnt from VSK, it’s to never underestimate the intelligence of a kid, just because they may not be able to communicate in the usual way that we do.
I sat in on the class and Stella, the teacher, spoke in English mostly or translated for me. I expected to walk into a class doing simple maths equations, or learning some basic English words… basically I expected something very primary. You want to know what the lesson was in? Accepting the less fortunate! Here were a bunch of kids dealt a really shit hand in life who rely solely on this centre for care, and they were engaging in a discussion about love and acceptance.
Stella told a story from the newspaper about a woman who locked her disabled child in the bathroom and never let them out of the house, and she asked the kids why would the woman do this? Their level of understanding and comprehension absolutely BLEW MY MIND! The reasons they came up with included 'maybe the mother was embarrassed of the child', 'maybe she would be disrespected by the community if she took the child out in public', or even that 'she might be scared that the government would take the child away if they saw how it was being treated by her'.
Stella then explained to them that the less fortunate doesn’t just mean disabled people, but that ‘less fortunate’ can mean sick, poor, or a million other things, but that the true definition is ‘lacking something’… that most people lack one or two aspects in their life that they may need assistance with, if others are generous enough to offer it. She added that even though these kids are disabled, if they can offer to help others in any way, they should always aspire to do so. I had a quick look at the text book, and it was a religion-based curriculum, but the lessons were so universal, that I learnt so much myself in that class. Stella then pointed to me, and explained that’s why myself and other volunteers came to help them, because we love and we care… but honestly I could never have put the lesson as eloquently as the way she did.
I pulled out a world map and showed them where I come from, and how long it took me to get from Melbourne to Kenya - they squealed with delight and yelled ‘Great! Great! Thank you!’ in Swahili.
When Stella left the class for something, I took it upon myself to learn some more about the kids. Simon helped me with my Swahili. ‘Chakula gani unapenda?’ I asked, which means ‘what is your favourite food?’ - much more elementary than ‘why should we accept the less fortunate?’ I know… but I was learning too! I replaced Chakula (food) with anything that I could think of, Matunda (fruit), Wanyama (animal) etc… Not only did I learn that Simon and David both loved meat and dogs, but that David must really admire Simon because he would copy all of his answers. I learnt that Elizabeth’s favourite food was rice, and her favourite animal was chickens, because that’s all she’s ever really known. We compared differences between animals and meats that we have in Australia, when I proceeded to draw the most ridiculous looking kangaroo you've ever seen, which looked more like a rabid dog-rat than anything.
We then helped feed the kids their lunch of rice and beans before we headed out for lunch ourselves down at the local Reeds Hotel with Diana, and to pinch some free wifi. Chicken and chips, with soft-drink to feed 3 people cost about $8!
In the afternoon Vickie and I jumped on a Piki (a motorcycle) to be driven down to the supermarket to buy some supplies, and then walked down to the market for some fruit and veg. The Pikis are terrifying and amazing fun all at the same time! Remember, this was on a tiny bit of asphalt, with no marked lanes, no traffic lights or stop signs, and is lined by dirt - no pavement! The Pikis don’t abide by any kind of road rules, they weave in and out of the traffic, on the dirt through people and over bumps and rocks, however they are the easiest means of getting around and cost 50cents each way…I’m sure it’s also hilarious and bizarre for the locals to see the two Mzungus (white people) on a Piki.
Vickie shouted us all pizza and drinks for dinner, which was definitely not the meal I expected to have on my second day in Africa, but it was surprisingly good pizza! We got our homestay parents pretty tipsy, but I was too exhausted, I turned in early before the party really go tstarted!
Day 3: Saturday Adventures
Volunteers aren’t expected to work on Saturdays, but seeing as I had only done one day of placement, I didn’t want to sit at home on my ass, and the jet-lag was finally starting to wear off. We walked up and fed the kids breakfast and spent a little bit of time with them. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking Pikis back and forth to get things from the store.
I spent an hour sitting at the bank (forgetting that it was Saturday), to try and exchange some money. I knew I would need US dollars, and had figured when I was in the US it would be easier to just get some money out at the ATM than to go to an exchange placefor cash… The problem with that was that it spat out a lot of old notes that had been in circulation with markings and folds in them. It was a huge issue! The bank will not accept any notes older than 2006, or with any markings on them at all. I had already tried the previous day, and only managed to get one $20 note exchanged, so this time I went prepared with the best notes I could find worth $200… it has been ridiculously annoying, so warning to anybody travelling to Africa to check your notes before you go! I wish I had’ve been more prepared so I wouldn't have to waste so much time in banks. I wasted another half an hour trying to organise a SIM card for my phone (again, for the second time, as for same strange reason they require your passport to register the SIM if you're a foreigner). I also bought some data, which still will not load onto the phone, so I have to go back a third time to figure it all out. But... TIA (This is Africa)! We were told in orientation to adapt to Kenya time… people are always late, things take a long time and you just have to go with the flow. HAKUNA MATATA!
We caught a Matatu back (basically a public transport minivan) as Vickie had bought some large things that wouldn't fit on a Piki. It was the first time we’d really got harassed by anybody - a drunk man who sat next to Vickie while we waited for the van to take off and begged for money and food and for all of the items she had just bought. He started to get up really close and touch her, but she was very assertive and got rid of him by giving him 100 Kenyan shillings ($1). He then got off the matatu and came around to the side, where my window was open, sticking his hands in, and trying to take off my watch and bracelet. Usually I wouldn't be so assertive in such a confronting situation but I followed Vickie’s lead in strongly telling him no and ignoring him.
So after what seemed like a very unproductive afternoon, we decided to head out for a few Saturday night drinks! Again, this is where I’m so lucky to have Vickie here, because never in a million years would I have gone out for drinks without company, but she had made friends with her Maasai Mara safari driver, Zak, who coincidentally happened to be our neighbour! Zak and a friend of his, Dan, accompanied us up the road to Ladida - a local bar. Of course I was still on my guard, because 2 Mzungu women stick out like a sore thumb in Rongai and can be a target, but I had no reason to worry at all. We had a roast chicken feast that took 2 hours to come out after we'd ordered (Will I ever adapt to this TIA philosophy? I don't know!). I got on the strawberry wine, as I had been unsuccessful in finding a Kenyan cider, while the others downed a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label (Table Service, Hells yeah!).
Now this might be TMI (too much information), but after 3 days in Kenya, the time for number twos FINALLY came… and it got urgent pretty quickly. The bar restrooms had no toilet paper, and no locks on the door… and I just wasn’t prepared to be that loose 3 days into my trip (Though I’m sure by the time I hit Cape Town, no fucks at all will be given!) We walked down to Reeds, where we knew the restrooms were up to standards… and OH the relief of a clean toilet and adequate paper!
By the time I came out, there was another bottle of Red Label and Strawberry wine on the table… OH MY! The group were all laughing, asking if I’d ‘gone driving?’ I was so confused until they explained that in Kenya, this is slang pooping… 'Oh yep, in that case I went for a big old cruise down the highway!!’ After I said this I had everybody in hysterics.
Another older man, Pearce, was sitting with the group, who I later learnt is the owner of the Hotel. A lot of people here are interested in why we've come to this part of the world, so often we have a lot of random conversations walking down the street and always make sure to tell the locals about the Centre and the needs of the kids. It's amazing that most of the community isn't aware of what’s right here in their backyard, and we wanted to help break the stigma around disability in Kenya.
Pearce seemed very interested, so we told him all about it. We cheers’d to new friends, and Pearce explained that you must spill the first drops of your drink onto the ground to appease the ancestors (a custom I later learnt is actually a thing on my overland tour, so he wasn't just taking the piss). The conversation then turned to other local beliefs, customs and traditions.
"If you step in elephant shit, you won’t see any animals on your safari." -Zak
Dan had also made an assumption that Vickie was a lesbian, because of her short hair. It is definitely not a topic I would have brought up myself, and one conversation I NEVER thought I would have with local Kenyans, but we ended up talking about gay marriage, and pretty much every topic under the sun that you are told NOT to bring up around locals out of respect. We ended up back at Zak’s house to wind down, and listen to some music. It was definitely a night to remember!