Many travellers are choosing to shed the comfort of vacation destinations to travel abroad on volunteer placements. Voluntourism offers a more substantial experience than simply traveling overseas; you find what you take back home afterward is infinitely more valuable than what you were able to donate. I wanted to give a little bit of time to Africa, but had no idea before I went what Africa would give to me.
Kenya has a hint of the familiar in its chemistry-beaches, forests, mountains, and animals-but at heart lies a touch of the bizarre. Kenya is an equatorial country on the eastern coast of Africa, and despite the warnings of heat stroke, dehydration and all the other stereotypical concerns about entering a country composed mostly of savannah and desert, it had a very cool, temperate climate. It was July on the equator and I wore a jacket at night.
When I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, I realised this trip was going to be far from the pages of better-pina-colladas-on-the-beach-digest. I caught a taxi and sat awestruck in the back as the driver manoeuvred the pot-hole ridden streets to deliver me to my hotel in the centre of Nairobi where my voluntourism experience began.
I stayed at the Hotel Kipepeo ($85 AUD/ night) on River Road in the centre of Nairobi across from the Bank of Africa. There were several armed guards patrolling the streets around the bank and the hotel; there was the illusion of safety but the knawing anxiety of why so much was necessary.
The room was simplicity itself; beds with white-mesh mosquito nets, a bedside table, a lamp and a shower that never reached a temperature past lukewarm. I was only staying two nights, there was not much else I needed.
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There was a buffet style restaurant in the lobby serving Stewed Goat and Chicken (Around $12 USD billed to room) with boiled potatoes, steamed cabbage and bread. The food was locally sourced and fantastically different than any type of cuisine I was accustomed to. The spices used in African cooking are much like the country itself; bold and adventurous.
I had a balcony off of my room above the street market selling hand-carved masks, banana leaf paintings and traditional Massai weaponry. The market erupted in excitement whenever a tourist walked in the vicinity. I found the attention too overbearing to handle, and my instincts to haggle for the best price went straight out the window. I regrouped on my balcony with a new game-plan and from my birds-eye perch spotted the item I coveted, a hand-carved black hippopotamus mask. I ran across the street and ducked behind a car near the vendors stall throwing eight shillings toward the vendors hand before anyone could spot me, take it or leave it. He took it.
Most travellers stay in Nairobi only long enough to take stock and make some travel arrangements before heading on to safari destinations. I felt the city was set up with the façade of hospitality; a buzz of vitality coming from night clubs, bars and live music venues that would not exist if not for the influx of tourists coming and going through the city. I had taken it in, and like all the other traveller’s was ready to set off and experience something wilder.
The drive north from Nairobi along the A104 highway was an adventure within itself. Every pot hole in the road propelled my body into the seat in front of me, the sliding windows waiting to slam shut on any appendage you have unfortunately laid on the window sill.
Every 20 kilometers there was a police road block; men adorning full military attire and equipped with assault rifles trying to catch refugees from Ethiopia and Tanzania sneaking across the borders, according to my guide.
Zebras would casually graze in front of the van with no regard for anyone’s time schedule, and you continuously got stuck in traffic behind a waterbuck pulling a cart at its own pace. This gave a respite from the feeling of near-death when the driver tried to overtake trucks on the two-lane highway, allowing you to absorb the beauty of the Great Rift Valley outside your window.
I arrived 160 grueling kilometres later at my next destination which was Lake Nakuru, where the pristine waters of the lake are freckled with thousands of pink flamingos and the savannah was right outside of my hotel waiting to be explored.
I stayed at Lake Nakuru Lodge ($300 USD/night) and took in the wonders of Lake Nakuru National Park under the guide of the hotel’s gamekeeper, which was included in the stay. The hotel grounds were immaculately kept with one of the best views you could ever imagine from the dining veranda. The rooms were comfortable and equipped with much needed mosquito nets. It was hard to get a good night sleep with the black faced vervet monkeys banging on the rooms tin roof all night and the constant buzz of mosquitos bouncing off the nets, but I didn’t expect anything different from Africa.
The hotels guide drove an armoured van and showed us the splendour of the grounds and the diversity of the animals which included black and white rhino, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and lions among many other fascinating animals.
The day ended with the highlight of the van getting charged and bumped by a rhino we got too close to. If you frighten easy I would suggest visiting a different country than Africa.
With two days of leisure at Lake Nakuru Lodge behind me it was time to get down to the reason I had made the trip in the first place; CMD.
I spent my time in Nakuru Town working at the Christian Ministries to the Destitute (CMD), which was founded in 2000 by the Rev. Gladys Wekesa. CMD was started to give care to the orphans in Nakuru Town and hopefully strengthen the community.
As I walked the streets of Nakuru Town to the orphanage it was obvious that poverty had hit hard and was here to stay. Lake Nakuru Lodge seemed like a fictitious oasis compared to the brute reality of the surrounding community. The houses were dilapidated with broken glass cemented into the top of the walls posing as makeshift barbed wire. There were plastic bags buried under dirt on every street and children running around free and alone.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got to CMD but all my anxiety was quickly dismissed by the warm welcome I received on my arrival. There were little kids chasing chickens, songs being sung by the playground, people working the soil of a garden stretching the far right wall of the enclosure and squealing laughter imitating from every corner of the grounds.
This orphanage was the diamond buried in the rough of my original perception of Nakuru. Living at CMD for the next week I saw this institution was a great model and held the hope for the surrounding community. CMD recruits homeless children straight from the streets and gives them an education and hope for a future they would not get anywhere else; now with over 100 children calling CMD home. It is donation funded yet largely self-sufficient with teachers, cooks, nurses and pastors living and working the orphanage.
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I would help plant Kale in the garden called “Sukuma Wiki”, which translated from Swahili to “to push the week”. When food was scarce the orphanage would harvest the garden to sustain until they could acquire more supplies.
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The general sustenance of CMD was stew and rice. There were many goats and cows roaming around the streets, so needless to say the stew consisted predominantly of goat or beef with potatoes, carrots and a cumin spice base. I gave English lessons to some of the older boys, we played football and ate and slept. This was life at the orphanage.
Kenya is being put on the map by many organizations like CMD that refuse to let a lack of resources and support inhibit the growth of their communities. My time in Kenya and working at the orphanage was invaluable and altered my view of the world that I am a part of permanently; which is what traveling is supposed to do.
CMD is just one of many institutions around the world that believe caring and nurturing the youth will strengthen the community as a whole. There is no right or wrong way to get involved in voluntourism, so long as you find an organisation that shares your passion to help and belief in causing good in the world. If you go with the mindset to create change, whether in yourself or the community, I assure you you will.