Sometimes you just feel a calling somewhere. For more than a year I felt a pull to volunteer in Africa. The timing and money were always my reasons for not making the leap. This spring, though, the pull outweighed the excuses. I had never left the country before so there was quite a bit to get in order — passport, visa, vaccinations (8 of ‘em!) and the right volunteer organization. I settled with Agape Volunteers and booked a one-month teaching trip to Kenya for all of May.
What I experienced over those four weeks really cannot be put into words from a fulfillment standpoint. But this is my best attempt at doing so. From the diverse array of people I met, the fun-spirited kids I taught, and the jaw-dropping places I went, this trip was undoubtedly a chance-of-a-lifetime experience. I listed “imprints” in the headline of this post because, frankly, these were more than just moments or memories that fade. They’re tattooed on my heart forever.
Teaching at St. Fabian
“You’ll be four years younger by the time you leave.”
The school’s principal, Cecilia, told me this before I started — suggesting the kids would inject a fountain-of-youth-esque energy with their grace. She was spot on. While some days were rigorous, the outpouring of love from the children provided a distinct fuel to my spirit. If I was tired or drained, their love and curiosity kept me going. There was never a day where I didn’t get a hug or a fist pound or a kid tugging me to hold their hand while playing soccer on the field.
I taught Math, Social Studies, English and Computer classes for pre-school-second grade. I’ll quickly admit that teaching was far from easy and I left St. Fabian knowing two things. 1.) It’s not my calling. I whole-heartedly loved the experience but I’d be lying if I said the four weeks weren’t mentally exhausting and demanding. 2.) My time at St. Fabian left me with massive respect for teachers who pour their hearts into helping kids grow in so many facets. I was so inspired by the Kenyan teachers who educated the kids with such diligence and persistence. And their strengths as teachers allowed me to fit into a role where I could thrive — either as their assistant or teaching the lessons on my own.
Perhaps the best part of the experience, aside from the kids melting my heart on a regular basis, was my friendship with Cecilia, a woman of deep faith who created the school from the ground up and doesn’t let little things deter her from driving a well-oiled machine. Schools in Kenya drastically lack the resources that many of us enjoyed growing up. But whatever St. Fabian lacked in school supplies or staff, it made up for it with true grace. The respect Cecilia and I developed for each other through religion and a passion to help people speaks volumes to how love is a language that doesn’t see two people from strikingly different cultures and lifestyles. It’s a language that pierces through as a mechanism of the heart. “God brought you to help us,” she said on several occasions. I felt like I was the one who was truly helped by the time I left.
Therapy at Mary Faith
“I get my justice by helping these children heal.”
Mary, the founder of the children’s shelter I volunteered at for my final week in Nairobi, spoke of what inspired her to start a rescue center for kids who have been sexually and physically abused. She told me she was a rape victim as a child and bluntly affirmed that the internal pain never goes away, at least mentally. Her peace comes through taking kids out of abusive homes and giving them a place to heal, most of the time by fighting the abusive parents in court. Mary and her fellow caretakers briefed me on some of the children’s backgrounds. I was introduced to one child who had burn marks up and down his body from his father’s abuse. The shelter, which also filters into its own school, gives these kids a much-needed place of solace. They all share similar wounds and grow together, free from the pain that still unquestionably haunts them.
Most of the victims at the shelter are female so my presence as a non-violent male was helpful, I was told. I ended up serving as a therapist/counsellor for two boys, Austin and Kevin, who had both been horrifically abused. At that age, what happened to them is not something they appeared to be able to process yet. There was a deadness factor of suppressed pain that became evident early on. On the surface, they’re both fun-loving kids who blend in with their classmates. But beneath it, their hearts and souls are completely traumatized. I could feel it. But I also recognized how the pain made their hearts that much bigger and loving. Whenever we’d hang out together, we’d play soccer, make funny videos, create Fresh Prince-like secret handshakes (see below), and most frequently draw pictures. We became the “Three Musketeers” together.
Typing we is a true privilege with these two, as they both made a deep impact on my heart. The memories of simply drawing pictures with them has restored peace to a broken part of myself that desperately needed healing. My only hope is that, in some small way, I was able to plant a seed of love to help them later in life when they’re able to confront the inner turmoil that will likely be numb until their 20s.
I can still hear the singing in my head from my final day at Mary Faith. All the kids from the shelter gathered together for a “Thank You” song that left me choked up. Then some of the caretakers shared a few words. “May the impact you made bring you the same 10 times over,” one of them said. “God will bring you back to us,” another said. I hope so.
If I hadn’t gotten culture shock already when I got picked up from the airport in Nairobi, I certainly got it the next day when I rode in a Matatu to go grocery shopping. They’re these jam-packed vans that play obnoxiously loud music and shuffle as many bodies in as possible. They make the Red Line in Chicago look like Air Force One. During my stay I lived at a volunteer house in Waithaka, which wasn’t quite as nice as the city of Nairobi and also not as low-class as the slums. It was, however, dangerous enough to where we needed house body guards with poison arrows. At first, the living environment was daunting and hard to take in. But it soon became one of my favorite parts of my trip because I felt embedded in the community — a far cry from a tourist. The language barrier wasn’t difficult at all either since most Kenyans, while speaking Swahili as their first language, speak English as a second language fluently.
I quickly felt the reality of being a minority based on blatant staring on the streets. Kenyans would constantly shout out “Muzungo” (which means white person in Swahili) at white folks when they spotted one out of novelty or angst at the idea of class. In a group of other volunteers, it didn’t unsettle me too much. But when walking by myself to school or the shelter, the mocking and racial jabs certainly stirred up some anxiety. As a whole, though, I found everyone in Kenya to be very embracing. I’d highly recommend anyone who’s searching for purpose to visit a third world country at least once in their lifetime. From the density of people to the strikingly poorer lifestyle, it provides a perspective that can help you see the world — and people — through a much broader, humble lens. Also, it allowed me to take myself wayyy out of my comfort zone, which was something I definitely needed to grow as a person. Being away from normalcy — work, friends, family — for four weeks can really help provide clarity in your life as well.
Also, the random doses of American culture in Kenya quelled any homesickness because they were flat out hilarious. For starters, everyone (and I mean everyone out there) loves Bieber. His new album is legit, I get it. But color me perplexed at the number of African Beliebers I encountered. Next, Uber (yes, Uber) is a big thing in Kenya. So random. That made getting rides at night less scary and it was a great way of getting around as a Muzungu (they don’t know you’re white on the pick-up). If I wasn’t taking Uber or Matatus for transportation, I was riding motor bikes. They’re cheap, dangerous and epic all at the same time.
“You sound like you’re from London.”
Heading into this trip, I suppose I calculated how the experience would change me based on interacting with kids and African folks. I didn’t process how my relationships with the other volunteers would become the best part of my time in Kenya. My newfound friends hailed from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland and many other countries. Never having traveled abroad before, simple conversations about differences in culture and what a jackass Donald Trump is made for an awesome experience. It was also quite entertaining to make fun of each other’s accents. Especially the night when I switched accents with a British friend for a night and sounded like complete rubbish 😉 For all of our differences, though, the camaraderie we established was significant, likely because we all shared similar drives for adventure and making a difference. The togetherness of the group and the 1-on-1 relationships I developed made me feel right at home and far from alone for the entire trip. Things were never boring, that’s for sure, whether it was rooftop barbeques, dance clubs, watching crap rom-coms or playing drunk Skippo. On my first night out, we went to a Karaoke bar and made complete fools of ourselves. The rest of the nights followed similar shenanigans. I guess I thought there’d be this tremendous individual growth I’d notice during my time in Kenya. I do notice that now that I’m a few weeks out of the trip, but during everything, the growth was blanketed by all the fun we had as volunteers together. I’ll surely miss all my friends who impacted me in such a profound way. While I’m not sure if I’ll see everyone again, I consider Ashleigh, Karyn, Blair, Becky, Steve, Vik, Natalia, Allison, Aleisha, Manou, Lacey (and plenty more I’m forgetting) friends for life.
Another unexpected part that made my trip so worthwhile was the staffers from Agape, who were beyond helpful in making the trip go smoothly — whether it was planning and accompanying us for excursions or filtering placement at the school and shelter. More than that, it was gratifying to feel like I became good friends with great people from another country/culture. When you feel more at home in a third world country than you do actually at home, it says a lot about the impact of the organization and the people steering the ship. Shout out to Izzo for his humor and passion, Tony for his diligence, warmth through faith, rap skills + climbing assistance, Joe for his joking personality (and Dad bod), Tabby for her caring and outgoing nature + making fun of my “badass” American accent perfectly, Madfish for his exuberant dressing and legit street cred that allowed us to get further integrated into the community, Bonnie for his dance skills (I’m stealing that pegleg move), Marta for organizing everything and for her Spanish/Irish swag, and the rest of the crew for being so chill for my month in Kenya.
“One of the wonders of the world.”
Going to Kenya and not taking a safari would be like going to KFC (they’re big in Africa) and not eating chicken. Simply put, there’s no way I could go to Africa and not do this. Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint and was a huge highlight of the trip. We traveled to Maasai Mara National Reserve, one of the most famous game reserves in the world, which was about four hours away from where we were staying in Waithaka. The first day, we got a chance to spend the evening with the Maasai tribe, which exposed us to a semi-authentic experience of a culture that doesn’t lean on technology and lives a drastically different lifestyle than most Africans, let alone Americans. We stayed at the Maasai Mara’s Manyatta Camp, which was basically a glorified tent resort. The delicious food and pimped out tents made for a much more luxurious stay than anticipated.
The next morning, we rose early for sunrise and spent practically the whole day tracking down animals. Our drivers, Tony and Izzo, were fantastic. While most tour guides would drive close enough to see animals with binoculars, Tony and Izzo drove right up the animals for us to see them in our resilient safari van, known as the “Red Rhino.” The pair also proved to be humorously informative. We got to see lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles, hippos and practically every animal you’d hope to see. Going into it, I had only a zoo-type of experience to go off of when seeing live animals. Yet seeing the animals in their natural habitat was an absolute wonder. And the tracking of the animals was an adrenaline-filled adventure that’s really indescribable. The pictures just didn’t do it justice. Videos captured some of the wow factor.
That night, Tony and Izzo hung out with us volunteers and once again, the camaraderie amplified the experience. On our last day of the three-day trip, we rose early again to go see more animals before heading back to Nairobi. The drive home gave us time to fully digest a marvelous weekend, which just so happened to be my first weekend in Kenya. If it hadn’t already, Africa had my heart afterwards. Apparently, during migration season in July-October — when all the wildebeest cross the Mara River for the world’s largest movement of animals (2 million) — it’s known as one of the wonders of the world. While we didn’t get to witness that, the taste of my first safari and the stories of the migration make me want to schedule another trip super soon.
“The mind of man plans his day, but God directs his steps.”
This was by far the most eye-opening part of my whole trip. We scheduled a day to go to Kibera, better known as Africa’s largest urban slum. The 1.6 million people make up for more than one quarter of Nairobi’s population. It was like a page straight out of Slumdog Millionaire, one of my favorite movies. There was waste everywhere and the hygiene was absolutely dreadful, with only 20 proper toilets. And we did our best to avoid “flying toilets,” aka plastic bags with human waste that often fly around in the vicinity. Mad Fish (yes, that’s his name), the Agape worker who handles the outreach activities, took myself and a fellow volunteer for the day-long trip where we got a tour of the slums and bought food to feed a family in need. The family we helped consisted of a father who lost his wife and is providing for three kids with little means for work. While in their house, I started conversing with our tour guide, Marcus, a reformed gangster who turned his life around — choosing to give back; The father of the family we were feeding helped Marcus sway away from trouble. Marcus spoke to me about his favorite bible verse, Proverbs 16:9, which states “the mind of man plans his day, but God directs his steps.” I got chills, as he was basically theorizing how no matter what life’s struggles bring, there’s always a higher power flashlighting your moves. Sitting there, in a miniature house made of mud, and hearing how someone can find light in a cesspool of darkness gave me goosebumps then…and still does now. I think about the struggles I’ve had and how I’ve been reluctant to see a brighter picture. If my optimism and positive outlook on life had faded, Marcus’s words jolted me back into proper perspective.
“The clouds of struggle don’t last. Sunlight is unavoidable.”
Each week, instead of going to our placement — which was teaching for me, the hospital or HIV clinic for others — we’d go on outreaches. They all proved to be fantastic, allowing us to avoid complacency in our weekly duties and also opening us up to various parts of Kenya.
► The baby orphanage in Nairobi was my first outreach and it was CUTENESS OVERLOAD. We walk into the room with all the kids and all the sudden 30+ adorable Kenyan babies start going up to you. They pull your hair and touch your skin because, naturally, it’s different than theirs. While we assisted the workers with household and lawn chores, as well as feeding the babies and changing diapers, it was the interaction with the kids that was the ultimate payoff. One of the boys, who was glued to me for the duration, loved getting thrown into the air like a rocket ship. I remembered my Dad used to do that with me when I was little and he’d yell, “Geronimo!” Every time I’d loft him into the air, he’d yell “tena” when he’d come down. That means “again, again” in Swahili. Heart. Melted.
► Our next outreach was cooking and feeding the Okoa Maisha homeless community in downtown Nairobi. The experience was humbling and eye-opening as most of the homeless folks were recovering drug addicts trying to re-integrate themselves in society. And some of them very candidly spoke of just how tall of a challenge that is. We heard stories of friends being shot by police, rather than arrested, because it’s an “easier report.” One of the younger kids started chatting with me and talked about studying in school to “make it.” When I told him I was a journalist, he was so impressed and said, “thank you for what you do.” Gotta admit, that’s a first.
► Easily the funniest outreach had to be us volunteers tasked with painting a local police station. So, apparently we got the wrong color paint. The difference between bright blue and dark blue on a police station is surprisingly important. Our finished product made a place that’s supposed to be respected look like frickin’ CandyLand. One of the officers was pissed, as he should have been, and he went into the meaning of each color. He seemed to over-emphasize the red being for “bloodshed” part. Anyway, the station got repainted so I can look back and laugh. But it was a volunteering-gone-wrong embarrassment of epic proportions that made for angry looks and contained laughter.
► We had two other excursions of sorts that weren’t technically outreaches. One was a city tour of Nairobi, in which we got to pet/kiss giraffes, feed monkeys and see baby elephants. Pictures are more than words here. The other was visiting IDP (Internal Development Program), which started after 2007 post selection violence in Kenya, providing housing and schooling for those affected. We got a tour that was extremely raw and gripping, as we were introduced to families of 9-10 living in small houses built by volunteers. Before the houses were built, it was tents or mud. Our tour guide really reached me when he spoke of the living conditions right after the violence, saying they had just water and very little food to live off of. He very casually said: “The clouds of struggle don’t last. Sunlight is unavoidable.” Holy shit that hit me hard. I won’t lie, I’ve encountered clouds of struggle, but nothing to the effect of what he described. And yet, I found common ground with his message. Whenever life is bad, for however long that lasts, sunlight is inevitable. The next life storm I encounter, I’ll surely recall his words.
“You can do it, brother.”
Staying in shape was a priority while out in Kenya and my runs became rather comical. I’d go out for a 4-5 mile jog, which usually is pretty easy for me in the states. Factor in a significantly higher elevation and I was gasping for air about a mile in. No wonder Kenyans dominate marathons and the Olympics. After a 6-mile workout, I felt about as tired as I have for full marathons. The best part of my runs were the kids that followed me. When they’d see a white person running, it became instinctual to run with him. The 7-10-year olds would yell “Muzungu” and start tagging along. If 2-3 kids followed me, more would join once they spotted us. By the end of my runs, I’d have 20+ kids following me. Because they were Kenyan, they wouldn’t tire. I would. One kid said to me, “you keep going, like a machine.” (Compliment). Another kid replied with, “that’s because he doesn’t go speed.” (shattered confidence). At the end of one of my runs, when I was noticeably tired, one kid encouraged me with, “you can do it, brother.” Something about that made me emotional. A Kenyan boy calling me brother gave me this feeling of belonging that can only come from a child. Most of my runs on those dirt roads instilled an inner peace that I take with me on my Lakeshore Drive runs now.
“Fries are chips.”
…was marvelous and one of my favorite parts of the trip. I’ll start with Mandazi aka my crack bread for the month of May. It’s basically fried dough, a simple creation that costs five shillings (five cents) each. For any bread lover, this stuff rules. Chipote, another bread fixture that looks like a tortilla but tastes 100 times better, also became one of my favorites. At my school, we’d often have bugali, which is puffed up maize that you can eat with your hands and is usually paired with something else like cabbage. I was not a fan, but trying new food was one of the coolest parts of the trip. One lesson I learned, early on, was that french fries are “chips” in Africa and basically every country besides the U.S. it seems. Potato chips are “crisps.” That took some getting used to, but on that note, the “chips” that were sold at street shops in Waithaka were superb when it came to munchy food. The tricky part was bartering to get a low price. You literally have to barter for everything out there, which was another transition.
The best part, from an appetite standpoint, was having a house momma, Florence, who cooked for us every morning and evening. This exposed us to some fantastic African dishes on a regular basis. My favorite was this fish and potato creation that I even had to ask for the recipe on before leaving. Florence’s cooking and presence played a big factor in uniting everyone in the house, that’s for sure.
As far as beverages go, a liter of Coke was only 60 cents, which I capitalized on. The popular beer out there is called Tusker. It’s like a mix of PBR and Bud Light, if that makes sense (it doesn’t).
On a final food note, I’ll say that I had this diluted idea that I’d be only eating rice and beans for a month, in turn losing a ton of weight on my trip. On the contrary, it was far from that. I can’t complain at all in that regard.
So this is where Lion King is based off of. No big deal or anything. We went to Pride Rock, where Simba was lifted by Rafiki. No one pushed each other off the mountain, though, ‘cause my friends aren’t conceited assholes like Scar. #RIPMufasa. Most definitely, the views were dope. First we biked our way to Pride Rock, which was aesthetically pleasing big time. Then we went on what would be one of the coolest hikes ever in the gorge. The waterfalls and scenery were incredibly beautiful. And we even got to climb a pretty steep cliff on our own. Afterwards, we unwinded by going to a spa, which was a gigantic pool of hot water. After hours of hiking and bike riding, it was ideal. Next we went to see hippos on a boat tour and ended up spotting the biggest bright green snake ever that I’m still getting nightmares about. Like many touristy things I did, it was in a big group of people and this was the biggest gang we had yet. The mix of personalities, from different volunteer houses, made all the action even more enjoyable.
“Can you take our picture? Holding the sign?”
Ahem, you’re welcome for this Playboy pose, people. On my final day in Kenya, before my midnight flight of death home, I went out in style by hiking the 2,780-meter-peaking stratovolcano known as Mount Longonot in the Great Rift Valley. The hike was absolutely gorgeous and once again, the pictures just don’t do it justice. We went 3.1 km up to the crater rim and then went on a 7.2 km loop around the entire crater. It took us 4-5 hours, and we were led by Tony, easily my favorite Agape staffer, who helped us take some
epic creative creepy sexy pictures.
“I believe He moves at the sound of my voice.”
I got invited by Tony to go with him to his Church, Cornerstone Faith, one Sunday and it was a pretty vibrant experience. The music was off the chain. I loved it. Aside from being the awkward white guy in the crowd who didn’t know what to do with his hands (Ricky Bobby, anyone?) during the lively celebrating, I fit right in. The two things that are big for me when I go to church are good speakers and good singing. And, this church knocked it out of the park in that regard with a Jesse Jackson-flavored homily and some Boyz II Men-esque singing. The “I believe He moves at the sound of my voice” soul-singing still reverberates my heart. And afterwards, myself and a fellow volunteer got invited for tea and Mandazi. The warmth and embracing nature was very, very enriching.
I have to say, Christian faith was easily where I felt most impressed during my four weeks in Africa. While Kenyans might be behind in certain areas — i.e. all clothes are hand washed and lawns are wacked, not mowed — where they’re transparently ahead is with their dependence on God. It became clear that it’s because most people out there have to turn to him. And it’s fostered at a young age. When you need the lord, you have no choice but to surrender to Him. So while the surface picture might paint us Americans as a rich country, I’d deem Kenya far richer beneath the surface.
Since I’ve returned to the states for a few weeks, I can already feel the internal changes this trip has given me. I’m much more patient now. Little things don’t bother me as much anymore. I’m not as sensitive to hurtful occurrences. But more than anything, I feel like there’s a hole in my heart that’s been permanently filled. About a year and a half after I lost my Dad, I hit rock bottom. The grace he had given me when he fought cancer before passing had disintegrated. Not only was my protector gone, but the key ingredient that made me myself was missing. I felt like a bird without wings. I was lost, and perhaps I hid that pain well from others.
Well I’m confident to say, however it happened, that I got it back during my time in Kenya.
And by “it” I mean me. Thanks, Africa.