Ten years ago today, on my 24th birthday, I set out on my biggest adventure yet. I had recently graduated from theatre school and was looking for something completely different to do. I researched various travel companies, looked at backpacking options and read about volunteer trips before finally deciding to head to Kenya to volunteer in an orphanage. I couldn’t think of anything that would be further away from my current life and thought it would be an interesting and challenging way to kick off my 24th year on earth.
Heading in, I knew it would be an adventure. After touching down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, making my way through customs and heading out to find my ride into the capital city, Nairobi, I knew immediately that my time here would be a completely life-changing experience.
I arrived in January 2008, while the country was still in the midst of the violence that erupted following the election on December 27, 2007. I had been following what was happening closely and speaking with members of the Global Volunteer Network (the organization I was going with) who were currently in Kenya to decide if I should be pulling out like some of the others had – and like I’m sure many of my friends and family hoped I would. But in the end, I decided I was still going. It was a clash of tribes and at this point, no foreigners had been harmed. I knew I’d have to watch where I was going and stay away from the growing number of rallies taking place, but overall I still really wanted to go. So on January 12th, after one final wave and “Happy Birthday” from my tearful mother, I boarded the plane and headed to Kenya to meet the handful of other volunteers who still elected to start that week. After a couple days of orientation, we were sent out to our placements. Some were working in schools, others at local hospitals, and some, like me, were based in various children’s homes. I was placed at the Manaseh Children’s Home just outside of Karen, Kenya with another volunteer who happened to be from Canada.
As we pulled through the gates, we were greeted by a number of the home’s 32 children screaming hello and waving. I was immediately pulled into hugs by the woman who ran the home and the kids, and although it was all very overwhelming, I knew coming had been the right choice.
We quickly settled into life at the children’s home, helping with meals and homework, figuring out what days the water was working to shower, playing outside and trying to infuse as much love as possible to these kids who so badly just wanted to be hugged. The children here ranged in age from 4-16 years old, and while some spoke more English and were able to communicate with us easier, we had no trouble communicating with laughs and smiles as we ran around outside or worked on homework questions.
Many of the kids here would finish their homework only to ask us to make them more questions. They so desperately wanted to learn and knew how important getting an education was to improving their life. I learned that primary school is free to attend, but you need to be able to afford the uniform, leather shoes, books and lunches, so school is still out of reach for many Kenyan children. I asked why some of the children here weren’t in school and was told they didn’t have the money to cover all the fees. I had put on a show to fundraise before I left so I’d be able to help with things like this and soon all the kids were in school. We’d visit the classrooms the kids went to and lead them all in songs and games. Walking into a kindergarten classroom to find all the kids quietly drinking tea and waiting for their next lesson is something I’ll never forget.
After purchasing some soccer balls, we’d spend many afternoons playing soccer games in the back field and hours sitting around cutting up mangos and passion fruit while the kids taught us Swahili words and laughed hysterically when we’d mess them up. They would entertain themselves for hours playing with an old water bottle or an empty yogurt cup as real toys were few and far between here. Some days, I’d spend hours getting my hair braided and re-braided by the girls wanting to practice or teach the younger ones.
We spent time in the kitchen learning how to make chapati, which were my favourite and a rare treat around the orphanage for special occasions.
Generally, our meals consisted of rice or ugali and whatever vegetables the owner could get for a discount (usually meaning they were close to being bad). Meat was a rare treat and usually only happened when one of us went to visit a local butcher (for more on that experience check out my Kenyan Valentine’s Day post!) Most nights would end with everyone gathered around the living room after dinner and at least one child climbing into my lap and falling asleep.
While I was there, we’d also have weekly volunteer outings, where those of us placed nearby would go for dinner or a movie or visit a local attraction. We went camping in the Ngong Hills (careful to put all food away at night so we wouldn’t attract the local lions), and visited an animal orphanage where I got to pet a cheetah!
But my favourite outing of all was visiting the Giraffe Centre where you could pet, feed and kiss the giraffes!
We took a bus trip to Mombasa and Diani Beach, where we slept in tree houses, swam in the warm Indian Ocean and visited a local eco park.
A few of us also headed north to climb Mount Kenya, not quite reaching the summit as a nasty storm was coming in. Our guide told us he could get us up, but couldn’t guarantee he could get us back down. We decided the last couple thousand metres weren’t that important and headed back down, only to be stopped while a rogue elephant was chased away!
With everything going on in the country, my flight home was cancelled, allowing me to stay longer and experience more. We had a pizza party movie night, where most of the kids tried pizza for the first time (many didn’t like it). We also had cake and ice cream for Valentine’s Day, but most of them let the ice cream melt and then drank it as it was too cold.
I went to the boys’ boarding school for parent night and met their teachers, learned to make beaded jewellery, and helped fund an outdoor kitchen so that they’d be able to cook their meals even when it was raining. Imagine not being able to get your stove to start if it rained and trying to cook on an open fire indoors, creating thick smoke throughout the house. Things like that really opened my eyes.
For the most part, my time there was safe and uneventful, though one night a couple of weeks after arriving, we awoke to screaming coming from next door. Next thing I knew, it seemed like the whole village was up and running around outside. I sat crouched by the window, trying to see what was happening. The next morning, the owner explained that the house next door was broken into and the whole village heard the screams and went out to chase the thieves away. At this point, most people didn’t bother calling the police. They just dealt with issues on their own. We were told that two got away. I never asked what happened to the third. We were also told they weren’t professional. When I asked what the difference was, he explained that if they were professional, they’d have guns, and we could all be dead. Very eye-opening.
It was also a surreal experience watching the news each night. The home had two channels, a local one and the BBC. We’d spend the evening watching horrific scenes of what was happening in the country we were currently living in. I always knew when a particularly bad day had occurred when I’d get a panicked phone call from my parents just making sure I was okay. I was careful about where I went and thankfully the feeling I had that I’d be okay when I decided to come followed me through my time here.
Before leaving, I went on safari to the Maasai Mara with another volunteer. What an incredible experience it was seeing all these animals up close and sleeping out in luxury tents under the African sky. (This was the only time I had a hot shower while I was in Kenya!)
When it was finally time to leave, my kids each packed a chapati for me to take home (customs had a laugh at that as I tearfully explained that I couldn’t leave them behind). After lots of hugs and tears, I finally got in my taxi to head back to the airport. Leaving them all behind was harder than I ever could have imagined it would be, and as I sat in Heathrow on my stopover wrapped up in my Kenyan Kikoy, eating my chapatti, I had to fight the urge to turn around and head right back to the children and experiences that had so greatly impacted my life.
Coming home, I had trouble adjusting back to life here. It took me quite awhile before I could go grocery shopping without crying over the fact that we have 25 kinds of chips, while they survived most days on rice.
My time in Kenya definitely showed me what was important in life – friends, family, experiences, love, and understanding for those who are different from you.
These kids had lost everything and yet were more loving and caring then most of us ever will be. They played with garbage and ate the same meal day in and day out and I never once heard anyone complain. They were always willing to help each other, and although there were fights (as there always are with large groups of kids), the disagreements never lasted long.
It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since my first trip to Kenya. I still remember everything so vividly that at times it feels like I’ve only just returned. While I’ve had many other amazing travel and life experiences since then, I’m not sure I’ll ever have another that will turn out to be quite as life-changing as this one was.
Wow Crystal. I had heard bits and pieces of your story. Reading this was a huge eye opener, and brought me so many crazy emotions. I wish I had asked you more questions sooner! Wow. Thank you so much for sharing.