November 15th I had orientation for the volunteer program in Kenya. After driving past slums that I’ve only seen in movies and staying at a packed, loud volunteer house, I started to question the next couple weeks of my life. After orientation and a long drive, Walker, Harp, and I arrived at Wallace’s house in Naivasha. The dirt street was filled with trash. I opened the door of the van and kids came running and smiling, all taking turns to touch my hand. They all say “how are you?” This is the only phrase they know in English besides “give me your watch.” If you answer with anything but “fine”, they have no idea what you are saying. Across the gate to the house I saw a dog gnawing and tugging at something in a small patch of grass. As I looked closer, I realized it was a dead calf. We were ushered inside and shown how to draw water from the well to flush the toilet and take splash baths. This would be my new home for the next two weeks. Once again I questioned the next couple weeks of my existence.
Words of advice from my host family: 1. Don’t walk anywhere when it is getting dark. 2. When people are really friendly they are just trying to use you; even the kids are trying to get something out of you. 3. You will be called a Mzungu which means white person. It’s not supposed to be derogatory, but it is. 5. Bring your own toilet paper everywhere. 6. Get drinking water from the store. 7. And again, don’t walk at night.
We had the weekend to get settled in before starting school Monday at Monica memorial. We met up with some other volunteers staying in Naivasha and hiked Mount Longonote. It is a volcano that has an ecosystem trapped inside the crater. You could see the surrounding lakes and at times giraffes and zebras. I finally was seeing the beauty in Kenya. That night we ate pounds of meat and chipati (a traditional pita/tortilla like bread). It is nice to have other volunteers who have been living in this town to show us the good places to eat and get wifi.
Harp is from the UK, and Walker is from Montana. They are both placed at the same volunteer sight and we share a room at Wallace’s house. We work together and live together. We each have our own bed and there is one toilet, no sink. The space is small and you can hear almost everything…. Safe to say we’ve gotten to know each other real well in a week’s time. Constantly getting water from the well to fill the toilet can be a hassle, but I actually enjoy it. I feel primitive which is somehow appealing to me. I know I’m a woman, but there is beauty in being somewhat barbaric. I think it’s good to use our hands for work and scream at the top of our lungs sometimes. (You should try it)
Taking my first splash bath was interesting. After drawing the water from well and boiling a portion of it, I headed for the bathroom with my bucket. The bathroom has a chair to set the bathing bucket on and next to it a “squat hole” aka toilet. I just kept telling myself “don’t drop the soap, don’t drop the soap”.
Breakfast is a loaf of bread on the table with jam and butter: bring your own coffee. Lunch at Monica is ugali (a thick, flavorless, corn flour mix) with cabbage stew. Dinner is either rice or ugali, veggies or potatoes, beans or meat, and something random like spaghetti noodles. The meals here are 70 – 80% starch and carbs to keep full longer. I enjoy trying the ethnic foods, but I’m starting to crave fresh salads, green juices, and protein shakes (who does that?).
Monica Memorial School and Orphanage takes care of 50 – 60 kids mainly between the ages of 5 – 14. All of them have homes but are neglected, hungry, and have no way of going to school. Monica provides volunteer teachers and two meals Monday thru Friday. They have porridge in the morning and ugali with cabbage in the afternoon.
Since most of the students have finished their exams for the semester, we mostly get to play with them. Soccer is played daily in the schoolyard. Many of the kids have holes through their shoes or none at all. The “playing field” has tires for goal posts, chards of scrap metal lying around, and sometimes a fire burning trash in the corner. We play until it gets too hot, until lunch time, or until we decide to teach in the classrooms. Sometimes I help in the kitchen or play games with the girls, but playing soccer with the boys is my favorite.
Tuesday evening, I head back to Nairobi with Harp and Loki, a construction volunteer from New Zealand, to spend the night and make our way with some other volunteers to the Maasai land. What was supposed to be 1.5 hours turned into three. We finally arrived in the chaotic town center with no idea where to catch the next bus to our hostel for the night. Loki asked a lady next to us and she guided us for 10 minutes through winding streets to our bus to see us safely off. A man named George sat next to me on the bus and asked where I was from. We made small talk on the ride, and I found out he has lived in the US, India, South Africa, and is originally from Kenya. When it came time to pay on the bus, George bought four tickets. He told me even though many Kenyans don’t appreciate our work as volunteers, he thinks it’s a beautiful thing. We thanked him, headed to our hostel, and I took my first hot shower in two weeks.
The next morning we met up with the other volunteers to do the Maasai “walkabout” which translates as “to find yourself.” I was originally supposed to be placed here in the Maasai land, but since the school was breaking for winter I got placed in Naivasha.
The houses are small huts in a remote area with the nearest town being 30 minutes away on a motorbike. The Maasai people welcomed us warmly and let us partake in their cultural traditions for the day. (It’s going to get a bit gory, so if you have a weak stomach skip to the next paragraph). We walked far out from the village along a beautiful cliff. They brought a goat to be slaughtered for lunch. They made an incision in the neck and drained the blood into a bowl. The blood is supposed to be rich with nutrients and they drink it fresh from the bowl. They passed the bowl around to whoever wanted to partake in their customs… I drank the warm blood. Immediately feeling guilt and the life of another make its way back up my esophagus, I grabbed my water bottle as I hurried to the bushes. I let my stomach settle for a bit while nonchalantly looking over the cliffs pretending to be captured by the beauty. Instead, I was reliving what I just saw and trying to get the image of the life draining from the goat’s eyes out of my head. I said a prayer, and thanked God for Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
The Maasai men were fun to conversate with. I helped cut veggies while they told stories of their culture and asked questions about mine. While we waited for the goat to roast, I found a quiet spot alongside the cliff. I wanted some time alone to be still and reflect. The mountains in the distance went on for miles while the plains below stretched out speckled in shades of green and brown, a perfect place to reconnect. I had to remind myself that I’m in Kenya. It’s crazy how I could be thousands of miles away from where I thought I left the past, yet it still blew over me with the warm African breeze leaving a trail of memories.
I felt drops of sweat roll down my back as I said another prayer to keep me in the moment and release what’s behind. I had been so busy diving into Kenya that I kept forgetting to dive into the beauty of the present. Not what’s ahead, definitely not what’s behind, but what is right now. As I reminded myself of this, I saw two large birds soaring over the mountains and a yellow butterfly landing on a tree beside me. I took a deep breath and felt connected only for a brief moment, but then it was time to eat lunch.
We ate the goat, veggies, potatoes, and ugali. Afterwards, the men prepared to give burns, which the Maasai men traditionally received to show they are capable of being warriors. They allowed us to partake if we wished…. (You mean you want to rub sticks together and burn me? I’m in!).
On the way back to the village, I made them give me a warrior name. One of them, without hesitation, called me Nashipai. The other two agreed with him. I asked what it meant, and he said, “It means being happy all the time. You’re smiling all the time.” They may have confused it with the concemtrated look on my face since I didn’t understand most of what they said, but I took it as a compliment.
We spent one more night in Nairobi since it is dangerous to travel at night. It was nice to come back to Naivasha to get away from the crazy city, but I will miss the hot shower and instant Wi-Fi.