(In the picture: the volunteers and the members of the local community dancing together)
Ebusiralo, September 2009
Jambo. Welcome to my little review of the Ebusiralo workcamp, which I was fortunate enough to attend last year. The continent was Africa, the country was Kenya and this volunteer was more than a little nervous. However, remembering the maxim ‘be flexible’ I set off on what has been one of the most memorable experiences I have had to date.
Orientation in Nairobi from the Kenya Volunteer Development Association Director advised the gathered volunteers from many European countries and Japan that we would encounter cultural differences but essentially to go with the flow and if an doubt ask. We were also taken to Kibera to meet with the Kibera Youth Reform group. This is a self-started group, formed when the locally feared and armed young gangsters had lost many of their number due to violence. Their decision was to become a force for community support not severance. It is a remarkable story and the experience of Kibera showed those of us who have never experienced dire living conditions the worst we could expect.
Happily for us our project took place against the backdrop of beautiful hills and lush vegetation (despite much of Kenya being in the grip of an extended drought, you may remember the news footage?). However, the reason Western Kenya is relatively lush is that the seasons consist of short rains (about a 30-minute downpour most days) and long rains (which is what it says on the tin!). Don’t be put off by this, generally the rain is a temporary inconvenience, which does not get too much in the way of what you are doing and you learn to live with it. Our accommodation was a concrete house with a tin roof, set in a compound of about 5 other houses and we had access to a large communal rainwater tank.
Our project was about a 50/50 split of international volunteers and Kenyan volunteers. Despite the task essentially being advertised as construction it quickly turned out to be so much more (and far better for it). Remember the maxim? So I found my self one day digging trenches for a new teaching block, the next wheeling hardcore in a wheelbarrow for a mile time after time, the next helping to mix concrete, learning to lay bricks and so on. However, I also spent some time teaching English (being the only native English speaker in the camp) at the local primary school, other volunteers taught maths and science. Language in Kenya is very interesting. With English I did not really have a problem. However, as well as Swahili there are numerous regional dialects, which have commonalties but are not the same. Apparently using Swahili is equivalent to speaking very proper English in the UK, think of the 1940’s films!
(In the picture: volunteers at work)
The project subdivided the group into a series of committees for kitchen, health (cleaning and water), work and entertainment duties. This meant that the members of each committee would have to organise the entire work camp to ensure that the necessary tasks were performed. Undoubtedly the work committee enabled us to achieve the overall goal of the project (don’t expect a plan if you are starting from the beginning of a construction project!). However, the other committees were just as important in ensuring that we could survive (food and water) and had other activities to look forward to.
Having now carried buckets of water for drinking, cooking, washing and construction over what are laughably short distances by Kenyan standards I have a real respect for the value of water. And yes it is possible to have a perfectly good wash in half a litre of water. Our kitchen had no roof, which was ideal for letting out the smoke from the open fires over which we prepared all the meals but not so great at keeping out the rain! Preparing food for almost 30 people with three pans, three knives, some of the biggest wooden spoons I have ever seen (I kid you not, these were 3 foot beasts) and wood which gives off an aroma which had us shedding tears for every meal, is a significant challenge! And yet we did it with so much success that when I got home I felt like a child for the first day, marvelling at running water, gas and an oven. Did I really need those things?
(In the picture: Simon and the wooden spoon)
I quickly realised that the construction was a highly visible but ultimately not necessarily the greatest contribution we could make. It is the people that matter. Our interaction with the primary school, our chats to members of the polytechnic (‘A’ level years in England) and encounters with members of the community, enabled us to share our experiences and learn from one another. Money is not the only currency in the world. The community elders managed to procure an astonishing amount of materials from their community. Personally, I was deeply touched at the enormous kindness shown to me when I was sick in the first week of arrival (not food or water related I should add). Also our relationships with the Kenyan volunteers was (and still is) very important. We did everything together for three weeks and it was fascinating to swap tales of life experiences with them.
As for our leisure time, the entertainment committee did us proud! We visited numerous homes in the community and shared beautiful traditional Kenyan food with them, accompanied by storeys and sometimes music. We visited Lake Victoria, hiked to the equator (as you do) and visited a rain forest. Not bad for a construction project!
I needn’t have been nervous about going to Kenya as a volunteer (if heading out there keep mentioning you are a volunteer, there’s plenty of volunteer rates to be found!). The sheer kindness of people was amazing. Whilst there were challenges and some things could have gone differently I do not remember a day going by when were not laughing about something, it was a genuinely a happy experience. Many people have asked me if I would I do it again? My answer, when can I go?
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