I spent 4 weeks volunteering at Kipepeo Community Empowerment Program, a grassroots organization in the town of Kima, 1.5 hours away from the city of Kisumu in Western Kenya. Why did I do it? Well, I’m a cheapskate and I felt it would be a waste of money to fly all the way to Kenya just for a safari tour.
Actually, I was intrigued by how most of us in Asia know nothing about Kenya, or other African countries, apart from the wildlife. While I learned far more than 28 things about Kenyan society, this is just a list of my reflections from volunteering and living in a place that truly tested my ability to adapt, especially culturally. Here goes.
Lessons on culture shock
1. Kenyan time is like Dali’s melting clocks.
On my first day volunteering, I was told there would be a meeting with the staff at 9am to discuss how I would contribute.
The meeting eventually began at 2pm.
While this concept of “fluid time” is less extreme in cities like Nairobi, a leeway of 1 hour is still considered perfectly normal. Scheduling just isn’t a thing in Kenya.
2. Corruption is a debilitating disease.
In Kenya corruption is everywhere. My host had to wait for months and pay several bribes before he finally got electricity installed in the house (four days after I left). I was asked by a police officer to give a “service fee” when I tried to break a note. Locals can only shrug in resignation when their own people are obstructing community growth for personal benefit. In the words of one guy: “It’s every man for himself.”
3. Kenyans are forward, often to the point of seeming rude.
Courtesy in Kenya dictates that one greets strangers with a handshake. Don’t be surprised, however, if after “How are you?” the person you meet along the street begins an inquisition into your occupation, financial wealth, and love life. She/he may also stare at your phone screen or caress your hair out of the blue.
They may have no sense of physical boundaries, but when a Kenyan speaks to you, they’re sincerely interested in getting to know you.
4. Yet, they’re also reserved and inexpressive.
When I was invited to shoot a wedding in the community where I resided, I had the toughest time. Despite my repeated attempts to get my subjects to smile, they wouldn’t. I got frame after frame of stony faces – even when they were the ones who asked to have their picture taken! It was only after some time, when everyone got more comfortable with my presence, that they relaxed.
Kenyans also tend to speak tersely, dropping polite terms such as “please” and “may I”. They don’t express gratitude easily, but when they do – like on my last day in Kima – it’s profuse.
5. Ignorance is bliss.
I have an immense, irrational fear of cockroaches, and of course there’s no lack of roaches in a rural residence (especially in the latrine at night). Most of the time, my poor host and his wife had to get rid of them. But eventually I learned to go to sleep ignoring the telltale scrabbling noises coming from the cluttered far corner of my room. As long as I didn’t see them, I’d leave them alone and pretend my mosquito net was enough of a shield.
I think that’s a pretty huge step towards overcoming my phobia. Right? Right? 🙁
Lessons on privilege
6. If you could only have one luxury in life…choose wisely.
If I could enjoy only one luxury in life, it would be hot showers.
In the developed world we take things like running water for granted, dreaming instead of luxury vacations and designer goods and other material wants. I’m not saying that’s wrong – I enjoy the high life as well – but think about it for a moment. If life were pared down to the bare necessities, what’s the one luxury you’d want to keep?
7. We can be a lot more frugal…
Living within your means isn’t drinking one less cappuccino a week. It’s using that metal plate until it’s riddled with holes, mending that broken flip-flop so it lasts another 10 days, and working on that slow, outdated, buggy computer until it can’t even be switched on.
8. …and a lot more generous.
Don’t confuse frugality with stinginess. I was inundated with generosity and kindness by my host family every day, from the spacious bedroom they gave me to the variety of food they provided but would normally never enjoy on a daily basis – bread, eggs, coffee – just to make sure I wouldn’t suffer death by ugali. That said…
9. We’re all only human.
No matter how noble our intentions, we will be greedy, selfish, and lazy. There were times it was not-so-subtly hinted that I should donate my more expensive possessions when I left the volunteer project. Similarly, there were times I simply didn’t feel like working because the task wasn’t what I’d signed up to do. We just gotta shrug it off.
10. The more effort you put in, the more satisfaction you get.
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But…to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.” Khalil Gibran
All the walking and hiking I do on my travels did not prepare me for manual labor. Just a few days of digging, shoveling, and wheelbarrowing to fill the foundation of a small building left me sunburned, aching, and muted with exhaustion. But the clearly visible progress at the end of each day was just as satisfying as putting an article to bed or crafting that perfect line of copy. It supports what experts have been saying about talent and passion: it’s not what you do, it’s how much effort you put into it.
11. Farm-to-table isn’t some hip lifestyle trend – it’s life.
Forget those pretentious Instagram shots of breakfast at a color-coordinated table in a glasshouse surrounded by lush vegetation. In traditional agricultural communities nearly every meal is farm-to-table and abundant with organic goodness.
My host family serves bananas, cassavas, sweet potatoes, squash, and other produce from their garden. They make tea each morning with a splash of milk from one of their cows. They have their own free-range local chickens and eggs. Who cares that the food doesn’t look perfect? It’s the taste that matters.
12. What’s good for the wallet is bad for health.
Kenyans have a sweet tooth: sodas and lollipops are enjoyed by both children and adults. That may not sound so bad, but the problem is a 500ml bottle of Coke costs 38 shillings – cheaper than a 500ml bottled water. That’s 38 US cents.
Many Kenyans like to down a bottle of soda in the hot afternoon since it’s cheap, chilled, and readily available. While obesity and diabetes become more prevalent even in rural areas where malnutrition is a concern, corporations still profit despite the ridiculously low retail prices.
Lessons on volunteering in Kenya
13. If you want to volunteer in Kenya for free, don’t.
Because you’ll have a hard time finding it in a land where no one needs it.
14. Volunteering is about empowering, not gifting.
When you visit a developing region and start giving out sweets and money, unhealthy expectations are formed. This article (about a charity event where underprivileged children were given rides in luxury cars) explains it well. As my volunteer program officers emphasized, the goal is empowering the community with skills and opening up opportunities for them – “teaching them to fish”.
15. Everyone has something to contribute.
I started off worrying if I was contributing as much as possible to the community. I felt like I was more of a hindrance, especially when doing things I knew nothing about, like teaching orphans or drying maize. Imagine spending nearly an hour setting maize out in neat rows to dry in the sun, only to be told later that all I’d had to do was empty the maize out on the ground! I was so embarrassed.
You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to be a certified expert with proven years of experience in your CV. You just have to want to contribute – be it your skills or your ideas or simply your time.
16. Bring lots of your favorite chili sauce.
Kenyan food embodies the “eat to live” philosophy – it’s sparing with ingredients, cooking methods, and spice. If you enjoy flavorful, spicy food, make sure you bring some Sriracha/sambal/gochujang with you.
17. The rich have their own problems.
In the village there was a rich man who had walled up his entire compound. At first it seemed like he was shunning his own community where everyone knew and helped one another; however, my host explained that the guy had no choice because people started asking for favors and handouts and even stole from his land.
I initially thought my host was popular in the village because of what he’s done for the community. He rebutted: “No, it’s because I host mzungus (foreigners) so they think I’m rich.”
18. Bliss can be found on the back seat of a pikipiki (motorbike).
Even when you haven’t shampooed your hair in 5 days and feel absolutely grimy, because the wind will rinse your hair nicely.
Even when you pray – rushing home on a chilly, rainy night – that you won’t get into an accident, because the driver deliberately goes slower and tells you not to worry because he lives in the same village.
Even when you have to squeeze two people on, because then you can go “look-ma-no-hands” if you’re squished in the middle or hug your friend in front of you.
Confession: the day I traveled to Kima was actually the first time I rode pillion on a motorbike! That afternoon, with the sun in my eyes and the stone-littered dirt roads beneath me, all I could do was hold on tight, close my eyes, and let the roaring wind drown out the noise inside of me.
19. …but not in a matatu.
Matatus are death discos on wheels. Matatus are a shambolic means of “public transport” in Kenya where you can expect touting, overcrowding, brazen safety violations, and zero punctuality. I’ll elaborate more on the madness of matatus in another post…otherwise I’ll go mad.
20. Don’t take the Internet for granted.
Thanks to high-speed Internet, those of us in developed countries literally have information at our fingertips – and we take it for granted even when traveling. To send teaching materials to the team at Kipepeo, I had to search for tutorials that were not interactive and save them as bite-sized PDFs so they could be downloaded on a slow connection.
21. Disconnect from distractions.
In Kenya, I watched bored children invent simple games with whatever they could find around them.
In Singapore, I watched bored children stare numbly and swipe at iPhone screens.
Boredom breeds creativity. If you’re hooked on consuming, you won’t be able to create. So I’m learning to embrace boredom instead of finding distractions on social media.
22. Companionship is priceless…
It’s tough being alone in a foreign environment without virtual access to your loved ones. Add on the fact that you’re in a rural area that’s the cultural polar opposite of your own, and the isolation gets emotionally crippling. My biggest tip to anyone exploring independent volunteer opportunities: go with friends or make sure there’ll be at least one other foreign volunteer on the project so you can support and motivate each other. And if you’re an introvert like me, prepare yourself with these solo travel tips.
23. But being alone toughens your social hide.
You’ll learn to ignore the fact that you stick out like a sore thumb. You become blind to touts and deaf to name-callers. You don’t take bullshit from opportunistic salesmen or guilt-tripping from locals.
You’ll learn to do as the locals do. You focus on the good in people, their strengths. You’ll learn to reach out to strangers and find more kindness than you expect.
24. We don’t need as much artificial light as we think.
Most of us are so accustomed to nights as bright as day that we’re practically helpless without artificial light at night. Moving around, cooking, and eating at night with just a paraffin lamp actually improved my night vision tenfold and taught me to rely more on my other senses. And even if you really need a little light, you have your phone in your hand anyway.
25. Natural remedies go a long way.
In rural areas where medical care isn’t cheap, residents rely on local formulas, only going to the hospital when absolutely necessary (e.g. malaria). Though I did visit a hospital and got antihistamines for dermatitis (I’d never had it and it scared the shit out of me), it was tea tree oil that helped soothe my skin. I also had to find natural cockroach repellents so I wouldn’t poison the chickens around the house. So don’t just pack medicines in your first aid kit – some essential oils, baking soda, and apple cider vinegar can be incredibly useful.
26. Soap is soap is soap.
In a place where choice is severely limited, you’ll learn to appreciate the true value of things and ignore fancy branding. Trust me, I’m a marketer (well, I was).
27. Those with the same purpose will meet.
At least, that’s what the team at Kipepeo told me when they gave me this beautiful kanga (traditional cloth featuring a Swahili proverb) as a parting gift.
More on Kenya
On Safari in Kenya: Bucket List Expectations Vs. Reality
On Safari in Kenya, Part 2: Reflections on Sustainable Tourism
28 Travel + Life Lessons From a Month of Volunteering in Kenya
What a woman in rural Kenya taught me about empowerment – and love
28. Hakuna Matata!
The biggest transformation to myself over these 4 weeks is how easygoing I’ve become. I’ve always been uptight, perhaps because I live in a competitive society that measures success largely with money and social status. When I began freelancing I pinched pennies all the time, fearful of dry spells without work.
In Ebusiralo I learned that I have so much. I’ve been blessed with a secure home, good food, a fine education. I’m rich with not just possessions, but knowledge and freedom and time. In hindsight, whenever I stopped worrying about finding work, work came to me.
So the biggest lesson for me is this: live life with a mindset of abundance, not scarcity. We have enough money, time, and love to give.