Transportation

Seriously, commuting from place to place literally is just plain NUTS, UNEXPECTED, and DANGEROUS in Kenya. I kid you not, I have traveling stories that would make my mother faint.

The matatus you already know much about. They need no explanation.

Tuk-tuks are just hilarious. They don’t have much speed, but with the wind hitting your face, and a fragile metal frame, who knows when it will flip.

Boda-Boda (AKA motorcycles) are incredibly useful for the back roads of Kenya but did you catch that—the BACK ROADS. Uneven dirt roads cluttered with humans, goats, and chickens. No helmets. No goggles. Rain pouring down. Not sure if your driver is going to take you where you requested. So scary. I was known as the girl who held on too tightly to the driver. Embarrassing.

The buses in Kenya are incredibly cheap. You can get to Mombasa (an 8-10 hour drive) for about $15. Uganda was about $20. But let me tell you… they are so unreliable. Regardless of how much research you do, and you think you’ve found the most reputable bus service, know that it is never going to be a Greyhound. The bus to Uganda was about 11 hours, stopped once for bathrooms (though they never advertised this fact), no food, no water, and they forgot to drop us off at our stop in Jinja. The bus back to Kenya was 11 hours, NO bathroom break, jam packed with passengers sleeping in the aisles, no food, no water. Then there’s the roads! My god, bumpiest ride of your life! Oh, and the worst part—crossing the border. You’re dropped off at the border of Kenya-Uganda at around 3am and you have to walk across, get your visa stuff taken care of, then find the bus on the other side and hop on. By the time you get back, your bags may have been looted, your bus may have left you behind, and in complete darkness, you have no idea what the hell is going on!

Safe travels to all of you in Kenya! It’s a fun but bumpy ride!

Random Fact of the Day:

1) Due to an incorrect date written in my passport at the Nairobi airport, I almost wasn’t allowed entrance back into Kenya from Uganda. So scary! With some explaining, phone calls, and tears, things got sorted out. This occurred days before my departure to America.


Uganda

One of the biggest things I struggled with was spending induced guilt. After meeting so many families that couldn’t afford an education for their kids, food for their families, or even rent, I was tormented by every dollar I spent. I started doing quick conversions, trying to equate the value of each shilling with what it could do for someone living below the poverty line. I honestly became paranoid. I felt terrible every time I bought myself a soda, indulged in a sweet treat, or brought a cute souvenir from the market. I justified some of the spending with the fact that it was promoting the local government but even that mental reasoning can only go so far.

Before I left for Kenya, I saved up and planned to go on a Safari since that is what most volunteers end up doing (hell you’re in Africa!). After finding out the hefty price tag was $130/day (3-4 days average), I COULD NOT get myself to do it. With the knowledge that $20 saved a woman from getting kicked out of her house I just didn’t have the heart to splurge in such a manner. The other issue I had with a safari is that it doesn’t even promote the locals. Most of the safari companies are owned by foreign agents so my dollars would have gone right over the head of the Kenyan safari driver and he would have seen an incredibly small percentage of it.

My trip in Kenya is coming to an end and I decided that I would partake in one guilty pleasure that I have always wanted to do especially since the price tag was so reasonable. For $120, I took a bus to Jinja, Uganda, and whitewater rafted the Nile. It was a whole day excursion that included accommodation, food, and all you can drink beer Smile I don’t know if spending a fraction of the safari money is justified but I found that I was harboring so much guilt in myself that it was beginning to hurt. I needed an escape and this was it.

This post isn’t meant to judge anyone. Instead it is meant to explore the situations we find ourselves in that we don’t expect to. I’m glad I went whitewater rafting in Uganda. I got the chance to see another African country and I WHITEWATER RAFTED ON THE NILE. We’re talking class 5 rapids that were the most violent and boat cracking waves I’ve ever seen. However, it is important to remember the price which we pay for the pleasures in our life. It has made me rethink when the pleasures are justified and when they are not. I think that question has no clear answer but it is worth thinking about.


Mwanamwinyi

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There are some moments in life when suddenly everything makes sense and you know exactly what you’re supposed to do.

After leaving Maai Mahiu and arriving in Nairobi, I suddenly got word that a few incredibly generous donors had decided to donate some money to my cause. With the amount in my head I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. The next day Trever and I hopped on a bus back to Mombasa to begin the search for a school to put Mwanamwinyi in.

A little refresher: Mwanamwinyi’s father died of AIDS when she was very young and her confused/irresponsible mother left her with her step-grandmother. After the step-grandmother passed away, Mwanamwinyi was alone, for an uncertain amount of time, until one day she knocked on the door of a random, older woman, also by the name of Mwanamwinyi (M). Having a common name was sign enough for big M to take little Mwanamwinyi in. Her mother would eventually return to visit but every time she did, Mwanamwinyi would flinch and run away from her. The mother has been absent from little M’s life for the past two years and no one knows where she is or if she is alive.

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So fast forward to now. Mwanamwinyi is HIV positive and she has no idea. She takes her medications every day but wonders what she is taking them for and when she will get better enough that she won’t need to take them anymore. She is also suffering from rapid weight loss (weighs only 11kg) and a persistent cough that is very TB like. Another issue is that she has already had TB in the past however, the medications were not taken for the full 6 months, probably due to all the displacements in her life. With a new case of TB, everyone worries it may be multi drug resistant. Another challenge to add to her already lengthy list.

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I fell in love with Mwanamwinyi the day I met her. She is so strong despite all the hardships she has encountered in her 11 years. She has a beautiful smile and wants what every other child wants; the chance to go to school, to play outside without losing energy, the warmth of an embrace.

When Trever and I went to visit Mwanamwinyi she immediately connected with us. She wouldn’t let go of our hands or if given the chance, all she wanted to do was sit on my lap, pushing her little head into the curvature of my neck. This girl is filled with so much love and has so many experience awaiting her. It was meant to be that we crossed paths.

We visited two schools. One boarding school that made me sick to my stomach. At the time it was really our only choice which made me feel even more miserable. Dreary walls, dirty toilets, ungroomed kids, unfriendly staff… I knew Mwanamwinyi would get lost in the sea of kids.

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The second school was a dream; a private school located minutes away from her home and it had all the amenities we wanted. Clean bathrooms, a beautiful open layout, colorful classrooms (red, blue, green!), a private chef, mango and cashew trees on the playground, German and computer lessons, AND a van that would pick her up and drop her off at her home, everyday. The director was also sensitive to her case and understood the implications of having an HIV+ child. Seriously, everything felt so right.

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She is to start school this January at Fumathoka Primary School. The time gives her exactly five months to recover from TB and gain enough strength to handle the long days. Her ARVs were also changed with the hope that she will begin to gain weight.

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She was so excited and happy when we told her she would be going to school just like her friends! I will never forget her shy smile and the way she just held my hand.

Sometimes everything in life works out exactly the way it is supposed to and it is up to us to realize those times.

Random Fact of the Day:

Putting M through school requires about $200/year. Please know that there are many, many more children besides M that want to go to school. I have personally met these kids and I know how much they desire something as basic as an education. Please contact me if you would like to help sponsor a child.


Mt. Longonot

It is my last day in Maai Mahiu and we (Trever, Harini, and I) have decided to climb the daunting Mt. Longonot. We’ve been eyeing it for awhile, noting its size, fame, and assessing the risks, but finally the time has come to do the deed. Up we go!

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Mt. Longonot is located in a national park minutes away from our temporary home in Maai Mahiu. It is an inactive volcano that is part of a nationwide geothermal project and since we had been told it would only take an hour to get up it, we thought we would give it a go.

Starting at the foothill, looking up at this GIANT mountain, I get a little nervous. Truth be told I have barely worked out during my stay in Kenya and with the food we are fed here, I’m almost positive my weight has gone up, contrary to the assumptions most of my family and friends made before I left for Africa.

Ten minutes into the walk and the most beautiful thing appears in front of us. A family of giraffes are standing a mere 200 feet from us, looking at us quizzically. Within minutes we are so close to them that my heart starts beating uncontrollably. This is Africa. This is the beauty and elegance we all connect to the continent. This is reality.

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It takes us a good hour plus a few nicks and cuts to make it up the mountain but it is ALL worth the view we get at the top. Breathtaking. Literally, movie scene type of shot. Wish you all could have been there.

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Watching out for the prickly thongs of a native plant while simultaneously breathing in the sage-filled air, we continue our hike AROUND the crater. At points scary, at points exhilarating, incredibly amazing, we make it to the highest point on the crater to take in the view. Incredible.

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After a hearty lunch of boiled eggs, PB&J, and lots of snacks, we start the descent. A lot easier than coming up but also a lot more slippery. Ended up sliding down most of the way. By this point, morning had passed, the hot sun was beating down on our backs and of course, naturally, we had run out of water.

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30 minutes later (yep, not bad huh?) we are at the bottom of the mountain, exhausted, buying hot sodas from a stand, and grinning real big at what we just accomplished. Amazing experience.

Random Fact of the Day:

1. Harini is also an IU student. Never met her before until our paths crossed in Kenya. What an incredibly small world!

2. Another point that demonstrates how small our world is: one day I was walking past a little clothing stall in the small village of Shanzu when I suddenly saw, hanging up, an old, old IU basketball jersey! To make things even crazier, the next day, I saw an old Carmel High School (my high school) basketball jersey hanging up next to it! Creepy….Wonder who was here before us…?


Maai Mahiu

Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) are those individuals who were forced from their homes after the 2007 election in Kenya. These individuals came to live in camps around the country, at first in tents, and then small makeshift homes. One IDP camp lays about 45 minutes from Nairobi in the small town of Maai Mahiu and that is where Trev and I were sent next.

While at the IDP camp I was amazed by what large projects previous volunteers had accomplished. A group of volunteers raised money and set up a small school, others have just begun construction on a medical clinic and a few more invested in a church. Really impressive!

My personal work revolved around a medical clinic one town over in Naivasha. I sat in on counseling groups with individuals who had just started HIV treatment, shadowed physicians into very personal settings, worked in the pharmacy, and even made a trip with the clinicians to Kenya’s maximum security prison to visit inmates.

The pictures below were taken of the research lab inside the clinic. Everyday the continent of Kenya sees thousands of patients who come to get tested for HIV and this clinic was no different. It is really incredible that I talk to so many people about the importance of getting tested and I am right there as they get their finger pricked or their blood drawn, and I have NO idea how they are feeling at that very moment. Of course sometimes they are visibly afraid, hands shaking, but I think to myself there is no other way, they must get tested. It is blatant ignorance to not want to know.

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One day, at the lab, the researcher joked about me getting tested. “It only takes 5 minutes!” he said, trying to persuade me. It’s funny because I had been tested before I left for Kenya, and despite knowing that I’m negative, this overwhelming feeling washed over me. Anxiety mixed with fear settled like a storm cloud over me and even jokingly, I could not do it. What if the result was positive and I’m here in Kenya, miles away from my family and my support… would I be able to handle the result?

I had to take a step back. How many people had I chided for not getting tested or for avoiding medication? Yet, here I was. How can I ask so much of these people when I couldn’t do the same once in their shoes?

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Random Fact of the Day:

1. Maai Mahiu is very different from Mombasa. Kids don’t run around asking you for sweets, not everyone gladly yells Jambo at you, and even respectful greetings like shekamo have no meaning here. The comfort and protection of the coast is also lost in the city. Several times we have been warned to not go out at night, which inconveniently begins at 7pm.


Back to Nairobi

I really don’t want to make a big deal out of this but I think it is only fair to those reading this blog to know of the potential problems of volunteering in a third world country. Against my better judgment I’m going to share with you all some really scary moments of my stay in Kenya.

I’m sure you have all heard of crooked  companies set only on taking advantage of naïve, wide-eyed volunteers by ripping them off, stripping them of all their money, wasting their time, and then sending them back to their home country unfulfilled and misused. I specifically chose GVVN because many of my own friends had previously volunteered through the group. However, GVVN connected me to an in-country coordinator by the name of Anne Kithyo of Azma Community Group.

I was truly let down by Anne. She put Trever, Hailey, and I on a bus to Mombasa and then went off-line. At points we would try calling her for 48 hours straight to no avail. Imagine being in a foreign country, in a foreign city, taken care of by a host family you know NOTHING about and the sole person who is supposed to provide you with 24/7 support has gone AWOL.

To date, Anne has yet to pay our Mombasa host family in full. GVVN is no longer working with her and instead we have been hooked up with another NGO called Ma Rafiki. We moved back to Nairobi and are under their care. Despite the fact that they have been taking care of us and simultaneously taking care of our host family in Mombasa, the hurt and feeling of deception can never be erased.

My only desire was to come to Kenya through a reputable organization and work to not only LEARN but also ASSIST the people of Kenya. I was taught to trust people who really let me down. I was placed in a position in which I didn’t know who to trust, who to confide in, and who to ask for help. Honestly, it was the scariest moment of my adult life so far. I stayed with my bags packed, passport hidden, for almost 3 whole days, ready to book a flight back home at the drop of a pin, if necessary.

So my advise to all those who wish to volunteer aboard: DO YOUR RESEARCH. When you think you’re finished, DO SOME MORE RESEARCH. Question the organization you wish to volunteer with. Ask them for formal documents outlining EXACTLY where your funds are going. Demand information even when the nonchalance air of those around you persuade you otherwise. Most importantly, always keep your options open. Never depend solely on one company, one person, one organization. As pessimistic as it sounds, expect disappointment, and be prepared to handle it.


Makadara Hospital

I got a real glimpse into a government owned hospital today. We visited Makadara Coast General Hospital just so that I could see what a typical hospital was like in Kenya. I honestly wasn’t expecting the depth of poverty, hopelessness, and absolute chaos that was Makadara.

Imagine this: you get dropped off by a matatu at the bottom of a winding road that leads to the hospital. As you walk up the road you pass rows upon rows of ready-made coffins… big ones, mahogany ones, and even baby ones.

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When you finally get to the hospital, it is packed, hot, sweaty, and frustrating. The foundation is cracking and pieces of plaster had fallen off the ceiling. We made it to the first ward which was crammed with beds and even more patients, the separating curtains had been removed, and TB patients were placed outside in the balcony. Can you imagine that? TB PATIENTS – the ones most susceptible to the cold  — are placed in beds OUTSIDE of the hospital. It was the saddest sight ever. The last part of my tour ended in the ER and I couldn’t even last 5 minutes. There was a woman there who had had an accident early in the morning. At three in the afternoon she had still not been visited by a doctor. Another lady was laying there in pain with burn marks covering her entire body.

So there you have it – there’s a good ol’ Kenyan hospital. Built by the British. Owned and operated by the Kenyans.

Random Fact of the Day:

1) 99% of female hairstyles that I have seen in Kenya are done with fake hair. Amazing the stuff they can do.