Monday, October 31, 2011


The other day someone asked me what made me choose to come to Africa. I didn't have an answer for them. All I could say was that, one day whilst sitting in Costa Rica, pondering the rest of my life (as college students are wont to do), I had an epiphany. I realized that the life I had always expected to lead - the one where I graduated, got married, got a job, had kids and probably taught in the same school in the Midwest for 20 years - didn't have to be. Not that it was such a bad life to lead, it was just that there were an infinite number of other possibilities to consider. For whatever reason, the first possibility that popped into my head was doing aid work in Africa...and that is the one I stuck with.

I don't know why. I had never thought of doing such a thing before. But once the idea had taken root, I couldn't let it go. I've been waiting to get here ever since and I knew that I couldn't settle down until I had gone and had this adventure. (To be honest, I was a bit worried that I wouldn't make it here. It took a bit longer than I had intended.)

It sort of feels like the universe just knew that I would like it here and gave me the necessary pushes - a random idea here, a bit of restlessness there, some life experience - to make sure that I would get here and that I would be ready for it when I did. Now, I realize that that sounds kind of hokey and maybe I am just getting far too into the new agey side of my yoga practice, but I can't help this overwhelming feeling that my presence here puts me in perfect sync with the universe.

I'm not generally into the whole higher power thing. I find any existence or nonexistence to be somewhat irrelevant to my life. That said, I occasionally have moments where it seems possible that there is a sort of universal force that connects people to each other and to the overall fabric of the human experience. Of course there are also moments where this sounds completely and utterly absurd. At present, I'm having an extended series of moments where such a driving force seems not only possible in the abstract, but also to have been rather active in my life.

Regardless of whether it was a push from the universe or simply random chance, the feeling of rightness that I have here is absolutely amazing. Occasionally, there are people in your life that just fit perfectly. You meet them at just the right time and you click immediately. It's as if you've always been friends, even though you've only known them for an hour. That's kind of how I feel about my work here. It just fit so well, right from the first day.

I kind of like to think that all the detours between my initial epiphany and my actual arrival have been a sort of preparation for my time here. All of the experiences I've had are coming together to make me feel happy and comfortable and confident with what I'm doing. It's such a good feeling. After years of waiting for my life to begin, it's wonderful to finally have arrived. To leave behind the gnawing anticipation and feel that I am in exactly the place that I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing. I don't know where this adventure will take me yet and, for the moment, it doesn't really matter. I'm here and it's perfect, and I'm ready to let the universe take me where it will.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Never a Dull Moment

Life here is starting to get interesting.  There has been some political unrest due to tensions between Kenya and Somalia.  This week there were 2 bombings in Nairobi.  According to the media, the bombings are not linked to the Al Shibab unrest, though personally I think it seems rather coincidental.  At any rate, we have been encouraged not to go to Nairobi, nor to go too far from our home here in Mombasa.  Which is not a big deal, because we spend most of our time here anyway.  It has, however, added a level of excitement to our lives.  As far as I can tell, things are a little crazy, though that's actually a pretty normal state for Kenya and we are not in any immediate danger, though we should probably be cautious.  Just in case anyone was worried.

On top of that, we got a brand new schedule at school, which includes me teaching another grade level.  Woot!  They had asked me about teaching Standard 7 as well as Standard 6 last week, but no one had gotten back to me to tell me that I was for sure doing it until Sunday night at like 8pm when Katie brought us our new timetables.  And, sure enough, on Monday morning I had 3 blocks of English with Standard 7 right off the bat.  After my time here, I will be able to take anything that happens in a public school in stride.  There were a lot of last minute changes in the States, but nothing like here.  They make big changes and expect them to happen an hour after you've been told.  It's ridiculous.  I still haven't gotten any books for Standard 7 and I've been teaching it for almost a week. 

I also discovered yesterday that I don't really have any curriculum to follow for Standard 6 or 7 at this point.  Neither standard has had a volunteer for a long time, so GVI doesn't have the curriculum prepared for them.  Which means I get to make it up as I go.  The good news is, I know that I am perfectly capable of doing this and doing it well.  I also know that the kids are getting quality English instruction.  The bad news is that it's a bit more work and a bit more stressful right now. 

On a more positive note, I was talking to one of my students yesterday and she asked me how many weeks I would stay.  When I told her I would stay at least until March, her eyes just got huge.  She couldn't believe I would be with them for so long.  She told me that it was good, which was nice to hear.  I think that the kids are so used to people coming and going so quickly that it is nice for them to know that they have some consistency for awhile.  And I'm glad to be here with them for a long time.  (Don't tell, but right now Standard 6 is my favorite.  Standard 7 is making me a little crazy so far.  I'm still working out how to crack them.) 

Hopefully this is all the excitement for the week, but it's only Wednesday and, of course, T.I.A. (This is Africa).

Notes on Sustainability

A lot of people have asked me how I ended up here, doing this program. I'm not really sure what drew me to Africa. Maybe, on some subconscious level, I just knew I would like it here. Maybe it just seemed like a place that could use some help. At this point, it doesn't really matter, and, while I can't tell you what brought me to the continent, I can tell you what brought me to this place and this project specifically.

My main concern when looking for an aid program was sustainability and actual helpingness. What happens frequently is that organizations come to a place and provide a service, which is good while they are there. But then, by the time they leave, the community has either become dependent on them or the organization has destroyed the local infrustructure and the community is actually worse off in the end than if the organization had never come at all. Sometimes, the effect is merely neutral. In choosing a project, I wanted to make sure that my time and money would go toward a project that would actually benefit the community.

It took a lot of overwhelming research on the internet, but I found a few organizations that seemed to have the values I was looking for. I sent off some emails and GVI responded with all of the answers I wanted to hear. Their projects all over the world function on the same principles - namely, that the host community knows what they need best and that GVI is not a long-term solution. We come to communities that have identified a need that we can address with volunteers and work with them to solve the issue in a sustainable way. GVI never sends just money or supplies, they support their communities through human volunteers, though the money that we pay does go to support the projects financially.

My project specifically supports 2 child centers that are working to become fully recognized schools. We help the local staff with teaching responsibilities - mainly with English. Right now GVI gives a lot of financial support, but we are working to help each school develop an income-generating project so that, eventually, they will be able to sustain themselves. One school has a greenhouse to grow and sell produce, the other is going to be making shoes. The goal is that, eventually, GVI can pull out and the centers will be able to continue running as fully functional schools. To this end, we do what we can to keep the schools from becoming reliant on us, like giving one-time donations, rather than things that need to be renewed continually. (Chalkboards vs. daily lunch) It's going to take quite awhile before the schools reach any sort of self-reliance, but I really appreciate that all of the work we do is toward that goal. I know that the work we are doing is going to continue to help the community long after I leave.

GVI has several teaching projects in Africa, but I picked this project in Kenya mostly because there was a long-term option. As a teacher, I feel like a few weeks is not enough time to really accomplish very much with a group of students. It's nice to be with them for a long enough time to actually see the growth that a few months makes. Now that I'm here, I am actually really impressed with the way that GVI handles the high turnover of volunteers. They have created a scheme of work that outlines exactly what is to be taught each week of the school year, so that, as volunteers come and go, they can pick up exactly where the last one left off. They also put multiple volunteers in each class and overlap them, so that there rarely is a class with two brand new teachers.

Overall, I am really happy with the work we are doing here. I really feel that we are making a sustainable change in the community, which is what I set out to do. I am looking forward to my coming months here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oh Happy Day!

Today was a total win.  It is a national holiday, so we didn't have classes, but we had to go into school this morning to do some organizing and have a couple meetings.  Most of it was boring, but we had grade level meetings with the local teachers and volunteers, as well as the head teacher and volunteer coordinator and that went really well.  The local teachers here can be hard to connect with and the head teacher especially comes across very harshly, which is really off-putting.  I haven't been very sure about him as of yet.  But today in our meetings, we actually had a good discussion and I started to feel that, even though he tends to come across very condescendingly, his heart and his intentions really are with the children.  He really does just want the best for them.  It's unfortunate the way he comes across, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of what is behind the gruff exterior.  I am looking forward more to working with him in the coming months.

The other thing that was great about our meeting was that both the head teacher and the local teacher had really positive things to say about how I am doing in the classroom.  The local teacher commonly sits in the room and marks papers while I am teaching and the head teacher will pop his head in occasionally, so it was nice to have positive feedback from people who actually see what I am doing.  It's doubly great because I actually feel like I'm doing a good job. 

After our school excursion, I went to what amounts to the largest thrift store I will probably ever find.  It is an outdoor market full of secondhand clothes.  If you have ever wondered what happens to things that you donate to thrift stores, you can rest assured that if it doesn't end up in a store back home, it's probably here in Africa.  We found all kinds of ancient "treasures" punctuated by few diamonds in the rough.  I had a great time digging through it all - I can't wait to wash and wear my new vintage dress!

As if that weren't enough of a good day, I met up with a friend of a friend at her hotel on the beach and ended my day with an absolutely lovely dinner.  The hotel was gorgeous, the view beautiful, the company wonderful and the food delicious.  We were even treated to an amazing acrobatic show before I headed home.  All in all, an incredibly relaxing, peaceful evening.  Thanks to the friends that made it possible. 

And now I think it is time for me to get some sleep.  The house has gone to bed (I can't believe I'm the last one up) and apparently Western breakfast is happening tomorrow morning.  Word on the street is that there are pancakes something British that involves bacon and buns, so I better get ready.  I am sending positive thoughts your way in hopes that y'all are having an equally wonderful moment in your lives!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thoughts About School (Transient)

I've noticed that my feelings about my school are changing drastically very quickly. When things like that happen, I think it's important to write down what I'm thinking before I settle into a mental state and lose all of the ones that came before it.

We visited the school briefly our first Sunday and Monday in Mombasa. I think that the staff here expected us to be surprised about what it is like, expecting it to be better or worse. However, I'm me and, really, nothing really phases me anymore, so I wasn't very surprised. I'm not sure that I had any solid expectations beforehand, but it kind of seemed like exactly what I expected. It really does look like all the pictures I have seen of people volunteering in places like this. (Probably better, actually, to some degree - we have an actual building.)

Then, last Tuesday, I taught my first lesson. Afterward, during my break, I went and sat in on a kindergarten lesson. Throughout the day, in my own classroom and as I watched the kindergarteners, I had this overwhelming feeling that this school in this place couldn't possibly be any other way. It just wouldn't be right. To plop down some other school building in this place just wouldn't be right.

At the end of last week, however, the sadness of the situation began to hit me. We had exams (I thought I was getting away from standardized tests!) and watching them take their tests was really heartwarming and depressing at the same time. To start with, there weren't enough tests for each child. They had to share, 2 or 3 kids to a test. Which was amazing. I was so impressed by how well most of them did with this. They were understanding and patient with each other as they squished into each other's space to see the exam. They waited for others to finish before going to the next page. They were careful to cover up their answers. I didn't see any cheating. None. Despite how easy it would have been to just glance at a neighbor's paper.

But, even as my impressed heart warmed, watching them also made me rather depressed. To see 3 teenage boys crammed into a tiny bench sharing one test, doing their best to get an education was crazy. It made me stop and really see just how sad the situation is. How hard is it to get enough copies of the test? It's not that expensive, and they weren't even new tests. It seems worth the $5 investment to make a set of copies to use each year. But that doesn't happen. Instead we get what we have and the kids have to make it work. Which they do. But think how much better they might do if they each could have a copy in front of them, rather than straining across a desk in the dingy light trying to make sense of something they can barely read.

My intention is not to make it sound like a dingy, depressing place, because it isn't. It's very lively and welcoming and the whole thing functions fairly well. But no matter how well it works, if you compare what they've got to what we have at home, it's nothing. All of the things that I take for granted in my classroom and complain about not having or not working properly are amazing conveniences. It's amazing how much one little thing can improve what we can do for the students. Just to have copies of the test for everyone would make a difference, let alone lights or, god forbid, a computer or a smartboard.  (I would even take an overhead projector!)  It makes me realize just how little it really takes to get the job done. Because no matter how basic Olive's is, it's still a school and the work and the mood of it are just the same as any other school. No matter what, we do the best we can with what we have to help the kids learn.  And they do learn.  You really can do a lot with very little. You just have to be a bit more creative about it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

First Thoughts on Kenya...

Today makes day 7 in Africa and I'm not even sure where to start. The first few weeks in a new place are always a roller coaster of emotions and this week has been no different. On the one hand, this place is completely new and absurdly strange. But it doesn't really feel like it. It just feels like, of course it's this way, how could it be any other? And my presence here feels completely natural. How could I possibly be anywhwere else? I'm already having deja vu, which I have been told means you are in the right place in your life. Which is kind of an amazing feeling. I'm probably getting ahead of myself, though.
Let's start with my arrival. 38 hours is way too long to get anywhere. I thought the 14 hour flight to China was bad. That is nothing compared to getting to Africa. From Omaha, it took 4 flights, totalling 19 hours in flight, with another 19 hours in layovers to get to Mombasa. By the time I got in, all I wanted was a shower and a bed.
I spent the first night at a pretty nice hotel in Mombasa with most of the other volunteers for GVI's projects in and around Mombasa. There are a bunch working on my program and also a bunch doing conservation work with monkeys and marine life on an island south of Mombasa. Saturday morning we were picked up ridiculously early by the program coordinators and taken to our home. We live in a suburb of Mombasa, literally just around the corner from Bombolulu Villaged, the slum where our students live. It is bizarrely nestled in the midst of a fairly nice suburb. If you walk 5 minutes in any direction from the edge of the village (and it does feel more like a rural village than a city slum), you are suddenly surrounded by posh gated communities. It's very strage to have such a blatant contrast in wealth.
The project has 2 houses in Salama Estates, each with 4 dorm style bedrooms housing about 4 people each, along with a living room, dining room, kitchen and 2 bathrooms. We all take turns cleaning our own house and cooking for both houses on weeknights. I haven't had to cook yet, but they put us right to work cleaning. The majority of volunteers are from somewhere in the UK. We actually have a fair amount of Americans right now and a couple from other places in Europe. (When I come home with a bizarre British-Irish-Kenyan accent, you'll know why.)
The staff on my project here don't waste any time getting us into the swing of things. On Saturday and Sundy they took us into town to see what it's like, gave us a tour of one of the schools, fed us lots of local cuisine, introduced us to all of the forms of local transport and sent us to the beach nearby. Monday we had some training and visited our schools and by Tuesday we were teaching classes. With the turnover of volunteers here, there really isn't class time to waste.
The project works with 2 "schools" here in Mombasa. Technically they are not certified schools yet, though they are essentially run as such and certification is the end goal. The school where I am working is called Olive's Rehabilitation Centre. It is incredibly basic. The building is stones and cement with a corrugated tin roof. Each class has a chalkboard and several bench/desk combos that seat 3 or so kids. The classes are 30-50 kids each. The school employs local teachers for each class to teach Kiswahili, religion, social studies, etc., while the GVI volunteers are responsible for most of the English curriculum. Most volunteers are not certified teachers and work in groups of 2 or 3 to a class.
I am teaching Standard 6 on my own. The students are around 12-13 years old, I think. I'm still unclear about how the grade levels compare to American grades. I'm teaching English, reading, science, library and a creative arts class to 34 students. So far, I love my class. They are a pretty good bunch. They will definitely keep me on my toes but mostly they are mature enough to manage themselves. Hopefully, once we get things established, we will be able to have a good time. It's only been a couple days, but so far I feel really good about it. I'm actually excited to go to school.
Like I said, being here feels good. It's such a strange place but somehow being here doesn't seem srange at all. There are definitely a lot of things that I will have to get used to. Like living with 11 other people. (Say goodbye to privacy.) And I am quickly learning that getting anything done here takes 3 times as long as it does back home, with at least twice as much frustration. Not to mention all of the things that just don't work consistently the way I am used to them working. On the flip side, just being here has been an incredible experience so far. I think that teaching and working with these kids is going to more than compensate for the inconveniences of life here.