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Remotely Connected: Volunteering in Kenya

By Sean Maurer
Used by permission from Global Citizens Network


While I spent last week in the shadow of Kilimanjaro the thought occurred to me, "Is anywhere still truly remote?" Though we were in the middle of Maasailand and a five-mile walk from the nearest town, Britney Spears still wafted through the air as we worked to lay the foundation for a Maasai health clinic. 

Though we have ants here so big they are used to close wounds (let them bite it, then twist their heads off), we have also brought modern surgical staple guns. 

Though people in the neighboring shamba (village) were trampled by elephants last month, I saw one Morani warrior who kept his ear hole open with an Estee Lauder lotion bottle and used a dismantled Bic lighter as part of his headdress.

Though our host, Moses, has interesting views on gender equality ("Tanzanian women are very cheap, you kidnap her, leave 10 goats and run very fast"), one Maasai boy had been taught to say, "Wazzup?" instead of "Sopa" (How are you?).

In short, Rombo, in the far south of Kenya, is very remote and yet shockingly global. Likewise are the other Global Citizens Network volunteers with whom I am helping to bend metal for the clinic’s framework. 

The youngest of the volunteers is Rita, from Latvia. She is only nineteen and told me on the ride down from Nairobi that she’s not going to get engaged until she is old. "Twenty-six or so." That makes me feel good. Along with her from Cambridge University are Anton, a Russian and Olesya, a Moldovian. Anton conforms to my ideas of a Russian by bringing a bottle of vodka ("for medicinal use only"). My opinions are revised, when he and Oleysa beat me in Scrabble by using words like "banal" and "daunting."  Just think how badly I’d lose in Moldovian.

The group also included Patty and Katie Hall, a mother and daughter on their second GCN trip; Sharma, who was celebrating her 50th birthday by coming to Africa; and Shari, a Canadian fine art dealer working in Palm Springs. Rounding out the group were Veronica, a trader on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange and Amelia, who seemed to be either a professional student or professional volunteer, I couldn’t tell which. Regardless, she was great to have along since she had a book about how to avoid common African dangers like quicksand and safari ants.

Everyone seemed to share Veronica’s feeling at the beginning, which was summed up by the answering machine message she left behind, "If I come back from Africa, I’ll call you back." More daunting questions arose at the site: "Can vegetarians eat animal crackers? " "Can termites jump up to my buttocks?" These questions were answered by our fearless leader Chris, a freelance photographer taking a break from shooting J. Crew catalogues. He reassured us that vegetarians could and termites couldn’t, and by the middle of the first week, everyone had adjusted to the long drop toilets, the lack of electricity and no running water. 

Well, almost. 

Encouraged by our few days of survival we decided to hitch a ride into the big city of Rombo. There, we negotiated the purchase of some peas for our dinner. Everything in Kenya is bargaining, many times involving such ploys as asking for a Bic pen as part of the price. We got our peas for 50 shillings, and one pen. Veronica will get back to New York and will try to trade 100 shares of IBM for $10,000 and three Bic pens. Maybe it will work.

One of the main precepts of GCN is the cross-cultural aspect of volunteering. We weren’t here to build a clinic for the Maasai, but were joining them in building their own clinic. They were working side-by-side with us each day, even going as far as to give us our own Maasai names. We were partners in this project, which meant a lot more than simply being foreign volunteers. Everyone had a stake in what was happening here.

My last night with the team was my finest in Africa. Under a nearly full moon, our friend Joseph led us off into the bush. A week ago, elephants from the national park had come through the area looking for food and destroyed an entire farm. Tonight we were going to help the Maasai defend their village against the elephants. 

We charged through the bush screaming and throwing rocks to frighten the elephants (as much as you can frighten a 4 ton animal). We caught up to the three elephants and were close enough that I could have hit them with a good throw if I weren’t too panicked to aim. 

Once we (mainly the Maasai, using torches and slings) chased them back into the bush, Joseph made us stop, explaining that in the villages the elephants were thieves, and they knew it, but in the bush they were at home, and they would charge us if we chased them further. We were lucky he was there, or in our zeal we probably would have run right into them. Instead we returned to the safety of the fire and celebrated with Anton’s "medicinal" vodka and fresh oranges.

While Rombo might not be quite as remote as I’d like (is any place, really?), it is still probably the only place in the world you can help build a health clinic during the day, and throw rocks at elephants during the night.

For accommodation options, find unique Kenya hotels.

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