Remotely Connected: Volunteering in Kenya
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 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.
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 clinics framework.
The youngest of the volunteers is Rita, from Latvia. She is only nineteen and told me on the ride down from Nairobi that shes 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 Id 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 couldnt 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 Veronicas feeling at the beginning, which was summed up by the answering machine message she left behind, "If I come back from Africa, Ill 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 couldnt, and by the middle of the first week, everyone had adjusted to the long drop toilets, the lack of electricity and no running water.
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.
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 werent too panicked to aim.
While Rombo might not be quite as remote as Id 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.
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