Volunteering in Kenya: From the Safari to the Relief Station

Kenyans wait for foot to be distributed - photos courtesy of Global Volunteer Network
Kenyans wait for foot to be distributed – photos
courtesy of Global Volunteer Network

By Nooshin Shabani

As tourists in Kenya wear their shades to protect their eyes from the beaming sun, their eyes are also protected from seeing the extreme poverty conditions Kenyans are faced with.

It’s been three years since rain has fallen in Kenya. This has resulted in the worst drought in more than a decade within East Africa which has left millions of Kenyans suffering. The local people are the biggest victims as they watch their livestock die and their crops fail, making it almost impossible to a make a living.

Something Helpful and Constructive

Mark Jenner, 18, from the United Kingdom, decided to give three months of his time volunteering with the Global Volunteer Network in Kenya.

Rather than attend an organized cultural dinner evening which you would normally find on a typical package holiday, he chose to experience the true essence of the Kenyan culture through living and working within the local community. He felt volunteering was much more authentic.

“I wanted to do something helpful and constructive in Africa,” he says. “This is a continent which needs the most aid as each segment of society has its own problems.”

Daily Survival is a Struggle

Mark Jenner (center) visits a school in Kenya.
Mark Jenner (center) visits a school in Kenya.

The aftermath of the drought had an impact not just on the local villagers, but also on orphanages and schools in the area. Many schools already had a shortage of supplies, but the situation escalated, which meant local schools were at risk of closing due to the conditions and the lack of food needed to supply daily meals for the children.

“Daily survival here is such a struggle; there is no security for anybody,” Jenner says. “We all have an obligation to try and make that struggle easier. Volunteering is a fantastic start.”

Kenya is also commonly known as a safari holiday destination which receives visits from thousands of tourists each year. As holidaymakers enjoy the running hot water and the luxuries in modern Nairobi resorts, local people in most cases do not reap any of the benefits generated by tourism.

“People who live in rural areas rely on the rain for their livelihood,” Jenner explains. “They live in tiny mud huts with no ventilation, windows, or electricity.

Mark helps distribute food to waiting villagers.
Mark helps distribute food to waiting villagers.

“Many women don’t have an opportunity to get an education or a good standard of health care as it’s too expensive. This makes diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV more prevalent, contributing to the levels of poverty which most people are not aware of.

Two Trucks of Food

Lack of rain meant lack of food which impacted Kenyans and other East African countries who were victims of the drought. Jenner, along with other volunteers and GVN staff, had a passion to help. GVN sent out a donation appeal for the drought and raised nearly US$10,000. GVN staff and volunteers transported two trucks of food to two local schools and local villages, enough to feed the community for at least another month.

“Around 600 people stood waiting for the food for as long as eight hours, some walking many miles just to get to the site,” Jenner says. “They reacted with a sense of relief and appreciation, as if a weight had been lifted off the whole community.”

As Jenner and the volunteers helped to distribute ten tons of beans and ground corn, the people grouped together, standing in line with their empty bags of hope. Despite the poverty conditions and the risk of starvation, together they united as a community.

Volunteers distribute food.
Volunteers distribute food.

“Many people carried two bags for food, one for their family, and another for a neighbor or friend. The Maasai chef told me many people were sick and could not walk the distance and so neighbors collected a bag for them,” he says. “Even when people live in poverty they still have a sense of community and look out for not just themselves but others also”

Malnutrition is a Major Issue

Ironically the day the food arrived the rain came with it. But the miracle of rainfall soon turned into mayhem for other parts of Kenya. Heavy rains have now resulted in poor transportation conditions and flooding, making it difficult for aid distribution to reach the villages compounding the problems.

“The main issues facing the Kenyan people are finding enough money to eat, go to school, and have a decent standard of healthcare,” Jenner says. “Malnutrition is a major issue.”

According to the International Development Research Centre, the local Kenyan people do not reap the benefits of the income generated from international tourists.

For example, less than 2% of the money spent at the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve benefits local Maasai people. Instead, most of the money goes to luxury lodges, transport costs, and foreign package tour operators. Even revenue from park entry fees as high as US$27 per day goes straight into the central government’s treasury.

However, according to UNICEF, one out of every five children under the age of five in Kenya is malnourished.

Unequal Distribution

This was one of the shocking realities Mark and the other GVN volunteers came to terms with, the impact of tourism if not responsible, made the rich richer while the poor silently suffer. Mark was happy he chose to volunteer rather than go on holiday.

“One of my most shocking moments was when I visited my fellow volunteer at Kibera slums, the levels of poverty were overwhelming. About five minutes after I walked out of the slums, we came across a huge western supermarket which has everything you would typically find in a market,” Jenner says. “Kibera was shocking, but the contrast between the slums and the supermarket was unbelievable, it spoke a lot about how drastically wealth is polarized in Kenya.

Although Kenya is very dependent on money generated from international tourists, the local people do not feel nor see the benefits in their community, instead they see holidaymakers swimming in pools while they work all day waiting for rainfall to grow their crops.

Trading in the Package Holiday

Many developing countries suffer the same imbalance between rich and poor people. With the help of volunteers like Mark who trade in a summer package holiday for volunteering with the local community, the dreams of change can some day be reality.

“Numerous Kenyan people have said to me, give Kenya five years and it will be a fantastic country,” he says. “Even in Kibera, a huge slum, there is a sense of development and a sense of community”

Jenner volunteered with the Global Volunteer Network, a non-government organization based in New Zealand, which connects people to communities in need.
For more options, find unique Kenya accommodations and interesting tours in Kenya.

Nooshin Shabani is a freelance journalist from the UK who works for The Global Volunteer Network, a private, non-government organization (NGO) based in New Zealand that connects volunteers with villages, schools, orphanages, mobile health clinics and environmental projects in countries suffering extreme poverty. Nooshin has volunteered in Nepal, Ghana and the Philippines.


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