Volunteering in Kenya: An Unforgettable Opportunity
By Devon Magoon
An estimated one billion people in the world live in third world slums. That’s about one out of every six people on the planet. And unfortunately, the living conditions are often utterly deplorable. Kenya is no exception.
Thankfully, there are organizations like the AID Kenya Foundation looking to help in whatever way possible. AID Kenya is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to mobilize voluntary humanitarian aid and development assistance for orphans, vulnerable children, women and disadvantaged populations in rural-urban Kenya.
Headed by Executive Director Armstrong O’Brian Ongera, Jr., the AID Kenya Foundation, founded in 2007, offers a variety of programs to help assist those in need. One of these is the Experiential Learning and Cultural Exchange Program which affords willing volunteers the unique opportunity to positively impact people in need in a hands-on environment.
“As we went into the slums and ghettos in Kenya’s urban areas, and rural Kenya, we would find many children either abandoned and homeless or uncared for,” says Mr. Ongera.
“Most of those children were left behind by parents who might have died of HIV or other causes, or by teenage mothers, who give birth in Kenya at an alarming rate and then sometimes abandon the children. So we were moved by the plight of those children and their guardians or teen mums.”
Mr. Ongera knows all too well the suffering and immense difficulties that underprivileged individuals must face. After all, he grew up in a slum and has witnessed firsthand the staggering poverty and unlivable conditions that so many Kenyans brave daily.
The East African nation of Kenya suffers an 11 percent rate of orphan-hood, one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, and widespread poverty, so it’s no wonder that programs like the ones offered through the AID Kenya Foundation are so interested in recruiting volunteers. There can never be enough help.
AID Kenya’s Experiential Learning & Cultural Exchange Program
Organizations such as AID Kenya and programs like the AID Kenya Foundation’s Experiential Learning & Cultural Exchange Program promote well-being in slums and rural villages sorely in need of support. In Nairobi alone there are around two million people living in slums. And in domestic areas like Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, general necessities like clean water and a sanitary place to go to the bathroom are nearly absent.
“We found people who would challenge us with questions like ‘Would you imagine having to leave your home in a hurry, bringing hardly anything with you for the children?’” says Ongera on confronting poverty stricken villages and slums.
“’Would you imagine building a flimsy shelter out of rugs or tree branches or plastic tarps? Would you imagine having no water or being forced to buy it at the price beyond your daily income or survival capital which is less than 1 USD? Would you imagine not knowing if you will find food for your children or being able to put them in school or fearing your daughter might be raped every time she goes to the open latrine?’ Those are the questions that triggered us to take action to address these issues.”
Those questions are hard ones, but through the equally hard work of volunteers and staff members, Kenyans are receiving the aid that The AID Kenya Foundation is so keen on providing.
The Foundation hosts local and international volunteers as well as students under The Experiential Learning & Cultural Exchange Program on a year-round basis and places them on ‘feel-good projects’ at the community level.
Volunteers work alongside other volunteers and locals to engender cultural understanding while simultaneously gaining new insight, touring the country, and fostering peace to bring hope to the OVC kids and teen mothers.
“We find Americans very good in volunteering for they are ready and eager to learn, share their experiences, and become generous in supporting communities they are posted to,” says Ongera, “They are most welcome.”
What Volunteers Can Expect
This program aims to build more cohesive communities, foster greater trust between citizens and develop norms of solidarity and reciprocity that are essential to stable communities. So once in Kenya, volunteers will never face a shortage of ways to get involved.
There is an almost constant demand for habitable living conditions, so building houses for the homeless, improving water sources like rivers and water wells, and volunteering as teachers in local schools or as nurses at local hospitals is always encouraged and needed.
Volunteers can also offer psychotherapy classes to children, teenage mothers and communities at large. Volunteers are instructed in basic Swahili to better communicate and connect with those they are working with.
Amenities like clean water, showers, transportation, and internet access are available during the stay. Volunteers are stationed in urban-rural areas like Nairobi, Kisii, Nyamira, the Mt. Kenya region, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru for a minimum period of two weeks and a maximum of 12 weeks. Volunteers are encouraged to stay with a family to better connect with the culture and people of Kenya.
Participants will work mainly with children, teenage mothers, and the disadvantaged population. They are tasked with assisting children in and out of the classroom, as well as holding counseling programs for the kids and acting as mentors and role models for both the youths and teen mothers.
And if hands-on manual labor sounds enticing, volunteers can also participate in activities like helping with renovations, painting, gardening and a number of other tasks.
Without volunteers, these activities would have to rely upon the state or private capital, so volunteering adds to the overall economic output of the country and reduces the burden on government spending.
Respite in Recreation
There is also time for interested travelers to enjoy the natural splendor of Kenya. During free time, traveling for leisure or sightseeing is a popular option. Locations like the Rift Valley Naivasha, Nairobi National Park, Maasai National Park, Samburu National Park and Lake Nakuru National Park are all exciting tourist destinations in themselves. Yes, that means that safaris are indeed an option.
Not to mention there will be the the opportunity to visit Mt. Kenya (the second highest mountain in Kenya and the mountain the country itself was named after), as well as Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Maasai Village in Kajiado and a handful of other communities in which to experience the warm Kenyan culture.
How You Can Help
Those unable to directly volunteer are still able to get involved. Resource mobilization and networking is an important part of the Foundation’s structure. Those interested can also become International Goodwill Ambassadors of the Foundation or simply donate directly toward AID Kenya’s causes by joining ‘Friends of AID Kenya Foundation.’
You can also visit Aid Kenya’s online store selling items that are handmade by supported craftsmen and craftswomen. The proceeds from the sale of these excellent crafts go toward helping to improve the living conditions of the artisans themselves.
One Young Volunteer’s Story
Shira Kaufman and Abby Tuominen are two 18- and 17-year-old girls out of Leverett and Shutesbury, Massachusetts, who have discovered just how rewarding volunteering in Kenya can be.
Together they shared the chance to be part of young Kenyan girls’ lives through a separate but similar organization called Touch Kenya. All of the young girls they lived with were considered orphans and were anywhere between 4 and 14 years of age.
“Both of us had always been really interested in volunteering. We had done volunteer work in the past but hadn’t gotten the fulfillment we had been looking for,” says Kaufman. But with a little research and lots of saving up, both Tuominen and Kaufman found what they had been looking for in Kenya.
“I wanted to help out and really get to know the people and the culture. Working with kids seemed like the best way to do that,” she says concerning her motivation to travel to Africa.
“We knew we wanted to work with kids so we found the nonprofit Touch Kenya,” says Kaufman, “We were in touch with the organization for about a year and then last summer we stayed there for six weeks. We stayed with the girls and taught English and Math classes.”
Kaufman recalled her time spent with the 46 girls with deep affection. “It was really nice just to be there. We’re in contact with them as much as we can be now.”
On top of having one of the most valuable summer experiences of her life, Kaufman learned substantial cultural lessons about the country. “I knew that a lot of people went there for safaris. I didn’t really know much about Kenya in terms of its history, political climate or living standards. I learned a lot while I was there.”
Current affairs like voting on the new constitution and fiscal divides between the higher and middle classes of people was learned simply through talking with locals.
Kaufman highly recommends volunteer work based on her excursion to Kenya. “Anyone could do it. Put in the situation with the amount of love that the girls showed for us, I don’t know how someone couldn’t be happy volunteering,” she says.
Her time volunteering gave Kaufman a fresh outlook on life. She returned to Western Massachusetts with a new appreciation for her surrounding community and a stronger sense of motivation.
“Seeing how much the girls cared about getting their education and how important it was to them made me value the education I can get here. I can get a free education here,” she says. “High school is so expensive over there that a lot of girls don’t even end up going. Girls work hard because they know they have to. Seeing that really made me value that I can just go to high school every day, get a good education, and not have to pay for it.”
For now Shira Kaufman is still actively involved with the children she spent her summer with as she is sponsoring two of the girls that she worked with overseas. After falling in love with the kids, she is fully expecting to return sometime in the near future.
To look into volunteering or for further information email firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the AID Kenya Foundation’s website to learn more about how you can help
Listen to a documentary on slum life featuring Mr. Ongera
Learn more about Touch Kenya on their website
Devon Magoon is an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and attends the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
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