There are a handful of moments in a person’s life that takes their breath away. Watching the sun set over the African savanna lasted only a few minutes. However, the encompassing wonderment and warmth I felt as the sky changed from gold to pink, is something I’ve tried to carry with me ever since.
By a spontaneous chain of events, I spent the first two weeks of January 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya volunteering with International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ).
It all started when my older sister decided to volunteer abroad before applying for her master’s program. I served a religious mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in another region of Africa, so I jokingly considered myself a self-proclaimed expert on the area and insisted I go with her.
We landed in Nairobi late on New Year’s Eve. We welcomed the new year with the other volunteers surrounded by the excitement of celebrating streets.
The first day was exciting but also a bit overwhelming. After living in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana for two years, Kenya felt familiar to me. There were a lot of Kenyan customs that felt like home. However, there were also some obvious differences, the biggest being language.
Although almost everyone in Kenya speaks English, the official language is Swahili (think of the opening scene of Lion King when they sing the “Circle of Life”). I wasn’t used to speaking Swahili at all, and the only phrase I knew was “Hakuna Matata”- thanks Timon and Pumba. However, it wasn’t long until I was comfortable with greeting strangers in the street with a simple “Jambo!” and a response of “Poa!” (How are you?/ I am well!).
Our time in Kenya was spent volunteering at a women’s center and preschool in a city about 45 minutes out of Nairobi called Kitengela. My sister, three other volunteers (two from New Zealand and one from China) and I would make the one-hour walk every day from our home in Kitengela to the school on the other side of town.
The morning trip was its own adventure. We walked down the bumpy dirt roads as motorcycles called “pikipiki” would race by. We would hear children’s little voices yelling, “Mzungu! Mzungu!”, meaning “white person,” to alert everyone the area that there were we were walking through their village.
The volunteer work was an incredible opportunity that I have never experienced before. Every day at the Gihon Women’s Center, we met with about 20 local women. They came to the center to learn about self empowerment and improvement.
The director of the center, a woman we called “Auntie Agnes”, is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met. Powerful women like Michelle Obama inspired her to make a stand in her own community.
She founded the center years ago on the rock of female empowerment and respect. I loved watching her change lives everyday. Alongside Agnes, the five of us planned multiple lessons like “Envisioning Your Goals”, “Reaching Your Potential” and even “Proper Communication.”
As much as I enjoyed teaching, my favorite day-to-day moments were the scheduled breaks. We would visit and laugh with the women, sometimes even teaching them the cha-cha.
The women I met were some of, if not the, most beautiful examples of kindness and love I have ever experienced. Between the laughter, unity and love, I learned more from these women than I was ever able to teach them.
When we weren’t at the women’s center, we spent time with the children at the school. I fell in love with with their sweet spirits, bright smiles and contagious laughter.
At the school, we assisted in the kitchen serving food and water. Because the school lacked running water, part of the weekly agenda was walking to the far-off water spigot to fill buckets to bring back to the school.
When we weren’t working hard, we would spend as much time as we could playing with the kids. Spending time with the children made me realize how wonderful and beautiful life really is.
Now don’t get me wrong, as fun and fulfilling as volunteering is, you don’t go halfway around the world to Africa and NOT go on a safari. We embarked on a four day, three night savanna safari.
We saw sleeping lions and roaming elephants. We watched a breathtaking sunrise over the Serengeti and defended our picnic from hungry monkeys.
At the end of the the two weeks, we finished our trip with one final adventure. The day was spent riding camels, holding baby crocodiles and receiving my first kiss of 2019 from a giraffe. We went to a monkey park, this time we let them jump on us and take our food.
My time in Kenya was an experience I will never forget. I created many friendships and connections with people who I now consider family. It is unlike anything I’ve done before. I’d like to think I came home a better person.
In my short time, I gained a new found perspective on life and what really matters. Seeing so many people living a different lifestyle than what I am used to opened my eyes. It helped me realize life is so good.
It may not always be perfect, but there are wonderful people in the world and amazing experiences to be had. The world is a beautiful place and I learned that in one of the most amazing places on earth.
Story By: Cade Higbee
Photos Provided By: Cade Higbee