Finding Common Ground

Kenya, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on October 17, 2006 at 8:26 am

As Jen has already admitted on in this blog, volunteering in Kenya has been her lifelong dream. When she suggested it to us at the outset of our round-the-world trip, Holly and I smiled, laughed, agreed…then secretly admitted our fear that we wouldn’t be able to hack the selfless service in a part of the world known for its malarial mosquitoes and other gargantuan insects (called “doo-doos, by the locals). While I love sharing my bed with handsome two-legged creatures, I wasn’t sure if I could hack the eight-legged ones. Plus, Peru’s lack of toilet paper was already disconcerting-would I be able to stomach the contaminated water supply and hole-in-the-ground toilets?

Even as these thoughts crossed my mind, I tried to stamp them out, rebuking myself for becoming too prissy and spoiled during my six year residency in Manhattan. If I could handle rats in the subway, couldn’t I manage to co-exist with the bugs of Western Kenya?

Motivated by these thoughts and Jen’s unbridled enthusiasm for all things “Flame Tree” (see previous blog entries for explanation), the girls and I signed up for a four week program with Village Volunteers, a Seattle-based outfit that we liked because it devoted the greatest percentage of the weekly fee to the local Kenyan people. We arranged to spend the largest chunk of our time working at Pathfinder Academy, a school and farm just outside the town of Kiminini in the far western part of Kenya.

We heard that the ride there would be bumpy and take about eight hours. Over 10 hours later, we disembarked, knocked-kneed, feeling like we’d just gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson before his evening feeding.

I’d half expected the program to take place in the middle of the African savannah, with giraffes and zebras stampeding past our modest huts, the only manmade objects in an enormous valley of all-natural, sepia-toned Out of Africa splendor. While I did spot a couple of zebra on the bus ride over, I learned that the “big five” wildlife that I’d hoped to see sticks mainly to a region near the Tanzania border called the Masai Mara and on game reserves throughout Kenya. Where we landed was nestled squarely within farm country, where one is far more likely to witness cows, pigs, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats and the odd rooster (which is disturbingly called a “cock” here) roam past their door than a gazelle or elephant.

Though our program with Village Volunteers, Holly, Jen and I started working with 14 pre-teen girls who sleep and attend school at Pathfinder Academy. These young women board at the school because it’s just too far and too dangerous for them to walk endless miles to classes alone. At least four have been the victims of rape or attempted sexual violence as they’ve traveled miles over desolate country roads, so their principal (and our program director) Joshua built an on-site dorm about a year ago to create a safe space for them to live and learn without the fear of another attack. Three huts have also been built to house volunteers.

At the camp, the girls and I joined Yale student and fellow volunteer Irene Scher in acting as teacher, counselor and friend to these amazing little women. Despite their difficult circumstances (almost every girl has lost one or both parents due to malaria, HIV or insufficient medical care), they are all excited to learn. We’ve been working with them to write, cast and launch a play about Wangari Maathai, the first women in Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her tree planting efforts throughout Kenya.

Besides the 200 or so students who attend Pathfinder Academy, there are countless other kids who live, play and go to school in this area. It’s impossible to walk 10 feet down the rusty red dirt road without encountering pockets of little ones in smartly matched school uniforms, secondhand Sunday school dresses or raggedy hand-me-down sweaters three sizes too big. Pint-size ambassadors of Kenyan goodwill and diplomacy, some kids will struggle to the front of the pack to shake our hands, then run away to giggle with their friends, acting like they’ve just had a close encounter with a glowing white alien. It’s a scene that repeats itself almost every time we go for a walk or head to the local village to pick up bottled water, candy and, on one occasion a jumbo sized can of Doom bug spray.

I’m telling you, the kids out here are cute, but the insects in Kenya are killer.

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  • O says:

    Congratulations for being part of the Pathfinder Acadamy family and giving part of yourselves to help and share and teach the young ones.This may be the most moving part of your travels- the part that helped you grow as you invested your time helping others so they could have better lives. Always remember the children and maybe you will decide that your work is not done yet. I am proud of you girls.

  • Mama Irene says:

    Thanks for describing the Pathfinder Academy. Now I know what Irene has been up to.