Michelle Howell - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Kenya
After graduating from university I began working full time in a ‘means to an end’ job to save up for a three month volunteering experience in a developing country. It was to date the best and most rewarding experience of my life on all levels. The Western world in many ways does not compare to life as a Kenyan, which I was introduced to in many, many ways as you will read. I want to tell my story from the heart and pick out the best bits, especially those you’d never think you’d be doing in a developing country like Kenya!
Arriving in Kenya
On arrival at Nairobi airport I experienced a culture shock – yet this seems like an understatement. I was thinking ‘What have I let myself in for!’ but once I was met at the airport by Lucy from Projects Abroad and another volunteer who turned out to be a friend I’d share many highs and lows with, all seemed bearable.
After meeting my wonderful host family (my now adoptive mother) and my town induction, I was introduced to a beautiful thing called ‘Kenyan Time’ which to this day, three months after my departure and to the dismay of my employer I still adopt! In the Western world punctuality is key, in Kenya not so much; it’s a rarity if a Kenyan turns up on time! However it is a concept I have grown to know and love.
Transport in Kenya is certainly interesting - my first time on a matatu was an experience to say the least. It is a fourteen-seater shuttle bus with on average thirty Kenyans inside and that doesn’t include the guy that collects the money. He jumps in half way round and literally sits on your knee but I did learn after a few trips why everyone left the seat next to the door empty!
The best experience was during the rainy season when the heavens had opened and the driver was using his windscreen wiper with his hand to wipe away the rain! Then came the tuktuk journeys which are fun yet uncomfortable!
My Teaching Placement
I didn’t visit Kenya with the pretense of ‘making a difference’. If I made one child smile that was enough. I worked in an orphanage called ‘New Life’ for five weeks, which was a very westernized orphanage, and the best in Nakuru.
It looked after children from seven months – seven years and gave priority to children with HIV. The stories of the children were heart breaking as some had been abandoned or removed from their parents however they all had infectious smiles and laughter.
Our duties as volunteers consisted of playing with the children, reading to them, feeding them and help putting them to bed. I grew attached to a little boy called Eden who as soon as I walked through the gates on my induction to meet the other volunteers and members of staff, ran up to me, held up his arms for me to hold him and called me ‘Mum’ which nearly reduced me to tears. Not long after he was adopted by a family from the Netherlands and we had a leaving party for him with balloons, cakes and games, it was a very moving day for all involved.
My second placement was at Crater Primary School teaching class 5 East - a challenge from the onset with fifty pupils ranging from five to fifteen years staring up at me. They greeted me every morning with ‘Good morning teacher, how are you teacher, ‘Cha you look very smart and neat’. The classrooms had rows and rows of wooden desks and a blackboard with the odd poster, a very different environment from Western schools with hardly any resources except just a pen and paper.
I shadowed an English teacher for the five weeks I spent there; the pupils repeated what the teacher had read out of the textbook and then copied it into their exercise books from the blackboard. Teachers often didn’t turn up to class, which left either yourself or the prefect to take the class.
This was a regular occurrence, but gave me the opportunity to be creative and use my skills as a drama facilitator to play games and do workshops with the children relating to their studies. On one occasion they won the game and I had promised them a soda each, so the following Monday me and four children from the class strolled proudly through the playground with eyes gawping in awe as we took the crates of soda to the classroom for them to drink. The noise of laughter, screams and squeals of excitement was one of the most rewarding feelings I have experienced so far. No matter whether you are in the Western world or the third world, children from across the globe all have a common interest – treats.
Living in Nakuru
I encountered a lot of poverty during my stay in Kenya and I remember many moments where the reality of this did shock me. There are many street boys who hang around although it is unadvisable to give them money as they most likely will not spend this on food. All of this meant that my experience was a major eye opener and something I will never forget.
Learning the local language; Swahili or Sheng (slang) was very handy when bartering at the local Massai Market for souvenirs, as they often like to give you a ‘Mzungu price’ and overcharge you.
I met some wonderful volunteers and Kenyans who have become lifelong friends whilst living in Nakuru. We would often relax by the pool at Merica, have BBQ’s on the rooftop of Milimani Apartments, then every Wednesday and Friday we would hit a bar called Rafikis. These are the memories that made me feel like I was living as a Kenyan and not just there volunteering as a tourist.
Traveling around Kenya
Kenya offers many beautiful places to visit, many of which I had the pleasure of seeing, including Lake Nakuru, Massai Mara, Thomson Falls, Nairobi Elephant Orphanage and Giraffe Centre, Lake Victoria, Kakamaga Rainforest, the beaches or Mombasa and Zanzibar.
These weekend trips offered fun, culture, adventure, wildlife and relaxation whether it was climbing into the waterfalls of Thomson Falls or going on a game drive searching for lions in Massai Mara or relaxing on the white sandy beaches of Mombasa with a cocktail in hand soaking up the sun.
Whatever your preference, Kenya is rich in all of these and offers you more than just memories, especially if you can find a large group of people to travel with. It makes the experience so much more worthwhile!
It was an almost reverse culture shock leaving Kenya and returning to the UK (I literally cried the entire flight home). I thought it was a cliché when people say that you ‘find yourself’ when traveling, but it’s true. My love for Kenya has continued and I am due to return next year to help my friends’ local charity and to visit all of the friends I made there.
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