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Virtuous Volunteering..?

Well I’ve been a bit rubbish at keeping this blog up to date again. Sorry. I’ve got a fair bit of Africa to catch up on, but I guess so much happened while I was there in such unexpected contexts, it’s taken me a while to process it all properly in a way that I can explain succinctly and coherently.

So here goes with the next chapter in my Kenyan volunteering diary, and my attempt to answer my Auntie Pauline’s questions about asked me what sorts of people volunteer where I was, and what exactly my role was at the Primary School. Unfortunately it’s not very straightforward, but here goes…

First of all the volunteers. When I arrived at Kimuka Primary School, there were already 5 other volunteers there, 3 on gap years before starting university (aged 19-22) and 2 (aged 26) were on a career break wanting to try something different and help others at the same time. We were all from Westernised nations – UK, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia & the US. It seems that retirement- or near-retirement age volunteers came there quite often too from similar sorts of countries, and in fact towards the end of my stay an older American chap arrived with my charity to live in a much more remote part of Maasailand whose school had only just opened and had absolutely no resources.

Kimuka Volunteers at our leaving party

Kimuka was however relatively well off with good facilities, provided by the volunteer programme, and only 20 minutes by matatu to the nearest town with water and food supplies and an internet connection. One of my fellow volunteers was a carpenter, so spent his time doing invaluable repairs and knocking up things like desks and doors. The rest of us at Kimuka were either here for teaching experience to add to their CV, or were there for similar reasons to me – to help and be useful while seeing how other cultures live.

When we arrived, I for one assumed that the charity would have looked at my skills that I’d told them about and placed me where I would be of most use,  or that there would be some sort of programme in place to enable the community to make use of volunteers.  Perhaps as a teaching assistant for kids who are struggling with their lessons, and the teachers would explain what they wanted me to do while they led the class.  First rookie mistake.

The School Office

With a small charity like the one I went with where volunteers do not arrive regularly, and where they do not have to stay for a minimum period of say 3 or 4 months to enable continuity, it’s really hard for there to be a set programme of work for them. For instance, one volunteer might want to be a teaching assistant in Maths, but they might only stay for 4 weeks, and there might not be another for a year, making it hard to structure lessons around one day having a volunteer who wants to do a task, and one day not.

So the easiest way for the charity and teachers to deal with volunteers is ask us what we want to do. Which is hard when you have just arrived in a completely unfamiliar environment, very aware that you have no idea about cultural and practical differences, and that you don’t want to suggest anything that’s unsustainable. And that in turn makes conversations very circular:

“Tell us why did you came to Kenya?”

“Well, I wanted to come and help you and do things that you will find useful”

“That’s wonderful, tell us what you would like to do!”

“Well what do you need? I can teach and interview people and write about culture and give healthcare advice and I know lots about Western medicines, but I can’t speak Swahili or Maasai”.

“That’s great! Anything. Tell us what you want to do”

“What do you need me to do? I don’t really know what the practicalities are. This is a very different way of living to the one I’m used to”

“Whatever you want! We want you to enjoy your time here! We are so grateful to you for coming, we want you to be happy. All you have to do is say how you want to spend your time”

“Umm….”

It became obvious that I was going to have to second guess what the people of Kimuka needed, and try and match that with things that I was able to help with, if I was going to come away feeling like I’d made a difference. This is I think mainly because there is so little context and perspective as to why volunteers come to poor nations like Kenya, and little understanding that there might be other ways to do things – only that they can get (usually much needed) new things by hosting volunteers.

But perhaps that’s an obvious situation to find yourself in when you sit back and think about the context yourself. The people that I went to live with were poor. The majority of people in the community had never visited a city and had never travelled further than the next village. They have no electricity for television (I came home with a newfound respect for TV news and documentaries), and no money to buy books or newspapers (even if they did, there is little daylight to read them in as it takes all day to see to the more essential tasks of tending the cattle and feeding the family).

Heather teaches Class 5 maths

So initially, while we tried to work out what exactly was going on, we all ended up watching teachers teach class, helping them with marking, or filling in for them if they wanted some free time (or in the headmaster’s case, if they were drunk in the pub). Which was fine if that’s what you wanted, and in fact one of the other volunteers found teaching so rewarding, she started to consider she might want to become a teacher instead of studying law, which she’d never have thought about otherwise.

But for me, this didn’t feel right. I hadn’t moved out of my flat and travelled halfway across the world just to give some school teachers a break. We eventually persuaded the school to draw up a list of things they needed, and while they were all useful things for the school, they all involved either buying supplies or having specialist skills like being an electrician. To spend money wasn’t why I’d come – although I was happy to do so, I could have sent that over via my bank without travelling such a long way and giving up so much. Perhaps naively I hadn’t really considered just how poor the community would be – we really do take a lot for granted in the West, like the fact that to complete schoolwork you need a pen, which costs money kids just don’t have – but the first I knew of these specific requests was a week after I arrived and I had no opportunity to fundraise, or approach companies for sponsorship for some of the bigger asks.

Chicken feed – Volunteer-funded Chicken Project

But in the end I managed to find out some useful information by chatting to people – not easy when there are so many volunteers in one place all asking the same sorts of questions, and when you can only ask probing questions when people are in the mood to answer.

It was from one of these discussions that I ended up setting up a relationship discussion groupfor the kids to try and address the problem of drop outs due to pregnancy. It was a shame I didn’t get to run more of them and build up more of a relationship with the kids, or run enough to make it routinely acceptable to talk about relationships and try and get away from the painfully patriarchal way of raising in disciplining kids which is prevalent in rural Kenya – but it was a start and probably the thing I’m most proud of doing while I was there.

Teachers & Volunteers

The other thing that I did that I felt was useful was the decision to pay for certain things for a couple of individuals who I know will value the gesture and use it well. One of them has vowed to start a teachers’ league against caning, and to link with other teachers who have training in non-violent methods of discipline to visit schools to provide seminars to teachers who find it hard to let go of the cane. Use of the cane was a major source of conflict between pro- and anti-caners at the school and it would be wonderful to be able to remove the fear that causes teachers (by their own admission) to use the cane, and the fear that it induces in the kids.

I found it important for my own self-respect though not to feel like my time and money was being taken for granted, so I kept all that quiet and declined all requests for significant amounts of money until I knew people were asking because of a genuine need, with a plan for using it wisely, and not because they saw a pot of money that they wanted a piece of. Not that I blame people for asking, they are far poorer than we can understand without visiting, and their only experience of Westerners is that of visitors (or “volunteers”) coming to donate money or gadgets. There’s a real feeling that there is a generation of Africans growing up thinking that all white people have unlimited amounts of unwanted cash and things, and all they want to do with it is go on a home stay African village holiday and give stuff to the locals.

Kimuka School

It’s a shame that, other than two people I met who understood how to listen to the foreign visitors’ perspectives, this won’t change without that insight and perspective, and that you can’t really get that without things like reading and discussion and travel and TV –  and that those in turn only come with the money to fund an education that allows you to get a good enough job to access such luxuries. The challenge I guess is working out how to help people out of poverty sustainably, with a mutual understanding of each others’ motivations and constraints. From other conversations I’ve had, I’ve no doubt that this is being done by NGOs and bigger organisations like VSO, and some smaller organisations with Western organisational input, but I found from my trip that realistically the amount of good that can be done in a month’s visit to a comparatively well-resourced community school is limited to the your hands-on skills and how much money you’ve been able to raise in advance to fund projects and buying of equipment.

Part of me wishes I’d gone expecting it to be nothing more than a “home-stay” holiday, then I’d have been able to relax and get stuck in with living the way my hosts did, exploring another culture without the pressure to be sitting in the school at certain times despite having nothing to d0 there. Whichever way you look at it though, I’ve met some brilliant characters, encountered genuine passion for the community and the charity’s projects, and seen some breathtaking sights – an eye opening experience if you like, one which I’ve learnt more than I could ever have imagined from, and one which I’ll never forget.

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