Crammed into rusty beige trucks, the latest batch of tin-canned tourists thunders past – a haze of khaki and sensible hats. The driver, with his eye-burning yellow Dirty Dogs and cellphone to ear, is driving too fast – but the yawns and drooping eyelids behind him don’t seem to notice.
We’re roadside in Naivasha, Kenya, gateway to hippo hotspot Lake Naivasha, and gateway to red-cloak Masai territory. This is a self-proclaimed tourist town for would-be wildlife spotters, but we won’t be joining them today.
Our destination, 20 minutes from Naivasha’s tourist turn off, may as well be a different world.
Wafts of sickly sweet pinto beans find us before the children do at Naivasha’s KCC Pre-primary School. Martha, a young local woman and proud school gardener and chef, moves politely around a group of five or six volunteers, all engrossed in sorting the good beans from the bad. I’m soon put to work on the carrots – at least a hundred need to be peeled before the children are let out for lunch.
Martha thrusts a rusty peeler at me that looks like it has been in use since the 50s , and I set to work.
KCC preprimary is one of many charity projects in Kenya capitalising on a wave of Western travellers looking for an authentic East African experience. The school has 80 students between 4 and 6 - the most needy of the Naivasha community.
The setup is basic – wood offcuts and chicken wire make three open-air classrooms. Torn-up grain sacks scribbled with pictures of farm animals and syntax principles decorate the walls. The children sit on wooden pews, sharing pencils and textbooks.
As I finish my last carrot, a herd of muddy shins and white smiles round the corner to where lunch is served. Grateful hands grasp plastic lunch plates, others opt for the hands of volunteers first, food second.
While I’m just here for the day, volunteers with KCC Pre-primary School can stay anywhere between two weeks and three months. They stay with local host families in basic stucco homes, and most have flushing toilets which make them five-star in this part of the world.
Volunteers go through New Zealand-based volunteer agency IVHQ to be placed here. The organisation can also book sightseeing and safari excursions in between volunteer days. ‘‘We’ve done the safari thing which was great,’’ Rebecca Scown from Whanganui tells me as she sorts beans.
‘‘But we’ve also been able to meet others volunteering, and get to know them – it’s a more realistic view than just flying in and out as a tourist.’’
An hour’s drive from Naivasha is Nakuru, and the Holding Hands Children’s Home. We arrive just after nap time, greeted by 30 sleepy faces, each lighting up with the realisation that two new playmates have arrived. Barefoot, they form a huddle around us and a chorus of ‘‘Mzungu!’’ – white person – begins.
Swept by the mob, we are pushed inside the orphanage dining hall, where a young boy swallowed by a grubby oversized red checked coat takes my hand. Proudly he leads me around the room where a newly painted mural of the Masai Mara game park has taken up nearly every inch of concrete. Elephants, hippos, lions and their cubs stare out at us from the walls.
‘‘Most of the children here have never seen any of the animals they live so close to,’’ Emily Hunt, a staff member, tells me. ‘‘So we thought until we can arrange a visit to the game park, we’d bring the animals here instead.’’
The orphanage is run by So They Can, an Australasian not-for-profit operating in Kenya and Tanzania. Alongside the children’s home in Nakuru, it also runs a primary school, medical clinic, sustainable farming projects and a micro finance business school for women. Right now on the ground the charity has two fulltime expat staff and a stream of short-term volunteers who are assigned to a programme depending on their skills or interests.
Most people stay for about three months, but shorter visits can be arranged.
Accommodation is similar to that in Naivasha with volunteers posted at local homestays, although here the option of local hotels is also available. British-born Emily Hunt is the education director for So They Can’s primary school, and has been living in Nakuru for a year.
‘‘We have some volunteers who work in the classrooms, others in the gardens ... they’re painting or playing or getting lunch ready – you name it, they do it.
‘‘The expat and local staff are worked so hard here, so more hands are always appreciated.’’
My task for the afternoon is to spend time with the younger children at the orphanage until the older ones finish school for the day. Three cooks in ash-grey aprons are thankful for the time to prepare dinner uninterrupted.
Led by a 4-year-old girl with pink hair clips and a snotty nose, we launch in to a song I’ve never heard, but my enthusiastic clapping seems enough.
The girls are swaying their hips to the rhythm, the boys are doing their version of what I can only assume are hip-hop moves – rapping gestures and ‘‘I knew you’d be impressed’’ looks on their faces.
It’s fun and exhausting – every child wants my sole attention, and tugging my arm seems to be the way to get it.
Half an hour later the mob decides it’s time to play outside, so again I’m swept away, this time to a playground of tyres and brightly painted swing ropes.
So They Can has an impressive child protection policy in place. It is the first thing you should check for if you’re considering visiting any project involving young people in Kenya.
Even if you’re going through an organisation like IVHQ – ask to see the protection policy of your placement. It’s a contract that should go into specifics about appropriate behaviour, covering cultural differences, physical proximity to children and transparency of the organisation. If volunteering rather than visiting, you should also be asked for a police clearance certificate.
The trip has raised as many questions for me as answers about the challenges facing this continent. Does any of it make a sustainable difference to the millions of people living in seemingly insurmountable poverty?
I don’t know. I can only be sure of what I have seen – children who would have gone hungry are given food to eat and a classroom to learn. People here hope that education will create a generation of leaders who will become the ones to instigate change.
I’m leaving grateful to have witnessed a small part of it ... with a few days spare I can still say I’ve seen the best of both worlds – I’m off on a quick safari.
- The Dominion Post