Rachel Clark had spent months planning, fundraising and dreaming about volunteering in Africa, but the morning she was to start work at a Kenyan orphanage, she laid in bed scared to go.
“I had waited all this time and yet I had all these doubts, like ‘can I really possibly do something, can I truly make a difference?’”
Clark recently returned to Elmira from working at the Sidai Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in Ngong, about an hour outside Nairobi.
Ontario was in the middle of a cold snap when she left in mid-January, but she stepped off the plane in Nairobi into sweltering 30-degree heat.
The temperature was only one change Clark had to acclimatize to. There was trash everywhere; there’s no garbage collection and no landfill, so it just gets thrown in the streets. The gap between rich and poor is more of a gulf, and even in middle-class families, there’s little money for extras beyond food, water, bills and education.
The most frustrating thing, Clark said, was the corruption that is rife in Kenya. When travelling on the roads, they were stopped at police roadblocks that were essentially shakedowns; the police would find some fault with their vehicle or their papers and detain them until they paid a bribe.
The volunteer organization she was working for also turned out to be corrupt, paying her host family and the orphanage only a fraction of the money they were supposed to get. Clark was dismayed, but afraid to say anything for fear the funds would be cut off entirely, because the little they got was still better than nothing.
“It just finds its way into every part of life,” Clark said. “You hear about it, but living it is much different; it’s very, very frustrating.”
In light of the poverty and corruption, Clark was amazed by the sense of community in her village. She was introduced to the entire neighbourhood, and invited to a wedding just a few weeks after arriving. When walking around the village, she was greeted with cries of “Musungu! Musungu!” which means “white person.”
The orphanage has had other Western volunteers so the children had seen white people before, but they were still fascinated – with her eyes, her freckles, and the way her skin changed colour when she tanned and burned under the hot Kenyan sun. They were also enthralled with her long blond hair, playing with it, braiding it and draping it over their own shaved heads.
After the initial shock of how dirty, smelly and sick the children were, Clark fell in love. Everywhere she went, she had children clinging to her hands and arms.
“My favourite moments were just when I got to hold them,” she said. “They just want physical contact, they don’t have somebody to show them love and affection, and I have so much of that to give.”
There are around 35 children living at the centre, and about 60 come for day schooling.
The children who live at the centre are orphans, children whose parents can’t care for them, or children who have been abused at home. Clark was amazed at how grateful, polite and well-behaved the children were, in spite of their sad stories and how little they had. When she was discouraged by all the suffering she saw in Kenya, a visit to the centre provided the lift her spirits needed.
On her first day, Clark was handed a stack of books and told she would be teaching. She was intimidated at first – English is the students’ second or third language – but they were eager to learn and the ones who could speak English translated for those who couldn’t.
There are public schools in Kenya but the classes are packed, with one teacher having between 50 and 70; students and children are turned away because there isn’t enough room. Private schools are the preferred option for families that can afford them.
Clark’s host family was considered middle class by Kenyan standards; they had a fridge, TV, and running water, although no hot water.
With no shower – only a sponge bath – Clark discovered it was impossible to stay clean. The reddish-brown dirt coats everything with a fine layer of dust.
Electricity and water supplies are controlled by the government, and the water lines are opened only a few hours each week. People fill up big tanks with water, and it has to last until the next time the lines are opened. With so many children at Sidai, they’d run out of water and have to buy it at a private source, interrupting classes to haul big jugs back to the school.
The village of Ngong is on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, separated only by the Ngong Hills. Ngong is a Maasai word meaning “knuckles,” referring to the shape of the hills.
There were several Maasai boys at Sidai, and Clark quickly bonded with them over a shared love of music and dance. She was fascinated by Maasai culture: their ceremonies, the music and dancing, and the colourful clothing and beadwork.
The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people; they migrate with the season but live in small huts built by the women. Their lives centre around cattle, which are both a source of food and a measure of wealth.
Clark couldn’t justify spending money on a safari, but she went on a smaller walking tour into Maasai territory, spending two nights with Maasai families and sleeping under the stars on a piece of cowhide.
A few weeks before her volunteer time was up, Clark used the money she raised in a fundraiser last fall to get running water at Sidai. She hired men to install pipes and a pump, fix the toilets, unclog the drains and put on new shower heads. With running water, the orphanage will be able to pass inspections and register as a charity.
Clark also worked up the courage to confront her volunteer organization about the corruption, and the day after, her host family was paid in full.
When it was time to leave, the children made her a Maasai costume as a parting gift. Clark promised to wear it all the way home and did, ignoring the stares she got as she walked through Pearson International Airport.
As hard as it was to adjust to life in Kenya, coming home has proven to be a hundred times harder. Clark is acutely aware of just how big the houses are and how much stuff people have; she’s waitressing now, and appalled at all the food she throws out.
“I feel like I still have one foot in Africa,” she said.
She might be halfway around the world, but Kenya is never far from her mind. Clark is sponsoring one of the boys from the orphanage and her goal is to find sponsors for all 40 of them. And she’s already planning to return next year.
“I went with the intention of giving a lot, and I received so much more than I ever could have given.”