Volunteering Q&A

After lots of facebook messages with questions about volunteering, Africa, Kenya, Tanzania (never been there, sorry!), traveling, Maasailand, IVHQ, etc. I decided to create this page and assemble all of the answers, giving you somewhat of a guide and maybe some reassurance that it is worth doing. If you need any info on top of all this, please ask me in the comments section and I will reply asap.

Q: What placement did you do?

A: I was on a Maasai placement in Kenya with an organization called IVHQ. The program was flexible and when the school quarter in the Maasailand was over, several other volunteers and I asked to be transferred to the orphanage in Nairobi, to stay busy. Both places were great, but the Maasailand was my home for the majority of the time in Kenya, so I am a little biased toward it; I loved it too much.

Q: What is the name of the village where you taught? Do you recommend the place?

I was teaching at a primary school in a Maasai village called Saikeri, and I loved it. There is always work to do at the school if you ask for it; you won’t just be hanging around. There is another village called Olmaroroi that needs teachers as well from what I know. Tell IVHQ about your preferences (big/small school, rural/urban setting etc.) and they will probably suggest the option that fits you best.

Q: Why did you choose the Maasai placement over the other Kenyan programs?

A: I chose the Maasailand because I was leaning toward a place with rich culture and traditions as opposed to somewhat westernized Nairobi. I was very happy with my choice; the Maasailand was everything I expected and more. A couple of months after my volunteering program was over, I came back to work in Nairobi, and I can recommend it as well. If you enjoy big cities, this is a great place. Something is always happening – concerts, art shows, market days, you name it. And kids are great anywhere. I’d still get sentimental every time I visited my former host family in the Maasailand, though. Anytime I went there I felt like everyone around me was so caring and genuine; it just felt more like home.

Q: Was the work difficult?

A: You choose your own load. You can get busy at school or helping your host family, or you can spend days sitting on the couch reading, or playing with kids, or hiking all of the nearby hills; you can even herd cattle or participate in the slaughtering of a goat… You can do many things or practically nothing, depending on how active you want to be. I worked at the school, helped my host mom at the store in town, helped her do groceries, learned to cook traditional foods, did some minor physical labor, learned the languages etc. Even with all that however, prepare for the slow life pace. And by slow, I mean really slow. That’s the way life is there, and you get used to it after some time, but on the beginning it can drive you crazy.

Q: What did you do with your free time?

A: I’d go to Nairobi to visit friends, take a two-hour walk to a nearby village or ride a motorbike to see other volunteers, go watch a soccer game at a neighboring school, go to town to have some ginger soda and chat with local people, play with my little sister, hand wash my super dirty laundry, chase giraffes with my camera, go to church to experience traditional singing and dancing, dress in Maasai clothes and go to local events or visit the manyattas of friends and relatives. I read books and newspapers my host dad brought from town, tried to write about my experiences every day, and spent the evenings having a pleasant conversation with my family. I also traveled whenever I had a chance. If you do your research and bargain, you can go places relatively cheap there, and the experiences you encounter are unforgettable. Kenya is so diverse that traveling even a couple of hours away from your placement may seem like visiting another country.

Q: Was there anything you wish you would have brought, or the best thing that you did remember to bring?

A: Have you ever gone camping? Remember what you packed? That’s what you should bring to the Maasailand! I do have a list of things I found extremely useful:

– A torchlight is a must
– Lots of sunscreen
– A sleeping bag
– A mosquito net
– A raincoat (just a basic cellophane type of thing) or a small umbrella
– A small pillow (an inflatable one will take up less luggage room)
– Mosquito repellent and anti-malaria pills
– Extra camera batteries; you might be living without electricity for extended periods of time, so don’t rely on charging anything
– A couple of warm things, it will get cold at nights, early mornings or any time it rains
– A couple of nice outfits for special occasions. Other than that, don’t take any clothes you are afraid to ruin; everything will get extremely dirty, and some of the dirt won’t come off when washed. Don’t take anything too revealing if you want to stick to the local culture, no tank tops or shorts and skirts above knee length. It’s up to you how much you will want to blend in, however.

Q: Do I need to bring gifts for my host family?

A: Yes. The only problem is that you probably won’t know ahead of time what family members there will be. Simply assume you will have a mom and a dad, and buy two small gifts for them, and then you may or may not try to get something for the children. Don’t stress out over this; you can always purchase some additional things in Nairobi once you know who you are buying them for.

Q: Do I need to bring anything for the children at school?

A: Don’t bring any school supplies with you, nor candy or anything like that; you can buy everything you want in Nairobi much cheaper. Plus you never know which school you’ll be in and what exactly that particular school needs. Just look around when you get there, pay attention at what the school or the community is missing, and make your contribution if you can.

Q: What types of food did you eat there?

A: The typical foods are rice, potatoes, ugali (maize meal), chapati (something between crepes and tortillas… served with cabbage, kales or goat meat), and mandazi, delicious Kenyan doughnuts that can be either homemade or bought at any local store. Whenever you are around some dukas (village stores), look for kangumu, a deep fried treat that is not very good for you but really tasty. You’ll drink a lot of chai during the day, the gingery overly sweetened tea with milk. You can ask your family to take it easy on sugar and they probably won’t mind. If you have problems adjusting to the food, you can always go to town on weekends and buy some supplies for yourself, simple stuff such as yogurts, fruits, chocolates etc.; they have it all. Also, whenever you have a chance to eat out in Ngong or Nairobi, try some nyama choma, the delicious grilled beef or goat meat.

Q: What safari did you do?

A: I was lucky to do a couple of those. If you want something close to Nairobi, try Lake Nakuru National Park. The prices are very reasonable there and you’ll see tons of monkeys, flamingos, baboons, zebras, black and white rhinos, and some other animals.  Try to get a local driver who knows the place well; ours took us really close to a lot of animals, which made the trip pretty amazing. Later on, when I worked in Nairobi and my parents came to visit, I took them to the Mara. It was definitely one of the most amazing vacations we all had – we made it in time for the end of the migration season and saw tons of wildebeest chased around by lionesses, lion cubs everywhere, crocodiles, hippos, elephants, hyenas and more. I also took a trip to Samburu, North Kenya, with my host parents, where we saw giraffes and elephants, plus enjoyed some really beautiful landscape. The northern part of the country is a lot more green and very rich in culture. If you choose a Maasai placement, you won’t have to go far to spot wildlife, though. There will be giraffes walking through your village, baboons running around and antelopes of all kinds and sizes. One of my favorite memories is seeing hundreds of giraffes by the Ngong Hills any time I’d take a morning matatu to Ngong – they’d come out really early, when it’s barely light outside, their heads sticking out of the fog… words can’t describe it 🙂

Q: Did you travel with other people? I am really nervous about going alone. (The most popular Q!)

A: Don’t worry about going alone. I was worried about that too, but there were lots of other volunteers around. You can hang out with them to as much extent as you want really, school schedule permitting. You might have some in the same village with you or even in the same family. Even if you don’t, there will definitely be some in the nearby villages and you can visit each other on weekends. I had three others in my family; a girl in a nearby village and a bunch of others in a village a little further down the road. I’d take a half-hour motorbike ride to see them and then all of us would walk to a nearby town and have fruit salad : ). You can travel together and do projects together, you’ll see as you go, but no worries about that at all.

Q: Did you get sufficient support from the organization you went with? Was your experience positive?

A: Yes. IVHQ has been answering all of my questions immediately, and I didn’t have any major problems during my stay. I loved the school and my host family; they treated me like a daughter and a sister, and I felt very welcomed by them and the community at large. My experience was definitely positive.

Q: Does IVHQ’s lower price mean lower quality of service?

A: I don’t think so. I saw what my money was going for in Kenya, and it was quite sufficient, so I assume the people charging volunteers thousands of dollars are simply making profit off them.

Q: Did you visit any other countries? I want to go to Tanzania for a weekend, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

A: I haven’t gone to Tanzania, but I went to Uganda and South Sudan. It’s definitely possible – visas to Kenya are inexpensive and you can get them at the airport every time you enter the country. Check the requirements for Tanzania, they might be different. When I was going to South Sudan, I had to get a visa from their embassy in Nairobi, as they don’t give those at the airport there. So it varies, but the cost is roughly the same (I believe it was around $50 when I was there).

Q: I am torn between the Kenya and Ghana programs! Do you have any advice?

A: It’s hard for me to compare, since I haven’t been to West Africa, but the funny thing is that I was choosing between the same two countries! I ended up picking Kenya because I have friends from there and all of them are amazing people, so I figured I’d be in good hands with Kenyans. I think both countries are great though. I am biased toward Kenya because I loved it there, but I know people who are as much in love with Ghana, and keep going back there, so it must be amazing too. I think you should do some research on both and see which culture appeals most to you, that would probably be the biggest difference. Also, do you speak French? 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Volunteering Q&A

    Kay Smith said:
    June 23, 2009 at 5:31 am

    Hello

    I have been stressing for ages about my time in Kenya so this page is really helpful.

    I wonder whether you could help me further?

    I originally volunteered for the aids awareness program, but i too dont wish to be in a westernised area like nairobi. Is it possible to swap onto a different program with more culture when i arrive?

    Also my partner will be flying out to meet me in my last week so we can do some further travelling. however he wants to do the mara safari aswell do these tours run only on weekends or are they also very flexible?

    Thankyou in advance

    Kay

    Jules responded:
    July 21, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Kay,

    Apologies for not replying sooner, I got busy with work and haven’t checked the blog for a while. Depending on which program you go with, you might or might not be able to swap, some (especially larger ones) have stricter rules than the others. With IVHQ it shouldn’t be a problem; but whichever program you choose, I’d advise to ask them about the possibility of such a change before you go. Good luck if you haven’t gone yet, and if you have – hope you are enjoying it!

    Jules responded:
    July 21, 2009 at 10:11 am

    As far as safari, I don’t think they operate on weekends only, the animals are there daily so I don’t see why the tours wouldn’t be 😉 If you get a chance, go during the great migration though, which is now!

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