Volunteering in Kenya – sustainable building

volunteering in kenya sustainable building design architechture www.grassrootsnomad.com

Thanks Erika for this guest post on volunteering in Kenya! Who is Erika?

Erika has studied architecture and civil engineering, and her studies have focused on sustainable building. She has always loved traveling, and during her studies, she discovered how inspiring and rewarding traveling and volunteering can be from a professional point of view. She recently graduated and is now traveling through the Americas for a longer time, searching for inspiring projects and hoping to share her skills through volunteering. She is sharing her travels and observations about sustainable development on her blog Field Study of the World and you can follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

Sharing knowledge through volunteer student project in Kenya

In March 2015, I found myself in Kisumu, Kenya together with 19 other students from Chalmers University in Sweden. We were students of architecture and sustainable development, and during our seven-week stay in Kenya, our task was to do academic design projects that would try to solve some local sustainable development issues. We were not in Kenya to do volunteer work – and yet everyone wanted to use their skills to do something that would benefit the local community.

But was there enough time to do something that would have a lasting effect? After all, we had to first understand the local problems, then develop a solution, and only then could we make it happen. Surely seven weeks was too short to do all that? That’s what I thought back then, but now – one year later when I’ve just left Kenya for a second time – I realize I was wrong.

volunteering in kenya sustainable building design architechture www.grassrootsnomad.com

From building structures to building relationships

The project started at a swimming pool where one of my classmates met the manager of Make Me Smile Kenya, a non-profit organisation that mainly works with children. The NGO had an unused plot of land in a village on the outskirts of Kisumu, and they wanted to plant fruit trees there. My classmate offered to help, and almost my entire class participated when we planted 125 fruit trees on the site in one day. Four of us students then continued developing the site as our course project.

Right from the start we talked about how we wanted the project to help the local community, but we focused a lot on physical construction. We wanted to turn the farm into a site that would promote permaculture by demonstrating sustainable construction and farming techniques. We also wanted to make the site livable for future volunteers which meant building toilet and shower facilities. We worked with local problems we had identified, and we developed and built cyclical water and waste management systems for the site.

Working alongside us was a group of local men that the NGO had hired to help with the construction. In the beginning, there was a clear social and cultural gap between us and the men. Throughout the project we talked more and more with the men and learned about the skills they had – eventually realizing the potential that the project could have for them. After a couple weeks, we went to live on the site in very basic conditions, and this made us a part of the community and the men became our neighbours. In this way we could break down cultural barriers and work together as equals, sharing knowledge for a better future.

We started involving the men more and more in the decision-making. This not only made the physical results better and taught us a lot, it also meant that the men took ownership of the project. In the end, the men had formed a team, calling themselves Team Rarudi. They could now look for new employment opportunities, using the experience and knowledge they had gained from this project.

volunteering in kenya sustainable building design architechture www.grassrootsnomad.com

One year later the project lives on

Even though we were happy with the results of the project, because of the short time we spent in Kenya the project felt somehow unfinished to me. Apparently my classmates also felt the same, and when two of them decided to return a year later to continue the project for their master’s thesis, I was immediately drawn by the idea and decided to return to Kenya to help them.

What I found in Kenya was that the site had become a part of the community with Team Rarudi continuing the project. The group had received a microcredit from Make Me Smile in order to start their own projects and gain independence. The workshop space we had built was now used as a tree nursery for growing seedlings to be sold, and Team Rarudi had also started beekeeping on the site. Team Rarudi had also grown with new members, most of whom were women.

It turned out that even a short project could have a lasting effect if it involved the locals in a way that gave them new skills and ideas so that they could continue the project after we were gone. It wasn’t about doing something – it was about starting something – and the way to make it happen was to work at a grassroots level.

volunteering in kenya sustainable building design architechture www.grassrootsnomad.com

Learn more about Make Me Smile Kenya

Make Me Smile Kenya is an NGO that works with child care, nutrition, health care, housing and other fields that can aid and strengthen local communities in western Kenya. Make Me Smile believes in helping people to help themselves, and their focus is on supporting orphans and vulnerable children.

Have you volunteered? We would love to hear from you!

If you have volunteered with a small, community-based organisation that upholds the values of responsible volunteering, we would love to hear from you! This wonderful post from Erika is part of our monthly volunteering guest post series. If you would like to share your story, please email laura@grassrootsnomad.com Thank you!

If you have always wanted to volunteer in Kenya it has never been so easy. Read more at www.grassrootsnomad.com

 

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41 Comments
Nicholas

‘It wasn’t about doing something – it was about starting something.’

You hit the nail on the head there, Erika.

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Grassroots Nomad

She really did! It is important that projects are long-lasting and sustainable so they don’t just finish when volunteers leave!

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thetravelpockets

How wonderful that a small project ended up having long lasting success. When I first started reading, I too wondered if the limited amount of time would lead to anything successful. So glad that it did such wonderful things for the community. Interesting that now the group is primarily women. What happened to the men? Did they move on to different projects?

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Grassroots Nomad

Hmmm, I will have to email Erika to ask her about this one. I agree, it is great to see that with the proper research a short-term project can have such long-lasting impacts.

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Sally E

That’s amazing that a project that was initially perceived as small ended up positively affecting the community. I love that the author and a couple of her teammates were able to return and see it in action – it’s nice to know that sometimes “small” initiatives have large benefits 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Very true, Sally! Erika told me that she was heading back to Kenya so we decided to wait until she had returned so she was able to evaluate the sustainability of the project. So great that it was such a success!

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casstravels

It’s nice to see a project that’s had a lasting impact! I think ‘voluntourism’ sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap and it’s something I’ve always loved the idea of, so it’s nice to hear some positive tales!

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wanderingwagarschristina

How amazing that you were able to be part of something that makes a lasting impact. And to know and witness for yourself that the project is thriving must provide so much warm fuzzies 🙂

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Ivy Ko

What a wonderful initiative. I love how the NGO is giving them a fishing rod and teaching them how to fish instead of just giving them fish. I always enjoy reading your blog, Laura, so nice to hear real stories of responsible travel! These volunteering guest posts are amazing.

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much for your kind words, Ivy! I love this guest post series – there are so many incredible organisations out there that people are able to find and I hope this series spreads awareness about the benefits of responsible volunteering. I will be posting my own story soon!

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ferncoll

Such an amazing project! I know someone who volunteers with children and sustainable farming in Africa and she can’t wait to try out this project. So happy to hear someone else’s story about it doing so well!

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Grassroots Nomad

That’s great, Fern! I would love to learn more about sustainable farming. I visited a farm in Thailand and since then I’ve wanted to learn more! If she is interested, I would love to share her story!

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Joe

Great stuff. I completely get where you’re coming from when you say you were worried about how much of a meaningful impact you can make in a short time frame – I’m experiencing something similar myself with the Tanzania library project I’m co-leading, so I’m looking at making it in to a long term thing that goies beyond my taking a group of girls out there this summer to open up the library.

It’s great to hear that this project is still going strong, and that the local men involved feel like they have ownership of it as well. Responsible volunteering is so important. Great work!

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Grassroots Nomad

That is great, Jo! Looking forward to hearing more about your library project!

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Amy

We have not had the opportunity to volunteer beyond our own city, but as my daughters grow, we hope to do some global work in order to not only help, but to give back, learn and grow. Stories like this warm my heart and make me see the world in a hopeful light. Thanks for this!

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Grassroots Nomad

People often think that they have to go overseas to volunteer and make a difference, but there is so much that you can do in your hometown! What sort of volunteer work do you do? I’d love to include you in the series if you are interested!

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Chantell

So great to hear that you had an enjoyable and mutually beneficial experience working in Kenya. I have volunteered in the past with local organizations but never volunteered abroad due to concerns about how helpful it would actually be. Great to hear that the project is still going and that the locals have gained independence over the project.

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Grassroots Nomad

Hey Chantell, I completely understand why you have avoided overseas volunteering – with the issues of voluntourism it is becoming increasingly difficult to find meaningful volunteering experiences. I have a few articles on my site about how to find responsible volunteering organisations and the importance of finding a project that works with the community rather than for it. I hope they are able to help you!

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Amanda Williams

This is a really interesting guest post. I particularly like the way Erika revisits to update on the project a year on. So often volunteering is such a transient thing and it is great that there is an ongoing interest here.

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Grassroots Nomad

I agree, Amanda! I am planning on keeping touch with my volunteering organisation after I have left to see how their work is going and what impact my work had on their fundraising efforts.

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Taylor

So nice that some were able to return to see what they helped with. Definitely something I would consider doing!

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Grassroots Nomad

I think it is important that people are able to return to previous volunteering projects after some time – this ensures projects are sustainable and consider the long-term implications of volunteer work, rather than creating short-term projects that only last as long as the volunteer is there.

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Hung Thai [Up Up and a Bear]

An architect/engineer getting dirty and building sustainable housing? Awesome! This is the best real world experience you can get before transitioning into the corporate world (if you ever decide to go that route). Kudos to you for using your skills to places in need.

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Shayan Naveed (@ShayanBkk)

I love how this post was written. Really gotta hand it you and Erika for taking on projects like this. Truly shows how there are people good and selfless things in this world.
I’m starting to believe it’s not enough just helping out…we have to do more and become more part of something. Helping communities grow in a sustainable rather than a one-off way. It’s true what they say, give a man his fish, he will eat for one day. Teach him, and he will never go hungry…something like that. It’s exactly what is happening here.

Awesome and keep it up!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much for your comment Shayan, I agree, Erika did incredible work in Kenya. It is wonderful that they worked hand-in-hand with the community to ensure there was community buy-in for a sustainable project.

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Cynthia

I was looking into volunteering abroad with IVHQ last year but then I was wondering how helpful it would really be. Thanks for this fascinating guest post.

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Cynthia! I have a few articles about volunteering including tips about how to find work and guest posts frompeop[le who are keen to share their experiences. The key is research! Pick a topic or place that you are interested in and do as much research as you can. Read UN reports and check their reference list to see which on-the-ground organisations they partner with. There are lots of ways that you can volunteer overseas without going through a big company 🙂

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nycgingeronthego

What an amazing project and I am glad you were able to see the results benefiting the community for the long term. Sometimes travel volunteerism doesn’t work out so well. Glad you find a way to make it work.

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Grassroots Nomad

Very true – I think a lot of the hard work is the researching before you get there to make sure you are picking the right organisation to work with. It is so great that this was a sustainable project and I’m sure the benefits will continue for a long time.

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Sally

Thank you for such a interesting post about this inspiring project. You should be so proud of the work you have done and the lives you have changed!

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Megan Claire (@mappingmegan)

What a fantastic idea to return to Kenya and see how your initial project was doing a year on – I feel as though many people just volunteer for the sake of making themselves feel good, but then don’t think about again it after they’ve left 2 weeks in. Volunteering to me is all about the long term effects you can create for a community, as opposed to “voluntourism” where you travel for two weeks to do good just for the sake of saying it.

Congrats on contributing towards long term sustainability. The Organization sounds fantastic 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much, Megan. Sustainable projects are so important to volunteering. I think more people need to think about volunteering as a two-way process rather than something that is one sided to benefit the volunteer. People are able to make such an important contribution if they work with the local community to achieve their goals!

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Janna

Wow, very inspiring work! I’ve been looking into volunteer work myself and devoting at least a day or two while I’m traveling. Thanks for sharing!

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Anna

I love the last sentence, so true! Erika was lucky to be able to return to Kenya and see that her project lives on, in fact, continues to grow. It must be a very satisfying feeling, as it should be – sounds like a job well done.
This post shows that if you have a good idea and involve the local community, even a short project can have a meaningful and lasting impact. Thanks for sharing!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Anna! Erika has inspired me to try to return to Guatemala in a few years to see how the project is going that I was working on. It is important that projects are community-led and think about sustainability for the future 🙂

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Andra

I would love to try a volunteering in Africa! It’s on our list for sure 🙂 congratulations for doing this!

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