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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!