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Long Weekend Getaway to Cancun, Mexico

A long weekend in Mexico as told by my friend, Natalie!

C'est le Brie

By Natalie Anne ❤

My close friends and I have decided to indulge in a yearly adult Spring Break excursion to celebrate the coming of Spring. Last year was LA and this year was Cancun, Mexico- a destination I put on the table since I have been dying to travel to Mexico and see the Mayan ruins.

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We are all young working professionals who are on tightish budgets and wanted to get the most bang for our buck. We ended up booking a great deal for a resort through a Cyber Monday deal back in November. We got a food & drink all-inclusive, three night/four day stay at the Flamingo Cancun Resort. The resort was right on the beach and in the heart of the hotel zone. The Expedia deal also included airfare to and from Dulles in DC plus the 3-night stay for around $700 a person (there…

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Back to Africa

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Just about 24 hours ago, I arrived at Dulles to check in for my second trip to Africa. I’m planning on blogging about my experiences while I am there, but I thought it might be helpful if I explained exactly what I will be doing ahead of time in case any of you are interested. I’m interning with the Young Women Leaders Program in Cameroon, the same mentoring program that I volunteer with in the United States. The program is similar in structure but their main goal is to encourage middle school and high school girls to continue pursuing their education in a culture where they are often encouraged to drop out early and get married very young. I will be in Kumbo, a small town located in the North West region of Cameroon. My goals are to research girls’ access to education and leadership development within YWLP and to provide an opportunity for cultural exchange with the Big Sisters and Little Sisters in Cameroon. Learning to be global citizens is one of the main components of YWLP! To conduct my research, I will be meeting with school and community leaders, family members and program participants to interview them on relevant topics. After returning to the United States, I will create resources during a semester long independent study to train group facilitators and Big Sisters in YWLP who are teaching the global connections curriculum to Little Sisters. Hopefully that gives you a bit of an idea of what I will be doing there!

I can’t say that my travels have been going smoothly so far. My flight out of Dulles was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Cameroon. After a quick Ebola scan in Addis Ababa and waiting nearly two hours to discover that my luggage would be going directly to Cameroon and I would not, Ethiopian Airlines put me in a taxi and took me to the hotel where I will be staying tonight. Apparently, there were no more flights to Cameroon until tomorrow. At first, I was a bit disappointed and worried about having no toiletries or clean clothes. I also know nothing about Ethiopia and that means one less day in Cameroon. But I have always wanted to try Ethiopian food and my hotel isn’t all that bad, so I’m trying to make the best of the situation. So far I have witnessed a car accident and seen the prime minister’s residence complete with two lion sculptures- my day has been full of adventure. Wish me luck!

Teary-Eyed Goodbyes

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After a quick overnight stay in Amsterdam and lots and lots of airplane food, I’m happy to be back at home in the United States. My experience in Kenya working at KSG was not exactly what I thought it would be in many ways, but I still cherish the time that I spent there for so many reasons. I’ll need some time to reflect on everything that happened to speak about it as a whole, but for now I can share that the most valuable aspect of my trip was the relationship I formed with my students. I don’t really know how I could explain my feelings for these girls. I wrote a letter to my homeroom of around 20 first grade students that comes close to capturing my thoughts on all of the students at KSG. I’ll post it below this paragraph so you can get a sense of some of the things I learned with them this summer. 

I’ve only known you for a month but I will remember you for so much longer. You are some of the most inspiring people that I have ever met. You are so young, but so wise. You are so innocent, yet you have experienced so much already in your lives. Every single one of you are brave, clever, and beautiful. Thank you for teaching me about patience, resiliency, and strength. My time here has meant more than you know. If you work hard in school, stay focused on your goals, and remain loyal to your teachers and friends, I know each one of you will improve lives in your families, communities, and maybe even the whole world. While I probably won’t see most of you again after the summer institute is over, please know that your smiles, laughter, tears, and stories will stay with me for so much longer. I can’t wait to tell my friends and family at home about you and to hear what you accomplish in the future. Thank you so much for a wonderful experience.

I read that letter out loud to my class on the last day of the summer institute. My students were laughing at me because there were parts where I could barely choke out a few words through my tears. Later that afternoon, we had a final assembly where each group was invited to share a special performance. There were parts where all of the KSG girls were wailing uncontrollably with tears running down their faces because they had to say goodbye. Some of the were too young to understand what was going on but cried anyway, which made the situation pretty funny although still painful. While saying goodbye was hard, I’m so happy that I was able to meet these girls and build relationships with them. I’ve always believed that education for girls is a way to solve many of the world’s problems, and it is an amazing feeling to be able to put faces and names to the girls who are becoming agents of change in a community like Kibera. 

Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into what I got out of my experience working in Kenya. There is so much more that happened and with time, I will have so much more to share. Until then, thanks for reading and thanks to all of my friends and family at home for the support!

 

Close Encounters

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On Saturday morning, we woke up early to pick up the Kenyan youth and drive back out to the Rift Valley. We stopped by a curio shop to pick up some authentic souvenirs and eventually found our way to Hell’s Gate National Park. Hell’s Gate contains the gorge that inspired Mufasa’s death scene in Lion King. When we got there, we hiked around five miles to get to the entrance of the gorge. The walk was mostly flat and we got to see dozens of zebras and warthogs in the surrounding fields. I didn’t pay much attention to the signs that read “Be Aware of Baboons” until I had a close encounter with one. I was sitting on top of a rock overlooking the surrounding area after a quick lunch when a medium sized monkey came up and sat beside me. I thought he was cute so I reached into my bag to take out my camera. As soon as I started taking pictures, he turned towards me with a determined glare and then leapt through the air towards me. Needless to say, I was terrified. I abandoned my bag and jumped off the rock at lightning speed to avoid him. Thankfully I jumped towards solid ground and not towards the side that leads down to the gorge and I was able to get my bag back afterwards. I’ll never refer to a monkey as “cute” again.

Once we got into the gorge, the temperature immediately dropped because we were away from the sun and it was like we had entered another world. There were waterfalls, hot springs, and various plants and flowers growing along the edges of the ravine. We walked along for about a mile and a half all together within the gorge and discovered places called “Devil’s Kitchen” and “Devil’s Bedroom” with our guide. There were some areas where we had to climb rocks to stay on the path. They were never more than 15 or 20 feet high but it was still challenging for some of the volunteers that are afraid of heights. There aren’t ropes or nets to catch you so if you fall, you could be seriously injured.

At the end of the hike through the gorge, there were Massai women selling handmade jewelry and trinkets. The prices were really low compared to American standards. We finally started the walk back to the van when the sun was just starting to set.  About halfway back to the entrance, we encountered several herds of buffalo out grazing for the evening. Buffalo are one of the more dangerous animals in the area because they are extremely territorial and prone to charging at intruders. It didn’t help my nerves that our guide rode ahead on a bike while we were left to walk by them, sometimes as close as 100 feet to where they were standing. They looked at us with uneasy eyes as we walked by and it was all I could do not to imagine their huge horns chasing me down. It was one of the scarier experiences I’ve had so far, but luckily we made it out without any incidents.

I got to sleep in until almost 8 this morning, a record since getting here three weeks ago. This afternoon, we’re going to visit some of the KSG students at the safe house in Kibera. The safe house is a home for girls who are dealing with particularly risky situations at home. I’m looking forward to spending time with them outside of school, learning more about their lives, and experiencing more of Kibera. This weekend has been full of adventure, adrenaline, and bittersweet realizations that the end of my experience here is coming close.

Attack of the Baboon

The third week of teaching at KSG has flown by. The volunteers have settled into a routine and we’re finally figuring out how to be effective with the girls. The week was off to a pretty monotonous start: dealing with porridge drama, chaotic scheduling, and other various issues at school.  On Wednesday night, we took a bus to another part of Nairobi where we had dinner and hung out at the apartment of the founder of the Africa Yoga Project. It was safer than going out in public to spend time with the Kenyan youth we are volunteering with. We spent the night listening to music and teaching each other our favorite dances. I learned how to “one drop” and helped the Americans teach the Kenyans how to Wobble (Gamma Phis I was thinking of you!).

All week, the girls at KSG have been preparing for the field trip we took on Thursday. I went with the first and second grade students to the animal orphanage in Nairobi. My students were so excited to get out of Kibera and experience something new. I knew I was going to have an interesting day when the girl I sat down by on the bus informed me that she has vomited on every single bus ride she has ever taken. I knew it was going to be even better when I handed her a plastic bag to throw up into and she promptly bit a hole in the bag. Luckily, I was out of range by the first time she threw up. When we got to the orphanage, a guide took us around and showed us the lions, hyenas, leopards, and various other animals. It was essentially a zoo. Most of the animals at the orphanage are in cages, but there are baboons and warthogs that wander around the premises. At one point, a humongous baboon aggressively chased around a few of the students trying to snatch their lunches out of their hands. The baboon was larger than most of my students so it was slightly terrifying, but also one of the most hilarious things I have ever seen.  The girls were for some reason less afraid of the baboon than they were of the ants we had encountered earlier.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone back home in the United States! I’m so sad to be missing one of my favorite holidays, but I’ll be celebrating around the guesthouse tonight with the other American volunteers. It’s not the same as the annual Daniel bash on the Chickahominy, but it’ll be a nice reminder of home after three weeks here.

 

Adapting, Learning, Exploring, and Adventuring

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So much has happened in the past week in Nairobi. It’s hard to pick and choose what to write about and share with friends and family from home. The second week of teaching was easier than the first because I felt like I had a routine, but the girls misbehaved a lot more. Some days it feels like I spend 90% of my time yelling at or disciplining my students. I did manage to teach my favorite workshop so far this week. It was called “Body Beautiful” and it was taught to girls from 2nd grade to 5th grade. First the girls brainstormed what the terms “high self esteem” and “positive body image” meant to them and identified the benefits of having each in relation to leadership. After brainstorming a list of the tasks they do as girls and women each day to contribute to their community, they were able to connect with how their bodies help them complete these tasks and why respecting your body is an essential component to becoming a leader. They finished the workshop by drawing a picture of a body and writing all of the things our bodies do for us each day. For example, brains help us think positively, hands help us pray, and hips help us dance. It was one of the first times I’ve felt like I was able to get a cohesive message across to my students. A lot of times the lessons I’m teaching seem trivial or unimportant, but I am learning a lot more than I expected I would about patience, resiliency, connecting with others, and life in general.

I’ve been able to adapt more to the food and social norms but there are still cultural barriers that are very difficult to overcome. We walk about fifteen minutes through Kibera each day to get to the school from our drop off. One morning this week, we walked through a huge crowd and I wasn’t really sure what was happening. It turns out the community was beating/stoning a young man to death for stealing. He had stolen 200 shillings from someone, which is the equivalent of less than $3.00 in the United States. Being stoned to death is the accepted punishment for theft in Kibera, to set an example for future thieves. There are very few things that I can imagine ending someone’s life over, and the loss of $3.00 definitely isn’t one of them (even if that amount has more value in Kibera than in the United States). I also don’t understand how a community can come together and do something like that to a person they know. I don’t understand how his parents or friends could have possibly accepted what was happening. But as an outsider, there isn’t really anything you can do or say.

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Things have been a little more upbeat this weekend. Yesterday, we drove about two hours into the Rift Valley to climb Mt. Longonot. Mt. Longonot is a 9,000 foot tall active volcano located in a rural area. The hike was steep, challenging, and slippery at parts but definitely the best hiking experience I have had to this day. We were able to see wildlife like zebras and giraffes grazing from a distance and some steam vents on the way up. Once you get to the top, you can hike around the rim of the volcano. The views were breathtaking and the pictures that I have posted simply don’t do them justice. I swear they were more amazing with very step that I took. We had lunch at the top and ran down a lot of the mountain. It was an amazing experience to just let go and run. With gravity pulling us down so quickly and the views of the Rift Valley, it almost felt like we were flying. I loved seeing another part of Kenya and I’m looking forward to doing more exploring while I am here.

In Defense of (Some) International Volunteering

I’ve seen a huge surge of articles recently against the “voluntourism” industry because of its impact on local communities and misguided representations of the developing world (#instagrammingafrica). If you aren’t familiar with the issue, just Google the term “voluntourism” and you will find dozens of well written articles that explain exactly how international service trips often end up perpetuating the problems that exist.  While short-term volunteer trips can often end up simply fulfilling the volunteer’s aspirations rather than solving problems in local communities, there can be merit to international service trips like the one I’m currently on. There are a few key characteristics that set this trip and others like it apart from programs that cater to the wanderlust of wealthy Westerners and disregard the need for sustainable change in distant parts of the world.

 The first factor is that the group of American volunteers I am serving with were invited into this community by local residents. Although the organization I am working through has headquarters in the United States to coordinate fundraising and management, most of the employees are Kenyan citizens. They run the organization here based on Kenyan custom and culture and are aware of the intricacies of working in a delicate community like the Kibera slums. We were invited here because of our various backgrounds in education, gender studies, or development to serve and to learn about the issues that girls in Kibera face. The volunteers that are selected for this program are highly aware that they are not coming to impose their American values on a “broken system.”

 One of the biggest criticisms I see of international service trips is that by providing services for free, they fail to empower local citizens to create their own change. There is a saying that I’ve heard used in many development discussions about giving a man a fish verses teaching a man to fish that seems applicable in this situation. While American and Kenyan youth volunteer at the Kibera School for Girls, the locally hired teachers undergo a month of professional training. Each year the subject is different and this year they are developing their social studies curriculum with the help of experienced teachers from the United States. So while we are here, we are not giving the school employees a fish but enabling them to learn to fish better.

 The most important aspect of this volunteer trip that is applicable to most international service trips is the opportunity to build lasting relationships. The American volunteers at KSG run the Summer Institute alongside a group of similarly aged Kenyan youth. I won’t deny that it’s been a challenge to overcome the cultural barriers surrounding communication and discipline. But connecting with someone at the same point in their lives from a completely different culture and background is a valuable learning experience for both parties involved. In addition, we are sharing knowledge and experience with the girls we are teaching. So far I’ve taught workshops to elementary aged students at KSG on topics ranging from positive body image to conflict resolution to volleyball. I can easily say that I’ve learned just as much from my students in Kibera as they have learned from me, if not more (especially about patience). If I’ve learned anything about sustainable development, it’s that lasting change comes from the grassroots level. If we truly care about creating a world that flourishes in peace and opportunity, building individual relationships across international borders is the first and most important step that we can take.

 I’m not defending the voluntourism industry as a whole because I agree that these short-term experiences can often do more harm than good. I’m saying that we should be cautious of categorizing all international volunteer trips under the “voluntourist” label. Serving abroad can have value and merit if done in a delicate and culturally sensitive way. I’m proud of the work I’m doing in Kibera because I know the program will have lasting effects both on the local community and on the volunteers that come from the United States.