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!

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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.

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.