Rhinos, Giraffes, and Impalas, Oh My: The Adventure Begins

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent into Nairobi.”

I awoke from my all-too-brief nap about the Ethiopian Airlines flight, rubbed my eyes, and peered out of the oblong airplane window at the ground below. Vast plains and rolling hills extended to the west, while the city of Nairobi sprawled to the east. A ripple of fear and excitement coursed through my body as the city’s skyscrapers slowly rose up to meet us. I was about to touch down in my new home.

For the next four months, I will be living and working in Nairobi, Kenya, as a part of UBC’s International Service Learning program. More specifically, I will be undertaking an internship at Carolina for Kibera, a non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the lives of those living in the Kibera slum. Along with another UBC student, I will be helping out with the organization’s health program, monitoring the nutrition status of the local population and implementing malnutrition interventions for at-risk children.

Kibera is widely touted as the largest slum in Africa, despite nobody really knowing for sure how many people live there. Estimates range from 500,000 to a million people, all living in an informal settlement to the south of Nairobi’s metropolis. Originally set aside as land for Nubian soldiers under British colonial rule, Kibera is now home to people flocking from rural areas of Kenya in search of work and opportunity in the capital. Kibera’s residents are among Nairobi’s poorest, with some households earning less than 1000 Kenyan shillings, or about $12 Canadian, in a month.

That being said, Kibera is very diverse. The slum is massive, and is divided up into twelve different neighbourhoods, each with a different personality and cultural makeup. Ayany, the neighbourhood where our homestays are located, is a more formal settlement, with street addresses, running water, and electricity. The people living there are mainly Luo, which is the third most populous tribe in Kenya. Kibera sits on a huge slope, bordered by a highway to the south and running down towards a small river in the middle. Generally, the further downhill you go, the more poverty you encounter.

I would need to wait a while before seeing Kibera, though. After making it through immigration, we was swept away from the city to the Syracure Wildlife Research Centre, which sits on the southern border of Nairobi National Park. There, I began to acclimatize to life in Kenya and underwent my in-country orientation sessions. The research centre is a cluster of buildings, one still under construction, overlooking the southern end of Nairobi’s national park. When I came down from my cozy room in the main house for afternoon tea, I met Dr. Abraham, a former secondary school teacher, passionate conservationist, and the founder of the research centre. In the open-air dining room overlooking the savannah, he cheerfully explained the history of the national park, and the issues that plague the Kenyan conservation movement – notably, the displacement of indigenous people from their native territories. This conversation quickly halted, however, when Dr. Abraham spotted a giraffe making its way towards us. It was a young animal, strolling on its own from one acacia tree to the next and eating leaves as it went. I was in awe, amazed that I was already spotting Kenya’s wildlife, and from our dinner table, no less! This wasn’t the only animal I would see that weekend. Over the next few days, I spotted buffaloes, antelope, rhinos, and more varieties of birds than I could count – so many animals, in fact, that Dr. Abraham joked that he should have charged for a safari.

The weekend wasn’t all fun and animal sightings, though. On Friday night, we were joined by three people, all of whom would be a large part of our Kenyan experience. Salim Mohammed, the charismatic, wise-cracking executive director and co-founder of Carolina for Kibera, was going to be leading our sessions that weekend, giving us a better idea of what to expect when we started work. Otto Olouch, a perpetually smiling marketing student, pastry chef, and underground hip hop artist, would essentially be our designated friend during our time in Kibera – he would show us how to get around, help us get our phones set up, and help us adjust to life in Kibera. Our third visitor, Ben, was a tall, kind-eyed man who would be supervising us at the organization. He spoke passionately about CFK’s health program, asked us about our future goals, and professed his undying love for maple syrup.

That weekend I was introduced to my role within the organization, did some goal setting, and took a day trip into the Nairobi city centre. But before I knew it, it was time to pack up and head to Kibera. That’s where I am now, sitting on a couch in my new living room, listening to the rolling thunder and rainfall outside. The rain seems fitting – washing away my comfortable Vancouver life and clearing space for all the new experiences I am about to have. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, but at the same time, I really can’t wait to get started.

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