Category Archives: ISL

Weekend Adventures: Amboseli National Park


Most people don’t realize that when they picture stereotypical Africa – savannah as far as the eyes can see, giraffes picking leaves off acacia trees, majestic lions stalking antelope in the tall grass – they are actually picturing Kenya. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people head out on safaris in this country, hoping to get their quintessential East African experience. This past weekend, I decided to join them, embracing my inner tourist with a safari* to Amboseli National Park.

Unfortunately for my wallet, safaris tend to be expensive. Luckily, though, Otto just so happens to have a cousin who works for a tour company (It seems like Otto has a relative in just about every line of work) and who was willing to give us a good deal. So, bright and early on Saturday morning, my friend and I met Saidi, the famous cousin, and climbed into his 10-seater safari van. Saidi reminded me a lot of Otto – they have the same smile and some of the same mannerisms. “I could never work in an office, man,” he said, telling us about his former job selling used cars. “I had to wear a suit and tie to work every day. Here I get to wear what I want!”


Our safari chariot

After a five-hour drive to the southern end of Kenya, we arrived at our campsite, just a kilometer or so away from the park’s main gates. The camp was a series of little wooden cabins and tents, spread out amongst the yellowed grass of the savannah. I was pretty impressed with our cabin’s amenities, which included a double bed, running water, and even a hot shower – much more than I had expected on our budget safari. Saidi was relieved that we were pleased with the accommodations: “People often get mad at me when they see it here!” he said with a laugh. I found that hard to believe – but then again, there was a safari camp with an Olympic-sized swimming pool right up the road, so I guess there’s some demand for safaris in style.

The best times for animal sightings are in the early mornings or in the late afternoon, so we had a little bit of time to kill before heading into the park. I sat on the cabin’s porch for a while, reading in the breeze. Then we ate dinner in the dining area, an open-air building with Masai blankets used as tablecloths. After our bellies were full of spaghetti and sukuma wiki, we hopped into Saidi’s van for our evening game drive. Almost immediately after entering the park, the wildlife began to appear: herds of zebras, antelopes, and wildebeest, getting in some grazing before the sun set. We also spotted baboons, dik-diks, buffalo, and more types of birds than I’ve ever seen in my life. But the highlight came when we made our way through the wetlands of the park – dozens of African elephants were wading in the water, drinking and cooling themselves off with their impressive trunks.


The next morning we awoke bright and early, eager to see more animals in the park. I downed a cup of terrible instant coffee to wake myself up, and we headed back towards the park. As soon as we headed out on the road, a fellow tour guide’s voice began excitedly speaking in Swahili over the radio. “A cheetah!” translated Saidi excitedly. “Oh man, we’ve gotta make it.” He stepped on the gas and we accelerated through the park gate. Only a kilometer or so into the park, we saw it – a spotted cat lounging elegantly in the shade of a bush.  We even got to see a quick burst of the cheetah’s famed running when a hyena got a little too close. It was a pretty awesome start to the day, and made getting out of bed at 5:30 worth it.

The day got even better from there. Later on, another broadcast came over the radio: “Simba! A lion!” We careened through the park at high-speed, crossing our fingers that it would still be there by the time we arrived. It was in this lion-chase that I realized just how huge Amboseli really was – our circuit the previous night had barely scratched the surface of the park’s terrain. Eventually, we reached the spot where the original sighting had occurred. “There it is!” Saidi exclaimed. My friend and I both craned our heads out of the top of the van, but were unable to see any roving lions out in the grass. But then, I saw it – a female lion, lying casually on the side of the road, less than ten feet away from our open window! She didn’t seem to mind us much, although she seemed mildly irritated that we were giving away her position to the zebra herd she had been watching.


Throughout the rest of the day we saw many more animals, even closer up than the day before. Elephants and zebras passed right in front of our van. Hippos snorted at us from the water. Ostriches pranced along in the bushes. Baboons prowled across the road. I even saw some flamingos bathing in the small lake in the middle of the park. In the afternoon, we hiked up a dirt hill offering a panoramic view of the entire park – although the hill didn’t look quite as impressive with Kilimanjaro looming behind it.

We finally headed back to Kibera, exhausted and exhilarated from the weekend and with ridiculously full memory cards. The weekend was awesome, and not just because of the various animals. In total, the whole thing only cost about $250, which was definitely worth it. I also got to make a new friend in Saidi, who I bonded with over our mutual love for Shonda Rhimes shows. (The animal sightings were pretty awesome too, though.) Now, after more than seven weeks in Kenya, I can finally say I got the quintessential safari experience – even though my campsite didn’t have a swimming pool, it was still pretty amazing.

*Technically I’d already been on a safari in the true sense of the word, since “safari” actually just means “journey” in Swahili.

Valentine’s Day in Hell


Last weekend’s excursion was to Hell’s Gate National Park, whose terrain had been the inspiration for the Lion King. I had started off the day bright and early, meeting my friend Joshua in Ayany before beginning the journey to Hell’s Gate National Park. Joshua is a volunteer at Carolina for Kibera, who works with the scholarships program. He’s been involved with CFK for several years, and lives in the Kibera village of Kianda with his family. He recently graduated from high school, and is currently awaiting his standardized test results that will determine what he can study in university; he is hoping to become a civil engineer, which will require top marks.

Once downtown, we met up with Scott, our fellow intern at CFK, who hails from Washington, DC’s American University. He is a charismatic and talkative guy who is passionate about healthcare in the developing world. Together, the four of us hopped on the same matatu I had taken the previous weekend to Lake Naivasha, and settled in for the winding journey into the Great Rift Valley. Once we arrived in Naivasha, we were greeted by the town’s many street touts, all of them desperately trying to get their hands on our tourist cash. Adamant about avoiding the over-charging that had plagued our previous Naivasha trip, we got Joshua to negotiate a fair price in Swahili with our potential cab driver.

Our cab driver dropped us off about 2 km away from the road, where a friend of his ran a small bike rental shop. For 500 Kenyan shillings (about $7 Canadian), I got a yellow Giant mountain bike with a bright blue seat for the entire day. After rigorously testing the brakes and buying another liter of water, we started riding off towards the gate of the national park. The road was hot, dusty, and bumpy – the dry season was in full swing, and the land was looking parched from the sweltering Kenya sun. We were sweating already by the time we arrived at the park’s front gate. There, we paid our park entrance fees, which were quite a bit cheaper than we’d anticipated: since I have a student visa for the next six months, I am considered a resident and receive heavily discounted prices for all national parks. Thanks, UBC! Then we hopped back on our bikes and set off into the midday Kenyan heat.


Joshua, Scott and I with our new zebra friends.

Not even five minutes after entering the park, we spotted our first sign of wildlife: a pack of zebras, grazing in the grass by the roadside! A coworker had told me I’d be bored of seeing zebras by the time my stay in the park was over, but staring at these gorgeous animals only a few feet away from me, I found that hard to believe. They stared at us with cautious curiosity as we edged closer for a photo op.


 Spot the rock-climbers…

Next to the munching zebras, a huge rocky tower jutted up towards the sky, looking out of place in the wide savannah. As we approached, I realized that this was a rock-climbing site – for 500 shillings we could scale the jagged rocks to the top. Being a huge adrenaline junkie with a sometimes-dangerous love for heights, I signed up immediately, and convinced Scott to come along with me. Within minutes, I was harnessed up and climbing towards the sky. Having only ever experienced rock-climbing at an indoor gym, this was quite a different experience: my eyes darted around constantly, trying to find my next foot- or handhold on the crag, and I was extremely conscious of the lack of padded mats on the ground below. After about 10 minutes of struggling, Scott and I made it to the top. We snapped a couple of victory shots, giving cheesy thumbs up, before belaying to our friends down below. Once we made it back to solid ground, completely elated from the experience, we convinced Joshua to climb up as well.


Whatchu lookin’ at, bro?

We continued along the winding, dusty road further into the heart of the park, with the goal of finally reaching the famous Hell’s Gate Gorge, about 11 km away from the park’s entrance. The road was mercifully flat, giving us time to enjoy the amazing scenery around us. We passed by zebras and giraffes rehydrating at a watering hole, antelopes jumping around in the tall grass, and beautiful, colourful birds flitting around between the acacia trees. On either side of the road, huge red-brown rock formations reached towards the blue sky, looming hundreds of feet in the air over the grassy plains.


A stroll through hell.

Finally, we reached the famous Hell’s Gate Gorge. Unable to head into the gorge without a guide, we reluctantly handed over 2000 Kenyan shillings to a young man named Francis, who led us down deep into the earth. Since it was nearing the end of the dry season, the water levels within the gorge were extremely low, with only a trickling stream running along its rocky floor. However, during the wet season the gorge swells with powerful flash floods that can be up to 10 metres deep – ominous signs warning about the dangers of these floods adorned the gorge’s walls. We hiked over boulders and climbed ropes as we travelled through this geological wonder. Occasionally we would pass some hooks that had been used in the filming of the Tomb Raider movie; “Angelina Jolie,” Francis said with a nod. We saw the “Devil’s Bedroom”, a large, circular “room” carved out of the gorge by water, passed by tall waterfalls, and alarmingly hot springs emerging from the gorge’s walls. “I wash my face with this water every day,” Francis told us, praising the healing properties of the mineral waters. “That’s why I don’t have any pimples.”

Unlike our ride towards the gorge, which was filled with chatting, our return trip was mainly silent due to our exhaustion from rock climbing, biking 13 km, and hiking for two hours throughout the gorge (without lunch, I should add). We were able to add a few more animal sightings to our list, though: we passed a massive herd of buffalo and their companion white birds, and had a family of about 10 warthogs dash across our path. After what seemed like hours of cycling, the park gate appeared within our view, and we left the animals and the gorge in the dust behind us.

Know Your Status: HIV Testing in Kianda

A chorus of school children on a primary school’s second floor balcony called out to me as I walked along the streets of Kianda.”Mzungu! How are you!” They were all leaning up against the railing, looking sharp in their uniforms of dark blue sweaters and khakis.

“Sasa?” I called across the corrugated iron rooftops, turning the heads of a couple of nearby women washing their clothes in plastic buckets. In reply, I received a deafening, “POA!” Laughing and waving, I stepped across a ditch carrying waste down towards the river and continued along on the day’s door-to-door campaign.

This past week, CFK’s Sexual and Reproductive Health program carried out its quarterly HIV screening campaign, and I was invited to tag along to see how it’s done. I was sent off with Daniel, a trained VCT counsellor who is training to be a nutritionist, and Ali, a Youth Peer Provider (YPP) who grew up in Kibera but is currently an international relations student in Turkey. We walked out to the very edge of Kianda, where the cramped houses give way to open fields with children kicking soccer balls around. There, we began our door-to-door testing campaign. The process was pretty simple: Ali would knock at the door and say, “Hodi?”, the phrase for “May I come in” in Kiswahili. He would then start to explain who he is and what Carolina for Kibera does, before asking them if they are willing to take a 5-minute test for HIV. If they agreed (all tests are completely voluntary) Daniel would step in, donning gloves before pricking the patient’s fingertip with a tiny needle. He collected a couple of drops of blood in a capillary tube, transferred the blood onto a little plastic slide, and added some buffer to make the reaction run. Within a couple of minutes, the result would appear in a little circular display: one band for negative, two bands for positive.

As Daniel carried out the tests, Ali and I had plenty of time to chat. He is the same age as me, 21. He received a full scholarship to attend a Turkish secondary school and subsequently university. He loves his schooling in Turkey, and spoke excitedly about the places he had visited during his university years. Each summer, when he is on break from school, he comes home to Kibera and works as a Youth Peer Provider, feeling that it is his responsibility to give back to the community. He has been offered a job at the Turkish embassy in Kenya once he graduates, and while sad to be leaving Europe he looks forward to coming back to Nairobi.

Ali also told me about the changes he had seen in his years in the slum, which was absolutely fascinating to me. I recently read It Happened on the Way to War, the memoir of one of the three founders of CFK, and had been shocked by how dangerous Kibera had been in the early 00’s. Ali told me that things had been getting much better in the years since he left for school. “When I was growing up, I wouldn’t go a day without seeing someone getting attacked for stealing,” he said, referring to the “mob justice” that used to be common practice for punishing thieves. “Now things are a lot better.”

He credited the new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his wife for many of the positive changes the slum has seen. “This president, he actually cares about the poor,” Ali said passionately. “He has built roads into the slum and put in lights.” Ali also sung the praises of the First Lady of Kenya, who had begun a campaign called Beyond Zero to battle urban poverty in Nairobi. The program had installed small clinics in each village in Kibera, and created community police stations to help maintain security. I had seen the presence of this initiative in Kibera: one of the clinics sits next to CFK’s main office, and a community police station is visible from my front doorstep in Ayany.

About halfway through the morning, I decided to take my own HIV test. I did so partially because I wanted a woman who was nervous about the needle to feel more at ease, and partially since I felt like a hypocrite encouraging people to get tested without ever having done so myself. Within four minutes, I saw my result show up on the slide: one band. Shortly after, the woman who I was testing with received her own negative result with relief.

The campaign occurs every three months over the course of five days, in which five pairs of counsellors and YPPs knock on doors in Kianda, Gatwakera, and Soweto West. The quota for each day is 20 people tested per pair, so in total 500 people participate in VCT over the course of the week. The program isn’t perfect, though; many people are too scared of the results to get tested, despite them likely being the ones who are the most at risk. Ali also tells me that in the past, things have gotten ugly when people have received positive results: “Once a man tried to attack a female counsellor because he was angry with his result. So now we try to make sure the women don’t go out alone.”

That being said, the people we met were extremely friendly and welcoming. I used my broken Swahili to chat with them as we strolled through Kianda, which definitely helped. My Swahili is slowly improving – I bought a Swahili grammar e-book and dictionary upon my arrival, and have been spending most of my evenings dutifully studying noun classes and conjugations. However, despite my growing knowledge of the language I still find myself getting nervous and self-conscious when the time comes to speak in a public setting. Mama Mary says that I am afraid of getting things wrong, and I completely agree with her, but have decided not to let that stop me. Mistakes or not, it shows I am making an effort to get to know people, which others really appreciate.

I am truly beginning to feel at home in Kibera, and to feel comfortable with my place in the community – or lack thereof. As I walked through Kianda, I didn’t have an internal monologue raging in my head about how I wasn’t “contributing to the community” in the way I had imagined. Instead, i just took the time to learn and to take in life in Kibera. When I walk to work each day, I no longer feel uneasy about the stares directed my way; instead, I meet them with smiles and Swahili greetings. I comfortably clamour into packed matatus, introduce myself using my African name to new acquaintances, and adeptly bargain prices with cab drivers. By opening myself up, I feel like I am just now being able to see true Kibera, and even though I can’t believe it took me this long, I’m happy to finally be okay with not fitting in.

Weekend Adventures: Longonot and Lake Naivasha

IMG_2462Mount Longonot presiding over the Great Rift Valley

The matatu drove along the winding highway, shaking from both the bumpy road and the loud Swahili music blasting from the speakers. A friend and I sat cramped in the second row of the minibus with our belongings creating a little fort around us, watching out the windows as the billboards of the city gave way to the countryside. Street vendors selling Masai blankets and cobs of roasted maize blurred as we passed by.

We were off on our first trip out of the city, bound for Naivasha, a little town an hour and a half north of Nairobi. Naivasha, however, was just a quick pit stop as we headed towards our final destination. This destination appeared to the west as the matatu crested a large hill, standing out impressively amongst the parched grasslands of the Great Rift Valley. Mount Longonot, a long-inactive volcano with a crater a kilometer in diameter at its peak, was beckoning us. By the end of the day, I thought excitedly, we will have seen the view from the top.

Getting to the mountain proved to be a bit of a challenge. Since there were no matatus that would drop us off directly at the park gate, we opted for a cab ride with a friendly yet alarmingly pushy driver named Sammy. He offered to wait while we climbed the mountain and to take us to our campsite on Lake Naivasha afterwards, and while the price was a little steep, I agreed for the sake of convenience (and because it meant I wouldn’t need to carry my camping gear up the mountain).

The hike was much tougher than I had anticipated. The dusty trail leading up towards the crater had very little traction, and was on a steep incline. I found myself breathing heavily within a few minutes, my legs burning with effort and my face dripping with sweat in the Kenyan heat. Along the way, I found some more hiking companions in a school group. They were a group of girls climbing Longonot to prepare for their trek up Mount Kenya at the end of the year. Many of them were more out of shape than I was, which I must guiltily admit made me feel relieved.


A tiny area of Longonot’s massive mountaintop crater.

After losing half of my body’s water content in sweat, I finally reached the summit. The crater was even more impressive than I had imagined, tracing an almost perfect circle out of the mountain’s rock. In the forest far below I could see tree branches rustling, hinting at the presence of animals in the enclosed mini-ecosystem. Beyond the crater’s edge, the Great Rift Valley stretched out in all its yellow-green glory. I stood there at the top for a while, beaming with awe and endorphins, and exchanging high fives with my high school climbing buddies. My friend and I sat with our legs dangling into the crater, snacking on Chex Mix and looking down at the forest below. We contemplated making the two-hour walk around the crater rim, but since I had run out of water I was hesitant to spend any longer in the sweltering heat than I had to. We snapped a few top-of-the-mountain victory shots and descended back into the valley.


Lake Naivasha, where hippos are sneakily hiding out of sight

Sammy dropped us off at Carnelly’s Camp, an adorable campground on the shores of Lake Naivasha filled with expats and British vacationers. Exhausted from our trek, the first thing we did was gorge ourselves at the campsite’s restaurant. I scarfed down a massive pile of pasta with the signature Lake Naivasha crayfish, in a way that made me thankful the restaurant was empty. After dinner we pitched our tent and took a walk along the shore, spotting monkeys playing in the trees, blue herons standing elegantly in the shallows, and massive hippos peeking out from beneath the lake’s surface. It was the perfect place to end the day, and that night we fell asleep to the sounds of hippos snorting just feet away from our tent.

This weekend was a much-needed escape from the urban chaos of Nairobi. In Kibera, there are people absolutely everywhere – walking down the narrow dirt streets, crowded onto tiny matatus, calling out at you from storefronts. Even at nighttime, the slum doesn’t sleep – the sound of music, barking dogs, and rumbling trains can be heard through my open windows. Spending some time outdoors gave me a respite from the city’s chaos, which I hadn’t realized how much I really needed.  It also gave me the opportunity to see more of this wonderful country – a place with which I am slowly but steadily falling in love.

Another update on this past weekend’s adventure at Hell’s Gate National Park (the inspiration for the Lion King) coming soon!

Belonging, New Friends, and Angela’s Care Group

Mzungu, mzungu! How are you, how are you!”

I am walking along the street behind CFK when I pass by a group of schoolchildren, standing outside their school’s gates in their forest-green uniforms. As I stop to greet them, they swarm me, hands outstretched, all very insistent on finding out how I’m doing. I laugh and say, “Sasa?” the Swahili word for “now” that is often used as an informal greeting in Kibera. “Poa!” the children reply, looking both surprised and delighted that I was speaking their local slang.

After handing out a few more handshakes, I am able to extricate myself from the mob of children and continue down toward the railroad tracks.  I passed by the same huge garbage pile that I had seen on our journey to Taka ni Pato. Today, a couple more garbage fires are burning, and I sputter as the smoke fills mt lungs. The children walking by don’t seem to notice the smoke (potentially because of their proximity to the ground), nor do the dogs picking their way through the smouldering trash.

I am headed to Soweto West, a village in Kibera that I have not yet visited. Were I alone, this would not bode well for me – there are no street signs in Kibera, or even street names, for that matter. The dirt paths wind around in a seemingly never-ending maze, with mud houses sometimes packed so close that there is barely room for one person to squeeze through. If I ever got lost in Kibera, I would probably never find my way out. Luckily, I have Cathrine today as my guide.

Cathrine is a project worker with the Sexual and Reproductive Health department at CFK. One of the program’s main focuses is maternal health – teaching mothers in Kibera how to take care of themselves and their babies throughout their pregnancy. This is done through a system called care groups, which are weekly meetings of 10 to 15 women, run by a Community Health Worker. We are on our way to one of the many Soweto care groups now.

We reach the road dividing Soweto West from Kianda, and soon spot a middle-aged woman in a long green short-sleeved dress waving at us. She has crow’s feet that are intensified by her warm smile, and her graying black hair is pulled up into a tight bun. She introduces herself to as Angela, shaking my hand. “Karibu, you’re welcome,” she greets me. She then leads Cathrine and me to a bright blue building on the main road, which consists of one very tiny, very dark room. Inside, a pregnant woman named Rose welcomes us to her daycare.

Eight children are taking a nap, lying widthwise on a twin bed in the corner. Another little girl who couldn’t be more than six holds a sleeping baby in her arms. She smiles at us curiously as we walk in. We take a seat on one of the two benches set up along the walls. Within a few minutes, the pregnant women begin arriving – about eight of them in total. Cathrine introduces me and another intern in Swahili. I am able to pick out the word wanafunzi – students. “Jina langu Campbell”, I say in broken Swahili, immediately wishing I had used my Luo name instead. After the introductions are completed, Angela sits on a chair in the middle of the room and leads the discussion. Today they are discussing warning signs of pregnancy. Cathrine quietly translates the rapid Swahili in my ear.

Rose is the first to speak. She has issues with her cervix remaining open, and has had three miscarriages as a result. She’s now worried that it might be happening again. While I didn’t understand her words, I could see the pain in her eyes as she spoke about losing her children. Angela recommends she go to Tabitha Clinic to get some medical attention. Another woman is concerned about the baby always lying on one side. She says she hasn’t felt it move in a day or so. A more experienced mother tells her not to worry, that the same thing had happened to her. Then one day, the baby shifted and before she knew it, she was in labour.

I feel uncomfortable being in this room. It wasn’t the heat, or the children staring at me, or the details about womens’ cervixes. I felt like I didn’t belong there – and, really, I didn’t. I’m not from Kibera. I don’t know anything about pregnancies. I don’t even speak the same language. This unease was compounded by the fact that the other intern was snapping pictures of the group throughout the meeting. Cathrine had asked her to take photographs of the care group for the CFK website beforehand. Even though the women had consented, it felt wrong, almost voyeuristic, taking photographs of them as they shared the fears and struggles of their pregnancies. I tensed up every time I heard the shutter click.

As we leave, I shake everyone’s hand. Rose, the young mother who owns the daycare, clutches my hand with both of hers and looks up at me. “I am so happy you are here,” she says, as though she had been reading my mind throughout the entire meeting. “Asante sana.” I thanked her, blinking back the tears stinging my eyes, and stepped back out into the Kibera heat.

Angela insists on us visiting her home before we return to the CFK office. She guides us through a street behind the daycare, and opens a small gate into an even smaller alleyway. She gestures to a door on the left, and I duck beneath the low doorway to enter my first real Kibera home. Angela’s entire was about the size of my first-year dorm room. Pieces of white lacy cloth draped the walls, presumably to cover the mud walls lying underneath, and another piece of cloth hung towards the back of the room, partitioning the space into a bedroom and a living room. I sat down on one of the two small couches, whose cushions were as solid as a rock. There was no kitchen, just a small charcoal stove used for cooking. A large jerry can in the corner provides the water for the home. A miniscule TV sits on a shelf in the corner, upon which Angela’s youngest daughter, Lucy, is watching a wedding show. Angela introduces us warmly as her “new friends”. We stay for chai, milky Kenyan tea, and Angela tells us about her family. When we finally leave to go back to work, she urges us to come back anytime.

Rose’s genuine welcome and Angela’s hospitality made me realize that much of the insecurity I felt about not being wanted in Kibera was coming from myself, not from the people around me. My fear of being judged or of people thinking I don’t belong had been keeping me from really integrating into the community, from getting to know the people of Kibera – the reason I came here in the first place. Truth be told, I will never fit in completely. It’s time for me to accept that and move on.

I am a mzungu, always have been always will be. I will never completely understand the lives of those who live in Kibera. They see the world through a totally different lens than I do, filled with experiences and memories and tribalism acquired in a world far away from my own. But still, I’m realizing, the fact that I’ll never understand shouldn’t keep me from trying.

First Expedition to Nutrition

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 12.12.35 PM

Children at the Lishe Bora Mtaani Nutrition Centre
Image via Carolina for Kibera

It is Friday morning, and I am walking an unfamiliar route along the Kenya-Uganda railway that bisects Kibera. A big, jovial man named Francis is acting as my guide this morning, chatting with me and stopping to greet various friendly faces along the way. Francis is a Community Health Volunteer with CFK, who goes out into the village of Kianda and educates households about proper hand washing, hygiene, and maternal and child health. He was chosen for this role because he is a prominent and well-respected member of the local community – “I’ve lived in Kibera for 30 years,” he tells us proudly. The Community Health Volunteers also assess the nutritional status of children under five, and refer those who may be malnourished to the CFK Nutrition Centre, where we are headed now.

The building is a one-story wooden building with two offices, three playrooms, and a kitchen around the back. We walk into the closest playroom, where about fifteen young children between the ages of six months and three years are waiting for me. A nutritionist named Esther, wearing a large CFK logo-emblazoned apron, is setting up a scale to begin the children’s weekly weighing. She invites me over to help out. Many of the children are unable to stand, either because they are too young or because their developmental milestones have been delayed from malnutrition. Esther has me stand on the scale and hold the child in my arms. Meanwhile, Esther takes the child’s left arm and measured their mid-upper arm circumference – a tool that gives a good idea of how thin or “wasted” the child is. The information is recorded in a little notebook, and the process is repeated with another child.

The children spend the majority of the day in this little playroom, most of them napping away on large spongy mats strewn about. Other more adventurous ones go for strolls around the rest of the centre, or watch the educational children’s videos playing on the television. The day is interspersed with snack times, wherein the children are fed various therapeutic foods including Plumpynut, a peanut butter and sugar concoction to help them gain weight. They also get a big delicious Kenyan lunch of ugali, spinach, and chicken.

After lunch, a little girl named Isabella* who had been napping for most of the day woke up. Veronica, one of the centre’s early childhood educators, asks me to give her some porridge. I pick her up, and am amazed by how light she is. Her arms and legs are so small that I can wrap my entire fist around them. She looks like she’s about six months old, but to my shock, Veronica tells me that she is nearing her first birthday. Stunted growth is a very common effect of chronic malnutrition, and many of the children in the centre look much younger than they actually are. Isabella has a good appetite, though – she wraps her tiny hands around the cup and eagerly drinks all the porridge without any complaint.

Isabella’s mother stopped feeding her breast milk after two weeks, because of a pregnancy with another child. (In the mother’s culture, breastfeeding while pregnant is believed to be detrimental to the developing fetus.) Instead, she started feeding Isabella warm water and cow’s milk, which has led to her becoming underweight and suffering from multiple nutrient deficiencies. The hope is, though, that after the prescribed eight weeks in the in-patient program Isabella will be back at a normal weight. Furthermore, her mother will have a better idea of how to take care of her and her future sibling – the parents of the children enrolled in the program receive training sessions, where they learn about young child nutrition and how to keep their babies healthy.

The Nutrition Centre is a relatively recent initiative by CFK, having recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Although the program has been touted as a success so far, they are still in need of a lot of help – mainly, with organizing the massive piles of data they have accumulated since the centre’s opening. That’s where I come in. Over the next few months, I will be organizing the data in the centre and tracking individual children’s progress, as well as creating documents outlining the procedures of the centre. These documents will help ensure the long-term success of the centre, and allow the CFK staff to more effectively care for children along their road to recovery.

Alright, and maybe I’ll end up playing with adorable babies sometimes, too.

*Name changed to respect patient’s privacy

Tacky Tourists and Trash


Photo via Carolina for Kibera.

Something immediately noticeable when you enter Kibera: trash is a dominant component of the landscape. The informal settlement, which does not have any paved roads or public services reaching the people living in its depths, is littered with scraps of food, plastic bags, crumpled water bottles, torn clothes, and washed-out pieces of paper. Along the streets, deep ditches in the reddish-brown dirt carry waste and water downhill towards huge trash piles, where stray cats, dogs, and chickens can be found scavenging for snacks. Trash is absolutely everywhere, and in some areas, the smell of rotting food and wet garbage is almost overwhelming.

But Carolina for Kibera is doing something about it.

On Monday, I sat down with Moses, a smart-dressed, bespectacled man who heads the Economic department at CFK. The idea behind the Taka ni Pato, or “Trash is Cash” program is twofold, he explained: cleaning up the community, and creating economic opportunity for youth. The program consists of a trash collection program, through which young people provide houses with garbage bags and then come collect the bags for a small fee each week. Then, the trash is sorted, and different items are recycled and repurposed in order to turn a further profit. The meeting itself was brief, as Moses was adamant about me actually seeing the program in action. Our sit-down chat quickly turned into a foray into Soweto West, one of the 12 villages in Kibera.

As we rounded the corner out of CFK, we passed by some of the only foreigners I had seen so far in the slum. They were dressed in tacky tourist attire, complete with big green safari hats, colourful shirts with city names emblazoned across the chest, cargo shorts, and the quintessential camera around the neck. They were looking around in pity and horror at the scene unfolding around them. This, I deduced, was one of the “slum tours” I had heard about online – for a fee, tourists can take a detour from their expensive safari and come marvel at the lives of people in poverty. To me, the notion of these tours is partially ridiculous, partially unethical; the people of Kibera are not a tourist attraction. I deliberately avoided making eye contact with any of the participants as they passed.

The tour was quickly forgotten as my focus turned to staying upright on a steep, dusty road leading towards the Kenya-Ugandan railway that bisects Kibera. Overlooking the tracks and blocking a view of the houses below was a huge, ten-foot-tall garbage pile. We did our best to gingerly step around the mounds of trash, eventually taking a running leap in order to scale a particularly wet area, and then crossed back into the mass of tin-roofed houses. Just beyond the tracks lay our destination: Victorious Bones Craft.

Outside of the building, a man named Jack lay hunched over a basket of white heart-shaped carvings, delicately painting their points a sparkling gold. He looked up and greeted us with the traditional warm Kenyan handshake, and welcomed us to the workshop. As we were led inside, my eyes immediately started to water from the white dust floating around in the air. The workshop was filled with six or seven men, working at rotating saws, whittling down bones into various shapes. Small piles of bones littered the floor. Jack explained the operation over the overwhelmingly loud roar of the saws: the bones, which are collected from both community garbage pickups and local shops, are cleaned and whittled down into various shapes. They treat the bones with a chemical solution that keeps them white, or apply paint to dye them various colours. After that, the products are polished, and sometimes holes are drilled to make them into earrings or beads. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “We don’t use human bones here!” He then led us into the little shop that lay under the same roof as the workshop, where the finished bone products are sold. The gorgeous jewellery and keychains in front of us were unrecognizable from the motley pile of cow bones that were stacked in the other room. We left kicking ourselves for not bringing any Kenyan shillings along.

Our next stop was the Taka ni Pato Recycling Centre, hidden away in a bright blue building resembling an oversized storage crate. Outside, the manager of the recycling centre, Wilson, greeted us. Wilson is also an entrepreneur, Moses explained. Thanks to a Kiva loan he received through CFK, he has started a transportation business out of his home. His employees use huge, wooden carts to deliver goods across various villages in Kibera.

Inside the dark room, piles of various items were stacked in different corners: one for bottles, one for plastic bags, and one for large plastic crates. Wilson showed us a huge metal machine that chews up the plastic products and spits out smaller pieces at the bottom. The pieces are then bagged and sent off to various factories in Narobi. Business had been a little slow lately, Wilson explained, since the factories are still trying to use up their own stock from the previous year. “But things will pick up soon!” he grinned.

The Taka ni Pato program is an amazing example of the entrepreneurial spirit that lives within the heart of Kibera – a spirit that the tourists snapping photos of run-down homes undoubtedly missed. It’s all too easy to take a quick look around and pity all the poor people living in filth. However, it takes much more effort to really understand the place – I have been here for almost two weeks and Kibera is still finding ways to surprise me. While it isn’t easy, the effort is worth it in the end, as it shows all the amazing things the people of this community are doing to make Kibera a better place. And that reveals more about the life of those living in poverty than any tour ever could.


Photo via Carolina for Kibera

Akinyi’s Home Life

It has been a little over a week since I first stepped off the plane into the Nairobi sun, and many things in my life have changed as a result. I have begun to get used to being perpetually sweaty thanks to the 30-degree weather. I have begun to accept the fact that my mug in the morning will likely be filled with milky tea instead of coffee (although this acceptance hasn’t stopped me from seeking out caffeine wherever possible). I have begun adapting to communicating with my loved ones and scheduling interviews in accordance with an 11-hour time difference.

The biggest change, however, has been adjusting to my homestay. After living on my own for almost four years, being back in a house where I needed to answer to an authority figure was a bit of a shock. That being said, my homestay experience has been awesome so far, and I wanted to use this post to give some insights into my home life in Kenya.

On Sunday, our trusty cab driver Peter pulled up to my new home in Ayany, the so-called “middle-class” area of Kibera. From outside, the house looked pretty modest by North American standards, but was far and away more than I was expecting from a house in a slum. The building standing in front of me was a three-story grey stone home, with a ten-foot blue gate blocking the front door from sight. I lugged my ridiculously large backpack out of the trunk and was led up to the second floor apartment, where my new Kenyan mama was waiting.

“Mama Mary”, as I call her, was sitting in her living room watching music videos on TV in Swahili, but when she saw me standing in the doorway she leapt up with joy and ran over to envelope me in a huge, warm hug. “This is my new daughter!” she exclaimed to Otto with happiness. “Karibu, karibu. You know what ‘karibu’ means?” I replied with the standard, “Asante sana,” and she squealed, wrapping me in another hug. “Come, let me show you your new home.” The interior of the house was small but comfortable. The living room, where we had entered, was painted a bright orange colour. Two couches and two matching armchairs flanked the sides of the room. In the corner, next to the large TV, was a mini-shrine covered with trinkets and pictures of her family. Mama Mary pointed out the people in the pictures excitedly, and told us that her son and grandson would be coming over to visit later. I had a bathroom all to myself, and a shower with hot water – an amenity I had definitely not expected in Kibera. My room faces the east of the house, with two twin beds framed by mosquito nets, a huge closet, and a window overlooking the rooftops of Ayany. “If you ever get sick of one bed, you can switch to the other!” Mama told me.

Mama Mary is absolutely hilarious, always joking around, dancing, or making silly faces. She is in her sixties, a retired primary school teacher who has lived in Kibera for many years. Her husband lives up-country, but she loves Kibera so much that she stayed here when he moved away for work. She loves watching ridiculous game shows on TV, and will teach me Swahili words during the commercial breaks. She constantly tries to urge me to eat more at meals, piling food onto my plate when she thinks I’m not looking. She also belongs to the Luo tribe, which is one of Kenya’s 42 diverse tribes and the third most populous in the country. In accordance with Luo tradition, Mama Mary gave me a name according to the time of the day at which I was born. Since I was born early in the morning, my name has become Akinyi (which she often calls me since, like most other people I’ve met, she has difficulty pronouncing my name). Last night, Mama had a friend over whose Luo name is also Akinyi. She was so excited to meet her namesake that she spent the rest of the night trying to convince me to marry her son.

One of the things I had been most afraid of before coming to Kenya was the food. Being a notoriously picky eater, I worried that I would spend the next four months with a growling stomach. This hasn’t been the case in the slightest – the food I’ve had so far has been absolutely delicious. I have fallen in love with a type of bread called “chapati”, which is like the heavenly lovechild of tortillas and naan. Other staple foods are ugali, a spongy, moist bread, and kale, whose name in Swahili means “push the week” since those with little income often eat it all week to fill their stomachs. We eat most of our meals with our hands, since, as Mama Mary says, “You have two perfectly good forks at the ends of your arms!”

However, one thing I haven’t quite gotten used to is being waited on constantly. It is very common in Kenya for people to have live-in help, and Mama Mary is no exception. She has a young Luo girl named Cynthia working for her who does the dishes, scrubs the floors, washes clothes, and takes care of pretty much any other task you can imagine. As someone who has been doing all of these things for myself for years, it’s been tough getting used to someone preparing my food and cleaning up after me. To help combat this, I’m trying to help out around the house as much as possible, but I think it’s just something I’ll need to accept while I’m here.

Overall, I am so happy to be living in a homestay during my time in Kenya. Despite the perceived lack of freedom, it is giving me a great introduction to Kenyan culture and customs. I have learned more about values and tribal relations through conversations with Mama than I ever could have through online research. Furthermore, living in the place where I am working, rather than just leaving the slum at the end of the day, has made me feel more connected to the community, which I think will improve my ability to contribute in the workplace. These are some of the reasons why I wanted to participate in this experience – it is not simply a volunteer trip. I am participating in a true cultural immersion program, and I think that I will come out of it with a better understanding for Kibera and the people residing within it.

Karibu Kibera: First Impressions of a Slum


Welcome to Kibera.
Photo via Carolina for Kibera

I awake from my first night in Ayany to the sound of a sweeping broom, barking dogs, and playing children outside my window. Groggily, I slither out from underneath my mosquito net and toss back my antimalarial pills before heading to the dining room for breakfast. With excitement and nerves, I devour my breakfast of scrambled eggs, whole wheat bread, fresh bananas, and an overflowing mug of Kenyan tea. Today, I am entering the heart of Kibera for the first time. Before I could even down the rest of my milky tea, Otto, my tour guide for the day, arrived at my door. I bid a quick farewell to Mama Mary, and the two of us begin our trek into the massive slum.

The first thing you notice in Kibera is how lively it is, no matter the location or time of day. People are absolutely everywhere, cooking fried potatoes and chapati on makeshift stone stoves, walking to work in perfectly pressed suits, pushing around carts filled with frying oil and flour, and adding airtime to their cell phones at local shops. Mangy stray dogs stroll around, rummaging through the intermittent piles of garbage looking for something to eat, chickens and roosters occasionally walk across the street in front of us, and small children sit on doorsteps and look at us curiously as we walk past.

Walking down one of the many dirt roads winding through the masses of houses, we pass colourful little stores constructed out of metal sheeting, blasting music and selling everything from charcoal to bananas to football cleats. “Kibera is very business-minded,” Salim, the executive director of Carolina for Kibera had told us. “If you are my neighbor, and I see you are successful at selling water, I will start selling water.”

Water and electricity are expensive commodities in the more impoverished parts of the slum. Since the city doesn’t recognize Kibera, power lines and water mains do not run through the property. Instead, local gangs tap into the electricity illegally and sell access to the highest bidder. Wires are tied around the power lines that run along the highway overlooking Kibera, extending downwards into the mass of houses below.

As we continue down the seemingly endless slope into the slum, the houses begin to become more ramshackle. Concrete-walled homes are replaced by small houses made from dried mud packed around wooden beams, covered with a roof made from metal sheets. Ditches filled with garbage run along the sides of the path, and occasionally we need to avoid a splash of soapy water as someone in a nearby house empties a bucket in front of us.

Our first stop this afternoon is the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic, where the organization offers free medical care to Kibera residents. Otto’s family provides catering for the clinic’s staff, and he has an invoice to deliver that day. We tag along behind him like children, and follow him through the courtyard and waiting room into a small administrative building. There, I meet two of the clinic employees, Sally and Cecilia, who both give me a warm welcome and start telling me a bit about the health care centre. Sally tells me that deliveries and primary care are their main services. “We also offer a lot of chronic care, which makes us unique in Kibera. We provide care for hypertension, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.” Mama Mary will later tell me that this is where she gets her cholesterol and hypertension medication. Sally and Cecilia invite me to come back on Sunday, when they will be running a training session on how to manage HIV/AIDS and hypertension. “We will also be able to show you around a bit, when the rooms are not all full,” Sally says. Otto takes his copy of the invoice, and we head back out into the midday sun.

It is the first day of the new school year in Kenya after a weeklong teachers’ strike. We pass by several small schools nestled in the hills of Kibera. We stop at one of them, a girls’ school run by a NGO called Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO for short. Outside, young girls run around in their bright purple uniforms, skipping rope and bouncing basketballs on the dirt field. We meet Otto’s friend Lily there, who introduces him to some students as her brother – Lily had lived with Otto’s mother a few summers ago, and now works in Kibera full-time. She shows us around SHOFCO’s mini-campus, and explains the organization’s holistic approach to development. “Our belief is that all aspects of development are interconnected,” she explains. “You can’t have health without education, or clean water, or a sense of community. So we try our best to incorporate all of that here.”

SHOFCO is one of many non-governmental organizations that have taken up residence in Kibera. We pass many free clinics and community centres, eventually arriving at the one where I will be working: Carolina for Kibera. The organization resides in a white building with a huge painting of blue hands extending towards the sky, cupping a bright yellow sun between them. Underneath, in large letters reads: Tuungane Tuangaze (Let’s Unite and Shed Light). Since my work visa is not ready yet, we only pass by the building where most of my days will be spent from now on. Then we continue the steady climb back up to our comfortable homes in middle-class Ayani.

While one may think that slums are places filled with misery, this is definitely not the case in Kibera. As Salim had told us over the weekend, “You find people with extreme poverty but also extreme happiness.” The faces of Kibera are not the hopeless-looking faces that stare out at you from adopt-a-child advertisements. They are faces of community, joy, and hope for the future. There is so much more I could write about Kibera, but I’ll finish by saying that I am looking forward to be working in this confusing, complicated place for the next few months, and getting to know more about what life here is really like.

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.