Wherever you’ve been in the world, nowhere is quite like Africa. It’s a melting pot of old and new and Kenya is the epitome of this description as a heady combination of original culture and Western advancement. Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, is a surge of movement. Everything goes at 100 miles an hour but, somehow, very little seems to happen.
Kenya is a combination of many different civilizations and, while Nairobi has established itself as one of the most prominent political and financial cities in Africa, the country is an abundance of different communities representing vastly differing practicing societies. When trying to stereotype Kenya, its residents, habitats, practices and traditions, it’s very difficult to pinpoint particular characteristics of such a diversity-rich nation.
What is certain is that is it famous as a wildlife and natural savannah with the country itself being named after Africa’s second highest mountain, Mount Kenya. The country also lays claim to the world’s largest tropical and second largest saltwater lake, Lake Victoria, which it shares with Uganda and Tanzania.One of the most famous, and spectacular, sights in Kenya is the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Although covering only approximately one-nineteenth of the 9,700 square miles of the Mara-Serengeti EcoSystem, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is 583 square miles of sensational ecological beauty. Those visiting it are given a glimpse of the fantastic circle of life that the Mara’s wildlife inhabitants undertake and a peek into the life of the semi-nomadic, yet extremely friendly, Maasi tribe.
Kenya straddles the equator with approximately half of the country located in the Northern Hemisphere and half in the Southern Hemisphere. The majority of the land is surrounded by neighbouring countries: Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, South Sudan to the northwest, Ethiopia to the north, and Somalia to the northeast. However, the South East borders the Indian Ocean, as does the country’s second largest city, Mombasa, which provides access to beautiful beaches and stunning ocean views. The largest city is Nairobi with over 3 million of the country’s 44 million people occupying the capital city. Kenya is a multi-ethnic state and has over 42 ethnic communities within its borders and its diverse population comprises most major racial, ethnic and linguistic groups found in Africa.
Kenya is hot. Unless you’re planning to escape the sun at the top of one of the country’s sometimes snow-covered mountains, you are going to feel the heat. What kind of heat depends on where you are in the country: if you go to the coast, you’ll experience a tropical style with rainfall and swings in temperature throughout the day. Further inland the weather system becomes more arid with little rainfall and temperature readings depending largely on the time of day.
Despite lying over the equator, Kenya has a southern hemisphere seasonal pattern with its warmest summer months between February and March and its coolest winter months in July and August. However, the variation in temperature is slight.
In an annual cycle, Nairobi (representative of the Central Highlands region) reaches temperature highs of 26 Celsius (79 Fahrenheit) and lows of 21 Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) during the day and highs of 14 Celsius (57 Fahrenheit) and lows of 11 Celsius (52 Fahrenheit) at night. During the same twelve months, Mombasa (representative of the coastal region) sees temperature highs of 31 Celsius (88 Fahrenheit) and lows of 27 Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) in the daytime and nighttime winter month highs of 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) and lows of 22 Celsius (71 Fahrenheit). Whatever time of the year you go, you’ll need to include sun protection in your suitcase.
Kenya has two official languages: Swahili and English, the latter a result of British Colonial rule which agreed independence with the country in 1963. However, as previously mentioned, the country has a rich variance in cultures and communities and, as such Kenya is estimated to have 69 different languages. The official currency is the Kenya Shilling. Kenya is a fundamentally religious country and over 70 percent of its inhabitants are Christians.
Kenya is an abundance of collective cultures and it therefore struggles with national symbols of food, dress, and music. In bigger cities, food from around the world has seeped into the country and numerous Western fast food chains and Western-style meals are readily available. Kenyan staple food is maize which forms the basis of several traditional foods, such as ugali and sukuma often served with meat.
If you’re lucky enough to find a bar or restaurant on the second floor of a building in Nairobi, take a moment to look at the scene below you. A normal road infrastructure will be laid out, complete with traffic lights, signs and directions. However, amongst the inanimate object order, there will be complete chaos. Vehicles from all directions demand to go where they want to go immediately and a mass of metal horn honking will have created congestion that no-one can get out of. It’s a fantastic sight and lays open the fabulous juxtapositions of this wonderful country and its overwhelmingly traditional yet diverse culture.
Activities for tourists in Kenya center around the natural beauty at their disposal. Safaris and trekking are big attractions in major cities and there is no telling how far and for how long you will be tailed by a local businessman desperate for a sale. Equally, there is an abundance of activities exploiting the advantages of the coast, from scuba diving and sailing to marine park visiting.
Volunteering Abroad in Kenya is a unique experience and, if you’ve volunteered in any other continent, you may be slightly surprised that anything actually gets done. With that in mind, it is clear that their system works for them so it’s very important not to get too frustrated with the way the organisations run their business and stick to helping through their own methods. You have gone to Kenya to help, not to criticise.
Accommodation depends on the area in Kenya in which you volunteer. In the bigger cities, such as Mombasa, you might find yourself in a volunteer shared house: dormitory-styled living in house surroundings. However, if you travel to an indigenous community, such as the Maasai tribe, you may get the opportunity of a homestay.
It is important to point out that you must not expect five star, three star, or even one star accommodation. As a volunteer you are going to a project or community that is asking for help on a monetary and time-centric basis from people all over the world. The comfort of the volunteers is not the priority of those supplying the housing in the sense that they cannot provide you what they don’t have themselves. The best advice is to buckle down and deal with it. It won’t kill you; if anything it will add to your experience of what Kenya is all about.
Of course, with wildlife wonders such as the Maasai Mara, there are opportunities for conservation volunteer work: collecting data and assisting with research on the local animals. However, predominantly, most organisations want help teaching children. There are a range of different situations in which to teach Kenyan children. You can work with kids who are helped off the streets by local organisations and need to be gently encouraged into education.
Alternatively, there are opportunities to spend time with tribes outside of mainstream Kenya and help their youngsters get an educational start in life. Deprived areas of Kenya, whose schools are simply too overwhelmed with children and strapped for cash, often require teaching volunteers. Sometimes placements just want people to play with the youngsters and make them laugh. Creativity is encouraged and teaching experience is not essential: organisations are often happy to have people there who want to help and make a difference.
Obviously, visas vary depending on your nationality and the length of your stay and requirements are subject to change at any time. However, for most native-English speaking countries, a tourist visa can be obtained upon arrival in the country and will last for up to 90 days. Please check this before travelling.
If you can open your mind, abandon your expectations and prepare yourself for anything, the fun, laughter and enjoyment you will get out of volunteering in Kenya will be limitless.