Nothing moves under the scorching afternoon sun. Even the low cumulus clouds seem stationary—cutouts pasted over the pale-blue African sky. I’m sitting on a pink wooden chair, looking at the cattle in the distance, waiting for work to begin again. I have lost track of time. Oddly enough, my watch stopped two days after I landed in Kenya*.
I’d arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on a warm August evening a week earlier. While waiting around for the luggage belt to start moving, I watched the crowd of tourists in their wide-brimmed sun hats, sandals and fashionable low-cut jeans. I couldn’t help but feel superior in my boots and work clothes. I had spent nearly $2,000 on airfare and half as much in program fees to join a volunteer work camp. But—I told myself—none of it was for my own pleasure. Three weeks later, when I would be back at this airport to take the plane home, there would be a new school, or at least a new classroom, somewhere in a remote Maasai village, thanks in part to my work
The setbacks began almost immediately. Instead of the 20 volunteers I expected to join, there were only two of us—Giordano, an Italian civil engineer, and I. Next it turned out, we couldn’t work at a Maasai village as originally planned. A certain official hadn’t signed a certain paper before going on vacation. But, no worries, the organization had found us another school in another village. A Kamba village.
It shouldn’t have mattered to us. But it did. The Maasai, adorned with bead necklaces, earrings and bracelets, and wrapped in bright red blankets, were the most definitive symbol of “tribal” Kenya. Their photos were featured in the Kenya travel guides we both carried and were an integral part of my volunteer fantasy. But the Kamba children must need a school just as much—even if their clothing isn’t as exotic. After all, who were we here for? Ourselves or them?
After a two-hour bumpy ride in a matatu (a 14-passenger minibus), and then a six-kilometer ride in the back of a pickup truck, we arrived in Katheka-Kai, a small Kamba village about 100 kilometers southeast from the capital of Nairobi. The school was a one-story U-shaped stone building with 12 classrooms and two teachers’ offices. The floors were the same sandy ground that was outside, but that didn’t seem to bother the barefooted children in blue school uniforms.
The desks were made from unfinished wood and the blackboards were painted onto the stone walls. The only classroom with a cement floor was used for storage and that’s where we set up camp. We spread our mats on the floor, hung mosquito nets and brought water from the village well. On a desk covered with old newspapers, we lined up our food supplies—rice, flour, salt and potatoes.
The next morning, pumped with excitement, we joined the local crew of three paid workers and started digging the baked soil for the foundations of new classrooms. We made little progress. Days were wasted waiting for the wheelbarrow to be fixed, or for the engineer to arrive. Meanwhile, we exchanged pleasantries with the headmaster, the principal, the deputy, the chairman of the community, the treasurer—a seemingly endless line of officials who showed up to talk to us. And then, there was the never-ending traffic of villagers who stopped by to watch and chat.
Observing all these people gathered around, it dawned on me that the last thing this community needed was my unskilled labor. Most of the villagers were unemployed, and during the dry season—which would last for another two months—they had nothing to do on their farms. I weighed 100 pounds and a change. Any of the villagers watching me hack at the dry ground would have done a better job. The truth was, I would have contributed a lot more to this particular project by simply donating the money for my airplane ticket and staying home.
But that would have meant giving up the trip. And, if I’m honest with myself, it was the trip—the adventure, the experience in another culture, the unknown—that had inspired me to volunteer in Kenya. Besides, I tell myself, my contribution should not be measured by buckets of excavated earth. Cultural exchange is a two-way street. Living and working with the Kamba people of Katheka-Kai, I learned a lot about their world, but I also brought something from my own. And this is why, given the chance, I would travel as a volunteer again—albeit with more realistic expectations and better planning.
*A longer version of my essay appeared in World Hum.