Nairobi Kenya Over the Water

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When I was seven years old, my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya. We lived there for a year while my mom researched Pygmy music for her dissertation. That experience is a large part of the reason I’m so gung-ho about voluntouring with children. It’s funny how memory works. With a few exceptions, my early memories are more impressions and snapshots than specific events. I remember jumping in a pile of leaves but not when or with whom. I remember feeling angry with my dad but not why. All that changed when we moved to Africa.

Today, over 20 years later, I still feel like I can recreate full days in my mind. I remember arriving at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The smells were different, the air was warm, and our bags were late. I remember playing on a defunct baggage carousel with my little brother, finding a gecko in a potted plant, and making faces at a little African girl about my same age. I remember everything about our apartment—the four long flights of stairs; Emilie who lived the next building over, my closest friend even though we spoke different languages; and the hadada ibises migrating past our window at dawn and dusk, to and from their overnight roosts.

Hadada Ibis

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At the time, I didn’t understand that the ladies on the corner who gave me pieces of pineapple were prostitutes. My dad, a medical student at Nairobi Hospital, explained that polio was the reason a young man pulled himself down the path by his hands, each one in an old grey flip-flop. I understood right away why a cluster of children followed us through the streets begging for food: they were hungry.

I think I learned more in that year than in any other year of my life. The memories are so indelible because they were so novel and because I was curious about every single tiny thing around me. Children are naturally curious. When I was taken out of the environment I knew and thrown into a place so completely foreign—sights, people, smells, foods, plants, animals, language—my brain revved up into high-gear, storing all of those memories forever.

There are many voluntour opportunities in Nairobi and in the surrounding area. There are orphanages; clinics; schools; and hospitals, including one for wildlife. There are several volunteer organizations based in the city that will help coordinate your trip. There are also several travel agencies that offer all-inclusive packages for those who prefer to stay in hotels rather than with local families.

Nairobi Sky at Dusk

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One of the things I remember most vividly about Nairobi is the sky. The high elevation (5,446 ft) keeps the temperatures low and the skies clear (in the dry season). I’ve never seen such vibrant colors in the sky in any other place, and doubt I ever will. And of course, I remember the animals: feeding a giraffe, watching a lion tend to her cub, running alongside a pack of zebras, stealing a sandwich back from a Sykes monkey, and, most spectacular of all, sitting just feet away from one of the last remaining southern white rhinos. (Their numbers have since improved alongside much harsher punishments for poachers and, if you look carefully and take your time, you have a decent chance of seeing one today).


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