I had visited Kenya once before on a spoon-fed field trip with my university, but this prepared me very little for my arrival into Nairobi this time, all alone and feeling vulnerable and scared. Okay, so I was 21, but this was only my second journey abroad, having led a very sheltered life! This time, though, it was going to be an 8-month adventure, having decided on the wise idea of doing some good for the less advantaged of this world and work for a community-based organisation in the rural village of Ugunja in the Western Highlands of Kenya close to the border with Uganda.
The first week was going to be tough enough, knowing I was going to be away from friends and family for the first time and would not see them again until the following year, so I was glad to know that the director of the organisation I would be working for was coming to meet me at the airport. Unluckily for me, it seems that September 6th 8:20am translates into Swahili as September 5th 8:20pm, so upon arrival unbeknown to me, my director had come to meet me the previous night for a nonexistent flight.
So here I was, stranded at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, having no idea how I would be getting to this tiny village of Ugunja, too small even to appear on any map. It was now that I thought not of my family like most first-time travellers would do, but instead of hot cups of tea and ketchup sandwiches (a strange addiction of mine). As I did, I felt tears well up in my eyes and a painful lump in my throat appeared, from stopping myself crying in front of all the strangers busily making their way around the airport. I stood virtually in the same place for an hour, watching the world go by and wondering what the chances were of someone turning up. Someone upstairs was listening to my prayers, as pushing his way through the crowd of people came my director, my name written on a crumpled piece of paper, which he handed to me, I think as proof that he was the man I was waiting for. As he apologised for his error, I could have easily mistaken the relief running through my body as love, as I had an overwhelming urge to hug this grey-haired old man and plant a big smacker on his cheek. As my family have always taught me the importance of first impressions, I am glad to say that I resisted this urge.
As we left the airport, driving towards central Nairobi, I was met with vivid images of the vast differences of class between rich and poor. Through the crisp, fresh mist of the early morning rush hour, smartly dressed businessmen were hurriedly walking past street children dressed in nothing but dirty rags. All seemed to be holding misty-coloured bottles, which from my previous time in Kenya I knew was glue. From the staggering walks and red eyes that many of these street children had, it was obvious that even at this time in the day, they were already highly intoxicated on this soul-destroying addictive substance. I hate to say it, but these were the images I was expecting to see, and I felt saddened that my preconceived images were in fact true.
I was well and truly hit by culture shock as we approached inner-city Nairobi. Throughout the 20-minute journey from the airport, I hadn’t let my bags out of my iron-tight grasp, something which I think amused the director, as he turned to me and informed me that before we were to travel to Ugunja, we would firstly have to pick up some other volunteers and then find some transport to take us to the other side of the country. My mood lightened as I heard this news. I was actually looking forward to meeting other people in the same position as me. Maybe we could bond over our own insecurities.
Unfortunately for me, the director had got too important facts mixed up. We weren’t meeting up with the other volunteers before finding transport to Ugunja; we would be meeting up with them afterwards. This didn’t really bother me until the director went off in search of transport, leaving me alone in a garage in the River Road area of town, where he hoped he would be able to find someone nice enough to donate themselves and their services for the lovely 9-hour drive. I didn’t know much about Nairobi, but I did know from the little I had read in my guidebook that River Road was probably the most dangerous part of inner-city Nairobi. As expected, not many people were very forthcoming in such a mission, even with extortionate prices that they could charge for carrying white-skinned people. It took 2 hours before someone was gullible enough to give in for the demands of money and accept.
During these 2 hours, I managed to go without drinking and eating (quite impressive for me!) and felt at the end of this wait quite lucky that I was only met with a few offensive insults thrown in my direction, and a one-eyed man spitting in my direction. Luckily for me, though, his aim was well off, so I could laugh the incident off quite easily.
I was more than happy to meet up with the other volunteers, an American couple my age and two ladies from Germany who had come to make a documentary on the organisation I would be volunteering with. I was a little disappointed when I was met with nothing but confidence from the other volunteers, making me feel slightly inadequate and made me wonder if I should be feeling so helpless. I decided that this was all part of the experience and such feelings would eventually disappear, and I too would be as confident as the others. Anyway, they had plenty more travelling experience than I did.
Four hours after arriving into the country, we were finally on our way to my home for the next 8 months, the village of Ugunja.
This story is continued in A Rude Awakening – Part 2.