In the Shade of a Tree, in Africa

Sunrise. When the sun rises over Mombasa, it takes but a few minutes. It’s as if someone has turned on a light switch and a heater at the same time. It is nighttime and cool, and then all at once, it is daytime and hot. And it is noisy – 5am rap music mixes with prayer calls, matatus (Mtwapa! Mtwapa!) and vendors selling their plastic buckets and bananas – making it impossible to determine where one sound ends and another begins. When I leave for work, I am greeted by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers – Where are you going? Do you want a taxi?

There is also no shortage of greetings from strangers.

Jambo. Welcome.

How are you?

I am fine.

Already it is hot. The buildings provide little shade. The walk to the matatu stage is not long, but upon arrival, I am already sweating and thirsty. This bright, hot and sticky city is the Mombassa I experience everyday the light switch gets turned on.

The Munhope volunteers get a slightly different perspective. They live with families outside Mombassa’s downtown hub. Their communities have palm trees, small shops and a variety of concrete and mud homes located along twisting dirt roads that have no rhyme or reason. I am told sometimes the power shuts off and the water stops running. One volunteer bathes by candlelight, another gets a cold shower. The 5am prayer calls act as alarm clocks. So do the roosters and the rap music. They get a lot of food. Dinner is a time for family to gather, converse and eat. And then eat even more – Are you full? Your plate is empty. Let me fill it again.

There are many children – I am convinced Mombassa is home to more youth than adults – and they greet the volunteers each morning as they walk to work.

Mzungo! How are you? HOW ARE YOU?

I am fine.

Our work is located in three rural communities outside of town. You can calculate our distance from the city by looking at the faces of children as we drive by: The further away we get from Mombassa, the more terrified expressions are found on their faces. I am told this is because children in these areas are told that if they do not behave, ‘the mzungo will take you away.’

The road to the project sites is bumpy – driving some of us to the point of nausea. We pick up workshop participants along the way. They walk far – it would be considered too far for a Canadian or European to walk. Hence the bus.

Suddenly our ride stops. A herd of cows blocks our way and our driver has to nudge the animals with the vehicle. It makes no difference – the bus cannot access the road ahead (it rained last night), so we walk the rest of the way. Our feet soon turn an orangey-red color.

The dirt here is red. The homes are made out of this dirt – giving them a reddish tint. The dirt is also on your clothes, on your skin and sometimes on your food. The dirt cakes on your shoes two inches thick. Everywhere it is red.

The volunteers worked hard – trying to raise awareness on HIV, present new ideas and bridge cultural and linguistic barriers. Each day they sought to achieve their objectives: Stigma. Prevention. Communication. HIV reproductive cycles.  They want to make meaningful connections with community members. They want to learn how to carry jerry cans full of water on their heads. It is a cultural exchange at its finest.

Most of the workshops have been held inside classrooms, but one of the last project activities was held outside. Youth played soccer in the morning and participated in an open forum discussion on HIV education. The sun weighed heavily on everyone, and so the forum was held in the shade, under a huge mango tree in the center of the field.

Sunset. We have to get back into town before dusk – if that term really exists here. The sun gets turned off by a light switch at night too. At one moment you can make out the faces of individuals passing by, and ten minutes later, you struggle to make out their shadows.

These past few weeks have flown by fast, and it is hard to believe that Donald is arriving this Saturday from Zanzibar to help facilitate our debriefing session.

It is apparent the volunteers have all benefited from this project – but I bet they won’t recognize their growth until more time has passed. They might notice a few differences right away – like how strangers do not ask how they are doing, what their name is and where they are from. They might notice how boring it is to drive into town, without the colorful mosaic of matatus. The food may taste a little plainer, the sunsets not so vibrant, and the clothing not so colorful. They might begin to forget things too – like how to make chapattis. How hot the sun feels. How the shade provided by a mango tree provides the greatest relief.

In a few months, they may notice other differences too. They may notice how they are better communicators and more insightful. They may be less quick to jump to conclusions, more flexible, more resourceful. Their world is a little broader – the borders more fuzzy. All good things. They might also notice how much they miss Kenya – especially when it turns cold and snow visits the East Coast. They want to feel the heat again. To sit in the shade of a tree, in Africa.


-Melissa Keehn, Kenya Program Officer. To read more about Melissa, check out her blog from two weeks into the MUNHOPE project and her staff profile Q & A.


Video Competition Winners!

Back in December, YCI announced that it would be hosting our first ever video competition. Here are the winners:

Marcus’ video, “Journey of a Global Citizen,” highlights his experience as a YCI volunteer in Guyana in the Fall of 2010.

A very different look at YCI’s programs comes from MUNHOPE, one of YCI’s Youth Leadership Teams. William Stokes and his group spent the summer of 2009 in Tanzania, working in the community of Pemba.

To view more of YCI’s videos and volunteers perspectives of life on project, please visit our Youtube channel.