Exclusive Offers From Our Partners

View Deals

What it’s Like to Volunteer in Kenya

Written by: Tina Thorburn

A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

The sun’s rays reach through the canopy to speckle my face. The ground, uneven and sharp under my feet; the jagged coral skeletons a reminder of when this land was reef. The exotic whistle of a bird makes me turn my head, only to squint, grab the binoculars around my neck and concentrate.
“Monkey! A group of 6 colobus. Resting, straight ahead. 75 metres.”
I am in Shimoni forest in southern Kenya, near the border of Tanzania. I am a volunteer on the forest conservation project run by Global Vision International. Around me the air of excitement ignites a flurry of questions from the other volunteers. How many females? How many juveniles? Is this the group we saw last week? All the while the monkeys sit atop the baobab tree, resting, eating, grooming, aware but indifferent to our attention.
Volunteering in Kenya
Each morning a group of volunteers heads into the forest along established transects in search of the Angolan black-and-white colobus monkey. At their lead is Benja, an ever-smiling young Massai warrior, tall and at home among nature. Through the forest we walk, with lively banter we keep our eyes peeled, a certain sense of pride comes from spotting the monkeys first. At times the growth is so thick we are lead off track, other times we stray due to the thick line of marching safari ants; these persistent, biting ants are a reminder of how out of place we are in the forest where the monkeys chase each other and the canopy gives way to open, wide skies.
Some days we walk to where the waves battle the hard rock to claw at the forest’s edge. Other days we find ourselves watching the tide creep to the mangroves as eagles and herons streak the sky. The forest is a beautiful place, quiet but loud, motionless but bustling.
Until recently these monkeys were thought to be a subspecies of the Angolan black-and-white colobus monkey. Now, scientists have realised they are in fact a different species. As they are only found in three forests along the Kenyan coast, the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is currently assessing the status of the species. Using data from GVI and other local organisations, the IUCN is likely to declare the Angolan black-and-white colobus monkey endangered, making the data collected and the Shimoni forest all the more important.
Looking for the Angolan black-and-white colobus monkey
In collaboration with Friends of Shimoni Forest, a budding local organisation with an enthusiasm for keeping the forest as a working ecosystem, GVI works to inform and engage the local community. The forest is fast declining due to demand for agricultural land, the expanding village limits and the destructive charcoal industry that feeds the many chicken grill restaurants of Mombasa. In the morning, as you walk to the forest you dodge goats and geese alike, high five barefoot children and greet women balancing buckets of water and washing on their heads, and the expanding corn fields greet you at the village boundary. Once in the forest, occasionally the thick canopy makes way for smoke seething darkened patches of treeless ground indicating a coal pits, a reality of what is happening to Shimoni forest, and the home of this endangered monkey.
After a day in the forest, spotting monkeys and glimpsing exotic birds, we return to the village. As a volunteer it is a privilege to be part of the project, knowing the real implications of each outing and each sighting. As a person, it is a privilege to live in a bustling and lively African village. The goats and chickens offer a constant hubbub to the chatter of women, whose colourful headscarves seem to match the rich, red soil. The children never tire of saying hello or reaching for a high five, and the sun acts as a constant reminder of where you are.
At the GVI house volunteers return from their days activities. What did you teach today? How many monkeys did you see? Shimoni is home to two different volunteer projects. Aside from the forest conservation, one can teach children at local schools and engage the smiling youths of the village.
Teaching is all about being hands on
My time in Shimoni was spent walking through the forest and in the classroom teaching. Armed with chalk and a smile I greet my class. The ten students sit in mixed matched uniform, some orange and blue from the school down the road, where the teachers are on strike, some green and white from this school. All are sitting with bright, eager eyes.
“Good morning class. Good morning Madame Tina.” I hand out cards with different multiplication equations on one side and the answer on the other. 3 x 3 on one side, 9 on the other.
Today we are decorating them so we can have a set in class to practice with. Education in Kenya is about memorising and conforming, the remnants of colonial times, and due to the lack of resources I strive to give the children a chance to be creative and take pride in their work.
“Madame! Look!” The cards are colourful, capturing the lively imaginations of the kids. After we practice. What is 4 x 3? Hands shoot up, mouth gaping as if the answer is about to spill out of their mouths. What is 9 x 2? Teaching is such a joy because the children are so intent on learning and so playful in their manner. The bell rings and I thank my class; high fives are exchanged as I head out the door.
The village is calmer during the heat of the day. The sun beats down with no cloud to hinder its strength. The Muslim month of fasting is here. Ramadan is based on the moon’s cycle and for one lunar month Muslims must give up drinking and eating, among other things, between the first call to prayer and the last. The normal hustle and bustle of the village is somewhat subdued as I make my way to a different school.
Kids hanging out at school
I turn the corner to a school ground teaming with activity. Boys kick a make shift soccer ball while girls stand under a tree braiding each other’s hair. Somewhere a bell rings and a sea of kids stream into their classrooms. This afternoon I’m teaching the Grade 7 Environmental Club. The kids are at the age where girls have cooties and boys are mean and sit perfectly divided, girls on one side, boys on the other. “Good afternoon, class.” “Good afternoon, Madame Tina.”
I teach them about the local ecosystem. From the mangroves, to the sea grass beds just off shore, to the coral reefs a boat ride away. We cluster around my laptop as I show them a power point with underwater videos of fish and sea turtles. They whisper to each other as an unusual fish flashes across the screen. What animal is this? Where does it live? Again hands shoot up like rockets, “it is an octopus!” They shout, almost in unison. “It lives on the coral reef!”
We create mini murals of the different ecosystems, and as I stand back and watch the flurry of crayons and animal cut outs, I can’t help but flash back to the forest and think and hope that in years to come the Angolan black-and-white colobus monkey will continue to feature as an animal in Shimoni’s unique coastal forests.

About the Author: Tina Thorburn

Tina Thorburn

Tina came into contact with gapyear.com after winning Global Vision International’s worldwide “Are you the difference?” competition in 2010. Having taken two gap years, one straight out of school to move to Australia, and more recently after finishing her undergraduate studies to volunteer for a year with GVI. From scuba diving off the Seychelles coast to teaching kids in Peru, Tina has been lucky enough to travel, live in and soak up many different cultures. Gapyear.com has been a great place to share her stories and experiences (and photographs), and for that she loves it.

Find more articles about volunteering abroad

[contact-form-7 id="4" title="Contact form 1"]