How celebrating my 30th birthday with strangers in Kenya was the best decision I ever made
Voluntourism in Kenya: Celebrating My Birthday with Strangers
The African sun gazes over my shoulder as I steadily try to ignite the candles on my birthday cake. Every attempt kicks off at a promising start.. Swoosh.. The match lights up, but seconds later a swift breeze sneaks in and the flame evaporates into thin air. Surrendering to my third attempt, I look up at Francis in despair. In no time, Francis offers a helping hand by caving his palms around the fire. It works! The beautifully decorated blueberry cake takes a life of its own, shining bright on this particularly warm September morning. I look up as I’m met by my students’ gleeful claps, cheers and laughter. All at once, they break into song.. Happy birthday to you.. Happy birthday dear Sara.. I laugh and join in with the clapping. As the song comes to an end, we gather around the cake to blow the candles out. All 50 kids, my kids and my students. And so, my big 3-0 celebrations begin.
Backtrack to mid-June, where a conversation on travelling (or rather the lack of it!) quickly turned to my milestone birthday. What are you planning for your big birthday? My friend asked with excitement. Right then and there, my birthday planning propelled into a reality where a storm of ideas progressively narrowed down to one big bucket list tick – volunteering with children. Ploughing through a sea of partners, I decided to tie-up with a volunteering organization called IVHQ (volunteerhq.org) hosting a range of projects from teaching in community development, wildlife conservation to medical assistance in 30 different countries. Weeks later my flight was booked, my program scheduled and my blood rushing through my veins in anticipation for what was to come. Little did I know what a life-changing experience lay ahead of me.
On 21 August, passengers of flight EK072 boarded the plane in preparation for take-off. Destination: Nairobi, Kenya. As I was strapping on my seatbelt, a mix of anticipation, fear, thrill and nervousness took over. The pilot welcomed travellers onboard, the pre-flight safety demonstration appeared on the screen while the flight attendants indicated the closest emergency exits. Lift off! 5 hours and 2127 miles later I stepped foot on Kenyan soil for the first time. Karibu Kenya! (Welcome to Kenya in Swahili)
Surrounded by 20 fellow volunteers from all over the world, I embarked on my volunteer journey with a one-day induction at IVHQ’s local offices. A crash course in culinary, cultural and community attributes followed by discussions on behavioral, practical and emotional intelligence successfully led to our ‘graduation’ where a blue pamphlet was handed over as a token of completion. A large white sticker, pasted onto the left-hand side corner, instantly caught my attention: Bright Star.
A low-ceilinged shelter with Bright Star Montessori Learning Center painted on the sidewall emerges alongside the abandoned railway. The old train track splits Satellite into two. Albeit the division, both sides of Satellite tells a similar tale. That of a struggling Nairobi district struck by omnipresent poverty and hardship; a far cry from the prosperous downtown dynamic in the capital’s city center. Residents of Satellite are of the nicest kind and although life has thrown them many punches, wide toothy smiles are a permanent feature on their faces. The children.. my brilliant and beautiful students at Bright Star possessed such contagious smiles, where a mere encounter sufficed to warm the hearts of masses. The school, a community school founded by the talented and ever so dedicated teacher Francis Ongeri, consisted of two permanent faculty members, 50 students and 2 to 3 volunteers depending on the time of year. Bright Star first opened its doors in 2009 with the aim to take the neighborhood children off the streets and into the classrooms in the hope of a brighter future.
Over the next 3 weeks, I spent every weekday in class teaching my little ones their ABCs while my older students engaged in English, Math, Social Studies and Science. Classes were generally conducted in English, although Kiswahili is the official language in Kenya, English is widely spoken regardless of financial and social statuses. On my weekends, I’d delve into Nairobi’s hustle and bustle with other volunteers or travel further afield for a wildlife safari at the Masai Mara Reserve or quaint lake tours in the outskirts of Naivasha. No matter how eventful my weekends turned out to be, I always longed for the feeling of waking up to the break of dawn of a new week where I would be back in the classrooms with my little bundles of joy.
Large triangle shaped slices circulates the playground as each student patiently awaits their piece. Paired up with a glass of orange juice, they happily dig into their cakes. Yum! Cheers, laughter and chatter quickly fills up the air while the captivating sun continues to shine. As I’m walking over to the dining tables where my students are devouring their slices, I stop. I take a deep breath. Did I forget anyone? Did everyone get a piece of cake? Does anyone need a refill? I take a good look around. No.. I hadn’t missed anyone out. I break into a wide smile as I see each and every one of my students enjoying their celebratory snack. True bliss!
Ironically, my volunteer trip to Kenya had been booked with the intention to teach the children of Bright Star Montessori Learning Center. And no doubt about it, there was a whole curriculum of teaching, from morning till late afternoon, but early on throughout my journey it become evident to me that I was the one to leave with the biggest lesson of them all. A lesson so important, no classroom practice could ever come close to its core. A life-long teaching of love, life, laughter and gratitude which I carry with me wherever I go. And this is why celebrating my 30th birthday with strangers was the best decision I ever made.
About the Writer:
A fun-loving flower power child born in the 80’s, Sara first got a taste for travelling at the age of 5 while visiting Minnie and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in France. Fast forward 25 years and voilà – meet a wanderlust-seeking passionista and serial green tea drinker with an out of control chocolate fetish. Sara currently resides in sunny Dubai, working in the field of PR. Follow my adventures in Instagram (@sarapashaei)
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