Crowned hornbills fly overhead as I make my way through this rural town in Kenya, surrounded by dense, green forest and a Discovery Channel-esque vibe. I must be careful to avoid the sharp coral-rag entrenched in the ground, threatening to cut my feet as I walk; my sandals offer little protection. I turn a corner to find a mass of children who see me and start yelling, “Jambo! Jambo! Jambo!” They grab my arms and legs and I’m overjoyed by the love and affection from these kids I don’t even know.
Nearing the volunteer house now at the back of the village, I fight my way through a herd of screaming goats which no one seems to own… and open the door. Here, I’m greeted by Vols doing homework, reading and playing games. (Wikipedia defines coral rag as rubbly limestone made of ancient coral material.)
So here’s how it broke down.
I was to be in Kenya for 6 months. The first 3 months were all training and certification while the latter half I was hoping to work as a staff member.
During my training, I would spend my time between forest research, community development programs in local schools and out in central Kenya and later, doing marine mammal research on a nearby island. If that doesn’t get your heart leaping with excitement, I don’t know what will!
How best to describe the forests of Kenya?
It was incredible! I lived in a concrete house made for 16 volunteers, decked out with bunk beds, a kitchen, a dining room and living area accompanied by reed-sewn couches and a dusty, old computer.
The forest was a part of our lives every day. From the trail of ants across the kitchen wall to the spiders as big as your hand, or the geckos above our dinner table who pooped in our food, to the bombardment of monkeys that routinely snuck inside stealing our vegetables… it was never boring. At night, I would tuck the edges of my mosquito net under my mattress so nothing could crawl in! After a while though, you just sort of embrace nature, haha!
Every day I would pack a sandwich and some water, put on my boots and grab my binoculars and head into the forest with the other volunteers to conduct wildlife observational surveys, monitor deforestation rates and do maintenance on the transects we walked. (The jungle grew at an astonishing rate. So much so that we used machetes or “pangas” to clear a path.) Step aside folks, I’m a geography major… I know where I’m going!
The forest was thick, as if the air was stuck in place, unable to move and making it hard to breath. I poured with sweat just standing there! I liked to walk at the back of the group. It gave me time to observe slowly, where once my eyes were used to seeing oaks and maples, now were replaced by a multitude of exotic Baobabs and tropical plants and shrubs.
Sitting on logs or rocks, we stayed silent for what seemed like hours, letting the forest become comfortable with our presence. Colobus monkeys would make an appearance and an array of vibrant, flashy birds bounced from branch to branch, singing loudly. The sounds of the forest filled me with sheer joy and a sense of overwhelming fulfillment. We would collect behavioral data and returned back to base for afternoon assignments of chores or homework.
I loved the forest. I made an effort to pray and be appreciative every second for how long I dreamed and how hard I worked to get there. I was so thankful! And once I got past the diarrhea, (everybody gets sick at first, the bacteria and germs are new to the immune system) I could appreciate it even more!
But at the end of the day, rest was all I craved. And food. Lots of food.
I would eat and get ready for bed only to find out that everyone was going to the bar for a drink. I badly needed to rest and some quiet time, but the thought of missing out on a good time with my friends was even worse. I wanted to feel included, so I’d go out and have the time of my life. I would drown my weary soul in warm beer, dance until my feet hurt, crawl home to bed in the early morning hours only to rise and to it all again. These days were as exciting as they were exhausting!