What have I done??? A new way of life!
“Sitting in my mosquito net covered bed, in a room, I share with 7 other girls, with sweat dripping down my face, I still don’t really know what possessed me. I think I focused too much on the end of it and forgot that I would have to actually go through the experience”
This is the first entry of the diary I kept when I spent two months volunteering in Kenya on a remote island. Around this time 10 years ago, I confused the hell out of my friends and family and took off on my first (sort of) solo trip. I like nice things, I like staying in nice places, I always have, even more, when I was younger. I’m happy to confess I’m a princess about these things. So when I announced I was going to be living on an island with no electricity or running water.. I don’t think anyone believed me till I actually left (even then they thought I was staying in a nice hotel for most of it).
Volunteering in Kenya
I choose to go with Global Vision International (GVI) on their “Wildlife Research Marine Mammal Studies and Community Development Expedition in Kenya”. It all sounded idyllic! Conducting marine studies with dolphins, researching monkeys and helping out with an orphanage. All while living on a small island off the coast of Kenya. The pictures made it look like paradise.
My journey started with a flight to Nairobi, decked out in my new hiking boots and backpack, oh I was going the whole way! If I met anyone I knew in the airport they wouldn’t have recognised me. (I’m known for living in heels!) My transfer flight to Mombassa threw up a few hiccups and I learnt the first important rule of travelling solo – ask questions, then ask again! I also learnt the second rule, you will get lost, very lost (although that might just be me, I don’t have a good record of finding my way, I get lost on a straight road). After a bit of drama and being the last person to board my flight, I made it to Mombassa. That drive through from the airport was overwhelming to my senses. Everyone seemed to be shouting at each other, cars beeping, the smells, the obvious poverty. It was nothing like I had ever experienced and while I’ve come to love that initial nervous anticipation of landing somewhere completely new, back then my main thought was “oh shit… what have I got myself into..”
After meeting some of the group and leaders at the hotel, we started our journey. A few hours south of Mombasa was the village of Shimoni and across the water, the island of Wasini, my new home. Wasini Island is about 7 kilometres long and 3 kilometres across. It has a population of about 3000, with 99% identifying as Muslim, with some being very orthodox. There are no roads, no cars, no running water, and no sewage system. It’s only recently solar panels have brought electricity to some homes.
We began with introductions and a tour of the “Shimoni camp”. Which was a tiny cottage, for staff and tents, for volunteers, when they were staying on the mainland. This was all on the grounds of the Reef Hotel, a very basic “hotel” but somewhere I would come to love over the next few months. We were also allowed use their pool on our time off. The place was idyllic. Right on the water, where the boat would bring us back and forth from the island. So far, so good the brochure was delivering on what it promised. I was starting to feel okay about the whole experience and excited for what was to come. When it was time, we said our goodbyes got on the tiny boat, which I almost sunk with my massive backpack! I’m don’t know how I manage to carry it across the beach and up the steps to the camp. I must have looked like a weird giant turtle.
Remote, basic and beautiful are the words to describe our camp on Wasini island. There was small kitchen banda (hut) where we would spend most of our time. Then we had our “bedrooms” ie 8 people in bunk beds x 5 or so rooms in a concrete block, with two lovely holes in the ground “toilets” and a shelf for our belongings. I couldn’t help but notice that I had way more products than anyone else…. You can take the girl out of a 5-star hotel… It wasn’t that bad. I had the bottom bunk which made it a lot easier to hang my mosquito net. No matter where you are there is always something romantic about sleeping in one.
The heat was insane and this was one of the cooler times of the year. I had brought an Evian facial mist spray (yes I know!) Which turned out to be my favourite item, because its pressurised the bottle was always cold so I would hug it like a teddy bear trying to go to sleep. Whenever I see those bottles now, it brings me straight back to the nights of trying to sleep, with sweat rolling off me. But the beauty of the island by far made up for the basic living. This was our sunsets every day
Showers were taken by buckets of seawater or you could go for a swim in the Indian ocean, I had my special shampoo and soap that would work with seawater (it doesn’t lather very well) and of course a huge bottle of extra moisturising conditioner. There was about 25 of us all together and we all took turns in cleaning and cooking. Was never on cooking duty that often, which was definitely a good thing.
The first week or so was mainly training. Health and safety, how to conduct marine surveys etc, because the research data was part of the ongoing scientific research project, we had to take exams to ensure we knew our stuff. Do you know the difference between common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and humpback dolphins (which are the cutest!)? There was lots of learning and test taking, all of which I really enjoyed. The training in total took about two weeks and then we were put into groups, all doing different things each day. One day we would be on Marine, Community the next and then two days on Forest.
The best day!
Apart from a few weekends, we had one day off a week. The first day off, we went exploring the island. Not a big island, Wasini has two villages, Mwkiro which was beside our camp and Wasini, a bigger village, that the island is called after, which had a bit of tourism, ie one sort of restaurant. Myself and a couple of other volunteers headed off with one of the locals, Sebe who was such a character and spent the whole time making us laugh. We spent about an hour walking to Wasini, spotting our first Angolan black and white Colobus monkey, of which we would be surveying in the forest on the mainland.
Our walk was rewarded by one of the most delicious lunches I have ever had. Fresh crab, potatoes and rice
We stopped after a while in a clearing when Sebe asked if we would like some coconuts and promptly climbed the palm tree (which scared the crap out of me) and started throwing coconuts down to us. We sat drinking them with some of the kids from the village, the sun shining down on us, the only sound was our laughing and chatter. It was such a special moment, sitting there, getting to have this local experience, something you would never get as a tourist.
The walk back also included a wander through the mangroves as the tide was out, which was beautiful except halfway through them I was told to watch out for the green mamba snakes (!!!!) so my attention wasn’t fully on the beautiful landscape anymore…
If you were on Forrest you would go over to the mainland and some who were on Community would do cleaning duties. In the afternoon, The community group would have lunch in camp before heading over to the school to help with lessons and then playtime with the orphanage.
The marine group would arrive back in the afternoon and begin dinner. Which was fish twice a week but meals were mostly a vegetarian affair with potatoes and rice done in different ways with whatever vegetables were available. No one wants to eat my cooking so whenever I was on cooking duty, I would volunteer for chopping and clean up! We all had our own travel bowels, plates, cups and cutlery, which we would wash, ourselves, so clean up was generally scrubbing a big pot and throwing the scraps out to the goats.
It would get dark pretty early and with no electricity, your head torch is pretty much a permanent fixture. You would wear it eating dinner, chilling in the evening and sometimes even in bed (really handy for reading). Although I’d always forget to turn mine off in lit areas and I’d end up blinding whoever I was talking to.
The evenings were the best! We had access to this sort of lounge area, which, during the day was used by divers going to the Kisite Marine Park and we were allowed
From the “lounge” back to the camp it was only a few minutes walk, but in the pitch black with only your little head torch to light the way with rustling sounds coming from either side of you in the bush, and trying not to imagine what it could be… it could feel like hours! Bedtime was pretty early usually around 9.30/10pm as you would be up so early. It would always take me ages to get to sleep because of the heat, as I said previously, I would clutch my
The marine research was definitely my favourite! I’ve always enjoyed being out on the water and combine that with dolphin watching… I was in heaven. About ten of us would head out early in the morning in a small boat and head to a certain area. As we were collecting data for scientific research, we had to survey in a very specific way, I won’t go into details but meant us moving around the boat clockwise every 15 minutes and you could NOT fall asleep! (I obviously did, more than once…) I’ve been lucky enough to see dolphins in the wild on different occasions but there’s nothing like that excitement when you spot a fin, then another one and suddenly there’s 10 or 20 of them swimming along beside the boat, jumping and playing. There is something so magical and joyful about them and you can’t help but have a big grin on your face. Bottlenose was the main dolphin species we would see, but occasionally we would see humpback dolphins, a very rare and shy species (and super cute) that live in the area. All of the data we collected was part of the first research done on dolphin populations in Kenya.
In the afternoons, after having lunch on the boat (weather depending, if it was bad we would have to go back to camp), we would do snorkel-based transect survey and look for turtles, the main species being hawksbill and green turtles. The surveys consist of snorkelling in buddy-pairs along a 400-metre transect. One person functions as an observer looking for turtles 5 metres either side of the transect line whilst the other person acts as a navigator for the observer using visual reference points ( while also trying to keep them in a straight line, which is harder than it looks) We didn’t always see turtles but the colours and the fish of the corals more than made up for it! Lots of other exciting marine species were identified during this marine research, including humpback whales with their newborns, unfortunately, I had just missed them when I arrived.
There were many different ways in which we worked in cooperation with the Mwkiro primary school and the orphanage on the island. As part of our training, in the beginning, we all completed our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), which I had already done, so I got to have some important lazy hammock time. The ages of the kids in the primary school went up to about 16/17 and very few were able to go on to secondary school on the mainland.
We had a few classes a week wherein groups we could organise what type of lesson to do. The lessons varied from creative art and drama to scientific experiments! Teaching is not a strength of mine so luckily I was never thrown into the deep end and expected to lead a class. One of my favourites days was when as a group of us realised, we were all from different countries and it would be a good idea to do a geography lesson, and talk about our different countries in groups. None of the kids had heard of Ireland (we were teaching the older kids) or U2, which I’m sure Bono wouldn’t be too impressed with! Some had heard of Guinness (That’s the power of advertising) and the girls were amazed that Ireland had a female president, so that felt pretty good as did
Other times we would play with the kids in the orphanage, they had come from other Muslim parts of Kenya. Even though the poverty they lived in was extreme (they had no proper beds till GVI came along) they were the friendliest happiest kids, always with a smile on their faces, chanting “Jambo, jambo, jambo” whenever they saw us. Even times when I was feeling down and homesick and then actually sick, their infectious energy couldn’t help but pick you up.
We also did adult classes, teaching English, business and sexual health. I was involved in the setting up of the women’s group who go across to the mainland to sell homemade crafts to tourists. That was particularly satisfying as I’m all about women empowerment, and helping to increase their confidence in a society where men where always the breadwinners, made me feel like I was really contributing. I’ll talk more about the culture of living on the Island in another post.
The third volunteering project was wildlife research in the forests along the Shimoni costs. This was really important research as the forest’s ecosystems were categorized as a hotspot, which means it contains a percentage of endemic species and has lost at least 70% of its primary vegetation. An endemic species is one that is only found in that area so if that area is destroyed, so is that species. Unfortunately, the forests located around Shimoni qualify as a biodiversity hotspot. There are only 25 in the world and the Shimoni forest in Kenya is part of the smallest and most threatened one. The Angolan black and white Colobus monkey is one of five species of black and white Colobus found in Africa and represents a flagship species for Kenya’s coastal forests. Collecting data on these monkies made up the majority of our work, but data was also collected on bird species, butterflies, and various other flora and fauna specific to the area.
We would go into the forest in the morning, which the entrance was situated close to the GVI camp in Shimoni. We would spend a few hours walking through the forest on specific transects and record what we saw. It wasn’t very physically strenuous but the heat and humidity were intense. We would have to bring 3 litres of water each for a few hours hike. Also constantly getting my hair caught in the branches didn’t help but the sounds and the colours more than made up for any discomfort. It was peaceful and loud at the same time, with colourful butterflies and exotic birds flying by you and monkeys hollering your arrival.
The saddest part was seeing the human-caused destruction, with much of the land being cleared for subsistence farming, charcoal burning and the cutting down of larger trees for furniture. In addition, coastal plots been sold to private developers, which had begun to be cleared, ready for development. GVI has worked so hard to protect this incredibly special biodiversity hotspot, helping to form “friends of the Shimoni forest” and eco trails for tourists as well collect invaluable data of the flora and fauna which live there. They have discovered new species including a new species of frog. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend much time in the forest as I sort of ended up in the hospital… I will explain all in part 2.
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