Linda Szeto recently fired up a Village Volunteers group on Facebook. Over the past week, she and I have been trading questions and experiences, some of which I include here…
I went to Kenya through Village Volunteers this summer, and had the best time getting to know the people, environment, culture, languages, and most importantly, myself … I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about your trip. The memory box project does sound perfect for you. So many of the people still have not ever seen themselves in a picture before, so for anyone to have such a wonderful keepsake really touches my heart too. I’m getting excited for your trip vicariously!
I do have one question: As a vegetarian, I realize that I’ll probably have to make dietary concessions out of respect for those hosting a meal. What types of food are most popularly eaten and what would you suggest is the best way to retain respectful relations within the village if tastes are conflicting? I’m certainly willing to be flexible. I just have no idea what to expect.
Also, I understand that villagers have a distrust for those with digital cameras who don’t leave hard copies for the family. If I brought a small personal photo printer would that alleviate distrust as I take pictures? I read the suggestion of Polaroids, but the Polaroids that I remember turn yellow and fade so quickly. I’d like to offer something far more lasting. My guess is that every family in the village would want an image for themselves, so I promise to bring refill print cartridges.
Well, I was only able to spend 2 weeks in Kenya, and I spent all of it in Namunyak Maasai Welfare with Emmanuel Leina Tasur as my host. The plan was for me to do a bit of teaching, English lessons, and women’s empowerment sessions. However, I found out when I got there that Emmanuel is running for member of parliament for his Transmara District! So I got involved in helping with his campaign – I went to a couple rallies with him, helped write up his vision statement, and continued helping him after I returned to the U.S. I ended up doing only 2 women’s empowerment sessions… but it was all such a whirlwind experience that I would Love to repeat sometime!
Now to your questions. Remember that my information comes from my experience in only the one village, but I’m sure most villages are similar. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables (“ugali” in particular, which is a flavorless doughy thing made from corn/maize powder that they eat almost ALL the time). Emmanuel’s wife, Lillian, explained to me that since their cows and goats give milk that they can drink and sell, they rarely eat meat. Chickens, too, are valued for their eggs. So if you tell them ahead of time that you only eat vegetables, they will be happy to oblige. There’s also the fact that they have hosted volunteers for about 3 years, and know the taste and culture of us “white people” hehe… (yup, they called me a “white” person! Anyone fair-skinned look the same to them). [Linda is Asian American.]
However, I have to mention the impromptu meals you might be offered by those who are not VV hosts like Emmanuel and Lillian. For example, another volunteer, Ryan, and I donated school supplies during a “donation day” at a local school. The staff prepared goat meat with rice, and goat meat soup. They didn’t make it extremely formal or sit around to watch us eat it, so if I weren’t omnivorous, I would’ve felt comfortable quietly giving Ryan the meat portion. Otherwise, I might’ve initially politely declined the dish because they were busy passing out food to everyone there and wouldn’t have taken offense. Especially because we are “white” and I feel that I should stress that — they were rarely offended by anything we did or said because of our skin color. If anything, they are the most generous, friendly, congenial people.
Oh, another example is when I visited Torroret Primary School just to look around and not even teach, the students and faculty put together a performance assembly on my behalf!! They asked me to give a speech, too, and afterward presented me with chai (their favorite drink; tea + fresh milk +/- sugar) and 2 hard boiled eggs. I think I had to eat the eggs in front of them because they didn’t leave the area till I had broken the shell at least. For something like that, i don’t know how I would’ve handled that if I were a vegetarian. I’ll ask Shana…
The people who distrust white photographers are most likely from touristy areas, such as the city areas. They don’t like to be on display in that sense, which is completely understandable. HOWEVER, you’ll find that the absolute opposite is true in the rural villages where you’ll be staying, purely because there is no electricity, running clean water, or any sort of modern technology there. So the moment you expose your digital camera, children will literally rush you, adults will ask (almost command) to have their pictures taken so they can see what they look like on your screen, and you will be the center of attention. Many people still have never seen themselves on a screen like that, nor seen themselves in a printed picture. You are spot on on guessing everyone will want an image for themselves!!! Be very careful about exposing that you can do that, though, because they will drool over asking you for copies, and you will run out of all ink and paper b/c you’ll feel bad and want to give everyone something.
Now something else that I am not sure you considered — depending on which village you go to, you might not have access to electricity to recharge or run your technology. Shana says most villages now have solar generators where you can charge your camera, but Namunyak Maasai still doesn’t. We’ll see what happens in a year though. If they don’t by then and you go to NMW, you have to give Emmanuel your cam + charger + adapter to give to his friends who will take it to a nearby town (1.5 hours away) to charge for you, and bring back the following day. Or else, wait until Emmanuel has to pick up another volunteer from Kericho, 2 hours away.
Wow this message is really long. I love talking about my experience and have so much to share, even from my measly 2 weeks! Please feel free to keep the dialogue going.
What a great letter! I’m sure this will sound ridiculous, but I was so excited to read it that I ran with my laptop into the bathroom as my husband was taking a shower. (Thank goodness for wireless.) With my voice booming over the spray of the water (and I hope you don’t mind) I shared every word with him …
I visited Emmanuel’s page today and read his plan to satisfy the needs of his constituents with directives relayed in terms familiar to me. Then I read the words “cows for widows.” Yeah. That brought about a solid moment of clarity. I won’t fully grasp the realities of this world until I’m actually there… and even then I wonder.