Africa

It is quite delightful, thoughtful and insightful to unfold the trend of events coupled with certain scenario which specifically take place at the subject-line setting which is located in the ‘Western Region’ of the nation, Ghana.(West Africa)

‘Last Hour’ literally ‘End Period’ in a view-point or perspective of the ordinary person on the street. For so many years, this place serve as a locale for both the discerning young and old alike. Well, it’s obvious always seconds turn to minutes ad hours turn to days as far as matters of humanity and nature are concern. To the educated mind, man’s life-style is characterized with the act of love-making, merry-making and money-making which also bring about moment of leisure and pleasure, precisely after periods of hard work. Frankly, Saturdays and Sundays are often associated with church activities and other social functions both in the Christian cycles as well as traditional ways of livelihood. Notwithstanding, being a witness as well irregular attendee to the place especially on Sundays when coping with the harsh scotching sun condition becomes unbearable. Besides, swimming in the shallow sea becomes an alternative option to ensure satisfaction and comfortability.
Last-Hour Beach is an area as well arena with purely culture-like outlook in terms of its decorative ambiance which often attract both the local folks and global expatriates. Without mincing words, sights and sounds of locally produced music takes domination whenever special occasional event take place there. Sometimes, the enticement of romantic ‘Love-Birds’ present set the lonely man to an atmosphere of seemingly emotional conduct. However, every Sunday bring to bear togetherness of both family members and student friends with oneness of hearts in merry-making, precisely in an act of drinking all kinds of alcoholic as well as non-alcoholic brands of beverages. More-so, eating all kinds of foods ranging from ‘Kebab’ meats to fried-rice meals is quite convenient for all and sundry.
Last-Hour Beach, during ordinary week days can serve as suitable place for the religious mind with respect to the act of meditation on specific days such as Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays it can also serve as an ideal place for relaxation and sensation. I has spacious environment for vehicles to park, whiles the kids can also be entertained in the beach sands when it comes to varieties of sports meant for exercising the muscles. Perhaps, this piece of article remains incomplete without dealing with diverse forms of attitudes, characters and behaviors of certain individuals who come to the place with negative mindset, viz being careful not to leave money in the pocket or mobile phone in the bag. This will help to avert from facial expression of melancholy as if a person has been robbed from his or her life partner. Generally, LHB – Last Hour Beach is a comfortable place of socialization, familiarization and inspiration for both citizens and non-citizens alike.

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My friend told me: “Douala is a very dangerous city. Even myself, I am African and when I need to go there I choose to do my chores during the day. A lot of dangerous people live there. Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself alone at night-time in Douala.”

I was already nervous about the trip. He just made my thoughts be more perplexed and tangled. Seeing it on my face, he offered to help me.

“I will call my friend to wait for you at the bus station if you want.”

Of course I said yes.

The next day he went with me to Dschang bus station and wished me good luck and bon voyage. Soon I was left alone in a small van full of Africans sitting five in a row of four. It was so crowded and chaotic, like every other transportation you take in Cameroon. I had luck to have had Anglophone neighbours who asked me thousands of questions during the trip. I told them that I was just going back to Europe for two weeks because my grandpa got sick. Our little bus got down the narrow, wet road slowly leaving behind the Menoua region, home of Bamileke, loud, warm-hearted people. As we advanced through landscapes of green vegetation often shod in low clouds and brick-red soil I found out more about Africans and their way. “We, Africans, are strong. That kind of food is for you, white people.” Stated my neighbour indicating that he eats only meat for what he needs strong jaws to chew. I perceived a note of bigotry towards my kind. I told him my parents taught me to love all in every shape and color so I couldn’t make a difference. During our conversation he started to change his opinion. Our second neighbour was very clamant and gabby. Thereupon, most of the times I had to ask my first neighbour to repeat himself. He told me he enjoys fried snail eyes. But the street vendors could only make one portion from two hundred fried snails.

“When you fry them, eyes fall off and they collect them after and sell them separately.” He was explaining.

Even though I was disgusted, I tried to help him find it. As I was sitting next to the window, every time we stopped I waved to the vendors with big, metal pots to approach and show us what they sell.

In Cameroon you have a lot of stops along the way. In every town or a bigger village you have a ramp where you pay a car fare or get stopped by the police for documentation check.  Every time we stopped, the van would be hastily encircled by a flock of by-the-road vendors offering fruits, roasted corn, meat on sticks or fried snails. Every time we asked for snail eyes, the answer was “C’est fini!” They’ve already sold everything. My first neighbour would gasp out with discontent.

Our garrulous neighbour was eating a pineapple which was dripping all over his lap.

We stopped again. This time for the police check. The policeman wanted all of us to show IDs or passports. I inaptly dug out my passport from my bag beneath the bench we were all sitting on. He looked at it and returned it. “Put it back right away.” My neighbour advised me. “People here steal passports.” I already knew that. After I finished my struggles to restore it, I realised that a fight was  taking place above my head. The policeman was shouting at the loud neighbour guy who didn’t want to show his documents. The policeman got furious in seconds and he was yelling  from the outside getting dangerously close to my ear. “Get out or I will come and draw you out!!” Is what I understood with my beginner’s French. His neck veins got tense and easily noticeable under his sweaty, dark skin.

“What is going to happen now?” I asked the sane neighbour, the one that gave his ID.

“Oh, nothing.” He explained calmly. “They are just going to beat him up until he pays the bribe.”

I looked at him instantly shocked.

“Oh, but we don’t call it bribe anymore.” He said in an attempt to console me. “It’s a normal, everyday thing.”

I looked back through the rear window, trying to distinguish something in between mud stains and a crowd of people and policemen that was tightening around the chatty guy.

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The earth is hot beneath my feet as I find my footing within the sloppy path of rocks the color of mud earth, stratified as though stairs had been carved within. This rocky path to Umude Creek is flanked by thick bushes on both sides with huge vegetation and tall palm trees arranged in rows straight and erect like a line of soldiers on a regiment field. There is a dryness in the soft breeze that whoosh through the thickets and bushes letting of an eerie sound that leave me shivering under the bright orange haze of the afternoon sun.

This is a journey best made in solitude alone with nature and away from the hassle and bustle of my small eastern village in Imo state Nigeria. The time is right too for at this hour the sun which has settled low in the sky like a big floating orange balloon would discourage the village children from running naked and gleeful down the rocky path spinning their empty pails playfully. I do not have the courage to visit when they are making their daily rounds of fetching stream water and swimming like little nymphs. They would snicker at my feeble movements in water.

I have passed the rocks and turn into a narrower windy path that would lead me into the creek, my eyes feasting on the beauty of the forest with the keenness of an amateur tourist. There are several huge trees along this path their wide branches spread far to form a large canopy of green leaves. At a bend, I see a fat squirrel chewing a nut beneath a tall palm tree, its back hunched to form a furry brown ball. It scurries off at the sound of my approaching feet behind a small bush of glowing sun flowers. The entrance to the creek is lined up with bamboo palms and tall coconut trees with stooping stems. The resulting shade from the thick foliage of green vegetation around gives the area a picturesque effect. I moved closer to the water and peered in. The green moss underground gave the stream a greenish hue and I stood waiting for a sign that it was okay to try my resolve in conquering the gnawing phobia within me. I dipped my feet into the water watching the ripples appear then spread out in circular motions, disturbing a cluster of tiny fishes swimming close by. I am fascinated at the ease at which they move their slippery bodies swimming further and further away to the point where the current was high.

Inspired, I waddle into the water after the fishes and when my feet no longer feel the firm grip of sand beneath, I crash loudly, the water splashing into my eyes blinding me from hope into the darkness of my defeat. The sounds of my wild thrashing explodes in my head and mingles with the hoarse screaming of my mother as she writhes under the harsh grip of my father. My frantic thrashing finally brings me to the bank of the stream and I clamber out, melancholic and soaked to my bones. Exhausted, I lay underneath a coconut tree in my dripping clothes and close my eyes to the glare of the hot African sky.

My solitude is soon broken by the chatter of children and I see two small girls splashing in the stream. I feel envious of their confidence in the water then suddenly the smaller girl is being carried away by the tide. Her sister turns to me for the first time and screams.

“please save my sister.”

” I can’t swim.’ ‘ I scream back . ”perharps there is nothing I can do quiet well.”

“You can do anything if you choose the right reasons to act.” she replied.

There is a wisdom in her words that belies her age and suddenly I am seized with a compulsion to save the drowning child. I abandon my coconut shed and running briskly plunged into the deepest part of the runnning stream in search of the child and her sister who had dissappeared from sight. The plop sound of a dropping coconut nearby alarmed me and as my eyes flew open, I reliase that I had not moved from my coconut shed at all. My eyes fix on the spot where I had plunged in to save the girl and it dawns on me that I could conquer any fear if I found the right reasons. Inspired, I stood and walked into the calm stream. This time as I fell with a splash when my feet no longer touched sand, I didn’t thrash wildly like the darkness had closed in on me.

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Niger. No you did not misread this. It is not Nigeria. Don’t worry. Even the ticket agent at the airport thought our ticket had a misprint. My wife and I assured him there was in fact a country called Niger in Africa. I had been to Eastern Africa before, but my wife hadn’t touched any soil in Africa, and now we were signing up to teach for two years in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

            Niger is not a country that would be on the top of the list for a vacation spot. It is twice the size of Texas, but most visitors are required to stay within or close to the capital city, Niamey. There is an almost constant haze from smog and dust that colors the view, making the surroundings look like they have a sepia filter.

 

            The most common nickname for Niger is the frying pan of the world. Not humid, but very hot.  There is a rest period from noon to 3 pm to give people time to relax during the heat of the day. Often you will see people sleeping on benches or on the ground near their tiny shops. If you are seen outside during this time of the day locals will look at you strange because they know how much energy will be sucked out of you even if you are trying to do menial tasks. When we first got here we considered it a successful day if we made it to a local grocery shop and back because the heat and the driving made it so exhausting.

 

It is dirty. Our clothes have turned permanent shades of brown from all the sand. There is no time you can be 100 percent clean. Our family visited us and they said a month later they were still finding sand in their clothes.

 

It is hot. There are some days where we leave the school we teach at, drive home, and go straight into our bedroom: the only room with an air conditioner. We leave the room to make a quick dinner, and then go back into the bedroom to eat our meal. The air is on full blast and we are still sweating. And yes, we know it is ironic that this is one of the ways we explain the hardships for us, when there are almost a million people in the city that don’t even have the luxury of an air-conditioner.

 

It is dangerous. A week doesn’t go by that we don’t get an email from the U.S. embassy warning us to stay vigilant while we are here because of threats against Westerners. There are people that want to hurt us because our skin color isn’t the same as theirs.

 

It is not a place to go for relaxation, but Niger is beautiful in it’s own way. The sandy haze against the sun is a sight that cannot be replicated in photographs. Tasting the local spices while sharing a meal with a family will stay with you for the rest of your life. Seeing how locals will drop everything to help you if your car is broken down is heart-warming. Watching children play in sewage trenches is heart breaking.

 

When we try to explain Niamey to people we end saying that you have to come and visit to get the full experience. It’s a phrase that is spoken often when words and pictures cannot capture the feelings you have about a certain place. Visiting Niger is entering a world that you may not want to enter, and it will make you question whether the things you value are truly important or not. It makes you uncomfortable, and stepping out of your comfort zone is indeed an act of bravery.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

I came to wander almost every city street in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Africa because the hotel receptionist said to me, “A map? You don’t need a map, getting lost is half the fun.” She was right. And there was no map anyway.

Calling the narrow passages that were also unofficial obstacles courses ‘streets’ might have been an overstatement. Think of walking down the smallest alleyway in your own neighborhood and having to step over randomly discarded toilets, stray cats, sticks, bicycle tires, garbage, potted plants and that accurately describes the streets of Stone Town. Sometimes they were big enough for small cars and sometimes they were not. As long as your day ended without having collided with a bicycle, you’ve had a successful walking day in Stone Town. man on bike and boy

Yet in that jumbled mess lays a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The architecture is stunning and evidence of Stone Town dates back to the 8th century. In the 19th century it was one of the most important trading routes in the Indian Ocean region.

sunset

Many early European explorers also used the island of Zanzibar as an important base. David Livingstone was probably the most famous European explorer to do so. He had many expeditions over his lifetime throughout Africa. He was gone for several years and little was heard of his existence to the outside world. On November 10, 1871 he finally met with journalist Henry Stanley and the famous quote, “Dr Livingstone I presume?” came into existence.

tunnel

Stone Town gets its name from the ornate houses built with stone by Arab traders during the 19th century. The Old Fort is now used as a cultural center with shops, workshops and has daily dance or music performances.

corridor

For a small donation, we took a wander around the old fort.

walking

One of the biggest attractions for visitors is to simply wander the streets. No matter which way you go exploring, it won’t be that long until one ends up along the seafront or Creek Road as a reference point. If you do feel completely lost, locals are friendly and more than willing to point you in the right direction back to your lodging. If all else fails, you can just grab a taxi and tell them the name of your hotel and they will bring you back.

carved door in stone town

Part of the allure of walking around town is finding and viewing some of the 500 brass studded, wooden doors on many of the buildings.

6 degree wine

For food, you can get as local or as fancy as you want. We decided to go out for a nice dinner one night at a restaurant called Six Degrees South. It was big, modern, snazzy, had a roof top bar and the food was excellent. The service was great and they were well set up for big groups or solo travelers.

bed

After you have explored Stone Town, head up the coast. There are plenty of nice places to choose from. We stayed at Sunset Bungalows Kendra. Our room was a short walk from the beach which provided endless strolling. The water was bath temperature and we could have sat in there all day.

white  wall

From a cultural and photographic view point, we found Stone Town to be interesting, worthwhile and a photographic gem. Other travelers we talked to did not enjoy Stone Town because of the pollution, litter, crumbling buildings and disarray. All of those things exist and they were not my favorite part either. It seems Stone Town would only be helping themselves to clean up the city and even just the tiniest bit would make a drastic improvement. I’m sure it’s easier said than done when the community is still facing so many poverty issues. However underneath all the mess is world class architecture and beauty. To me, a visit to  Stone Town allows the visitor to see what they want to see. I went there wanting to see it’s beauty, architecture and cultural differences, and for that reason I was not disappointed.

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If you go:

You have to buy water while on Zanzibar. Make sure you get to a shop and buy bigger gallons of water. Not only will this save you money, but plastic pollution is a major problem and eye sore in Zanzibar, so do what you can to minimize your impact.

We stayed at Safari Lodge. Some rooms were more unique than others, i.e., aesthetically appealing stone archways as you enter the shower, while other rooms were window-less. The lodge was clean, the staff was nice and some of their architecture made it a neat place to stay while in Stone Town.

 Six Degrees South is within easy walking distance of most hotels in Stone Town, was good value for money and we would recommend eating there.

Further up the beach, we stayed at Sunset Bungalows Kendra. We found the rooms to be be very nice, clean and comfortable. The beach is a short walk down a hill and the location is lovely. You can walk almost as long as you want either right or left and the water was so warm! There are plenty of restaurants around the area. Unfortunately, a few of us did get a touch of food poisoning we believe from some crab soup at their restaurant.  Aside from that, our stay was very nice there and we would recommend.

Mountain gorilla baby eyes

With barely a sound the 160 kilo/ 350 pound gorilla walked right in front of me on the jungle hill side. Mountain gorillas only exist in high terrains of south western Uganda and neighboring Congo and Rwanda. For some, having the opportunity to hike to a family of mountain gorillas is the trip of a life time. I was pinching myself that here I was standing next to more than a dozen gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Africa.

gorilla head

Mountain gorillas were hunted almost to extinction and are a critically endangered species. Within Volcanoes National Park there are eighteen different groups of gorillas.

baby eating celery

Eight are observed solely by researchers and ten of the groups are the groups visitors are allowed to be guided to. We were assigned to be led by our guide Eugene to the Umubano group which had thirteen members.

baby eyes

Gorillas are considered babies from ages zero to three, juvenile from ages three to six, adult ages six to eight and after age eight females are mature enough to start reproducing. Gestation period is for nine months and female gorillas will usually have about six babies in their lifetime.

silver back

Around age twelve the black back of a male mountain gorilla will turn silver, giving them the revered title as now being a silver back.

hand gripping

For diet, gorillas are vegetarian consuming around 2000 different species of plants. An adult will eat about 30 kilos of vegetation a day and they get all their water needs from the plants they eat. Gorillas make a new nest for themselves to sleep in every day, usually on the ground and will start constructing it around 5 pm or so.

side profile

With their immense strength, visitors are often nervous to be in the jungle with these wild animals. Rest assured, the gorillas usually want nothing to do with you. They are too preoccupied with feeding, socializing and taking care of their babies. You are with guides, guards and trackers the entire time who are familiar with all of the gorillas. As long as you do what you guide tells you to do and do not use flash, (which applies for almost all wildlife photography in Africa) you will have an amazing time.

momma eyes

I couldn’t imagine having gone to Africa without having had the experience observing mountain gorillas. Looking at the faces and reactions of people when they come back from sharing the space with these gentle giants, they are impacted. Viewing wild gorillas changes you. Eugene, our guide thanked us all for coming and  told us how much our park fees are instrumental in helping the gorilla population increase. The park can pay for gorilla doctors and if an animal does get sick, usually the medicine cost a minimum of $1000.

chin up

If you want to help conserve mountain gorillas – go see them for yourself. In Rwanda it appeared that the park fees were being put to good use as poaching was down and gorilla numbers have increased from 500 to 900.

baby going for ride

With these fees the park can continue employing rangers who patrol and monitor for poachers. Among our group, some people had chosen to hire a porter (someone who will carry your bag) for the day. Eugene did not say whom specifically, but some of the porters who were hired used to be poachers in the park. Now instead of killing gorillas, they were earning an income from tourists coming to see the gorillas in a safe environment. Learning that around us were would be poachers that were now accepted and welcomed as porters, really drove home to me how impactful responsible tourism combined with effective leadership and park management can be. Seeing how the park was being run gave me hope that the mountain gorillas may have a chance to keep striving in these jungle hillsides.

mom w baby

The opportunity to view gorillas in their home was a fairytale-like adventure. Hopefully the conservation effort will continue to move forward in such a way that gorillas never become animals the next generation can only read about in a fairy tale book, but hike to for themselves and view these animals striving in their home as the magnificent creatures they are.

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For more information:

 Volcanoes National Park

We stayed at a church mission called Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima. It was very nice, clean and well located.

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I stood there, lost in my meditation. I gazed at the space, feeling on top of the world.

The countless roof gave me a puzzle and the glory thereof made me cry. Not because I’m a crybaby or some calamities had landed on the roof. It was because I saw what makes me strong. And that ignites my hope.

That fateful afternoon, I focused on the sky. The warm breeze matched my temperature. And the sight was so much a food for me.

Before I went there, I was lonely and depressed, like no sign of happiness has ever crossed my path.

My friends saw me alone. My family became worried. They’d thought I was sad, disappointed or maybe worried as they were. Or maybe I was sorrowful for not achieving a goal. They even came to stare me up hoping their ginger in my sour soup would trigger the exhausted me.

But that wasn’t my meditation. I didn’t need or want that. They weren’t in the position to help. So I went the stairs to a very high height I could call “my pinnacle.” It was spacious and high that I could see roofs far away.

Then the spirit came. My hope rekindled. I felt that happiness again. My bones received strength. And my joints never fluctuate like before.

I got the help I searched for – a sight and sensation. I rejoiced over the victory, or maybe achievement. I felt happy being alone, right on my pinnacle. Or tower. Or mountain.

I saw houses, roads, cars, green pastury fields and other beautiful images I’ve imagined and desired seeing afar from a very high position.

That experience fueled my gut and engineered my pursuing my writing career at my best capability. I have the confidence to leave my friends and family, to embrace the exploration that sends cold sensation down my spine, and joy all over my face and mind. I felt high without sniffing any powder or gulping a bottle of alcohol.

Inspiring! Right? That’s it.

Because your inspiration medium is waiting too, to rekindle your hope and to emotionally back you up, somewhere, somehow.

It may be listening to music, writing, drawing.

Or perhaps travelling. Where highway lights bubble like paradise. And the vehincle speed engaging as ever. Where mountains and valleys lie between greener pastures, and the skies turn blue. Where the anime sprinkles on the field, playing and playing… Where the birds flip and flap, and sing the thinest suprano.

That may be your generating source. You should go re-generate. If it’s in Malaysia, go get it. If it finds its way to Australlia, fly over there. If it hangs on your roof, then get a ladder.

Yes, you know what you’re doing. Yes, you know your family won’t understand. Yes, you know your friends won’t concur with it.

But you need to solidarise with your inspirating source, anchor with nature and get the best no one can offer.

As for me, any opportunity to go high, I go. Any opportunity to climb the roof, I’ll do. To see the lovely habitation of the homo-sapiens. To regain strength and might for the world’s warfare.

Gratitude to my pinnacle!!! I would’ve not been more strong and hopeful.

 

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

I’m sure my parents won’t like to hear this but taking risks is part of experiencing the world. To quote a favorite movie of mine, “A life lived in fear, is a life half-lived.” I keep reminding myself of this when I question putting aside my anxieties and having faith that something will work out well, versus playing it safe and missing out on an experience. Certainly a healthy dose of caution is advised, especially when traveling in a third-world country and in situations regarding drinking water and wildlife, but in order to truly capture an experience, sometimes you need to check your fear with your luggage.

Last year when I quit my job, subleased my apartment, and bought a one way ticket to Africa, I didn’t think of it as brave, as many people remarked, but necessary for me to broaden my horizons. The alternative to embarking on a trip by myself for several months with a loose itinerary was not going. And that would have only led to regret. So I let go of my inhibitions, and found myself in situations that I would never be in at home, because I allowed myself the freedom to trust to create a deeper experience.

What I quickly learned was that mustering the courage to step outside of my comfort zone gave me access to so much more than just seeing the sights. And what others perceived as bravery, I felt more deeply as a privilege – to have the means to visit other countries and spend time with locals.

Brave was the craftsman in Malawi who followed me home, even after I repeatedly said no to his heavy salesmanship, because he hadn’t eaten. What was a couple dollars to me was his sustenance for another day. I think of his tenacity every day back at home when wasting food or being gluttonous.

Brave was the Tanzanian woman who handed her baby to me on a crowded local bus. Her trust of a stranger allowed me to momentarily feel a part of the culture where community is so important. I am reminded of her welcoming gesture when in public settings where heads are buried in electronics, oblivious to the person next to them.

Brave was the taxi driver in Zimbabwe who was so proud of his country and concerned with an outsider’s impression, that in his own words, he took a risk in implying dissatisfaction with the current government by speaking fondly of how his country used to be. His tentative answers to my questions reminded me of the freedoms many Americans take for granted.

I find travel to be an invaluable education in that it allows me to learn about myself and my life in comparison to other cultures. The slight glimpse into daily life that each of these new friends provided me, reminded of the liberties we are afforded in the US. It took little courage to uproot my life and spend a few months learning about the wider world, knowing I could return to the security and comforts of the US. In contrast, the people I met who shared their time with me, were the brave ones – finding freedom despite adversity.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Flyer for email

Meet Mia Coffin at Park Restaurant 

2885 Kalakaua Ave

at Lotus Honolulu

Thursday November 7

5pm-7pm

Mia Coffin is a waitress, a world traveler, and would-be anthropologist. Coming from a large family in a small town in California she continually escapes her normal life in search of distant shores and adventure. Being an experienced traveler, Mia knows if things can go wrong they surely will––just how wrong, Mia recounts as she travels solo through Indonesia, Lebanon, Africa and New Zealand.

Mia is charged by an angry elephant, kidnapped by a Hezbollah drug lord, and gets caught up in a in a baby smuggling ring––all the while keeping her wicked sense of humor and never forgetting to email her worried mom back home. She fumbles with strange cultures, unfamiliar languages and unforgettable characters and realizes just how precious her home and family are to her. Invariably, Mia steps up to each ticket counter throughout her travels and requests––One, please!

One Please is available on Amazon.com in paperback and kindle.

 Park RestaurantPark is a new Waikiki restaurant specializing in unique Mediterranean cuisine. Come visit us today at Park for the best in fresh new Waikiki Dining!

 

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Bath time at Calvary Zion is also a great way to beat the Kenyan heat.
Bath time at Calvary Zion is also a great way to beat the Kenyan heat.
Bath time at Calvary Zion is also a great way to beat the Kenyan heat.

I’m carrying two-year-old Elijah, seeking shade to escape the Kenyan sun. My wife Julie and I are volunteering for two weeks at the Calvary Zion children’s home near Mombasa, helping (we hope) the home’s three “mothers,” who care for 40 kids, from infants to teens.

“Ah-dahh,” says Elijah.

It’s his one word. He repeats it, pointing at a lone tree, then the one-level house.

“Ah-dahh.”

“Good point,” I say.

“Ah-dahh.”

Most of Calvary Zion’s young residents are at school. Julie and I watch the remaining toddlers and help with simple yet sizeable tasks, from washing dishes to folding clothes.

“I know God loves these children,” the home’s founder, Jane Karigo, told us our first day. “They deserve fulfillment, and they deserve opportunities, like any other children.”

We’re both moved by Jane’s mission—but I wonder how much we’re helping. I’ve wondered this at every stop on my volunteer journey: a six-country quest to find purpose by helping others after my father’s sudden death. But I particularly wonder it here, because the painful, inescapable fact about Calvary Zion is that every child has suffered. Some lost their parents to HIV. Others were abandoned: one infant was found in a department store bathroom, discarded by his mother. Elijah’s incestuous birth to a 14-year-old mother brought shame to the family, and he spent his first year of life in isolation—no nurturing, no love. When he arrived at Calvary Zion, he barely knew how to eat.

“He just lay there with his mouth open,” one of the mothers said.

Elijah often runs to us in his baby-ish, bowlegged way, wanting to be held, and I think—How can you say no to this child? But it worries me: we’ve entered these kids’ lives and then, boom—we’ll leave. The bulk of our time is spent with the mothers, but small children can feel quick attachments to volunteers, creating a cycle of abandonment, a journal article on South Africa orphans found.

Criticism of volunteers has intensified since 2010, when Julie and I worked at Calvary Zion. The controversy stems largely from the exploitation of children in Cambodia, where unscrupulous orphanages trap kids in squalor to attract funds from donors and volunteers (many of the “orphans” have at least one parent). In July 2013, the UK-based travel agency ResponsibleTravel.com removed orphanage volunteering programs from its site. Mainstream media stories have questioned if volunteers do more harm than good; bloggers have blasted voluntourists as guilt-ridden neocolonialists more interested in boosting their self-esteem than in helping others.

So by trying to do good, were Julie and I doing, you know… bad?

I’d shared my concerns in Kenya with our host, Karimu. She’s a local woman who runs volunteer programs for Travellers Worldwide, an organization offering everything from medical internships to marine programs. We stayed with Karimu and her kids, which was a joy, whether eating nyama choma or jumping rope with her niece.

Karimu thinks volunteers are valuable to Calvary Zion.

“The children have the mothers and Jane,” she said of the home. “They have plenty of familiar faces. They get attention from you guys. No one has time to cuddle the little ones, and if even if there was time there are too many kids. Would the babies be better off if you didn’t hold them? And what about the older kids you help with their homework?”

The critics rarely ask locals what they think about volunteers, so recently I contacted Jane and asked a simple question: are volunteers useful?

Absolutely, she said by e-mail—but sometimes it’s problematic. A British volunteer insisted on taking the kids for a play day at a go-cart track. His intentions were good, “But the children won’t remember the go-carts when they are crying for bread,” said Jane. Another volunteer gave a child an iPod, which the boy sold for 200 shillings, fueling jealousy and fights. Sometimes volunteers make adoption promises they can’t keep, giving the children false hope.

Feeding babies is one of many tasks for the "mothers" at the Calvary Zion Children's Home in Kenya.
Feeding babies is one of many tasks for the “mothers” at the Calvary Zion Children’s Home in Kenya.

So the problems are real—and yet so are the benefits. Julie and I did work the mothers don’t have time for, whether washing windows or sorting donated clothes. We helped with daily chores, like cutting vegetables and ironing school uniforms. But there’s an intangible benefit as well, which I found throughout my volunteer travels: interactions occur that would never happen otherwise. People learn about other people. Stereotypes are smashed. When the mothers taught Julie to make ugali, they laughed as she labored over the pot. I found this same effect when I volunteered at a special needs school in China: for the teachers, we were a happy novelty, a break from the monotony of difficult days.

Our team leader in China said that short-term volunteers are like links in a chain. I’d dismissed that as orientation rhetoric, but I see some truth in it now, mainly because of Elijah.

The mystery of Elijah is the anguish that must lurk inside; the blankness that tugs his face, widening his eyes. But those big eyes never look blank. Those big eyes made me think there’s something fierce, and smart, and thoughtful inside.

Here’s the thing I can’t shake:

Before we came to Kenya, some volunteers held Elijah. And when we were there, we held Elijah. And after we left, other volunteers held Elijah. And that is far, FAR from a perfect system. But it seems better than me to the alternative. Because without volunteers, fierce Elijah, so deprived of human contact, would’ve spent much of his time on the floor, alone. The mothers love Elijah, but individual attention is a necessity in short supply.

The children’s well-being is all that matters, whether in Kenya or Cambodia. If volunteer programs are harming children, those programs should end. But successful programs and successful homes should not be ignored. Without Jane Karigo, the children of Calvary Zion would live on the streets. Instead, they go to school. They learn. They eat. They grow. In July 2013, three of the home’s children, now 18-year-old women, opened their own business. Volunteers, in their own microscopic way, have helped support this.

“This is my mission,” Jane said of Calvary Zion. “If I don’t care for these children, who will?”

About the Author: Ken Budd is author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. All of his earnings from the book are going back to the places and organizations where he volunteered. Since May 2012, money from The Voluntourist has paid annual school fees for 11 of the children at Calvary Zion. You can connect with Ken on Twitter and Facebook.