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Social internship in Kenya: This is Africa

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The setup is simple: four Belgians are sent to a developing country for a social internship, with the aim of making social commitment top of mind, while immersing the participants in a completely different culture. Fedactio sent two coaches and two students to Kenya, a country that is not only warm and sunny, but also a country where extremes live side by side. In these series of blogs, our communication manager recounts her experiences.

(First stage) ‘This is Africa’

It was snowing when we boarded the plane on 9 February in Belgium. We were about to start a 12-hour flight and the baby on board made it clear that he would defend his territory, his howling already causing a headache. After a stop in Rwanda we finally got off in Kenya.

Our first impression of Kenya was the sharp accent all of its inhabitants had, their accent being characterized by a rolling R and a slightly fuller pronunciation of certain words. Even a native-English speaker would have difficulties understanding them. The British woman in front of us in the line for instance was having some difficulties to communicate:

Security check: ‘So where are you coming from?’ Woman: ‘Transit, yes we’re in transit’. Security check: ‘No, I asked where you’re from’. Woman (attempting to imitate the r sound): ‘Trrrrrransit. That’s right, dear’.

Their miscommunication might explain why some would prefer Swahili to express themselves. Fortunately, the Belgian ear is better adapted to hearing certain sounds, due to our excellent language education. Therefore, our Belgian group passed security check without any trouble.

Picking up the luggage was another of our challenges. One of our suitcases was missing, but we were not the only ones with that problem. For the woman next to us, also waiting in front of the conveyor belt, this was the umpteenth time that this happened. She told us that she hoped her luggage hadn’t been sent to Entebbe (Uganda). To calm her down, I responded that I was sure the airline company was doing its utmost best. ‘But this is Africa’, was what she answered, as if that countered my arguments.

This is Africa, indeed. Once outside, we a burned-jungle smell wafted our way, the savannah seeping through the city and taxi drivers trying to seduce us with an air conditioned car and their smiles. If we didn’t have a contact waiting for us, we might just have given in. Aslan, our driver and organiser of our journey, showed us what Kenyan hospitality was all about. We received a bouquet of roses which, the driver explained, are even shipped to the Netherlands.

On our way to the boarding school where we would sleep for the following five nights, the taxi driver showed us Nairobi’s second largest safari, right next to the biggest road leading to Mombasa. It was the first time I saw a wild giraffe, while an old American school bus flashed us by. ‘Matatu’, said Aslan. In my head I translated it as ‘it kills everything’ (from the Spanish matar and the French tout). With my interpretation, I was not quite wrong: the matatu is as much the king of the road as the lion is the king of the jungle.

During the trip, I asked the driver whether Nairobi’s citizens dislike foreigners after the British domination. Rather the contrary, apparently. It is a common belief in Kenya that the British helped the country progress.

Our last stop before a well-deserved rest at the boarding house was a visit to the mall. There, I was about to take a picture of my surroundings when a Kenyan told me not to do so. He said it friendlily, the way as muzungu (‘he who aimlessly wanders’, also the term used to refer to ‘white people’) are always treated in Kenya. So I put away my photo camera, obeying the unwritten rules of a society I was yet to explore. Silently, I watched him leave with his family, leaving nothing but questions behind.
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