A Tourist With a Shovel and a Hoe

Speaker's Corner: When she arrived in Kenya to volunteer with the Maasai, Daniela Petrova looked down her nose at tourists there to have a good time. But was her own motivation much different?

08.27.08 | 2:30 PM ET

Kenya workersNothing moves under the scorching afternoon sun. Even the low cumulus clouds seem stationary—cutouts pasted over the pale-blue African sky. I’m sitting on the dry grass, looking at the cattle in the distance, waiting for work to begin again. I have lost track of time. Oddly enough, my watch stopped two days after I landed in Kenya. The languid song of Ndinda, a local girl who works with us, comes from inside one of the finished classrooms where we have set up camp. The patched wooden door screeches open and she walks out. She moves impossibly slow, dragging her feet in the sandy dry earth, her pink flip-flops raising clouds of reddish dust.

I’d arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on a warm August evening a week earlier. While waiting around for the luggage belt to start moving, I watched all the tourists in their wide-brimmed sun hats, sandals and fashionable low-cut jeans. I couldn’t help but feel superior in my boots and work clothes. I had spent nearly $2,000 on airfare and half as much in program fees to join a volunteer work camp. But, I told myself, none of it was for my own pleasure. Three weeks later, when I would be back at this airport to take the plane home, there would be a new school, or at least a new classroom, somewhere in a remote Maasai village, thanks in part to my work.

The setbacks began almost immediately. Instead of the 20 volunteers I expected to join, there were only two of us. Giordano, an Italian civil engineer, and I sat in a tiny shack in one of Nairobi’s poor neighborhoods, listening to a lengthy explanation of the changes in the program. We couldn’t work at the Maasai village because a certain official hadn’t signed a certain paper before going on vacation. But, the head of the local organization said with a big smile, they had found us another school in another village. A Kamba village.

I looked to Giordano for reassurance, but he seemed as distraught by the news as I was. The Maasai, adorned with bead necklaces, earrings and bracelets, and wrapped in bright red blankets, were the most definitive symbol of “tribal” Kenya, the ones whose photos were featured in the Kenya Lonely Planet travel guides we both carried. 

Which raises the question: Why should this matter to us? The Kamba children must need a school just as much—even if their clothing isn’t as exotic. After all, who were we here for? Ourselves or them?

Kenya schoolAfter a two-hour bumpy minibus ride on dirt roads, and then a six-kilometer ride in the back of a pickup truck, we arrived in Katheka-Kai, a small Kamba village about 100 kilometers southeast of Nairobi. The school was a one-story U-shaped stone building with 12 classrooms and two teachers’ offices. The unplastered walls in each room featured two small holes covered with mesh which served as windows. The floors were the same sandy ground that was outside, but that didn’t seem to bother the barefooted children in blue school uniforms. The desks were made from unfinished wood and the blackboards were painted onto the stone walls. The only classroom with a cement floor was used for storage and was vacated for us.

We spread the mats on the floor and hung the mosquito nets and brought water from the village well. We lined up our food supplies for the next few weeks—rice, flour, salt and potatoes—on a desk over old newspapers. The next morning, pumped with excitement, we joined the local crew of three paid workers and started digging the baked soil for the foundations of new classrooms.

We made little progress. We spent days waiting for the wheelbarrow to be fixed, or for the engineer to arrive to decide where to dispose of the soil. We exchanged pleasantries with the headmaster, the principal, the deputy, the chairman of the community, the treasurer—a seemingly endless line of officials who showed up to talk to us. And then, there was the never-ending traffic of villagers who stopped by to watch and chat.

Observing all these people gathered around, it dawned on me that the last thing this community needed was our unskilled labor. Most of the villagers were unemployed, and during the dry season—which would last for another two months—they had nothing to do on their farms. They didn’t need Giordano and me to build a community school that they could build themselves. I weighed 100 pounds. My contribution was little more than symbolic.

Hundreds of local and international organizations now offer volunteer abroad programs, most of which come at a stiff price payable in dollars or euros. Voluntourism is a bona fide trend. I’m sure many of these organizations provide a valuable service. Yet I wonder if I would have contributed a lot more to this particular project by simply donating the money for my airplane ticket and staying home.

But that would have meant giving up the trip. And, if I’m honest with myself, it was the trip—the adventure, the experience in another culture, the unknown—that had inspired me to volunteer in Kenya.

Besides, I tell myself, my contribution should not be measured by buckets of excavated earth. Cultural exchange is a two-way street. Living and working with the Kamba people of Katheka-Kai, I learned a lot about their world, but I also brought something from my own. And this is why, given the chance, I would do it all over again—albeit with more realistic expectations.

Photos by Daniela Petrova.