Catherine came over to Kenya earlier this year to spend time at both Rafiki Mwema and Rafiki Familia – we are so thankful that she has taken time to share her experiences with you
Nine inspiring weeks: volunteering at Play Kenya
The Kenyan sun shines high in a bright blue sky. It is a Saturday morning and I stand in front of the kitchen in the ‘Rafiki Mwema’ compound, surrounded by the girls – the ‘Rafiki Angels’, for a last photo with them. My blue Play Kenya shirt has been left in the apartment and I’m wearing ‘civvies’; a sign that my time here has come to an end.
I feel my heart beating and have butterflies in my stomach. The moment I’ve been dreading for some time is approaching; in just a few minutes I will have to say a final goodbye to the girls and staff and walk out of the gates for the last time. We all stand in front of the climbing frame and they sing the Goodbye Song to me. I take pictures, but then put the camera down and take in this unique moment. It is very moving being sung to by 24 children and the staff. The final line arrives ‘..and now it’s time for you to go to another place..until we meet again..’.
I qualified as a drama psychotherapist last year, and before working in the UK I felt drawn to volunteering. It was lucky for me that a friend and colleague showed me the Play Kenya website. A few months later, in May of this year, I found myself on a plane to Nairobi embarking on a life-changing three months.
The time I spent in Kenya was extraordinary and so far removed from my life in London. It was filled with so many new, inspiring, challenging and soulful experiences which are hard to capture in a few paragraphs. But I felt that I wanted to give a flavour of life as a volunteer, in the hope that it may encourage others to do the same and to experience life at this extraordinary charity.
I spent 9 weeks at ‘Rafiki Mwema’ and worked with six of the girls twice a week. After assessments in the first week, I was able to provide them with 14 dramatherapy sessions each, and I also ran a weekly session for the boys at ‘Rafiki Familia’. I learnt so much from these incredible, courageous and inspiring children.
Of course the therapeutic work is confidential, but I thought I would share some ‘snap-shots’ from my time outside the sessions:
After lunch one day I was asked by one of the girls into their little house on top of the climbing frame; it started to fill up quickly, and soon there were seven of us all piled in. I was offered a meal of water and chopped-up grass and we prayed before eating, just as they do in the big house. I felt honoured to be invited into their imaginary world, my legs protruding over the side.
Some of the children giggled as I tried to eat sugar cane one break-time. This ‘mzungo’ probably looked like a hamster, nibbling at it cautiously with my front teeth. Lucy gave me a master class: peel off the outer layer, break it in half on your thigh and then bite into it with your back teeth. I carried on eating it rather timidly, to the amusement of the girls.
I hold the two youngest members of ‘Rafiki Mwema’ on my lap as they giggle and pretend they are trotting on a horse.
I join the girls for a Swahili lesson in their classrooms – I have much to learn!
Receiving a hug from one of the girls at the end of the week, it was perfectly timed as I was feeling a little homesick that morning.
As I walked towards the gate of the compound at the end of my third week, it was a pretty special moment when 24 girls waved goodbye to me, as they brushed their teeth outside by the tap in the garden as dusk approached.
A game at break-time with one of the girls on an imaginary phone. The distance of speaking to the ‘phone’ seemed to allow her emotional expression, and she created a fantastic story.
I walked into the main house after writing up my session notes, and saw the joy and excitement on the girls’ faces as they opened up letters from their sponsors, that were stuffed full of stickers and photos. They were keen to show me their new hologram stickers!
Lessons and my sessions have finished for the week. It’s a Friday evening and I’m dancing with the girls and staff to a CD of beautiful music from all over Kenya.
I arrived for my session with the boys and saw them carefully sticking up puzzle pieces on the outside of their house – they spelt ‘FAMILIA’.
The girls taught me how to eat ugali, as we all sat in the shade of the tree eating our lunch.
The hour or so before dinner is creative, chaotic and fun – it’s playtime! Brightly coloured wigs are donned, the girls dress up, roller-skates are put on, books are read, homework is completed, songs are sung. It was one of my favourite times of day, being with all the girls at the end of my sessions. I might find myself playing with coloured shapes with the youngest members of the household, hear the girls read story-books, help them with their homework, read their sponsors’ letters to them – or receive a Swahili lesson from the older girls!
On tea-breaks I talked with the staff in the kitchen or outside in the sunshine, hearing about their lives and their families and shared information about our respective cultures. It was fascinating and I learnt so much from them and the staff at ‘Rafkii Familia’.
Shortly after I had met the boys and before I began working with them, we all sat together doing a puzzle. I felt humbled being with them as they sat in quiet concentration finding the pieces to make up the picture of the solar system. I could only imagine what they had experienced while living on the streets. I’m sure I could not survive a few days, let alone years, as these young people have done.
Sharing a hug with each girl after Worship before bedtime, as we sang ‘lala salama’ (sleep well).
The beautiful 12 year old girl wears a pink dress and looks small sitting in a big black office chair. She swings her legs – her feet don’t reach the ground. The chair is in a small court room, to the right of the Magistrate. Immediately behind the girl sits the man who is accused of abusing her, momentarily released from his handcuffs and guarded by a prison officer. It is horrifying hearing her being cross-examined for 70 minutes about the most intimate details of the day on which she was sexually abused. Halfway through, she is shown a hand-drawn map of the ‘scene of the crime’. She is asked by an insistent and increasingly impatient lawyer for the defence to point out exactly where she was raped.
After I returned to the UK it was incredible to hear that, due to Sarah’s amazing fund-raising and the generosity of so many people, enough money had been raised for a court video-link. What a huge difference it will make and, thankfully, the girl in the pink dress and many others like her will never have to experience again the re-traumatisation and horror of being cross-examined like that, often by the men who have abused them, while being just inches away.
The afternoon sun is shining brightly and the front of the house at ‘Rafiki Familia’ has been turned into a theatre. Following our last dramatherapy session together, the boys perform scenes from the amazing stories they have created. It is very moving to witness them, actors on stage, giving the audience a glimpse of their life on the streets and their hope and fears for the future.
I Iearned much from Anne-Marie and Janet during Skype supervision and then later on in person and also from John, while they were all in Kenya. I witnessed their dedication, strength, determination and tenacity, which were inspirational.
Apart from feeling part of the family at Play Kenya, at the weekends I had the privilege of taking a few trips through the spectacular Great Rift Valley, crossing the Equator and going on safari – not a bad thing to do on a day off! Memories include:
Taking a boat safari on vast, breathtaking Lake Naivasha and gliding past sleepy hippos. The boat was then moored and we walked very close to zebras and majestic giraffe as the sun was setting.
Being guided by ‘Masai James’ and hearing about his life, as we trek down the Gorge in Hell’s Gate National Park.
The wonder of witnessing the quiet beauty of a sleek leopard with a white-tipped tail, as he emerged in front of us in Lake Nakuru National Park. Jimmy said he had not seen one there for five years, so I felt very lucky at that moment.
The final line of the Goodbye Song fades away. The moment I have been dreading has now arrived. After final hugs and a last ‘kwaheri’ I turn around and walk towards the gate and wave to the Rafiki Angels and the staff. I feel so much sadness as this incredible Kenyan journey has come to an end. I will never forget the strength, courage, resilience and affection of the children at Rafiki Mwema and Rafiki Familia – and all the staff that support, nurture, love, encourage and enable them in Kenya, the UK and Australia. I hope one day to return.
Asante sana to everyone at Play Kenya for all that you have taught me.
If you are thinking about volunteering in the future and would like to know more about my experiences or have any questions, please do get in touch via Play Kenya.