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  • Writer's pictureAlison Merrill

Kenya - The Piece We Were Missing

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

“And let me tell you something. That first morning, when you are in your country of choice, away from all of the conventions of atypical, everyday lifestyle, looking around at your totally new surroundings, hearing strange languages, smelling strange, new smells, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll feel like the luckiest person in the world” – Robert Potts, Author of Vagabonding.

Kenya Street Justice

Sam, Hartej (fellow volunteer and friend), and I were about to walk home from our first day of teaching in Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, when Teacher John, our placement supervisor, and friend, told us while laughing, “If anyone bothers you, just scream as loud as you can and others will come to help". Within Kenya, they have “street justice” where if a thief or drunk is annoying someone, that person can yell and a group of people will come to the rescue. Nobody will call the cops because the group will beat up the thief or dispose of the drunk.

View of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. Picture: Alison

Power in Community and Contribution

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” – Helen Keller

Sam and I have spent the last two weeks in Kenya volunteering at a Community School called Blessed Hope. I look at my experience in Kibera and with Blessed Hope as a cultural exchange because I learned just as much, if not more from the children and teachers as they learned from me. When Sam and I started our 6-month journey, finding our travel rhythm was hard. Being 3-months in, we are now at the halfway mark and after our time in Kenya, have figured out how we want to travel. We experienced the power of community from both our volunteer friends and Blessed Hope, and we now are looking to join communities as we travel.

As people, we are meant to be a part of groups. It’s been shown that people live longer when they are a part of thriving communities and that people are happier when they have healthy relationships with family, friends, and/or significant others. Additionally, humans feel good when we are able to make a meaningful contribution. Going to Blessed Hope and being able to teach or do whatever was most needed, made Sam and I active contributors within the community.

What were we doing?

Sam taught 4th, 5th, and 6th-grade math (and meditation, yoga, PE, & global geography) and I taught 2nd-grade math, English, art, and dance. We volunteered with IVHQ (International Volunteer Headquarters) who connected us with NVS (National Volunteer Services of Kenya). Sam and I lived at the Kenya IVHQ central house with our host, Miriam that took care of us along with 9-15 other volunteers. The core members of our volunteer house were a cast of characters and described best by my friend Susan as, “more like a reality TV show.” Most evenings involved us making fun of each other, watching Kenyan soap operas, engaging in philosophical and cultural debates, and going on way too many excursions to the town mall.

Our daily routine:

6:30 am: Rise and shine! The roosters will start making sounds outside the window each morning. On days we had to do laundry, we got up at 6:30 am to hand wash our clothes and leave them on the clothesline to dry for the day because if we left them overnight, they might be gone the next day.

7:30 am: Get ready for school. We had to remember to brush our teeth with water from bottles because the tap water is not always clean.

8:00 am: Breakfast of toast and coffee. Sam and I bought some peanut butter and bananas for extra protein.

8:30 am: Walkthrough Kibera with Sam, Hartej (listen to our podcast about our time in Kibera!) through the slums. We would pass by kids yelling “Mzungu” which means “white person” in Swahili as we made our way past houses with tin roofs and walls, dirt floors, and heaps of trash.

9:00 am: Arrive at Blessed Hope to be greeted by Teacher John. Stay and talk with him and other teachers for a little longer than we should have because we had way too many jokes and laughs.

9:00 am - 12:00 pm: Teach and assist in our different classrooms. During this time, I usually stayed in 2nd grade and taught different lessons in math, English, art & dance while Sam would rotate through different classrooms teaching math and sometimes science when the curriculum was not too hard. Don’t let anyone fool you, 5th-grade science is hard!

1:40 pm: Lunch was served. Usually rice and beans, lentils, or ugali with kale. Ugali is a staple dish in Kenya made out of maize flour and water. It is very filling. For some of our students, lunch alone was why they came to school, as this was the one meal a day that was guaranteed.

2:00 pm: Play outside with the kids and / or talk with the other teachers. My afternoons after recess involved rehearsing poems with my 2nd graders for the school’s graduation and doing more ballet (the kids loved it) while Sam taught workshops on yoga, meditation, goal-setting, and public speaking to his 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.

3:30 pm: Walk back home through Kibera.

4:00 pm: Get back to the volunteer house and charge our phones. I did not have internet access for the two weeks because my phone cannot take SIM cards and there was no high-speed wifi near our house.

4:00-7:00 pm: Different activities with the volunteers. Usually revolved around going to the local mall and working out in the gym, buying groceries or school supplies from Carrefour, and one night, seeing the new Lion King in theaters.

7:30 - 9:00 pm: Dinner with the volunteers back at the house cooked by our amazing host mom Miriam. Dinner was always different. One of our favorites was banana and potatoes with rice and watermelon.

9:00 - 10:00 pm: Shower – we were fortunate to have hot water. But occasionally it would go out and we would have to take bucket showers. Other activities involved homemade face masks, watching Kenyan soap operas, journaling, reading, and getting ready for bed.

Kenya - Alison

My friend and teaching role model, Caroline. She is an incredible second-grade teacher that shares so much love, laughter, and care for her students. I am beyond grateful that I got to learn and laugh with her and her students every day.


1. Standing at the front of the Safari Van on the last morning at Lake Nakuru seeing Zebras, giraffes, flamingos, and endless open green grass.

2. Teaching math on my final day to my second-grade class. We were working on addition, specifically “carrying over the ones” and by this point after grading their homework and teaching them for the past two weeks, I felt I knew where every kid was at.

3. Can I say, dinner at the volunteer house every night? Sitting around with Miriam and our group and talking about our days, tormenting each other, and laughing could not get any better.

Low: The smells

Best Bite: Lentils and rice from our school. We ate at 1:40pm and after my first full day of teaching, I was starving.

Lesson Learned: As humans, we are meant to be a part of communities and feel good when we make meaningful contributions that help others.

Kenya - Sam

Squad! From left to right - Alison, Basel, Brandon, Dani, and Hartej. Sam in the middle!

The Highs:

1. My dad is a 5th-grade teacher. Being able to follow in his footsteps and teach 5th grade gave me even more respect for Rob the legend! Plus it was a blast.

2. The deep connections with the other volunteers. Shoutouts to Hartej, Basel, Susan, Brandon, Dave, Dani, & the Bushman!

3. Experiencing the famous wildebeest migration of millions of wildebeests from Tanzania to Kenya.

Low - The bugs in my first lunch at school

Lesson Learned - Community is everything. These 2 weeks were 2 of the best weeks of my life.

To our friends from IVHQ, NVS, and Blessed Hope,

"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard"

- Winnie the Pooh

The Kenya part of our journey was incredibly special. We know that all of our friends from IVHQ, NVS, and Blessed Hope will stay with us. Thank you for sharing all the laughs, wisdom, and beauty. We will forever carry it with us and hope to see you again soon.

The group at Miriam's - (back from left to right) Dave, Hartej, Susan, Brandon. (Front from left to right) Basel, Miriam, Sam, Alison.

Hartej, John, Alison, Elza, and Sam (from left to right). Thank you, John and Elza, for helping us! They both are wonderful educators. John teaches 4th-6th and is getting his Masters in Family and Child Counseling. Elza teaches the youngest group (3 years old) and manages a classroom of 30 kids by herself and makes it look easy. They are both such passionate educators - always putting their students first to ensure they get the best possible education inside and outside the classroom.


Alison and Sam

The Great Wildebeest Migration - one of the wonders of the world.

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