May 2013

I can believe that tomorrow night I will be getting on a night bus to Uganda marking the end of my travels here in Kenya. It has been an amazing three weeks and I have loved spending time in the different cities of Nairobi, Naivaisha, and Kisumu. I’ve learned so much while in this country so I wanted to share just a few of these lessons ūüôā

1.) learning to say thank you in the local tongue of where you are traveling to is very important. Asante sana.
2.) you can fit 25 people in a 14 seat matatu
3.) at the end of the day what you see on your feet sadly isn’t a birks tan. It’s just dirt and it’ll come off in the shower
4.) the power of smiles is universal
5.) soccer is EVERYONE’S favorite sport
6.) you can really live off beans and rice
7.) pretending that you are married works every-time.
8.) you can always bargain down prices at a market. Never settle.
9.) you do get used to falling asleep to the sound of goats and waking up to the sound of chickens
10.) cow crossing exists here
11.) the first english any child learns here is ” mzungu how are you!”
12.) it is beneficial being a mzungu trying to catch a matatu
13.) it is not beneficial being a mzungu while walking in a busy market
14.) children all over the world are the same
15.) it is important to find alone time wherever you are. Especially if you are living in an apartment with 14 other people
16.) if you tell people that you live close to the USA and that you love Obama they will in turn instantly love you
17.) patience is a virtue and a serious necessity in Africa. Things move in a different time
18.) Africa time basically means ” we will get to it eventually”
19.) if you order a vodka soda at a bar they will give you a Smirnoff ice.
20.) everyone in the world has a cell phone. No shoes? No problem. No house? No problem. No phone? Huge problem.
21.) children are fascinated with the look and feel of white people’s hands and arms
22.) Celine dion is a huge star in Kenya
23.) development is a touchy topic and everyone has a different opinion on it.
24.) long blonde hair is a hot commodity here. And very fun to play with
25.) there is dignity and pride in every lifestyle. Just because something doesnt look the way it does in Canada it does not mean it is worth any less.

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So I have spent the last week in the hot hot lands of Kisumu County and it has been a whirlwind of emotions. We have been partnered with a local organization called Young County Change Makers (YCCM) who work to empower youth to recognize and utilize their talents. The first three days with them we spent our mornings at the Youth Remand Center which we were told was a youth correctional center but we soon found out that it also houses lost children, children whose parens can’t afford school fee’s, and just unwanted children. All from the ages of 5-17. Some of these kids have been there for years. The conditions are horrendous; no toothbrushes, bed bugs, tattered clothes, no working toilets, no information on their own cases, no education services provided, and a diet of beans and rice everyday. I saw two special needs boys who were just thrown into the center with the rest of the children and ignored. Those special needs boys won’t be able to leave until they are sponsored by an individual or organization who can pay for their place in group homes which is far and few between. These kids just sit and do nothing all day and are dying to learn something. We brought in activities to do one morning and they were just enamored to have something to do. I met a boy named Sammy who is 14 years old and has been at the remand center for two years. Sammy’s parents died when he was younger and so he has been bounced between relatives homes. These relatives do not have a stable environment and could not pay for Sammy’s school fee’s and so Sammy was often left wandering the streets. That’s when the police picked him up and brought him to the Remand Home. Sammy’s home environment is a volatile place yet he is one of the kindest, quietest souls I have ever met. All three days I was there he sat quietly beside me just listening.
The Remand Home is a government run facility and so their sole source of funding comes from ( or doesn’t come) from them. Unfortunately the government provides little to none of these funds for basic needs. Instead Kenyan MP’s are asking for a 500, 000 KSH pay raise. PER MONTH. The problem with politics in Kenya is that it’s people are it’s own worst enemy. Tribal relations dictate so much of Kenyan life that political parties are defined by citizens loyalties to tribes. And so bad governments rule again and again because of these tribe loyalties. What’s frustrating is that these political problems and greedy politicians affect those most innocent like these children in the Remand Home. The need for children’s rights here is probably what has been tugging on my heart strings the most. All of these children I have met are so eager to learn and they deserve that chance. All kids deserve the right to learn.
With all of this said, it has been cool that while here in kisumu I have gotten to work alongside an organization that recognizes this. The new library that we are helping YCCM to construct is located in the largest slum in Kisumu, in an area called Nylenda. Around the library sight there are always children running around who should be in school. There are so many kids here who have attached themselves to the hearts of the whole team and they all deserve the opportunity to learn. Hopefully this library/ learning center will help to foster some of these kids talents and allow for them to reach and surpass their potential. That’s been my hope and wish this week.

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Hello from Kenya friends and family! So last Thursday we all piled into a matatu and ventured to the beautiful Naivasha where we spent the weekend camping. Our camp site was right on the lake which was absolutely stunning. Lake Naivasha is home to about 800 hippos so I was quite excited to take a boat tour around the lake and spot some. I was repeatedly told how dangerous hippos are but I had a hard time believing that when I saw how cute they were when they wiggled their ears. That night I hit a little bump in the road when I tried to attempt a backbend (let the record state I could do it) and I injured my elbow. It was super sore that night but I was hoping that I would be fine in the morning. Unfortunately that was not the case. I was a little bit upset about the timing because the Friday morning was our bike and hike through Hells Gate National Park. I did want to try and see if I could bike but it soon became evident that I couldn’t balance with one arm. But my faithful leaders Josh and Meg proved once again why they are the best ever and found me a hilarious, albeit embarrassing solution. They got a very nice man named Joseph to ride his bike into Hells Gate with me awkwardly sitting on the back trying to hold on with one arm and keep my legs from touching the ground. If I thought I got stares just walking down a street you can’t imagine the stares I got riding on the back of a locals bike. I understand now why Africans think muzungo’s are ridiculous. Despite the awkwardness I was and am extremely thankful for this solution as I was able to experience Hells Gate and see all of the pretty animals within; zebras, giraffes, antelopes, baboons, warthogs, and buffalo! Once we got through the bike ride and made it to the gorge entrance the real work began. The group met our guide Joseph ( a super popular name) who is maybe the most intense person I have ever met. He was in the kenya military for six years where he served in Sierra Leone, Darfur, and Somalia. Talk about seeing the worst of the worst. But he had such a positive spirit and is still able to see the beauty in the everyday things. His positive and can- do attitude made it possible for me to make it through the day and I am so thankful for him.
The gorges in the park are where part of Tomb Raider 2 was filmed if anyone wants a visual. And with my arm in a sling it was an opportune moment to make lots of 127 hours references. Joseph our guide saw my arm was hurt and immediately took my makeshift sling off and got a tensor band to wrap it so I could have a better range of motion. (Dad you would be impressed he wrapped it super tight just like you would.) And from then on out Joseph made sure that I wouldn’t be hindered during the hike because of my arm. He was my angel that day. He also terrified me because every time he would stretch my elbow he kept joking that he was going to pop it straight, and I think had it not been for my almost tears, he would have. Finishing the climb was such a great moment- not only were the views stunning but I was super proud I was able to do it all with only one strong arm. Sometimes asking for help is hard but I think when we do we are not only taught a lesson in humility but given a reminder about the kindness of others. My friend Leah tied my shoes all day, Meg did my hair, and Ashley helped me with the zippers on my backpack. Although I don’t like that I cannot straighten or bend my arm all the way, I appreciate the injury for the experiences it gave me. I was able to accomplish something I didn’t think was possible and I was taught a huge lesson about the importance of asking for help.
Pictures won’t do Hells Gate justice as it was just filled with absolutely breathtaking scenery but I will upload a few to give y’all just a taste.

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‘Kewa hapo, kewa sasa, popote ulipo, kewa hapo.’ Be here, be present, wherever you are, be here. That is our motto for this trip and it has been such a release throwing away the worries of planning that come with daily life back home and just living in the moment. I really hope whoever is reading this is able to connect to this motto in whatever way you can at home.
Nairobi is like no place I have ever been before. I fall asleep to blaring Celine Dion music from local shops ( she is huge in Kenya) and I wake up to the sound of roosters. The streets are filled with some of the craziest drivers I have ever seen and so j-walking has a whole new level of fear associated with it to me. Matatu’s ( local mini vans) even have a guide in addition to a driver so that navigating the streets of Nairobi doesn’t become fatal. I haven’t yet gotten used to the stares that often come from being a mzungo (foreigner) but people have been so friendly that it isn’t something that is bothersome or worrying.
I have spent the last six nights in Nairobi and have enjoyed my time here immensely. The hostel we have been staying at (Manyatta backpackers hostel) has been amazing and we have felt so spoiled in our time here. This week we went to Kibera ( my favourite thing), met with local gender rights activists, and got acclimated to living in Kenya. Operation Groundswell really aims to make its participants more ethical and responsible travelers aiming for us to become super comfortable in whatever city we are traveling to. Josh and Meg our fabulous trip leaders have given us tons of ownership on the trip which has been amazing and forced us all to step outside of our comfort zones. On our first day in Nairobi they gave us each 100 shillings ( around $1.20 ) and let us loose in a local market (which was insanely busy) with the instructions to buy something and to bargain( My nightmare). Well let me tell you I have never felt more like an odd man out than I did navigating my way through the busy market while every vendor called ‘Mzungo’ or ‘Sista’ at me. This would not have been something I would have done on my own but it was an amazing experience and I am so glad Josh and Meg made us do it. Another fun experience was our photo scavenger hunt this morning. We were broken into three teams of 4 and given tasks to take pictures of different things all around Nairobi. If you know me you know that sometimes I get nervous talking to strangers and asking questions so obviously this was daunting but it turned out to be a huge success. We walked all through Nairobi and by the end of it I felt as if I were just walking through Toronto on a hot summers day.
Tomorrow we live for Naivasha to go camping for two days which is so exciting! We are going to bike through hells gate national park where I will finally get to see some animals! And then hike through the gorges of the park which inspired the sketches of lion king!!! I’m excited to be camping outside and falling asleep to the sounds of hippos and enjoying the beautiful scenery. From there we are taking an 8ish hour bus ride to kisumu city where we will be working and spending the next two weeks. Once I am in kisumu I will have wifi once again and will update all you lovely people.

Lots and lots and lots of love to all!!!!

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Jambo Rafikis!!!
Today I spent my morning in the largest slum in East Africa; Kibera. And it was poa sana ( very cool). To be honest last night I was quite nervous about visiting Kibera because I have never seen a slum before and was expecting an overload of emotions. But I can tell you now the only emotion I felt all morning was pure joy. Kibera has a population of 1.2 million people and is absolutely massive. People live, work, go to school and church there. And yet you will not find Kibera on a map as it is technically illegal.
We took the public bus into Kibera and when we got off began to walk through the slums to the Massai Mbili an art collective that has become famous not only within Kibera but also around the world. Massai Mbili was founded around 2005 by local artists who wanted to raise the importance of art within the community. Goaba one of the founding artists told us that during that time art was considered a waste of time and those that called themselves artists were considered uncool. And so these artists worked to show how important art could be. Goaba said that a few years ago being a gangster was considered cool and that now being an artist is what is cool. These guys were definitely the coolest cats in the slum as we walked through the areas everyone stopped to say hello to them.
In addition to hosting around 8 local artists Maasai Mbili has children from Kibera come in everyday to paint and have a space to escape from their everyday lives. They are able to use art as a therapy for these children and told us that their progress has been evident as the first paintings children did were always of horrible scenes but as they came back their paintings progressed towards beautiful things.
The hopes of the Maasai Mbili were amplified in 2007 when the elections in Kenyan turned violent. One of the art collectives most famous artists Solo7 recognized the extreme need for peace in Kenya during this time and instead of running away decided to take action. Solo said ” if I ran away I would become a victim of circumstance.” And so he began to create street art all over Nairobi in the name and hope of peace. ‘Peace wanted alive’ became his slogan.
Kibera is often seen by outsiders as dirty, unsafe and a haven of poverty. But I saw nothing but a space of community and love during my time there. These artists wanted to show that good could come out of Kibera and remind the outside world of the human experience that exists within. When I asked one one of the artists who later walked us around part of the slum what he would want the world to know about Kibera he answered that he would want people too see that there is life inside. He said that often a single story is told about this place, that mzungo’s (foreigners like us) often drive on busses down the main road taking pictures but never getting off to walk around and interact with those who live there. People then walk away with a negative view of a place they never really got to know. Getting off the bus today and walking through Kibera was such a positive experience. Everyone was friendly, I saw nothing but smiles and people who were nothing but proud of where they were from.

I am so far in love with my adventure. My team is amazing filled with people with such big heats and smiles. And the people of Kenya are nothing but friendly. We have Swahili lessons everyday around 5 and so I am off to practice mine so I don’t embarrass myself.

Lots of love to everyone!!!!

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This is it!!! Leaving Toronto in half an hour! Got through security super quick and was able to buy a magazine and a book for the flight. It is all starting to hit me as I sit here waiting to board. The emotions are a little overwhelming but I know that these emotions means something exciting is happening. Tomorrow morning I will be in London for a split second before heading off to Nairobi. Once I arrive there I am sure things will be quite crazy so I won’t be able to update ya’ll for a bit!
Mom and Dad you two made this all possible so thank you thank you thank you. I love you both more thank you could ever know. I can’t wait to tell you all about this trip when I am home!
Africa here I come!!‚úą‚úą‚úą

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Hi Friends!

So as scary as it may be I am leaving for a two month adventure in East Africa on Friday! (is this real life?!!!) Before I tell you all about this fabulous adventure I will backtrack a bit to how I got here.Image
When I was applying for universities in the fall of my senior year I knew for certain that I wanted to go far away. I only applied to schools outside of my own province of Ontario, where none of my friends were applying. This struck some of my friends as odd as they know how close I am with my family and how much I enjoy the comforts of home (DVR, Sarah’s baking, Charlie, Toby, and Henry, Dinner dates with Mom and Dad, days spent poolside with the whole family). My family however was not surprised at all and could not have been more supportive as they know that one of my defining characteristics has always been my love of adventure. This love of adventure started early in my life when I decided as a strong-minded six year old that I too wanted to go to overnight camp like my older siblings. Luckily I have parents that have always trusted my instincts and so off they sent me, and I could not be more glad that they did as I fell in love with the adventures that come with camp life and have gone back every summer since. I found plenty of little adventures throughout my elementary and high school years but took my first BIG adventure when I traveled to the east coast of Canada to attend University at STFX. I won‚Äôt pretend that there were not a few times in my first few weeks out there that I became homesick and missed life back in Ontario, but I never for a second questioned my choice of moving out there. Choosing to go far away for university has been the best decision I have ever made; I was forced to step out of my comfort zone, meet lots of new people, make new friends, and live on my own (I can now make more than Kraft Dinner!) Traveling to Nova Scotia for school has affirmed my belief that only good things can happen when you take big leaps of faith. After my first year of university I knew I was ready for my next big adventure and my next big leap.
Now to backtrack once again I will explain quickly about my love of volunteering. This love was found late in life but once it was it buried itself deep into my soul and has never left. When I was 16 I had the amazing opportunity to travel to New Orleans with a group of students that had also participated in the leadership program at Muskoka Woods, the camp I had grown up attending. And so I spent the March break of my grade eleven year gutting houses in NOLA, and hanging out with the most adorable children in the world in the government housing projects. This week changed my life. From that point on I knew that I wanted my future to involve making the world a better place, and spreading awareness about causes I believed in (and if you know me you know I have A LOT of causes). I didn’t know then, and I still do not know now how these dreams I have will manifest themselves but I trust that by taking great leaps of faith I will eventually find my way.
Fast-forward to me going to Africa. I knew after New Orleans I wanted to go on another volunteer trip, and deep in my heart I knew that I wanted to go to East Africa. So I saved up money waitressing during my first summer home from university and began researching trips. In December of 2012 I finally found one that I knew was for me.
I will be traveling with the wonderful organization Operation Groundswell who works to give participants a new view on what ‘traveling’ and ‘volunteering’ means. Their aim is ” to build a community of ‚Äúbackpacktivists‚ÄĚ that are socially, environmentally and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.” Not only does the trip provide me with a unique opportunity to travel and adventure¬†through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda but it will also help to connect me¬†with some of the most determined and unique people and organizations who are working incredibly hard to bring issues of gender, sexuality, and human rights into the spotlight.¬†These are topics I am incredibly passionate about and I am so excited to join up with a group of people¬†who feels the same way and is excited about making positive change. We will be spending a lot of our time in the bustling metropolis of Kenya‚Äôs capital city, Nairobi. We‚Äôll learn about the post-election violence of 2007 through Solo 7, an artist activist in the Kibera slum. We will also work alongside human rights organizations such as The Gay Kenya Trust, and various women‚Äôs and children‚Äôs groups in the Mathare Slum.¬†We will also be working in the¬†Kisumu region of Kenya which¬†is home to countless organizations that work to fight for human rights and gender related issues. There we will be¬†working alongside journalists and media organizations to learn about the realities of East African life. We will also be working in Rwanda¬†¬†staying¬†with host families, uncovering stories and experiences from one of Africa‚Äôs most unfortunate human rights travesties. We will travel around to various genocide memorials¬†and work with local organizations who work to facilitate positive change and sustainable peace. And in Uganda I will be bungee jumping OVER and white water rafting IN the Nile! (Can you say trip of a lifetime!?)

Now that is just a snapshot of what we will be doing and I am sure we will encounter many more projects and adventures along the way. This is going to be a really big leap of faith for me but I am confident that it will be a fruitful one. Currently I am TERRIFIED, ANXIOUS, and EXCITED all at the same time which often feels like I am having multiple mini heart-attacks. I have yet to pack or even buy everything I need and I think I am sub-consciously putting all of these last minute things off to make myself believe that this trip isn’t really happening.
But it is. In just three days this blondie will be touching down in Nairobi town and taking on whatever this opportunity has to offer. I will be taking HEAPS of pictures and videos to show to everyone what my travels looked like when I am back home but I hope to be able to update this blog at least once a week to let everyone know how my journey is going.

SO that is all for now! Thank you for journeying with me, I will miss all of you SO much during this trip but will be SO excited to tell you all about it when I get back!!!

xxx. Em

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