Posted by: kasiawilk | January 12, 2011

December: A Month Full of Varied Experiences….Part I

December – where do I begin to describe how fabulous this month has been for me….I must emphasize this month has been mostly a holiday month giving me time to travel and visit this beautiful country and the experiences I’ve had have been remarkable.

 I was still busy during the first 2 weeks of December at work with facilitating staff clearance processes, and working with the Monitoring and Evaluation team on organizing and updating the databases of all A2E projects and data over the last 5 years. It’s been an ongoing process of setting up a more efficient and better system to provide better data management techniques that will allow more feasibility in what can be done with the data collected. I have also received confirmation of being relocated to Machakos sometime later this month (January) and I’m looking forward to assisting in project startup and implementation, as well as being able to do field visits and provide innovative documentation techniques of Jhpiego’s varied and numerous outreach activities.

Ludan and I initially travelled for the first time back to Nairobi for the weekend at the beginning of December to take part in a central region VSOC meeting and Global Education Event focused on Climate Change. The VSOC meeting intended to allow volunteers from the Central region of Kenya to discuss important matters and issues that have been arising at our placements and also to re-unite and share how our first few weeks have been going. Following the VSOC meeting and lunch, we partook in a Global Education event on Climate Change since its effects often have a larger impact on small rural communities where the dependence on water and farming is more pervasive. There were various speakers from different climate change groups throughout Kenya who provided some interesting facts on the effects of climate change in Kenya. We were all given trees to plant after the event and we planted about two dozen. I felt great during this whole process of taking a small step together with the VSO community to do something positive for the environment.

We later met up with other volunteer friends to hang out in Nairobi and stayed with fellow volunteer mates Gareth, Joanne, Allys, and Eddy near Langata Rd. Our friend’s flat directly overlooks the Kibera slums, Nairobi’s largest slum population. Measuring a few kilometres, it has its own set of rules and laws, and as Gareth mentioned, can be quite easy to get lost inside. I was reminded of the many stark contrasts I have witnessed in Nairobi > very affluent and wealthy “western” areas such as Parklands and Westlands meet some of the poorest and neediest areas of Nairobi such as Kibera in relative proximity.

 I’ve experienced such stark contrasts many times in Kenya– one day I am in a rural home made out of twigs and cow dung speaking to a Masai warrior whose diet consists of milk, blood, and meat; the next day I am in Westlands in a wealthy friends large home with full furnishings and appliances and can shop at the local mall and eat at fine restaurants. Seeing both sides of life – the wealthy and the poor, continuously makes me ponder about the basic needs of human beings and what really constitutes happiness. Is happiness defined by what you have or the people you are surrounded with? I believe it is the latter for my most profound and joyous moments in Kenya have been spent in good company with those who lead simple lives yet have generous hearts. It is with the local people and children that I have seen true beauty and true happiness. It is in the simplest moments, in the simplest of places, in the genuine smiles and eyes of others, in sharing our cultures, where I have found my happiest moments. Based on other similar experiences I’ve witnessed in life during my travels I’ve come to the conclusion that materialism can often times enshroud us in disconnection from what is human. When we are stripped away from all of our possessions, our status, our appearances, our wealth, then we are naked in our humanness, our connection to others feels more genuine, and communal solidarity is easily formed. The bond formed between two poor men is stronger than the bond formed between two wealthy men….why is this so? Think about it…

 Our next weekend trip involved visiting Mount Kenya which is not too far from Embu. In fact, we can even see the tip of Mount Kenya from the outskirts of Embu where lies the Mount Kenya Forest. Ludan and I decided to travel there during the second weekend of December for we knew we’de be relocated to other areas come January and we really wanted to see this extinct volcanoe, standing as the second highest volcanic mountain in all of Africa (Mount Kilimanjaro being the highest in Tanzania). We knew we would not climb the mountain (standing at a steep 17,058ft) since it requires endurance training and takes at least 5 days for a mini climb (12 if you want to reach the peak), but we were happy to go and get some good views of it up close and see the local wildlife.

We drove a few hours and I was pleasantly surprised to find our “Serena Mountain Lodge” inside the Mount Kenya National Park to be beautiful and comfortable with a balcony view of various wildlife as they came to the manmade watering hole set in front of the lodge in order to maximize wildlife viewing which we took advantage of even from our bedroom balconies! The food was also a change from the local nyama choma and chapati we had been so used to eating the last few weeks and I gorged on the rich and varied buffet like no other – I had no idea when I’d be able to eat so much great food again! We weren’t the only ones that enjoyed the restaurant food as the local sykes monkeys tend to steal the restaurant food and can even grab cookies right out of your hand…I had my own balcony experience with a Sykes monkey that jumped on my back!

 We were woken up very early at 6am to see the clear and best view of Mount Kenya as well as some Buffalo that had gathered around the watering hole. The sunrise view of the mountain peaks were beautiful and we shared the views on the rooftop floor with our monkey friends who were sneaking around to get breakfast and had a few more close encounters with us! We later ventured on a nature trail with a guide and saw various wildlife including a buffalo hiding very close in the bushes (they are the 2nd most dangerous animals next to the hippo!), dikas and other deer, colobus monkeys, warrior ants, and various other small animals. A nice tea break in the bush with milk and rum and cake was a pleasant break and we learned a great amount about the environment and forestation of Mount Kenya.

 The next morning we were woken early to see wild elephants gathering at the waterhole amidst the peacefulness of the forest. I felt like going into a state of meditation as I looked out on the beautiful landscape and view of Mount Kenya and listened to the various morning songs of birds and wild creatures. This was probably the most peaceful moment from my whole trip thus far, and I still remember it with great detail. After lunch we ventured to Sweetwater Tented Camp to visit the chimpanzee orphanage. Although we could not find the sign along the road and passed it, getting lost, we eventually made it just in time to see these magnificent creatures. Containing somewhere around 97% of the same genes as humans, I wondered if they experience the same thoughts and emotions that we as humans do…love, anger, frustration, sadness, joy, peacefulness….every chimpanzee we saw had their own personality including Paco, who stands out in my mind as the showoff, standing up on two feet displaying his masculinity as he called for food. Sadly most of these chimps have been rescued from decrepit living conditions in cages, experiencing cruelty from humans, abuse, and maltreatment. They are not fit to ever be released back into the wild and depend on the orphanage to sustain them for the rest of their lives. I can’t imagine how anyone could feel ok with themselves while keeping such a beautiful animal in a cage for 9 years on display to the public in a gas station as was one example…thank goodness for Jane Goodman who began a movement to rescue chimpanzees from abuse back in the 1980’s. She has done much to study and educate others on their way of life and rescue many of them from their abusive pasts.


 We had a mini safari during our ride through the sweetwater conservation park both to the orphanage and on our way back. Measuring some 90,000 acres, the park is home to the big 5 animals (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino) including the white rhino which is numbered only to be 8 in the world! Sweetwater has 4 of them. As we were rushing to make it in time to the chimpanzee orphanage in the rickety old car across very bad roads, we would drive around the corner, and see a herd of wild lions walking along the road beside the car. We turned another corner, and saw an elephant run across the road, a giraffe peek out from behind the bushes, zebras run ahead of us, etc. On our way back we also saw warthogs, buffalo, gazelles, dikas, baboons and various monkeys, as well as a beautiful sunset over the Kenyan grasslands. What a great trip! Later that night after eating some deluxe dinner, we continued to watch the various animals gathering at the waterhole before dozing off.

 We headed back on our third day to Embu, but not before stopping at the Mount Kenya National Park to get a closer view of the snowy peaks. We managed to see them only for a few minutes before the clouds rolled in and covered them completely which did not fare well for great photos. We did however enjoy the views as much as we could before journeying back to Embu. I took photos along the way of the diverse landscapes, seeing how the mountainous and northern vegetation turned into semi-arid desert cacti trees, then turned into tropical rainforest like vegetation close to Embu with fields of banana tree plantations and much hotter temperatures. I have to say this was a weekend well spent exploring the colder regions of Kenya and if we had more time, I would probably be up to the challenge of climbing the mountain, but for now will have to settle with the photos.

 Stay tuned for more of my December trip experiences in my next blog!

Kwaheri for now….

Posted by: kasiawilk | December 8, 2010

Sliding into local life

 “Do you eat snails and lizards?” I look down at the white slug in a plastic bag that is being presented to me by a 4year old boy on the outskirts of Embu, as we continue along our walk with Bancy and her friends. The child smiles at me and has beautiful curious eyes. I reply a few broken fragmented sentences in Swahili and ask if I can take a photo of him and his siblings as they giggle and smile. I’m not sure if they understand me but they eagerly pose as I bring out my camera. I ask their names and after introducing myself and shaking their hands, they run off eagerly, happy to have had contact with a “muzungu”, and perhaps will have stories to tell now. These are just some of the many children we run into regularly whenever Ludan and I walk among the rural roads of small communities. Some children run and follow us quite some distance, just to have a look at these peculiar strangers. One boy ran quite some distance in front of us, only to then stand ahead and watch us as we approached him. I hope we don’t seem too strange to them, however I always smile whenever we get asked peculiar questions.

Today we are visiting rural Embu, with local friends who have been warmly sharing with us their neighbourhood homes and knowledge. We visit coffee plantations, and a coffee processing plant, as well as a forest full of banana trees, and a small waterfall. We attract the attention of locals who smile and wave, often saying “how are you?” to which we reply “mzuri sana!”

 The previous weekend we visited another part of Embu with Ros, and met lots of local children and had a chance to see the Embu slums. Based right beside the town centre, they create quite a visual contrast to the busy traffic and varied shops tucked behind the slums’ backyards. Most people here get their water from a nearby small waterfall and have no refuse for garbage or sewage. Ros tells me these people have no land and no possessions and are displaced in the slums if they have nowhere to go. Chickens and pigs run around the area with no boundaries in place as I see some dogs rummaging through a garbage pile. I hear the animals are trained well enough that they return to their respective owners in the evenings most of the time. Despite the desolate landscape, children and families peek out of the slums and run out to have a look, to wave, to smile. It seems in many places the contrast of wealth and poverty are allocated back to back within close proximity, as if to showcase the duality of life, and Vancouver’s East and West Hastings Street in my Canadian neighbourhood is no different I remember. I continually feel humbled when meeting locals, and am aiming to become semi-fluent in Swahili by the time I leave Kenya!

 We have also been fortunate to learn how to make ugali and chapati at our local hostel kitchen. It feels great to expand my culinary expertise to include Kenyan dishes and I have a few more to learn including Mandazi, Samosa, and hopefully Nimechoma (a popular meat roast in Kenya).

 Dec. 1st was World Aids Day and I reflected on how fortunate I am to be able to work with a partner organization who contributes substantially towards reducing the spread of HIV, improving the quality of life of those infected and affected, and mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the epidemic in Kenya. The following HIV/AIDS statistics are still prevalent:

 33 million people are living with HIV, of which 40% are young people between 15-25 years old.

 AIDS is the leading global killer of women of reproductive age (20-59).

 Human toll is still catastrophic – 25 million dead

There is some good news: Since 1999, the year in which it is thought that the epidemic peaked, globally, the number of new infections has fallen by 19%. Of the estimated 15 million people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries who need treatment today, 5.2 million have access—translating into fewer AIDS-related deaths. The gains are real but still fragile. Future progress will depend heavily on the joint efforts of everyone involved in the HIV response.

Since 1988, World AIDS Day has served to raise awareness about the epidemic, honour those who have died, draw global attention to the rights of people living with HIV&AIDS, and inspire positive action.  The theme for 2010 is “Universal Access and Human Rights”, and the aim is to highlight that in many countries reduced access to essential HIV information, prevention tools, treatment, and services is occurring as a result of laws and policies that are inconsistent with their commitments to human rights.  The day aims to mobilize support for the protection of these rights in order to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support and combat stigma and discrimination.

 In addition, the Aphia II Eastern project works to improve and expand services at health facilities including reproductive health and family planning (RH/FP), TB, PMTCT, Malaria, and Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) for HIV. We had a chance firsthand to visit the Embu District Hospital on Nov. 16th and have a look at the recent renovations done in the maternity ward by Jhpiego. The new rooms are clean, have dividing curtains, and improved showers with ceramic tiles that provide more comfortable and private space during a mothers post partum stay with her newborn. The old rooms are overcrowded, have no privacy, and contain lower cleanliness standards in the washrooms and wards. As a result, it is reported that less than 50% of mothers deliver inside local hospitals, with the # 1 reason being a lack of privacy during childbirth.

The new mothers we saw that day were not placed in the renovated rooms unfortunately due to pending final approval from Jhpiego’s main office in Baltimore, U.S, and were still spending time in the overcrowded, dirty rooms. That’s the downside of having such a large organization overseeing so many international projects – it takes time to implement and gain final approval of certain actions, something I hope will improve in the future. We also spoke with the head nursing officer and learnt about the recent post partum family planning program which aims to educate and serve mothers following birth on further family planning methods. There is a 20% FP follow up rate in rural communities, but all staff are working to improve this number. Another innovative approach being used with APHIA II is integrating many healthcare services for individuals all at one location. This includes services such as couples testing, VCT, and PMTCT. In the past, this was not the case. More spouses are also being encouraged to participate in PMTCT services for women, and it is encouraging to know that children born to HIV + mothers can be born HIV – with the right treatment and services. After learning about the various health worker trainings in FP/RH methods, we spoke with the medical director of Embu hospital and learned that 10 million Ksh is being put forth to renovate it further and improve the current infrastructure.  Seeing as Embu is one of the largest hospitals in the district (300-500 individuals pass through each day) and that there are a shortage of health workers, this is rewarding news.

 We spent several days in Isiolo and Kitui, helping to close down the APHIA II Eastern satellite offices that have been operating in the field to deliver effective and innovative outreach services to community members in hard to reach areas. We attended close out presentation meetings that highlighted the successful results in the projects’ 3 result areas. These consist of 1) Improved & expanded facility-based HIV/AIDS, TB, RH/FP, malaria and MCH services 2) Improved & expanded civil society activities to increase healthy behaviours and 3) Improved and expanded care for people and families affected by HIV/AIDS.  

Through partnership with local implementing partners, Jhpiego has been able to achieve many innovative outreach activities in very hard to reach areas. One of them involves moonlight VCT outreaches, where people can be tested at night, reducing the stigma that is often associated with public knowledge of carrying the HIV virus. Further outreaches have included creating sporting events and games where many hundreds and thousands of people have been able to be tested at the intermissions between games. This approach of bringing testing and counselling to the people, as opposed to making the people come to the testing centres, is one approach that has worked very well in A2E. Involving the community in collaborative civil society activities and support groups has resulted in improved behavioural changes to prevent HIV transmission and more importantly has served as a way to reduce the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS. A2E does this through involving people of all ages, for example in Magnet Theatre which allows individuals to engage in role playing scenarios that educate and address situations involving stigma and RH. A2E also cares for some 62,000 orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) providing psychosocial support, nutrition, shelter, healthcare, education, legal protection, and HIV prevention. We got a chance to meet many of the local implementing partners and listen in on the various lessons that have been learnt over the last 5 years regarding capacity building, systems strengthening, joint planning by all partners, empowering communities to take responsibility for their health, and how to better implement community health trainings.

Many of these lessons and feedback will be incorporated into the transition plans of starting up APHIA Plus which is another 5 year project also funded by USAID that Jhpiego has just recently received funding for! Everyone at A2E is very excited about this and my role will be to help provide technical expertise in project startup and implementation during the early phases of establishing baselines and protocols that build on the previous successes and improve on the lessons learnt. So I am very much looking forward to this part of my placement, and the possible relocation to a new satellite office which will be either in Nyeri or Machakos. It will be however sad to leave Embu, as I am growing more fond of the people here day by day.

After closing out the offices in Isiolo and Kitui, and clearing all staff, we got to know everyone better at the two social evenings and goodbye parties we attended with Isiolo and Kitui office staff. In Isiolo we listened to Patrick Mose (Isiolo office coordinator) say loving and welcoming words of parting and gratitude for working with such a great team. I felt very welcomed to be with such wonderful people and to learn about their work and culture. In fact, I learnt more about Kenya in speaking with my work colleagues than I have in all the pre-reading material I read before my placement! It was great to compare cultures and to learn from each other. After a nice meal, I even tried some dancing – Kenyan style! I think my valiant effort did not match my Kenyan counterparts however. In Kitui, it was a similar experience of meetings, staff clearance, and office closeout procedures followed by one of the best meals I’ve had here at a lovely restaurant called Bavaria. The food was amazing! We also sang Christmas songs, wished everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and received presents. I wanted to stay for the dancing, but had an early morning back to Embu so had to depart before it all started.

 On our drive back to Embu I filmed a little of the diverse landscape that encompasses Kenya – we went from dry desert surroundings in Isiolo to green tropical lush forests upon reaching Embu. From deserts to rainforests, to sandy beaches, to snowy mountains, Kenya has it all! I can’t wait to see more of this beautiful landscape over the coming months, and bask in the warm and tropical weather all winter. I saw many young children walking by themselves barefoot from school close to the road as we were driving and I couldn’t help wondering how safe they were, so close to the road, so young (some as small as 3-4yrs old!). It seems however that children here are much more independent than back home in Canada. They learn to take care of themselves at a very young age and help their families at home and with farm animals as soon as possible. I couldn’t help wondering how different childhood is like here for these kids…without all the materialistic comforts that kids are used to back at home. And because of this, even small surprises are much appreciated, their enthusiasm and curiosity is contagious, always smiling and laughing, shouting to us and not being shy for the most part. We stopped to buy some mini sweet bananas from a road vendor for only 50Ksh and I continued to observe the many sights on our drive – the women and men working hard in the fields, people herding their goats and sheep, or some sitting by the road looking at passerby’s for a lack of employment is still a reality for many.

The slower pace of life here is something I have embraced quite well and something I fully appreciate. It was one of the things I eagerly looked forward to in the last few weeks before departing for Kenya, when I was running around from morning till night, barely having time to fit in all my commitments, projects, work assignments, and preparations. Here, I can finally breathe. I have time to think, to reflect, to write J I have time to talk to people, to not be in a rush, and generally to take it easy. We’ve had time to have dinner with the hostel manager, learn some Swahili from the hostel staff, cook ugali and chapati with them, and watch the popular Tusker Fame Project singing show with them on the weekends. I have also begun to get to know the people in my neighbourhood better such as the ladies who sell bananas and fruit outside our hostel, or the people we pass on our way to work and we see when we go to have lunch. I enjoy the greetings, smiles, handshakes, and general conversations we have although there are days when I’m frustrated with my lack of Swahili.

 I could write another few pages…but I think I will save the most recent experiences for my next blog…to be coming shortly!

So for now my new roommate Lizzie (I have a lizard living in my room with me) and I bid you farewell and happy holiday preparations. I wonder what it will be like to have my first Christmas in a tropical climate….

 Till next time…Kwaheri!

Posted by: kasiawilk | November 17, 2010

I survived my first week in Nairobi and Embu!

Habari zenu everyone!

So here I am finally able to write my blog chapter after surviving my first few weeks in Kenya and settling into my first days of work with Jhpiego in Embu following the VSO Jitolee In Country Training Course in Nairobi.

Here’s a recap of some of the first experiences and impressions of my journey:

Since the journey to Nairobi from Vancouver is over 18hours (as there are no direct flights), I decided to stay overnight in London and was able to catch up with old friends in the evening over a nice dinner and good conversation. I felt well rested and ready to head off to Kenya the next day! I met up with another CUSO-VSO volunteer, Ludan, at Heathrow airport, and we were excited to begin our work with Jhpiego in both Kitui and Isiolo.

Upon arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi we were greeted warmly by our driver and met two other CUSO-VSO recruits > Ryan from Texas, and Heather from Vancouver, B.C. We arrived at Gracehouse and were taken to nice rooms and fed a big meal of rice, beef, vegetables, and salad. The next day we were moved to another Gracehouse resort, where all the other VSO volunteers would be arriving. Since our North American group was the first group to arrive, we planned on doing some sightseeing that day but when jetlag took over, there is no other choice other than sleep! It is an 11 hour time difference between Vancouver and Nairobi, so it took us a few days to readjust to half a day forward in time.

When our European and Filipino VSO volunteer counterparts arrived the next day, we instantly connected as a group and began to explore some of the neighbouring shopping centres and sites around our hotel. I think the thing that struck me most when walking the streets of Nairobi is the chaotic and dangerous driving that takes place and how careful one needs to be when crossing the roads! There are almost no lights, stop signs, or other guidance posts to direct traffic at intersections albeit a few in the city centre. In order to therefore move anywhere, you find everyone is pushing and shoving to move anywhere on the road, and I still cannot figure out how Kenyans navigate those roundabouts and large intersections; I hold my breath every time I am in a vehicle passing through them! We asked our driver one evening if he has been in any accidents and he replied “of course!” as if it is a normal thing around here.

Nairobi is very cosmopolitan with many contrasts and much congestion both in traffic and people moving through the crowded streets and roads. Being a group of “muzungus” (Kenyans term for white people), we had to watch our belongings closely when walking, as well as finding out proper prices of things for it is common to be charged the ‘muzungu tax’ if one doesn’t know how to bargain J

We were all very surprised to find the weather a lot cooler in Nairobi than expected. I packed LIGHT, and now wish I had brought warmer clothes for the evenings and the heavy rainfalls that periodically blasted through the city several times a day. And they are quite hard and heavy, not like the light and long ones I am used to in Vancouver. The streets become completely flooded following such a downpour and you find everyone is scrambling to get on a matatu or bus when the rain starts.

Speaking of matatus, it was quite a “first” experience for me, when Douglas, our VSO ICT coordinator took us on a matatu to the city centre one day in the pouring rain. Kenyans use matatus to get around town as well as city buses for they are an easy and affordable way to travel. I would describe a matatu as a small city van, very confined with limited personal space, not always in the best shape for the road, and almost never being equipped with proper seatbelts. Although I felt strangely uncomfortable during my first ride as people jumped on at periodic stops, squishing to the full capacity, I am glad I was not sitting in the front where I would have witnessed the reckless driving through gigantic puddles, and chaotic intersections. I think that with time however, all things will grow to be normal.

Our VSO Jitolee In Country Training week went very well and we were presented with an overwhelming but very informative amount of information on VSO policies and procedures, on each of the three Program Area Plans VSO works with in Kenya: HIV/AIDS, Disability, and Secure Livelihoods. We learnt about Monitoring and Evaluation, Management Issues, Transparency and Governance, Cultural and Social Norms, as well as Administrative, Financial, and Security Briefings. We also received further Health and Safety information and were taught a large amount of Swahili within 3 days by our wonderful teacher Lucy – let’s hope it is put to good use!

We met representatives from our partner organizations and our VSO program managers halfway throughout the week and they joined us in 3 way partnership agreements and took part in group lessons and briefings. I found this to be very helpful in getting to know our employers before beginning work with them, and making sure our expectations and objectives were clearly outlined.

Ludan and I were somewhat surprised to find out our placements had slightly changed, although this is not unusual for many volunteer placements. After speaking with the Jhpiego Program Director, we learnt we would be working and living in Embu together instead of separately in Isiolo and Kitui where it was originally planned. Jhpiego’s current APHIA II Project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development is reaching its closure point, and both the Kitui and Isiaolo field offices are currently closing down. Although we will be travelling to both Isiaolo and Kitui to help with project closure and documentation, we will both be based for the time being in Embu. If Jhpiego receives the next USAID funding award, we will most likely be relocated to other locations to assist in project startup and implementation, and if not, then we will be placed in other Jhpiego projects.

Jhpiego’s  AIDS, Population and Health Integrated Assistance Program (APHIA II) in Eastern Province is designed to empower local Kenyan communities to address health concerns by strengthening linkages between health care providers and community groups. The five-year, USAID-funded program, which began in 2006 under a Jhpiego-led consortium of local and international partners, works to improve and expand: 1) facility-based services for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, FP/RH, malaria, and maternal and child health; 2) civil society activities to increase health behaviors; and 3) care and support for people and families affected by HIV/AIDS. With a lower HIV prevalence rate than most other areas in Kenya, Eastern Province presents a unique opportunity to mitigate a potential crisis. Jhpiego is also a partner under three other APHIA II projects: Western Province, Coast and Rift Provinces, and Health Communications Marketing (a nationwide APHIA program). (See

    I was pleasantly surprised to find a big birthday cake being presented to me, Erlinda, and Heather during our last day of VSO ICT Training on Nov. 12. We all got cards and everyone sang while the three of us blew out our candles! We then had our tea break with delicious cake and I must say it was a great way to end the training! Since it was also our last night together as a group, we ventured to a party in the evening held at a lounge at Yaya shopping centre where we got to mingle and chat, and dance away the first week J I felt  grateful and content to have met so many new friends and share my Birthday with them in Kenya! I find the VSO Kenya volunteers have a great supportive network available which includes regular VSO Committee (VSOC) meetings, and there are already plans in the works to meet up with other volunteers and explore Kenya during the holidays.

After meeting the Deputy Project Director on Thursday, we had agreed to travel to Embu on Sunday which gave Ludan and I a free day on Saturday to explore a bit of Nairobi. To my delight, we were able to create a full day of exploring some of Nairobi’s wildlife and culture along with Iain, a volunteer development advisor with VSO. We visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts’ Orphans’ Project where we got to see and touch orphaned baby elephants and learn about their care and the impact poaching has on their survival in the wild. We also caught a glimpse of a family of warthogs since the elephants are based in a national park that includes various other wildlife. We next stopped at the Giraffe National Park and had some very close encounters with the giraffe species J It was my first time to feed giraffes and after some insistence, I bravely partook in a giraffe kiss! They are beautiful, gentle, and graceful beings which I fell in love with after spending some time with them. Lastly, we ventured to see the ‘Bomas of Kenya’ show that highlights the traditional dances of Kenya’s various 44 ethnic groups from different regions. I learnt that in addition to Kenyans speaking English and Kiswahili, each ethnic group and region also has their own ethnic tribal language, dance, and traditions. Talk about a rich culture! Our journey ended with seeing some wild monkeys on our drive back, and seeing some local sights along the way ~ now it was off to Embu the next day. 

The drive to Embu was very scenic with lush green valleys and hilltops dispersed in between small villages and towns full of people selling various items along the streets, and children running around in small groups. We passed many plantation fields of pineapple, coffee, and rice and saw a glimpse of Mount Kenya peeking through the clouds as we approached Embu. The Embu region is the largest rice producing region for all of Kenya, so if you are looking for rice, this is the place to go! Embu is also known to be famous for its purple Jacaranda flowers which bloom right around this time of year on the many Jacaranda trees. The roads leading to Embu are very good in comparison to other parts of Kenya, but this is because most UN Embassies and NGO’s travel along this road from Nairobi, and it is funded by the IMF. Tomorrow we are travelling to the North Eastern part of Kenya to Isiolo to facilitate satellite office closedown, and I heard it is quite the contrast in such rural areas in terms of the road conditions.

We are living in a hostel in Embu, which is not what I expected, but for the time being, it is serving us well. If we are relocated to other locations for project startup and implementation, then we shall be put up in houses which I am looking forward to very much. Adjusting to the lack of variety in food, and resources in our modest placements has been better than I anticipated. Although, I’ve only been in the country for less than 2 weeks, and in Embu for a few days, I don’t miss the comforts of home as much as I thought I would. That being said…it is only the beginning J  

Ludan and I have met everyone in the Embu district regional office and I find people to be very warm and friendly. Greetings are very important in Kenyan culture so I have been practicing the various “Habari Ghani?” Habari ya asubuhi?” “Habari za leo?”, etc. greetings with everyone I meet. In the rural town of Embu, most people are a bit surprised to find a first time traveller to Kenya speaking some Swahili but I find it helps to build trust and openness with the people you meet. I have gotten used to the curious glances, stares, and attention that we seem to cause as well as the initial awkwardness that is sometimes felt when we approach strangers. I embrace it all with an open mind knowing that I am perceived as different in some ways, and that I need to work on making those meaningful friendships. We have come to know our hostel staff quite well, and they are looking after us with great care and warmth, and I very much enjoy interacting with them.

I believe our next month with Jhpiego will be a busy and productive month with documenting all the successes they have achieved over the last 5 years. In addition to working with the Kenyan Ministry of Health, Jhpiego works with around 30 Local Implemeting Partners (LIP’s) to help them carry out their groundwork, and through their commitment to partnership and innovative approaches to healthcare, they are one of the most successful non-profit organizations operating in Kenyan Eastern Province.

Some of the key highlights resulting from Jhpiego’s work in Kenya include:

  • In the last quarter of 2008, more than 54,000 clients accessed HIV counseling and testing services, over 41,000 orphans and vulnerable children were reached, and 5,500 patients received antiretroviral therapy (ART) in 28 sites as a result of the APHIA II Eastern Program.
  • In 2008, the APHIA II Eastern Program held an innovative soccer tournament in Embu Province that was linked with providing HIV/AIDS testing and counseling services and family planning. The soccer tournament was a huge success; 54 teams participated and 500 clients were tested and counseled.
  • ACCESS support to capacity building in voluntary counseling and testing has led to testing of more than 100,000 patients at nine national referral and teaching hospitals in 2007. ACCESS also provided technical and material assistance that resulted in: 1) supportive supervision for quality Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) services being used in eight provinces of Kenya; 2) Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) services being initiated at 92 new sites and pediatric ART services at 70 new sites; 3) 99% of new antenatal care clients and over 50% follow-up antenatal clients being screened for Tuberculosis (TB) at four pilot sites; 4) use of intermittent preventive treatment of malaria in pregnancy increasing significantly in a pilot district; and 5) Embu Provincial Hospital being established as a center of excellence for Active Management of the Third Stage of Labour (AMTSL).
  • As an example of the far-reaching success of peer education under Jhpiego’s work in urban slums, Jhpiego-trained peer educators saved lives by using their counseling skills to diffuse violence among their peers during the 2007 post-election turmoil in Kenya. Women’s support groups, people living with HIV/AIDS support groups and Young Mothers Clubs formed under this initiative continue to meet even after program activities have ended.

I will document our travels to Isiolo and initial groundwork with Jhpiego in my next blog so stay tuned!

Tutaonana 🙂

Posted by: kasiawilk | October 12, 2010

Jambo Everyone :)

Welcome to my Kenya blog!

As part of my commitment to be a change agent and help facilitate the evolution of our collective consciousness I have been embarking on several different projects and this will be my most exciting to date! I have been creating a Foundation for Global Change (, volunteering with Teen Journey as a mentor (, and soon going on a 6 month volunteer mission with CUSO-VSO ( to Kenya! My journey begins on Nov. 2, 2010 and I’m already feeling a mix of emotions and excitement all whirled into a deep appreciation of stepping into the unknown.

It has been a lifelong dream of mine to learn and to serve through a volunteer placement in a developing country. As the world becomes more globally interconnected and accessible, I feel ever more inspired to do this work and bring awareness to the issues and stories of the people I will be working with in Kenya.

I have chosen to volunteer with CUSO-VSO for its unique approach towards creating the vision of a world without poverty in which people work together to fulfill their potential. Unlike other development organizations, CUSO-VSO sends people rather than aid money in order to create sustainable long term solutions that revolve around sharing skills and knowledge which benefit the communities volunteers work with and the partner organizations volunteers are matched with.

I will be working with JHPIEGO (an affiliate of John Hopkins University) partner organization in Kitui, Kenya as a Documentation Advisor within the HIV & AIDS program area plan (PAP). For 35 years, Jhpiego has worked with front-line health workers by designing and implementing effective, low-cost, hands-on solutions to strengthen the delivery of health care services. By putting evidence-based health innovations into everyday practice, Jhpiego works to break down barriers to high-quality health care for the world’s most vulnerable populations.  Please find more information about their work at

HIV/AIDS has severely impacted the health workforce in Kenya leading to widespread attrition due to illness, death, and absenteeism. The workload has increased drastically causing resignations and a general movement away from clinical work. Special interventions are therefore needed to mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS on the health sector workforce in different field offices. I am happy to therefore share my skills in research and evaluation to support JHPIEGO in designing innovative approaches in the delivery of health care services and provide indicators of how success and change will be measured through a monitoring and evaluation framework. I especially look forward to working with the communities impacted by HIV/AIDS through direct observations at health facilities, conducting key informant interviews, documenting review, and providing questionnaires in order to collect data on changes in human resource needs. I fully support and am ready to be part of facilitating the overall partnership goal to strengthen the capacity of VSO, JHPIEGO and partners to deliver effective HIV and AIDS programs which have a strong evidence base.  

The Foundation for Global Change is based on 3 principles which I intend to use during my volunteer work overseas for this placement. They are:

1) Connection – I hope to connect cultures by sharing my own culture with Kenyans and bring their cultural richness back home with me as well as share it with all my online visitors and friends – stay tuned for photos and videos!

2) Empowerment – Within the  HIV/AIDS program area plan I will be working with communmity members and other staff within the employer organization to strengthen the capacity of Local Implementing Partners on the ground in delivering health care services for women and their families.

3) Innovation – By putting evidence-based health innovations into everyday practice, JHPIEGO works to break down barriers to high quality healthcare for the world’s most vulnerable populations. I look forward to providing some technical expertise to aid in this process in various JHPIEGO programs such as maternal and child health, HIV, and reproductive health.

I welcome your comments, questions, stories, and photos, and I look forward to taking that first step in a few weeks!

Asante Sana 🙂


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