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 🙂



  1. i did a brief blog search for cuso + volunteer and found your blog. i’m a cuso volunteer too heading off to india in the new year – and what a coincidence…in the first pic of this post i spotted heather – who i had my training with back in september! what a small world 🙂 pls send her my best and i look forward to following you on your adventure.


    • Thanks Kisha 🙂 I will pass along your regards to Heather when I see her this month and best to you on your adventures in India 🙂 Enjoy the experience!

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