Nestled on the northeastern slopes of Mount Kenya, on the outskirts of Meru town, International Peace Initiatives (IPI), our partner in Kenya, has been working since 2003 to support and advocate for the needs and rights of orphans, vulnerable children, and women battling poverty and/or affected by HIV/AIDS. Built on wasteland donated by the local community, its physical structures comprise the Kithoka Amani Community Home (KACH), home to about 30 children, and the nearby Tiriji Centre, its new eco-retreat, training, and conference centre. Organic gardens and eco-huts surround the main building, and permaculture courses and youth summits are regularly held here.
Immersion in a different culture
Last September, we welcomed 20 year old Kilian Bartsch to our Kenyan volunteer programme at IPI. In his first email, he described some of the excitement he felt to be volunteering there.
A few weeks back we went to distribute flyers about a medical camp that was going to be held at KACH, and on this small tour of the neighbourhood, I saw my first wild elephant! Yesterday I went on a little walk alone up to the highest spot in the area and on my way, kids just ran up to me to hold my hand and walk with me… The view from the top was stunning – the clouds and sky here are beautiful… I love Kenya more and more by the day and feel useful and appreciated, all while doing things for the environment!
Kilian threw himself into daily life at IPI with enthusiasm, curiosity, and creativity, starting off by coordinating efforts to build an enclosure for the biogas tank, designed to create a sustainable source of fuel for IPI’s kitchen. As part of his efforts, he researched how the tank worked and then began the task of
…carrying two buckets of cow dung every day from Tiriji to KACH, mixing it with water to form slurry and pouring into the tank. The people look at me as if I’m an expert in anaerobic digestion when I just spent an hour reading up on it on the internet!
In mid-January, Kilian’s hard work started to bear fruit.
About a week ago we could finally use the biogas I have been working on for the past three months to cook! I will do my best to try to leave as clear instructions as possible regarding it, [as well as] many people understanding how it works.
Supporting IPI to become sustainable
In his efforts to get the biogas tank operational, Kilian showed a deep awareness of a cause close to Ecologia’s heart: the need to ensure that when we and our partners introduce new technology and ways of doing things, it is supported to become sustainable – part of the fabric of day-to-day life. He has taught his successors how the biogas tank works and left step-by-step instructions about how to maintain it. Likewise, in KACH’s library, he has built a book-return box and worked hard to improve the book-return system so that the resources available to the children remain well-cared for.
Kilian has also been fundraising among friends and contacts back in Europe in order to buy a spare part to fix the inverter needed to get IPI’s solar-based back-up power system running again. This is particularly useful when IPI suffers a power cut, something which occurs fairly regularly in the area.
Quickly becoming a favourite among the children at KACH and the IPI team, Kilian has even been given a Meru tribal name: Mwongera. He has learned enough Swahili to be able to manage simple daily conversations and aims to be able to say a simple greeting in every one of the 42 officially recognised tribal languages of Kenya by the time he leaves.
It helps that Mom (Dr. Karambu) has such a diverse group of people from all ethnicities here: I carry cow dung from a Luyah’s cow, I eat the food cooked by a Luo, I wash the bedsheets with a Kalenjin, prepare summits with a Kikuyu and walk home at night saying goodnight to a Maasai watchman!
Volunteering: every individual has their own contribution to make
Since 1995, Ecologia has sent over 350 volunteers to support our partners overseas. Volunteers bring their energy, varied skills, and fresh perspectives, but as part of a cultural exchange programme it is important that they too learn from our partners and the solutions they have created to address local issues. KACH is a place of ‘finding who you are’ and IPI wants volunteers who are willing to look inwards for answers in relation to what comes up for them – people who can talk openly, who trust that together, they can make a difference in the world and that each individual has their own part to play. Kilian has made a valuable contribution to the community at IPI, and in the process has come to know himself better.
Volunteering in Meru is a great opportunity for me to get down in the dirt (or in this case more often cow dung), do things with my hands while at the same time discovering more about myself and who I want to become. Being like an older brother to the KACH kids has made me think a lot about the parenting I received and that I would eventually like to give also. At a crossroad point in my life before starting my studies, here I have been able to have time for helping others as well as for myself.
Our volunteers are not usually ‘experts’ in the traditional manner; rather our partners seek people who wish to explore opportunities for building and transforming relationships across cultural and ethnic divides. At two youth leadership summits Kilian helped IPI to run last December, he met young people from Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, South Africa and all regions and tribes of Kenya, sharing his own experiences as well as hearing about theirs. Recently, he summed up his feelings about IPI and what makes volunteering something he would recommend to others:
IPI is a unique environment in so far that it attracts the most fascinating group of people. I love the combination of helping the local community, fostering environmental care and being a centre for amazing conferences and events. Dr Karambu’s work is as inspiring as her positive mentality is contagious.