The drive was memorable even for those of us used to African roads. Days of unseasonable rain had turned large sections into a morass of mud. Getting through was by no means assured. But the students thought the trip was a blast, hooting and hollering and cheering on the drivers as the music blasted and the matatus slipped and slithered their way along. The teachers were a bit less comfortable with it, especially after one of them got sprayed with mud from head to foot when we had to get out and push. But dogged determination, inspired driving, and good luck got us to our destination, more or less on time.

The students were Canadian secondary school kids, spending three weeks in Kenya during their July summer break, learning first hand something about life in Kenya and generally having the adventure of their lives. The destination was a mobile health clinic on station in an isolated part of western Laikipia in Central Kenya. Run by Community Health Africa Trust, a grassroots Kenyan organization, the clinic’s primary focus is on family planning and reproductive health care.

Back in Canada the students had been prepped for this excursion but all the words in the world couldn’t really prepare them for what they experienced that day.

The skies cleared and the sun poured down as we finally rolled up beside the clinic’s bright yellow Land Rover, parked in the shade of a tall acacia. Apart from a nearby manyatta, there was no evidence of human habitation. With all the rain, the grass was a brilliant green and the gently rolling savannah was stunningly beautiful. As the kids tumbled from the vans they fell silent, awed by their surroundings. The clinic’s staff came to greet them and explained that it was early yet but that the people would be coming soon. And before long they started to arrive: overwhelmingly women dressed in brilliant blues and yellows and adorned with extensive beadwork, carrying their young children. Some had walked many kilometres to get there. Because of their trust in the clinic’s staff, the women allowed the students to watch and listen and photograph them as they consulted with the nurse, were tested for HIV, had their children immunized, and received multi-year birth control implants. Before long some of the kids were helping weigh and measure babies and were even listening through an ear trumpet to a fetal heartbeat. They saw the clinic for what it is: Kenyans helping Kenyans. An organization that functions brilliantly, thank you very much, without Westerners. A powerful lesson, delivered without a textbook or computer.

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This clinic visit was one part of a program developed to expose Canadian young people to the realities of life in this part of Africa. Through the lens of experiential education, my “big picture” goals for the trip were lofty. I wanted the students to see that while many issues (“Save the Elephants!”) seem at first starkly black and white, in reality the picture is often less clear and that the shades of grey are important. It is no secret that many North Americans are, sadly, pretty ethnocentric, and it is important to break down stereotypes and to gain insight into different cultures. I wanted to enhance the students’ global perspective – so important for business, politics and leadership. Canada is a very multicultural country and functions really well as such. But fear of diversity is never far from the surface and tolerance must be taught and not assumed. I wanted to show the students that while people are different in different parts of the world, their hopes and dreams are fundamentally the same. As Mark Twain wrote, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”.

During their time in Kenya, the Canadians visited schools and met students and teachers to understand how teaching and learning is both different and the same as in Canada. They went to the shambas of some of these kids to see how they live. When they met a mother whose oldest son was killed one night while chasing away elephants that were raiding their garden, they were confronted with the notion that saving elephants is not uniformly seen as ‘a good thing’.

In small groups they walked the main street of Nanyuki town, dodging traffic and crowds of steely eyed, heavily armed guards outside of banks. They peered in store windows, seeing things both very different and very much the same as at home, all the while feeling, perhaps for the first time in their lives, like they were the visitors, the intruders, and the minority. In the mitumba (used clothing market) after scavenger hunts for wedding dresses and tuxedos, t-shirts from their favourite band, and the shiniest pair of pants, they listened to George, one of the vendors, explain to them the economics of running a stall and why the mitumba is both good and bad for Kenya. After buying snacks in the Nakumatt supermarket, they walked through the back streets where “real” Kenyans (their words) bought their food, their housewares, their tobacco, and their clothes. Of course, it’s Africa, and on game drives the kids were as excited as any tourist by the animals; elephants and zebras and giraffes, impalas, and, on one memorable occasion, lions. They also met with an African conservation scientist, who patiently outlined the fundamental conflict for land and resources and the threat it poses for Kenya’s wildlife.

And, of course, for most North American parents and schools, no trip to Africa is complete without a service component, and this trip was no different.

Experience has shown that service projects need to be thoughtfully vetted and organized to be meaningful and sustainable. The true value must accrue first and foremost to the African community and not to the volunteer. Participation in a service project, if wisely designed, helps to discredit latent ideas of cultural imperialism- that Africa can be ‘saved’ only by the intervention of foreigners. And bringing genuine value to a community or an individual can foster compassion and a commitment to sustained engagement with the country.

The students were subdued on the long drive back to our camp on the edge of Ol Pejeta Conservancy. While the hot sun and early start had worn them down, what they witnessed that day was burned permanently into their memories. As they shared photos and observations, I could see that the beginnings of deeper insight had begun to take root. Would the day change their lives in some miraculous way? No, of course, it wouldn’t. But as part of a broader set of experiences I hoped it might lead to a deeper awareness of the realities of life in this wonderful corner of Africa.

As she got out of the van one of the students, a self-confident and out-going young woman inadvertently re-assured me that the long day was worth it when she turned to me and said: “My God, I have a lot to learn.”

By Rex Taylor

Rex taught at several schools in the Canada before retiring a couple of years ago. For many years Rex was a Board Member of Outward Bound Canada. Recently he started Territory Ahead Inc., a small travel company with the goal of bringing people – both students and adults – to Africa in order to deepen their global perspective as well as see the wonders of the natural world. In 2007 his family started The George Small Project Foundation, a registered Canadian charity that supports a mobile health clinic in Kenya and also sends Kenyan children to school.