Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Final YAV Retreat

My year in Kenya is winding down to a close. For the grand finale we had a final YAV retreat which took place last week.

We spent the first two nights on a safari in the Maasai Mara. On the first evening game drive, we came across two male lions sleeping in the long grass. From what I've heard lions, especially the males, sleep for about 20 hours a day, (while giraffes only sleep for about 1/2 hour a day.) So it's a pretty typical sight to see these beautiful giant felines stretched out lazily enjoying the cool evening breeze coming off the savanna - It clearly pays to be at the top of the food chain.

After our time in the Maasai Mara we headed to Nyanza province in the southwest corner of Kenya. Nyanza encompasses part of Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world (2nd only to Lake Superior in my home state!) Nyanza is also home to the Luo community, and President Obama's heritage, but more about that later! There we stayed at the rural homestead of a very prominent Luo elder and long-time acquaintance of Phyllis, Professor Gilbert Ogutu. Once the head of the Luo Council of elders and a Ker, or spiritual/cultural leader, Ogutu was and still is a 'big deal' among the Luo. On the first morning of our stay at his homestead, Ogutu had his sons slaughter a ram for us as part of a morning ritual. Witnessing this was a very new, intense, and informative experience for me and others in my group. We ate the mutton later that night at dinner.

During our two-day sojourn in the village we did various projects at the local primary school. The most significant of these was painting the Standard 1 classroom for the youngest children. What I liked about this project was that my group didn't do it alone. We worked with the students and other people in the community to accomplish the task. I was grateful for the help of one man in particular who had a background in painting and construction. He taught me some skills in handling paint and paintbrushes, and his help made the project go much smoother and faster than expected. With everyone's help, we succeeded in painting the entire classroom, and even a large colourful mural on the back wall. Literally over night the classroom transformed from a dull and drab space into an environment suited for children's learning. And the entire experience was a great lesson for everyone about the power of volunteering when you work hand in hand with a community rather than working for it externally.

On the last day of our retreat, before making the 8 hour drive back to Nairobi, we stopped by the homestead of Mama Sarah Obama, President Obama's grandma, for a visit. Security is tight around her home, yet we had a connection through Prof. Ogutu, who knows Mama Sarah very well, and therefore had the honor of driving into the compound when other visitors must park outside and walk in. We first saw Barack Obama's father's and grandfather's graves, a very moving experience. And then we met Mama Sarah, who I'd describe as a no-nonsense lady with a great sense of humour. As we were asking her questions, she told us about Barack's father and about her grandson's visit home in 2006. Josh, another YAV, asked her which team she supports in the World Cup. And she replied with the wonderfully diplomatic answer, 'I support the team that plays the best and that is most determined to win.' We paid tribute to Mama Sarah with a goat, and also foodstuffs for the orphanage foundations she oversees. In return she gave us sodas as refreshments. I can say that relaxing on the lawn of President Obama's family homestead and sipping soda from his grandma is a memory I'll never forget.

So just like the first YAV retreat in Zanzibar, our second retreat turned out to be fantastic and a great way to draw this year to a close. I felt connected to the Kenyans we met in a very genuine way, through the hospitality that they showed us in the village and working hand in hand with the community to accomplish a shared goal. And of course I loved being with the other people in my YAV group, with whom I have shared so many experiences and adventures throughout this year in Kenya.