Volunteering in Kenya

By Larnie Hewat

In 2012 I spent three months volunteering in Kenya. These were three incredible months, which pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. I left keen to one day return. With the generous support of the Global Citizenship Scholarship from International House, I found myself back in Kenya during the winter break of 2015.

The Happy Life Children’s Home for Abandoned Babies is located in Roysambu, an outer region of Nairobi, Kenya, with a second rural campus located at Juja Farm. The children admitted to Happy Life are found abandoned in various ways - at a police station, in the hospital after birth, by the side of the road, left with strangers and even in one extreme situation inside a latrine.

There are around ten newborns, thirty toddlers, and six school aged children (8-12 years) who live on the quarter of a hectare property at Roysambu and are cared for by the ‘mums’ (the women who are the daily caretakers) in addition to the nurse, two social workers and the home’s administrator. At the age of three the children are relocated to Juja Farm to commence pre-school, and there are around sixty children there who live between four homes on the farm.

Being the only ‘live in’ volunteer for the month that I was there meant I was able to spend a great deal of time with the social workers, and learn about the work they do and about the situation with child adoption. There have been many changes recently to the process of adoption in Kenya, including a ban on all international adoptions and the disbandment of two of the three major adoption agencies. It was interesting to hear the opinions held by the staff at Happy Life, who were disappointed that the adoption process has been further complicated and restricted. Despite this, they were positive of the increase in the number of local adoptions which come in waves, busier at some times more than others, but still children are finding homes within a more conventional family unit.

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Larnie with the Happy Life social workers and nurse, and a fellow volunteer from Iceland.

The children are admitted into the care of the home for a period of three years, or until adopted. When three years has elapsed the child must go back to court to have their guardianship entrusted to the home, or to their new parents if they are being adopted. Whilst on this trip I accompanied a social worker with six of the children, two infants and four toddlers to the court. This was an incredibly long day, which I was told is the usual experience. At the courthouse we were sat in an outside courtyard with around twenty young boys from a more rural children’s home and a number of street kids. After countless hours, everyone was taken through to a courtroom. Thankfully our kids had their papers processed first, and so once the session began, everything actually moved quite quickly. Finally, five hours after we had arrived, we clambered back into the van and returned to the chaos that is Nairobi traffic and headed home.

Another day I accompanied a social worker to the Department of Children’s Services to collect a young boy who had been found without any guardian. This young boy, around three years old, had been separated from his parents after travelling to Nairobi on a matatu (local public transport). The home regularly checked with the police to find if anyone had reported a child missing, but when I left two weeks later, his parents still hadn’t been located. Happy Life are unable to care for children who do have family, and so endeavour as best they can to reconnect children with their parents or guardian. The only exception to this is where a child has been rescued from a compromising situation. Happy Life provide that child with counselling and engage in mediation with the family to address the issue and help work towards creating a situation in which it is safe for the child to return to the care of their parents, or other family members.

At Juja Farm, the kids have a greater sense of family within their home, with the consistency of their ‘mum’. It was established to address the growing number and increasing age of children for which the home was caring.

Once the children turn three they move to Juja Farm, where they live in a house with 12-15 other children and a full time mum, and go to school on the property. There are presently four houses, a church and primary school on site. They also have a lot of space, with an individual bunk bed for each child, a full soccer oval and a playground.

There are plans in place to help increase in the independence of the home, with the ultimate ambition that it become self-sufficient. Without any government support Happy Life is run entirely on donations sourced primarily from the U.S, where the board of directors are based. They are well aware of how unsustainable it is to be in a position of dependence on an uncertain source of income and so are investing a great deal of time in new initiatives that may provide an independent source of income.

During my trip I took a weekend off to visit the Maasai village of Suswa where I had also volunteered for a month while on my gap year. It was very exciting to visit on the day the village’s first secondary school was to be opened. While primary education is, in theory, provided free to all children in Kenya, the cost of travelling to/going to boarding school in neighbouring towns prohibits many children from pursuing secondary education. Even more exciting was this new secondary school is solely for girls. In a patriarchal society where female genital mutilation is still practiced under cultural tradition, it was quite significant to see that the community has recognised the importance of investing in female education.

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Larnie with her host family from her 2012 trip to Kenya, out the front of their home in Suswa, Maasailand.

I am grateful to International House for giving me the opportunity to return to Happy Life. I learnt a great deal about the role of social workers caring for children in a home, and the process of adoption in Kenya. My time in Kenya, and ongoing relationship with the staff of the home, has definitively consolidated within me a desire to pursue a career in which the work that I do contributes to ending injustice in our world. It has also reminded me of my passion for working with children and helping to ensure that they are given every opportunity to be happy, safe, healthy, loved, and to be the best version of themselves. I strongly believe that the lottery of where you’re born shouldn’t be what determines your opportunities in life.

Thank you Happy Life, for all that you do and provide for the infants and kids who have had such a challenging start to life, to provide them with protection, love, a family, and a brighter future. Until next time (whenever that may be!!), kwaheri.

Larnie Hewat is from Geelong, Victoria and was a resident of International House from 2013-14. In addition to winning the Global Citizenship Award in 2015, Larnie was a recipient of the Clifford Family Scholarship from 2013-14.

Published by International House on Monday 28 January 2016.

Learn more: volunteering at IH