Alumni Spotlight on Jenny Nimmo; How Volunteering in Kenya Took Her Outside Her Comfort Zone
Jenny Nimmo, a 28 year old Chicago professional, embarked on an adventure to volunteer in Kenya with Greenheart Travel earlier this fall. She was planning to travel to Kenya on a personal vacation when she stumbled upon Greenheart Travel’s program. A lifelong supporter of community service and activism, she approached Greenheart Travel seeking a more meaningful travel experience.
She explains that “I wanted to do something a little different during my time in Kenya. It was important to me to give back rather than just play tourist, see the sights or go on a safari. I wanted a more authentic and impactful cultural experience.”
What was the day-to-day life like as a volunteer in Kenya?
On a typical day, we started off at the school. I assisted in the kindergarten age classrooms, and helped the kids with English and math, or whatever subject they were learning at the time. We would go through the alphabet together or do basic math problems. After book work in the classroom, we had playtime. This was definitely my favorite part of the day, and I think it was the kids’ favorite time too! I helped facilitate activities and games, from what we in the US refer to as “duck duck goose” to tag to playground swings to goofy dance games. After that, we would break for lunch. We ate together, washed dishes, and then the kids went home. From there, I would either go back to my host family’s home or explore some of the other initiatives the overall project is working on, like the orphanage and a developing project to support Kenyan women with making and selling jewelry.
Kenya is quite a different place than the US. Did you experience any culture shock?
Greenheart Travel took me through an orientation and talked to me about culture shock before I arrived. I knew it would be different going into the program, but I felt ready, prepared and eager to embrace the change in lifestyle. Nevertheless, I don’t think anything could have truly prepared me for what life is really like there. It’s different, really different, and it was definitely an adjustment and shock to me – more so than I expected. What you read, watch on TV and see in movies is real to an extent. But when you’re really living and breathing it, and seeing people going about their everyday lives, only then can you really start to understand it. It took me a few days to adjust and get more comfortable, and there were definitely some moments when I asked myself “Can I really do this?” or “Where am I?” But at the end of the day, overcoming these moments of discomfort and learning to live out and embrace the culture shock was the most rewarding part of the experience.
What was the highlight of your volunteering experience in Kenya?
Your experience in Kenya was a little unique because you lived with a host family rather than at the volunteer house. Tell us about that.
I liked the structure of the program because I spent a portion of my time at the school and the other portion just living life with a local family. It was actually the family of a program staff member. I quickly came to know them, and feel like I truly saw and lived out their everyday life. I had so many authentic experiences and meaningful moments with them. We went to the market together, cooked together,and went to church together. We drove through and explored the Maasailand area (where we saw tons of wild animals like giraffes and gazelles), and they took me on a hike to show me where they grew up and teach me more about the local tribes. We exchanged stories about our lives, and I went on a field trip with one of them to another village to meet their extended family. By the end, I honestly felt like I was a part of their family. I saw a different side of Kenya than I ever could have and would have as a normal tourist.
How would you describe Kenyan people and culture?
Kenyans are some of the nicest and most genuine people I have ever met. Generally speaking, they are all so welcoming. Especially the kids – their faces light up when they see a new face! They treated me like family and welcomed me with open arms from the second I arrived. While it seemed apparent to them that I looked different, they were interested in getting to know me. They were curious about life in the US, just as I was curious about life in Kenya. We all asked a lot of questions and as a result learned a lot of new things about one another’s daily life. I feel like I now have multiple Kenyan families who call me their American daughter.
What are some of the lessons you learned while volunteering in Kenya?
I learned so many things and am so grateful to have been a part of it! This program was a new test and challenge which pushed me outside of my comfort zone and I’ve learned how to embrace the discomfort that creates. The term “comfort zone” has an entirely new meaning now. I won’t lie…the first 48 hours was filled with ups and downs. While I was excited and stimulated by my new surroundings, not everything unfolds according to plan, which created a number of unexpected doubts and fears. At one point, I questioned whether I had made the right choice in going to Kenya, whether I was safe, and whether I was capable of adapting to such a new environment. I’ve never experienced feeling like the outsider or “the one who doesn’t belong” to that degree before. But looking back, I’m so glad I worked through the discomfort and learned to embrace the experience whole-heartedly for the eye-opening opportunity it was. I grew the most during those times of discomfort and learned more about myself, how to combat fears and the inherent ability we have as humans to adapt. By the end of the program, I felt immersed and comfortable in the culture with a much better understanding of the world around me. I was overwhelmed by different feelings and thoughts when I concluded the program, some of which I’m still trying to sort out.
Did this program have any affect on your career? If so, what skills or new knowledge did you develop?
How has it felt returning from Kenya?
It was definitely a transition moving from life in rural Kenya back to the Western world. I traveled throughout Europe and Southeast Asia immediately following my time in Kenya, so it was one transition after the next to some extent. However, my time in Kenya left me better prepared to continue my travel journey and adapt to new countries and cultures along the way. I’m now back in the US, and just as I experienced culture shock upon arriving in Kenya, it has definitely been an adjustment getting back into my life at home.
Do you feel like you made an impact during the 10 days you were there?
Yes, I think I was able to impact a small community in a short time, and could go on and on about all the ways they left an impact on me. While I wish I had more time to spend there, I think the impact can be seen in both small and big ways. As is often the case with this kind of service or volunteer experience, you question whether the impact was greater on you or the community you served. I think the impact on the community was apparent in seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, the pride in the families, the changing perceptions of individuals and community members, and the sense of accomplishment and excitement that comes with new learnings through the exchanging of stories and ideas. All the little things add up over time to make a difference. I think the larger impact has yet to reach its full potential, but will continue to play out through the ongoing and lasting relationships I developed within the community and with program staff.
Are you ready for a Kenyan adventure of your own? Find out more about this program below.