Volunteering in Kenya

Long term volunteering

Written by Regula Iff from Switzerland

March 2024

Can you introduce yourself?

I am Regula from Switzerland and I am 37 years old. I live in Bern, and I currently work as an HR specialistI worked in HR for the government for many years, but then I decided to do something else and have a little break, which led me to volunteering.

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I decided to volunteer because I wanted to do something that would give me purpose, and also to see another culture, which I could immerse myself in. I also wanted to find a project that interested me, for example for women and young people, because I was also dealing with these subjects in Switzerland and I wanted to see how it would differ from Switzerland.

What was going through your head when you decided to volunteer?

I think I was very excited and curious. I was curious to know more about what it’s like in an entirely different culture. I tried not to have many expectations, because it was important to me to stay open minded and be flexible so that I could really dive into the new experience.

Can you tell me more about your volunteering project?

So, I ended up going to Kenya for a little over two months, around nine weeks in total. It was for a project with youth & women. I had the opportunity to visit five different vocational training centres, to see how they were being run and if they could maybe be improved in some way. I was able to bring and share my own experience, but also learn new things from people’s experiences.

I was also involved with a women-run farming co-op and I was invited on the management board, which was a sort of leading body for the smaller groups. There I had the chance to exchange ideas and experiences on how to grow an organisation. I was also able to learn more about their techniques and also see first-hand how they communicated with the smaller groups they were responsible for.

A smaller task I had was assisting in the computer training centre, where I gave some tips and tricks on basic computer skills, Office tools, things like that. I also got to answer questions from young people who wanted to know more about the world of business, which my HR background helped me in.

Group picture

How did volunteering feel?

At first it felt quite challenging because of the language barrier, as the native language there is Swahili, which I do not speak, so understanding each other was sometimes difficult. Something different was also the culture. I hadn’t been to Africa before, so the culture and lots of things were entirely new for me. I needed to find my place there and learn how to get along with people, which I usually have no problem doing, but with a different language and culture, it did prove a bit difficult. After around three weeks, however, I began to feel more comfortable and at ease.

What was the biggest challenge?

Sometimes I did not feel as confident as I do in Switzerland, and I found that I had to rely a lot on help from other people. So being dependent on others for my job was out of my comfort zone, and especially being my age and having gained some experience, it felt like I was starting from the beginning. 

Learning to adapt to a new culture was very interesting, but a little bit challenging as well. But of course this all meant that I was also learning a lot, which I am grateful for.

Was there any intercultural learning that you will take back home?

Yes! I really loved the creativity of the people, and how resourceful they were. They could ideate a lot of projects and make them happen out of thin air, and in no time at all! For example, it was possible to organise a children’s event in two days’ time, with around forty participants! And they were also very flexible and not caught off guard by sudden changes.

What is your favourite memory while volunteering?

I would say there’s quite a few, and it’s difficult to choose just one but what comes to mind is when I gave this lecture about career development at a vocational training centre, with about one hundred and twenty students attending. They were all listening to me as I shared my experiences, and I remember how good the energy in the room felt; with everyone taking in ideas, but also sharing their experiences.

Another thing I will always remember is when they gave me this beautiful dress, which they had tailored in just five days! It was so amazing to receive it as a gift and then I wore it and we all took a picture together. It didn’t feel real, it felt like a dream, and it is a very surreal but lovely memory.

Regula in her dress

What lessons did you learn?

Something important I’ve learned is that it’s possible to dive into unknown situations with very little preparation, and that I can trust that I will eventually pull through because of my experience. So I would say I’ve learned that I can trust myself more and I don’t need to be afraid of these kinds of situations.

I’ve also learned that not everything needs to be perfect. You can come up with an idea and trust that other people’s ideas will help and it will be alright in the end.

Did you make any memorable connections?

Yes, I did. I connected with the project leaders from the vocational training centres and the women’s co-op. Even though I left and I might not be as actively connected anymore, it feels good to know that I connected and I’m glad that there will be other volunteers who will get to have the same experience as me, and that these projects will continue.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to volunteer?

I would say that they should choose a topic that they are passionate about, and that matches their interests or skills. It’s important to do your research: I remember having a hard time choosing what project I wanted to do, but then I carefully examined the different options and in the end I applied for three or four projects. 

Then the place is also important, because you get a chance to go somewhere that is interesting for you. For example, Africa was an entirely new continent for me, which is nice because I wanted to experience a new culture, and I got to see and learn a lot of new things.

What’s next for you?

Because I realised how important and fulfilling volunteering can be, I’ve started to volunteer here in Switzerland. I’m doing a local project that supports refugees by distributing clothes, and it’s pleasant to see the smiles on people’s faces and know that you contributed to that, even if it’s just a little bit. Volunteering in Kenya also made me appreciate different cultures, so it’s very nice to get to see people of different cultures and backgrounds in this project too.

This is a small contribution I’m making, as I’m quite busy with my job at the moment, but I also want to make sure I bring the volunteering experience into my daily work life. For example I want to create a safe, friendly work environment, and I think I will also bring more cultural awareness in the selection process of my job.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I want to thank SCI Switzerland, because it felt like I was in very good hands while I was abroad. There was a time where I did not feel so confident, but I discussed the situation with them and they were very helpful and supportive, and they got me back on track. I also want to thank SCI in general and I hope you keep doing the good work.

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