By Karen Bennett
35 years ago in 1979, I came to Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After a 29 hour Pan Am flight through West Africa, on a plane with approximately 300 volunteers, my first view outside of the airport, was a giraffe standing in the distance. The Nairobi National Park was next to the small Jomo Kenyatta Airport. My first thought was how beautiful it was and how tired I was. We then travelled, fairly fast, to the places we would stay for the first two months of training. As we drove to the New Continental Hotel in Westlands we were fortunate to be driving on a semi-paved road and around one round-a-bout. From the bus and through the semi-darkness, I could see the beautiful landscape of acacia trees, open spaces and a clear view of nothing except the giraffe and the city of Nairobi. The view of Nairobi was of several tall buildings: the Thorn Tree Hotel where we would go for tea and do the crossword puzzles as well as leave messages for fellow travelers to this fairly unknown place and the large government buildings such as the convention center. Since it was evening, there were quite a lot of people walking to and fro, appearing to return home from wherever they had been. There were large busses with people jammed in so tight it was difficult to see through to the other side of the bus. There were matatus with so many people crammed into them that I wondered how they would possibly be able to get out. I would live in this beautiful and awe inspiring country for the next 7 years. 2 of those years were spent teaching at The Jacaranda School, one of the few if only school for students with special challenges.
Jump forward to 2015 when I returned to Kenya as a volunteer for the Global Autism Project. Through my 3 plane rides and a 2 day stopover in New York, my thoughts were that I would be coming back to a country that I had loved those many years ago. I thought often of the picture of the giraffe in the distance, the open spaces and the crowded buses and matatus and thought that would be what I was returning to. Needless to say how wrong I was. Whether for the good or bad my first view of Kenya was not of a giraffe in the distance but a metal wall surrounding buildings under construction. There were no busses that I could see, but still the matatus both small and large. There were no people crammed into them but everyone had their own seat.
There were no loud horns blowing or people banging on the roof of the matatus to attract the visitors to their mode of transportation but people standing and waiting quietly or on their cell phones. They were waiting for the matatus, private cars and taxis to come to them. The road was paved and the round-a-bout was still there, which I did recognize. That was all I was to recognize. I did not recognize the billboards especially the neon ones advertising things like cell phones, new apartments, land or houses to buy. I did not recognize the buildings and construction so close to the highways as we drove around the city to get to The Karen Inn and Suites in Karen. I did not recognize the Westin Hotel that was surrounded by beautiful vegetation and sparkling lights on the trees. I did not remember the semi-conscientious drivers driving in their lane on a 2-lane highway. I did not see the multitude of people walking on of at the side of the street trying to get to where they were going. As we were riding in the taxi, I tried desperately to see something that I had recognized from those wonderful days of living in Kenya so long ago. As we arrived at the Inn, needless to say I saw nothing of what I once saw when travelling in those crowded buses and matatus. I would live in this awe-inspiring and quickly progressing country for the next 2 ½ weeks. 2 of those weeks volunteering in the remarkable, one of a kind school for students with intellectual challenges.
The opportunity to be a part of Kaizora, is a chance to see how far the country has progressed in educating all their students. I wish to thank Pooja and her wonderful staff for accepting me and the Team as one of their own and especially the opportunity to work again with the smiling faces of Kenya. The Kenya I once knew is gone, at least in Nairobi and Karen. Whether for the good or not so good, I have returned to a country that I had truly loved and will start to love again.