Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interning at ICA Kibera

Hey all - Since I've been so bad about updates in the past couple of weeks, I figured I'd make up for it by posting again this week. After we got back from rural week, we started our internship full-time (plus still going to USIU classes Mondays and Wednesdays), although I had already visited ICA several times.

I was pretty much thrown into work from my first day, because ICA is in the middle of writing a new strategic plan for the next three years, and to celebrate this they're "relaunching" the organization in about two weeks. (Hence the name change - from ISSA to ICA, the Initiative for Community Action). Basically, the idea behind the re-launch is to streamline ICA's current programs and re-iterate their mission and goals to the community. Part of ICA's problem, in all honesty, is funding - because they have so little money (some months they even struggle to pay rent for their office in Mashimoni Village, Kibera), the end up doing programs donors are interested in rather than programs they actually want to run. This isn't to say their old programs weren't good, just not as sustainable as the should be.

So my life for the next two weeks will be crazy busy fundraising for the re-launch and planning a party to represent the best of ICA to the movers and shakers of Kibera. As much as its stressful - especially because we have very little money for a re-launch that's supposed to occur in two weeks! - it's also really fun, and I love that I'm right in the middle of this. I truly do admire all of the guys I work with; their passion, energy, and dedication to ICA is awesome to see, and I consider myself lucky to be working with them.

At the same time, there are also frustrations. While the guys are passionate, they're also easily distracted, so I feel like half of my day is spent chasing after them, trying to force them to sit down and get work done. There are aspects of working within Kibera that also present challenges - like not having Internet and having somewhat sporadic electricity. I'm trying to keep all of this in perspective, though, and overall I'm having a great time getting to know Kibera, and I'm almost to the point where I can my own way to the office via various different routes, although I don't walk by myself.

There are also frustrations that have nothing to do with ICA and everything to do with the fact that I'm white. I can't tell you how many people have asked me for money (not just in Kibera, although it tends to be worse there). I was out to lunch with some of the guys I work with the other day, and as we were leaving the hotel to head back to work, some random person just stood up and asked me to pay for his lunch, assuming that because I'm white I must have money. Those sort of assumptions can work their way into personal relationships, as well, and become really disillusioning. When someone you're friends with asks you for money, as recently happened to me, it leaves you feeling really jaded and used, like the only reason that person was friends with you was to ask you, eventually, for money. While I'm trying to treat these experiences as the exception rather than the norm, it is disappointing, and can really bring you down if you're already having a bad day. Overall, though, I try to look at things like these as just one more aspect of the challenge of living in Kenya, realizing that I'm incredibly lucky to be having these experiences, whether good or bad. Life in Nairobi presents both intellectual and emotional challenges in a way that DC can't possibly match, and going back (in about six weeks!) is going to be really hard.

There are absolutely things I miss about home, though, and as much as part of me is longing to stay here, another part of me is looking forward to spending the summer back home with my friends and family. It isn't even so much the luxuries of living in a developed, industrialized country - like air conditioning and regular, consistent mail system! - but little, familiar things like your favorite restaurants and hang-out spots. More and more over the past few weeks, I've found myself missing those little things (like - laugh if you will - flavored, loose-leaf tea and real cheeseburgers at Red Robin). Like so much of the past two and a half months, every day here I feel about a million different emotions - sadness to be leaving a place and a culture I feel I'm just getting to know, happiness and comfort to be returning to home, and a sense of loss to be leaving the fantastic friends I've made here. Luckily - and perhaps most importantly - a feeling of regret isn't in that mix. Though I maybe haven't traveled as much as I thought I would, I feel I've done a good job of taking advantage of all the  opportunities which have presented themselves to me over the past two and a half months, and for that I consider myself very lucky.


  1. Hi Pumpkin, There's plenty of loose tea waiting here for you and I can't wait to go get cheeseburgers at Red Robin with you. Consider it date your first week back. Love you, Mom

  2. Em,
    You look wonderful!! Seems like you're having quite the adventures. We're happy that you're not walking alone when you go out. We loved your new blogs about rural week. Bet you were glad when that week ended, no? Still think you should be writing for a magazine...who might some day. Can't wait for you to get home so we can see you!!!
    Love you,
    Grammy and Aunt Beth

  3. i hope you stay to find true friends, true experiences and learn the much that you can get in. Am sure you can have a wonderful time that will make you cry as you leave for home and make you wanna come again, life is full of challenges and even us the locals might be experiencing what you are experiencing though on a different scale. Wish you all the best for your stay!