Looking back on my time at Kilimanjaro Bush Camp, I am astonished at how quickly the month flew by and find myself reminiscing about my wonderful memories and experiences daily. The fighting baboons, haggling at the market and early morning cook crews became normal and welcome parts of daily life in Kenya. As I am sitting here and attempting to review the program, I am finding it difficult to put all of these moments into a cohesive statement that adequately explains my experiences, but I will do my best.
The SFS Summer Public Health and Environment course is a month-long intensive study in Kimana, Kenya. Upon applying, admission and arriving, I did not know anything more than that and was unsure what to expect from the program. Several students from my home institution, Franklin College Switzerland, have attended SFS programs and loved their experiences, so I was willing to take a chance on the program. What I got out of the program was so much more than I bargained for or expected. It has raised my expectations of travel, group dynamics, relationships and overall life experiences to a level so far above anything I could have expected. In this review, I have outlined several highlights of the program in academics, non-program activities and overall experiences.
I am so glad that I chose to attend the SFS Public Health program in Kenya. The research we were able to conduct was ground breaking and enabled us to provide [hopefully] helpful recommendations to the local community. Our research project was focusing on determining the impact of the closure of the Imbirikani Health Clinic on their beneficiaries. This health clinic was a private organization (U.S. American NGO) that provided a variety of services and world-class comprehensive care. The closure of this clinic had a profound impact on the health of the Imbirikani Region.
We conducted research in 396 households over a period of four days, disbursing from Camp in partners with a translator to administer questionnaires. The days were long, the walks were far and the experiences were unforgettable. Many of the Maasai Mamas I met left incredible impressions upon me. Despite living with so few material items, they opened their homes to us, always offering us chai and stools to sit on. These women were incredibly empowering and it was fascinating to talk to these Mamas about issues of vital importance to them. The four days of data collection flew by, yet the memories and stories are still crystal clear in my mind.
Academically, the course structure was quite different from what I was used to, but the SFS staff held many evaluation sessions during and after the program to make sure we were all comfortable with the academic components (and all other aspects of the program). The fact that there was always a staff or faculty member available to consult was great, especially because the course was so intensive.
Visiting and forging connections with HIV positive Mamas at the Boma la Tumaini was also a highlight of the trip. This voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) center provides free support services and testing in Loitoktok, the next town passed Kimana. I visited this VCT center three times, first with the whole group on a non-program day to speak with three HIV positive Mamas about their experiences. These women were some of the bravest people whom I have ever met. They had overcome incredible adversity and wanted to share their incredibly brave stories with us. Next, myself and three other students in the HIV/AIDS group attended a group therapy session. Twenty-five HIV positive women attended this meeting, many of whom were physically abused, stigmatized and were suffering from opportunistic infections such as Tuberculosis and Karposis Sarcoma. Despite these incredible barriers, these women had all gone public about their status and found support in each other. Lastly, we spent our community service day helping the Mamas make beaded jewelry and soap before teaching them how to make origami doves, which they loved. Before leaving, we shared a meal together. Despite a language barrier, there were plenty of smiles and laughter throughout the day. Making connections with these Mamas was wonderful. Later, we would see them in the markets and would be greeted warmly.
The group of students in the program was excellent. As one of the only global health enthusiasts at my university, it was so wonderful to be surrounded by insightful and impassioned discussions about topics like breaking the cycle of poverty and disease. As we all came from different academic and social backgrounds, it was very helpful to bounce ideas off of each other; we each brought something unique to the table. While the going-out scene was non-existent, we still had plenty of time for soccer, volleyball, ping-pong, movie nights and much more.
There are infinite aspects of Kenya that I will never forget and will miss dearly. The wildlife, nature and overall surroundings were stunning. The spellbinding African stars are indescribably spectacular and are incomparable to anywhere else in the world that I have traveled to. I doubt I will ever be in a classroom with acacia trees with baboons swinging around in them right outside again. We spent two days at the Amboseli National Park; highlights included twenty elephants passing in front-of and in-between our Land Cruisers and seeing two lions chasing a warthog. At Camp, the ceaseless chatter of birds, bugs and various animals throughout the day and night was oddly calming and homely. An added plus was sleeping under my mosquito net, which felt like having a princess-canopy bed.
The Kenyan lifestyle was entirely refreshing; kindness and collective goodwill are values that are placed at the heart of society- people are always smiling! I learned many lessons about the importance of patience, selflessness and heartwarming hospitality. Beyond this, I met women braver and stronger than I could previously fathom. I will miss hearing their stories and I will remain in awe of them forever.
As I am writing this, I think it would be incorrect to ignore the difficulties that we came across in the program. The physical barriers, such as extreme tiredness and the lack of many common amenities as well as the close proximity to wildlife would make this trip difficult for the faint-hearted. However, for the adventurer or even the person who wants to step out of their comfort zone but still have a safety net, this trip was ideal. The key is having the desire to change and experience something very new. Academically, the grading scheme was very different from that of American institutions, however there are many opportunities to address problems that might arise. Socially, you will be surrounded by the same ~20 people 24/7 for a month. Those who enjoy solitary time and are less social may have difficulty with this. Student freedom is relatively limited on the program and some people found that frustrating, however it was necessary due to safety (mostly wildlife) concerns and overall program structure.
The SFS staff was the key to making this trip so successful. Our Student Affairs Manager and the rest of the program assistants were always available and willing to talk or help us in any way possible. They were more than approachable and saying that they were incredible seems like an understatement. The other staff members were also more like a family away from home than staff members.
Overall, I would recommend the SFS summer Public Health and Environment study to upperclassmen students who have some prior travel experience, have taken statistics or epidemiology courses and who are truly invested in global health. This program is tiring, trying and very unique; it was also life changing and I would do it again in an instant.