by Amanda Gormsen

This past winter break, I had the opportunity to go on a Branch Out International trip to Kenya for two weeks with Kenya Sustainable Village Project (KSVP), a club I have been a member of since my freshman year. The overall aim of KSVP is to support the Nyumbani Village in rural Kitui, Kenya in a sustainable manner without creating overdependence. The Nyumbani Village meets the basic needs of marginalized people affected by the HIV/AIDS generation gap by providing them with access to education, employment, food, water, and secure homes, among other things. The village is composed of orphans who have lost their guardians to HIV/AIDS and “grandparents” who have lost their children. The orphans and grandparents are paired up, with one grandparent usually caring for around ten kids. These new family units are arranged in housing “clusters” throughout the village. The village supports around 1,000 people and has upwards of twenty clusters.

KSVP is unique in that it does not have just one underlying social justice issue that it chooses to focus on; rather, its scope changes from year to year. Our support can come in many different forms, and we provide it in different ways depending on our interests and passions that year. Throughout the year, our Site Leaders are in contact with the Nyumbani Village administration along with current student volunteers and fellows stationed there. They serve as our points of contact in Kenya before we arrive, along with helping to form and implement our projects in-country. They help us see where the village might be lacking and where our support can make the biggest impact.

KSVP focuses on a variety of issues from environmental improvements to public health to international development. Our members come from a variety of disciplines such as Environmental Science and Policy, Public Policy, Economics, Business, Government, Chemistry, and many others. We base our intended projects around the needs of the village along with the interests and strengths of our members. This year we chose to continue an education platform from previous years along with focusing on sustainable initiatives. We built upon an existing index of public and private Kenyan universities and trade schools, and organized a presentation for the Form 4 (seniors) students about the importance of higher education and the practical steps they can take to apply to university. Before we arrived in Kenya, each team member researched multiple Kenyan universities and created a one-page summary with application instructions for each university that the students could use as a guide for choosing where they wished to apply. We brought the summaries both in hard copy to the school and as digital files for the students to access on the school’s computers at any point in time. We learned the most about what we can do to further our education platform once we got to visit the school and talk with the kids as opposed to pre-trip meetings. Pre-trip meetings and presentations were very informative and helpful, but on-site we could really see the scope of the situation and what we can improve for future trips. The majority of our group was travelling with KSVP for the first time, so we did not have much pre-existing knowledge. Most of the students we talked to were interested in advanced degree programs like engineering or medicine, which was surprising because we were expecting more interest in trade or vocational schools instead. One important thing we learned is that some of the students do not know how to use computers well enough to access an online application, so now we know that next time we travel we should incorporate computer literacy lessons into our education platform.

We also focused on numerous sustainable initiatives in the village. Nyumbani is a self-contained society of sorts. It has outside funding, but the villagers possess all the practical skills necessary to carry out the functions of the village like farming, carpentry, education, etc. During our trip we learned all about the agricultural practices in the village and toured the livestock facilities, farms or “shambas”, compost and waste management facilities, and the greenhouses. Organic farming is growing in Kenya, and some of the young agriculturalists in Nyumbani’s Sustainability Department were very passionate about it, which was inspiring to witness firsthand. We got to try our hand at sustainable agriculture by planting pepper and spinach plants in the greenhouses and weeding the garden plots. We also removed leaves from sprigs of moringa, a superfood known for its medicinal properties, to prepare them for being ground into powder. Other tasks we did around the village were clothes organization and distribution, basket organization, food distribution, and trash cleanups. These tasks allowed us to interact with the administrators and residents of the village and ensure its continued sustainability.

At the beginning of this year, I was unsure if I was even going to go on the trip or not. I was nervous about the unknowns of travel and circumstances out of my control. Fortunately everything went smoothly, and I don’t think our trip could have been more perfect. I can honestly say that choosing to travel to Kenya was one of the best decisions I have made. I was able to experience firsthand everything our team had researched and discussed all year. I visited not only a brand new country, but also a brand new continent.  I got to meet other volunteers from around the United States and around the world who share my passions for sustainability, international development, volunteering, and traveling. I was able to help students reflect and plan for their future, while simultaneously figuring out what I want to do with my future. My time in Kenya helped solidify my desire to volunteer abroad when I graduate and explore new cultures and communities. As a team, KSVP now has vital in-country experience to make more explicit goals for upcoming fundraisers and projects we wish to implement on future trips. We have a better idea of where the trip is headed and how we can plan for its future. All in all, KSVP 2016 was the trip of a lifetime and I will definitely return to Nyumbani again.