Bored of the usual routines that had seemingly taken over my life I decided to spice things up by applying for an IAESTE internship for the duration of the summer months. The main idea behind these internships is to provide students with paid technical experience in a foreign country. Once I had the chance to look over the lists of possible countries it didn’t take me long to make my choice; Kenya.
Friends and family tried to talk me out of going due to the ongoing conflicts at the coast close to the Somalian border. However, my hard headedness proved to be fruitful for once. Having never set foot in Africa before, my head was full of unanswered questions. Is it safe? Is their food normal? Will I even have an internet connection when I get there?
Well, after what seemed to be an endless list of flu shots I was ready to set out on my fifteen hour journey to Kenya. I took a two hour flight from Malta to Istanbul, had a six hour stop over and took a seven hour flight to Nairobi. The first thing I did upon landing was search for a wifi signal. To my amusement a password-protected network came up with a somewhat fitting name; Giraffe. On exiting the airport I came across something familiar amidst all the local adverts, my name written on a piece of wrinkled paper. The person holding it was Charles Kagiri, a local IAESTE member responsible for providing me with accommodation and all I needed to make my stay an enjoyable one. After a somewhat formal greeting, we were on our way to a town in central Kenya known as Nyeri were I would be based for the coming nine weeks.
Traffic in Nairobi was crazy. Everyone drove haphazardly, rarely giving indication before changing lane, at least something to remind me of home, I thought. Looking out of the backseat window, I tried to take this entire new environment in. Hundreds of people could be seen walking on the sides of roads carrying a variety of stuff from enormous bags of potatoes to live chickens. A couple of naps later we were in Nyeri and I was shown to my accommodation; a catholic hostel for students enrolled at the neighboring university. Luckily for me the boys’ part of the hostel was full so I got to stay in a room on the girls’ side. The room was pretty much void of anything we would deem necessary back home, such as a mirror, toilet brush and yes. even toilet paper. My first mission was, as you’d imagine, getting myself on a good roll of toilet paper. I headed out of the hostel and walked a few hundred meters until I reached a wooden stall with an old lady selling some bananas. Since she didn’t speak much English, sign language had to come in and following some rather humiliating gestures she pulled out a roll from beneath her stack of bananas.
The next couple of days I tried to get used to the area, but for some reason or other most people would just stare at me as I walked by. “ I Must be having a good hair day”, I’d think to myself. After getting lost a couple of times, I met Charles again and he introduced me to my employer, a certain Mr. Muchiri. Since I am reading for a degree in Chemistry and Biology, my job involved working in the animal reserve at university. Following a few words about myself Mr. Muchiri got right to it and quickly explained his ongoing research and what he expected of me.
In a nutshell, my colleagues and I were to conduct a series of transects and measure the species richness and diversity of land animals, plants and birds both within the reserve and the neighboring coffee farms. In the likely case that species richness and diversity decreased in the coffee farms, the university would have factual evidence to present and as a result each farm would have to include a small area for conservation purposes. Getting an idea of what work I would be doing gave me a sense of purpose for being in Kenya and I started to feel as if I was fitting in. Still, some other obstacles had to be tackled, like for instance the fact that I only had a kettle at my disposable to try my luck at cooking. Eventually I started boiling eggs within the kettle and attempted to make pasta by adding countless kettles of hot water to some pasta in a bowl, and to my surprise it actually worked.
Being of a different complexion, people immediately notice that you are foreign and I can honestly say that Kenyans are some of the nicest people I have ever met. People stop you in the road to speak to you, come sit with you at lunch and even come knocking at your door just to say hi. Sometimes people I had never met were even calling my name in the streets. I have to admit I loved the attention and felt as if I were some kind of pop star. Children in the streets would shout out muzungu while staring at my different complexion and then explode with joy when I offer to shake their hands. If anyone is wondering, muzungu means white guy and it forms part of my very limited Swahili vocabulary.
Getting more accustomed to the people at work, we started meeting out of office hours and organized some crazy stuff together. I’d like to thank Rasheed who worked as a ranger at the reserve and always gave us ideas on what to do on weekends, helped us organize transport and often accompanied us too. We travelled all across Kenya, from National Parks enriched in wild life to breathtaking waterfalls and even areas that brought out our extreme sides. On certain weekends the local IAESTE would also organize some hikes so as to bring together interns from different universities across Kenya. Their hikes were no joke, one of the very first hikes was 49KM, but as the Kenyans say: Kenya is a walking nation.
Time quickly caught up and before I knew it 9 weeks had passed and I was packing my bags to head back home feeling satisfied with what I had seen, learnt and all the people I had crossed paths with.
I would like to use the last paragraph to provide you with some reasons as to why you should make it a must to go on an internship to a foreign country. Let’s start with the obvious; it adds value to your C.V. Future employers will be impressed by the fact that you have had some form of experience in a foreign country. Secondly, the process of living alone teaches you to manage your time better and also the importance of sticking to a budget. You learn to be more independent and responsible. It often also helps people come out of their shell and reach their full potential. Most often such experiences also help you appreciate how well off you are at home with your parents taking care of most of the day to day activities. You will also learn about a new culture, new lives and have a new perspective on life.
Ultimately change is good; we often value our lives by different periods in time, like for instance primary school, secondary school and so on. Ultimately, the more we change the more we live. So go on, apply for that internship and get the ball rolling!
(Mark Trapani is a University student currently in his third year reading for B.Sc. Biology & Chemistry. For more information about IAESTE Malta please visit facebook.com/IAESTE.Malta or contact them on email@example.com)