KABULA, KENYA—As I was heading back to my hut after seeing my first African wedding, I regretted my choice in footwear. The recent rain had transformed the road into a mud pit. Instead of doing the right thing—going back and getting shoes—or the fun thing—stripping down to a bikini and showing my fellow volunteers how to wrestle, Duke-style—we trudged on, the road trying its hardest to swallow my $2 Old Navy sandals with each step. I finally made it back though, washed my feet and headed over to the main house on the farm where I live. As I ate my usual all-carb dinner, I started to feel a bit queasy. The boosa I had earlier at the wedding emerged as the prime suspect. The warm, maize-derived drink was allegedly “only slightly alcoholic and only a little bit illegal” but I had not wanted to turn down good old-fashion Kenyan hospitality or miss out on a “cultural experience,” so I had joined the guys who were drinking from a collective pot using three-foot wooden straws.
Ignoring the stomach rumblings, I stuffed my face and went outside to sit at the bonfire. We had a few beers and I was beginning to feel a little more nauseous, but figured I could sleep it off.
Two hours later I was fighting to get out of my sleeping bag, ripping down my mosquito net and running out of my hut for some full-body, all-carb, projectile vomiting. After two days spent running a fever, complaining of joint pain and intermittently repeating that night’s sickness, it dawned on me: I had malaria. What the hell? I was on anti-malarials. That’s not supposed to happen. Malaria is so foreign. No one actually gets malaria. Malaria is a myth! But no! I definitely feel it... and it’s bad.... I’m going to die. My short life is coming to a tragic close in this Kenyan hut. I thought it would end differently: a shootout or skydiving incident maybe. But hey, I had a good run, I guess. It’s all over. Do I still have to use a mosquito net?
When the director of my organization, ICODEI, came to my hut to check on me, he decided to take me to the hospital. This so-called “hospital” resembled a preschool more than a place where medical care might be given. After a blood test, it was confirmed and they sent me home with some medicine that would make me better.
When I arrived back at the farm, I found out that two other volunteers also had malaria. We instantly formed Team Malaria, for moral support. We had a gang sign. We were badass.
Before Team Malaria could even form, I was not accomplishing as much here as I had hoped to. Yes, I helped organize a library and was teaching people in the neighboring communities about HIV and AIDS. But after painstaking hours alphabetizing books, labeling them and reshelving them, I returned a few days later to find them strewn about the room. The ones that were put back were placed in the wrong sections. Even after telling the students at the school and the “librarian” how the system worked, they still disregarded it. There was only so much I could do. The problem was so much deeper than disorganized books. There is no culture of literacy here. I haven’t seen anyone reading a book or honestly perusing the selection. It’s just not an important part of their culture. My hours of work had actually done little good. And after lecturing on the immune system, discussing the Kenyan social structures contributing to the epidemic and demonstrating to about 50 Kenyans how to apply male and female condoms using a dildo and a frighteningly detailed vagina model, only 12 of the 60 people actually came to every session and were able to graduate. Was I really doing all that much? I like to think so, but in reality, my efforts will most likely be forgotten in the near future. Did I spend $3,000 to come here so that 12 people may or may not go on to teach other Kenyans about HIV/AIDS?
And the six days that I was incapacitated by Malaria, I did pretty much no work. I didn’t help anyone learn about AIDS or help teach in the school. All I did was pump my American dollars into the Kenyan economy. My program fees that I had to pay ICODEI are doing much more than my actions.
“Going to Africa to volunteer” seemed so noble, so urgently important. Before my trip I was brimming with excitement, ready to actually do something about the disease that killed 2.3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa last year.
And I’m happy I’m here doing what I am. I am laying down my summer for the most worthy cause I could find. I’m glad I don’t have an “internship,” and I’m glad I’m not just hanging out, like a lot of my friends. But now I realize that Kenya, Africa and the entire developing world are in need of so much more than one idealistic 18 year old.
Dan Englander is a Trinity sophomore and City-State Editor of The Chronicle.
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