In 2017 we were delighted to support Lynn volunteering in Watamu, Kenya. A retired accountant with a passion for adventure and a strong desire to share her experience in a developing community, Lynn proved to be the perfect volunteer for project K14, an opportunity for career break or mature volunteers.
But enough from us….. Lynn has written her own eloquent blog which tells her tale below….
Hi, I’m Lynn, just back after six months volunteering with Outreach in Watamu, Kenya, and this is my story.
It was autumn 2016 and this early retiree was looking for ‘something more’ out of life. All it needed was a little late-night internet surfing to find the Outreach website and the seeds were sown. ‘My Big Adventure’ – a chance to travel, see some new places, make new friends, use my professional skills, make a difference, all the while knowing there was a safety net. By which I mean Outreach identifies the opportunities, sets you up with an in-country coordinator to make the local introductions, finds you a place to live, and is always on hand for those little moments when you need a boost. Best of all, talking to Outreach helped me visualise the dream and then commit to it!
I’ve travelled a lot in my professional life, so arriving solo in a foreign country holds few surprises. Even so, I was still excited at getting to my destination, knowing I’d be making this my home for the next six months. Watamu is a small town. On one side of the street you’ll find up market holiday hotels and second homes. On the other, the local population lives in very basic conditions – free range goats, chickens and children! And yet Watamu is a happy place where I felt very much at home.
I soon lost the feeling of being a visitor – such as mastering public transport, knowing the vegetable stallholders and folks in the coffee shop, greeting the chapatti seller across the street, and learning a few Swahili words and phrases from the askaris at the gate.
Looking back, I wasn’t entirely sure what I would be doing, only that I’d have to use my initiative and go with the flow. Stepping outside the comfort zone is what it’s all about. As things turned out, I was introduced on my first morning to most of the people who I would eventually be working with. They’d already had a meeting in advance to discuss how and where they could make use of my skills (by the way, I’m an accountant) which is how I found myself working with a number of small, community run businesses teaching double entry book keeping and Excel!
It was down to me to ask for introductions and phone numbers so I could set up the meetings and make a start. Here we are meeting under a shady tree in the village centre! I relished the freedom to choose how I’d deliver the projects, how much time I could spend with each group of people and how often I would visit. Some days were long and exhausting; at other times I’d work ‘from home’ planning and developing training materials. Now and then I even took the day off and went to the beach for some thinking time!
When I arrived, a fellow volunteer, Elyse, had already been in Watamu for two months. We soon became friends and she introduced me to the town: the best places to buy fresh fruit and veg, where to find delicious coffee and ice cream, and which bars and restaurants to avoid.
Then, when the next volunteer came out, I could do the same for them, and so on. Never think you will be lonely: ex-pats and locals alike are always interested to find out about you, and they are a very hospitable bunch. I soon became part of a group that met on Fridays (and sometimes on other days) for drinks and dinner. I shall miss all my Kenyan friends.
So what did I actually do and achieve? I’m certainly not a teacher, but I soon discovered I really do have a knack for working alongside adults, teaching by example, simplifying the technical stuff and generally providing one-to-one support. Success number one for me is the Crab Shack, a community run restaurant that helps to fund conservation of the mangroves as well as providing employment for the residents of Dabaso village.
Imagine taking someone from handwritten notes on assorted bits of paper to using a laptop computer. Step one was to set up a simple cash book then, eventually, produce a monthly profit statement and a balance sheet. We even developed a proper payroll system. This is me with Khamis, my star pupil, who learned so much he can now teach his peers as well!
Another very successful local initiative is the making of organic soap using coconut and neem oil. The latter comes from the seeds of the neem tree, sometimes called the ‘tree of forty cures’ for its healing properties. The soaps are packaged in little cloth bags, also made locally, and sold to hotels in Watamu for the guest rooms. Khamis is in charge of the accounting for soaps, too.
Then there’s Eco-World, a recycling facility set up to turn ‘trash into cash’. The beaches are cleaned, then glass, plastic and other refuse is collected for sorting and onward sale to commercial processors.
My favourites are the animals sculpted from abandoned flip flops. Accounting for the sales to ensure every stakeholder in the enterprise gets their fair share of the proceeds is more complex than you might imagine. No matter, after several iterations we eventually set up a system to keep track of things.
Thinking back there were other, equally satisfying achievements: supporting fellow volunteers who needed to draw up a budget; writing an investment plan for a local school to help unlock donor funds; even trying my hand at some advertising copywriting to promote the Eco-World shop and its products. All in all, a very rewarding few months, working in places and on projects I could never have imagined.
Would I do it again? You bet! Husband, home and family need me for the moment, until I find
© Lynn Betts September 2017
For more information see project K14, an opportunity for career break or mature volunteers or Apply Online to set-up your conversation about realising your dreams