Out of Africa

For seven weeks Matt Krouner lived in a hut with no running water or electricity. The sophomore slept covered by a mosquito net. He ate food with its head still attached. When it came to washing himself, he had to boil the water for 15 minutes to kill all the germs.

“I’ve been to other countries before, but never on a trip like this,” Krouner said. “I’ve never been to Africa.”

Krouner and 11 other students traveled to the west province of Kenya with Global Routes, a college intern program based in Northampton, Mass. Global Routes sends college and high school students all over the world to help make a difference in village communities. Applying to the program requires more than filling out a form, Krouner said, the application includes essay questions and an interview.

Krouner and another intern, Nelly Martin, moved to the Kenyan village of Ebukhaya to live with host families. Global Routes takes the students around the country for a week and a half before and after the interns are assigned villages for seven weeks.

Krouner learned all about living in a Third World country while living with
the Opeto family. He lived with a host mother, who did not speak English, and her four children who were studying English. The eldest son, Amos, with whom Krouner shared a hut, spoke English well enough to become Krouner’s translator. Krouner’s host father was away for much of his stay, arriving a few days before he left.

The family’s only source of income was trading crops that were grown on their two-acre s of land and selling milk from their only cow.

“Most of what they would use and what they would live off of was cultivated by themselves,” Krouner said.

Krouner said the family grew corn and grass to feed the cow, and he helped harvest when needed.

His weekdays were spent teaching history and math to high school students. Krouner said it was hard at first because some of his students did not speak English well. Students began to learn English early in school, but many still had much to learn.

Krouner said the teachers at his school did not interact with their students during class. Most of the teachers were strict and taught purely through lecture.

“It’s a harsher school system, so when I would get there and try to be relaxed and get them involved, sometimes they weren’t very receptive,” Krouner said. “They’d be very, very shy, but over the course of two or three weeks I started to develop a good relationship with them.”

Krouner taught grades equivalent to sophomores and juniors in high school, students who were 15 to 26 years old. He taught probability, commercial arithmetic and trigonometry. He said because he was not particularly good at math he would teach himself and then relay what he learned to the class.

Krouner said the government strictly structured his history class, restricting any material that could give students ideas about revolts. Krouner taught about the industrial revolutions in India, China and Japan.

One of the biggest adjustments Krouner said he made was in his eating habits. A common meal in the area is Ugali, which is made from boiled ground corn.

“It turns into one big matzo ball almost, but it’s thicker,” he said. “They put it on a plate in the center of the table and everybody just reaches with their hands. You pretty much just use (your hands) as your utensils.”

Krouner also ate various meats, fish and vegetables and made sure everything was cooked well. He said some interns on the trip were nervous about eating the food.

“I ate just about everything they gave me,” Krouner said. “If something looked really ridiculous I wouldn’t go near it. They eat everything. If they give you a fish or something they just put the fish on the plate. You eat the head. You eat the tail.”

Krouner said he was lucky he did not get sick during the trip. He said one girl got so sick from the food she had to be sent home early.

“My family fed themselves very well, but I came across some people in the village who definitely didn’t, who didn’t have access to the food they should be eating,” Krouner said.

The most interesting food he tried was the head of a chicken.

“I don’t really know what I ate, but I just chewed on it a little bit,” he said. “I smiled and took it out of my mouth. I tried to do it without them noticing.”

Global Routes suggests its participants raise money before departing to help make more of an impact in the communities where they are placed. Krouner raised $1,300. He bought his family a second cow for the Kenyan equivalent of $300 and helped them build a shed to house their animals.

Krouner asked around the community for ways he could help and they requested his assistance in building a laboratory to help students prepare to go to a university. In order to attend a public university after secondary school in Kenya, a certain score on a national test is required in several subjects including Swahili, English, geography and a science laboratory practical. Because many of the students in the village had never set foot inside a laboratory, many would fail the test.

“(They) only get one chance to take it,” Krouner said. “If you don’t do well you have to pay your way to a private university, which is impossible from an area like this, so really it all relies on this test.”

Krouner said when he first arrived, the village had only raised a small amount of money.

“They just needed a push and so (Martin) and I assisted them with buying materials and hiring the craftsman to build it,” he said.

Krouner said public universities are an opportunity for some students in the community because the government allows them to attend for reasonable tuition rates with the help of loans. He said with the new laboratory, he hopes more students will attend university, including his host brother, Amos.

To break from the traditional life in the village, the program offered the interns weekends in a house in Kakamega, Kenya, a 45-minute drive away. The interns could hang out with each other, use a toilet instead of a hole in an outhouse, check their e-mail and call home from the house.

Krouner said he used this opportunity only a couple of times throughout his stay and other weekends he would go on hiking trips.

Before going abroad Krouner received about nine immunization shots to for diseases such as cholera, yellow fever and rabies. He also took a pill every week to prevent malaria. Krouner took precautions to stay healthy like drinking boiled water and sleeping in mosquito bedding to avoid bites.

No one in his community had the access or money to receive the same vaccines as he did. Krouner said it was common for the people in his community not to treat their illnesses. Often they did not even try to prevent disease because of ignorance and poverty. He said even though their bodies are used to the water and mosquitoes, the same precautions could help prevent malaria and other diseases, such as AIDS.

“In my area one in every five kids under the age of 18 has HIV or AIDS,” Krouner said. “Health is a big issue.”

Krouner said the health system is extremely poor in the area where he lived. He said there is a hospital about 40 minutes away, but most villagers would not be able to afford treatment even if they were charged as little as $5.

Krouner said everyone in the community knew who he was.

“I was sort of a celebrity,” Krouner said.

He said he and Martin were probably the only two Caucasians villagers had seen in a year, and for many, the only Caucasians they had ever
seen.

“I would definitely walk down the street and people would come running after me, screaming,” Krouner said.

Krouner said he did not see the people in his community as lazy, but many were not always proactive about ways to help themselves.

He said many would approach him to ask if he would sponsor their business propositions. He would explain to them he was a student with limited funds and he was doing all he could.

“It was frustrating when people would come and ask me for money,” he said. “They would say, ‘help give me money, I want to go to school,’ and I would say ‘all right, what have you done in order to pay the tuition?’ and they’ll say ‘there is nothing I can do.'”

Even when he suggested ways to help, he usually could not make an impact, which he said, was upsetting.

“Global Routes brings people to these villages, like me, and they see we come and do projects like (building) the laboratory or buying my family a cow,” Krouner said. “They always see white people coming and having money to spend on the community.”

Some of the most interesting conversations he had, Krouner said, were with villagers his own age. He said a 19-year-old young man told him about a time he went into the city to see an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

The man told Krouner how scared and disturbed he was that an actor would kill other people without caring.

Krouner had to explain to the boy that Schwarzenegger’s actions in the movie were not real, that he was playing a role.

“I had kids asking me if I had ever been to the moon, if I could take them to the moon or if I could build them a space ship,” Krouner said.

Krouner said he the trip was one of his most worthwhile experiences.

“I learned from being in a different culture what a rich life people can live with not the same possessions that we think or I would have thought were necessary,” Krouner said. “They had, in terms of possessions, so much less, but their culture was strong and they were still able to live happy, full lives with the things that they had and with not a lot of the tools from modern cultures.”

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