Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kenya
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Rewards and Frustrations
- 10 Personal Safety
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we take for granted in the United States. Mail takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive in Kenya. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Some letters may arrive with clipped edges because a postal worker tried to see if any money was inside (again, this is rare, but it does happen). We do not want to sound discouraging, but when thousands of miles from families and friends, communication becomes a very sensitive issue. We would prefer you be forewarned of the reality of mail service in the developing world. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.
The length of time it takes for mail to reach Volunteers is as varied as their sites. Airmail from the United States to major cities in Kenya will take about two weeks. More remote post offices receive mail less frequently, and sometimes a local courier is employed to ferry mail from isolated villages to trading centers. The Peace Corps uses the Telkom Kenya network to send mail to Volunteers throughout Kenya. Although mail is sent regularly from the Peace Corps office, the timing of its receipt depends on the location of the Volunteer’s site.
We strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly (perhaps weekly or biweekly) and to number your letters.
Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Peace Corps Volunteers are allowed duty-free entry of packages for their first 90 days in Kenya. After the 90-day grace period, the customs office may begin assessing duty charges, which must be paid before a package is released. Customs duties are based on the types of items as well as their value. Electronics may be assessed a particularly high duty rate. Packages normally take about three months to reach Kenya from the United States if sent via surface mail. Volunteers are requested to follow the mailing procedures described in the Peace Corps/Kenya Volunteer Handbook. Your address during training will be:
PO Box 30518
It is your responsibility to forward the postal address at your site to the Peace Corps office in Nairobi so mail can be routed directly to you. Mail sent via international channels will take 10 to 21 days to arrive at your site. Remember that it is important to keep regular contact with relatives and friends, not just for them but also for you. Write often so that no one has cause to worry, which a lapse in letters for any period of time has been known to create.
Once at your site, you will receive a notification slip in your post box when you receive a package. Respond promptly with your ID in hand. The sooner you pick up the package, the less storage fees will be. You will be responsible for paying any customs, storage, and handling charges before your package is released to you.
Trainees and Volunteers are responsible for mailing personal letters and packages. Airmail letters and stamps are available at local post offices.
Most large cities and provincial capitals have domestic long-distance service; regional centers and some large cities also provide overseas telephone service. In some locations, the service is fast and efficient; in others, it may take several hours to get calls through.
Cellular telephones and service are widely avaialbe in Kenya. Peace Corps does not require Volunteers to purchase a phone, but most Volunteers choose to buy a phone and service once they reach their sites and have a clear idea of the network coverage in the area.
Domestic long-distance calls: Volunteers are responsible for all toll charges on calls. But you may call the Peace Corps/ Nairobi office collect or reverse charges. The Peace Corps provides 500 Kenyan shillings per month (telecommunications allowance) to cover official and emergency phone calls.
Overseas calls: The Peace Corps occasionally authorizes a Volunteer to call home because of a family emergency. When you receive such notification from the Peace Corps, you may pay for toll charges and bring the receipt to the Peace Corps office for reimbursement. Personal overseas calls will not be authorized by the Peace Corps office, and Volunteers must use locally available public phones for all personal calls.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Because Internet use appears to be primarily for personal reasons, you are expected to use your living and telecommunications allowances to cover your Internet costs.
Designated computers in the resource center at the Nairobi office do have Internet access. You are welcome to use these, though priority is given to Volunteers who are getting ready to finish their service, to assist them with graduate school and job applications. Volunteers are prohibited from using staff computers in all offices. Internet access is available at post offices and cybercafes in towns and cities.
Housing and Site Location
As a Volunteer, you will most likely have to live in a rural community and not have access to indoor plumbing or electricity. Expect to use hurricane lamps and candles for lighting and to cook using charcoal, wood, or a single-burner kerosene stove. Peace Corps/Kenya, for both philosophical and budget considerations, requires host ministries to provide all Volunteers with housing. The standard and condition of Volunteer housing vary widely, from mud houses with thatched roofs to very modern cement houses with running water and electricity. The type of house you have will depend on your project, the area of the country in which you are posted, and the types of houses available in the community. You may also be required to share housing with other staff or to live in a room behind a shop at a market center. In short, you can expect to have, at the very least, a room to call your own. The decision as to whether housing standards are “acceptable” lies with the associate Peace Corps director and medical staff. When it comes to your housing, you should not lose sight of the guiding goal of the Peace Corps. Maintain your focus on service to the people of Kenya and not on the level of your accommodations.
Because Peace Corps Volunteers are often posted in poor rural areas to work with ministries with little or no money for housing, the Peace Corps sets minimum housing standards:
- There must be at least a private, lockable room if housing is shared with other people.
- The room should have windows.
- The roof should not leak.
- There should be a cement floor and a place for a Volunteer to take a bucket bath or shower.
- There should be a latrine that is private or semiprivate (not used by all schoolchildren at a school but perhaps shared by other staff members).
- The Volunteer will be expected to use the same water source as the community.
Your site assignment is made during pre-service training, in collaboration with the training staff. The assignment is based on their assessment and recommendation regarding community needs and your skill levels in the technical, cross-cultural, and language areas. You will be interviewed prior to an actual placement decision so that additional personal preferences can be considered in making the site assignment. Site placements are made using the following criteria (in priority order):
- Medical considerations
- Government of Kenya needs
- Site requirements (community needs) matched with demonstrated technical, cross-cultural, and language skills
- Peace Corps/Kenya needs
- Personal preference of the trainee
The final decisions on site placement are made by your associate Peace Corps director. If you choose not to go to the site assigned to you, you will be given the opportunity to terminate your service with the Peace Corps. Refusal to go to your assigned site will result in administrative separation from Peace Corps/Kenya.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Each Volunteer receives a monthly allowance sufficient to cover basic costs. The allowance enables you to live adequately according to the Peace Corps’ philosophy of a modest lifestyle. It is based on the local cost of living and is paid in local currency. Your living allowance is intended to cover food, housing, clothing, transportation from home to work site, utilities, household supplies, recreation and entertainment, incidental personal expenses, communications, and reading material.
Food and Diet
In most parts of Kenya, there is a wide choice of foods, ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to meats. With a little creativity, you can enjoy a varied diet. Fruits and vegetables are seasonal, which means that some items may not be available at all times. Vegetarian Volunteers will have little difficulty in continuing their diets after becoming familiar with local food items and their preparation.
All Volunteers will be expected to travel in Kenya using local transportation (i.e., foot, public buses, or matatu van). This includes getting from your training center to your site both during and at the end of pre-service training.
Volunteers may not own or operate motorized vehicles, but they are allowed to rent vehicles during approved vacation periods. Trainees and Volunteers are not allowed to drive any vehicle during training or at their sites.
Volunteers are provided 18-speed, all-terrain bicycles by the Peace Corps. This bicycle is to be used with your extension work, in conjunction with the use of public transport. They are also provided with a helmet, which they must use whenever they ride a bike.
Geography and Climate
Kenya is located in East Africa and covers 582,650 square kilometers. It is approximately the size of Nevada and shares borders with Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The climate varies from tropical along the coast to arid in the interior, and the topography varies from low plains to central highlands (with an altitude of 3,000 to 10,000 feet) to mountain ridges (e.g., 17,040 feet on Mount Kenya). From the mountains flow Kenya’s four major rivers—Tana, Athi, Tarkwel, and Uaso-Nyiro. The spectacular Rift Valley, a result of geological faulting, stretches all the way to Zimbabwe. Lake Victoria, in the Nyanza province, is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world.
Kenya has four seasons: January–March (warm, sunny, and dry), March–June (long rains), June–September (cool, cloudy, and dry), and October–December (short rains). Despite being on the equator, Kenya enjoys a temperate climate, with temperatures ranging from 55 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit depending on location. Kenya’s diversity of flora and fauna attracts visitors from all over the world, supporting the tourism industry.
The most common form of entertainment in rural communities is socializing with friends and family. Volunteers will take part in the various festivities, parties, and storytelling sessions within their communities. Many Volunteers bring or buy a shortwave radio to listen to international broadcasts (e.g., BBC and Voice of America). Satellite radio recievers and service can be bought in Nairobi.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Kenyans regard dress and appearance as an outward sign of the respect one holds for another individual. Neatness in appearance is much more important than being “stylish.” You are expected to dress appropriately (long skirts for women and slacks for men) in training, while traveling, and on the job. It takes only one inappropriately dressed Volunteer for a Kenyan host agency to arrive at a generally negative conclusion about the Peace Corps. This jeopardizes the credibility of the Volunteer and the entire program. Kenyan neighbors, counterparts, and supervisors may draw unfavorable impressions of a Volunteer’s appearance, and the Volunteer may never be aware that such impressions have been made. In such cases, Volunteers will never know how their work and credibility have been compromised. In addition, Volunteer dress should respect the cultural and religious norms of his or her community.
Volunteers should always wear clean and neat clothes. Buttoned shirts for men and blouses and skirts or dresses for women are appropriate wear during business hours. T-shirts are appropriate only for casual, nonbusiness activities. Tank tops, see-through blouses, or extremely low-cut blouses are not appropriate attire.
Men should not wear dirty or worn-out jeans. Jeans should not be worn during business hours unless the conditions of the job assignment or training activity allow it, and never when visiting government offices or the training center. In most cases, jeans are not acceptable attire for the Peace Corps office. However, should they be unavoidable (for instance, following travel), neat jeans are acceptable in the Peace Corps office and on “dress down” days at the training center. The Kenyan Ministry of Education has determined that jeans are not appropriate attire for classroom teachers.
Women may not wear casual slacks or jeans during business hours unless the conditions of the training activity or job assignment require it, and never when visiting government offices or the training center. Dresses and skirts to or below the knees are appropriate attire for women. Shorts may be worn only at home, when exercising (if appropriate), or when doing work where Kenyan counterparts are also wearing shorts. As mentioned above, only in specific circumstances are jeans, casual slacks, or shorts considered acceptable attire for women in the Peace Corps office or the training center.
Aside from the condition and type of clothing you wear, there are other standards of dress and appearance that need to be remembered. Female Volunteers should wear appropriate undergarments, including bras and slips. Your hair should be clean and combed. For men, beards should be neatly trimmed. Men should never wear a hat indoors, unless custom in the area allows it. Wearing a hat in government, Peace Corps, or similar offices is not allowed, and sunglasses should be removed when indoors. Finally, smoking is prohibited in all Peace Corps and training center offices and in Peace Corps vehicles.
These restrictions have been formalized only in response to specific instances of inappropriate dress and behavior by Volunteers. Because it is difficult to know automatically what is appropriate when entering a new culture, we present this list not to offend, but to inform. In general, the above guidance is meant to convey to Volunteers the point that adherence to professional standards is appropriate at all times and in all places.
Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to maintain high standards of behavior. Any behavior that could jeopardize the reputation of the Volunteer or the Peace Corps could be grounds for administrative separation. All Volunteers are reminded that they are subject to the laws of Kenya and have no immunity from them. The Peace Corps will assist Volunteers in criminal proceedings, but if the proceedings necessitate professional legal counsel, Peace Corps/Kenya must obtain prior approval from the general counsel’s office in Washington. Any costs arising from such counsel are usually the responsibility of the Volunteer. Peace Corps/Kenya cannot pay fines but can arrange for fines to be paid from the Volunteer’s readjustment allowance.
The matter of trainee or Volunteer sexual behavior is, of course, a highly personal one. However, because of other social implications of inappropriate behavior, it is important that Peace Corps standards be clear. Sexual mores in Kenya are very conservative and strict, and you are expected to respect them. Public displays of affection such as kissing, hand holding, or hugging, are not generally socially acceptable. Further information will be provided during your pre-service training on appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior.
If the country director determines that willful disregard of cultural standards is jeopardizing your credibility as a trainee or Volunteer or that of the entire program, you may be administratively separated from Peace Corps service.
Rewards and Frustrations
Before accepting this assignment, you should give ample thought to some of the potential obstacles that you will face. Until your adjustment to Kenya is complete, you will undoubtedly feel out of place speaking a new language and observing and trying to practice customs that seem strange to you. In addition, no matter what your ethnic, religious, or racial background is, you may stick out as someone from outside the Kenyan culture. However, many situations can indeed be overcome with a sense of humor and an ability to be open to new experiences. Your work situation may also present many difficulties and frustrations.
Most of your work will be to educate, motivate, and organize community groups. These are slow and challenging tasks. Co-workers, severely underpaid and burdened with extended family commitments, will have a much different outlook on life from your own, and rainy and agricultural seasons will delay many project activities. You must be able to work in an unstructured assignment and approach all of the above situations with flexibility, supreme patience, resourcefulness, and a sense of humor. Your commitment to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer will be tested throughout your service by any number of everyday events.
Peace Corps service is not for everyone. More than a mere job, it requires greater dedication and commitment to serve than do most other work environments. It is for confident, self-starting, and concerned individuals who are interested in assisting in other countries and increasing human understanding across cultural barriers. The key to satisfying work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is the ability to establish successful human relations at all levels. This requires patience, sensitivity, and a positive professional attitude. If you have the personal qualities needed to accept the challenge described above and can demonstrate them for a two-year service in Kenya, you will have a rewarding, enriching, and lasting experience, while at the same time making a much-needed contribution to Kenya’s development.
Often you will find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your colleagues, and take action with little guidance from supervisors. You may work for months without seeing any visible impact and without receiving feedback on your work. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the benefits are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service.
Even with the many economic, social, political, and environmental challenges facing Kenya today, there is an atmosphere of excitement and hope. The changes occurring are some of the most important in the country’s modern history. To join the people of Kenya in this effort, and to be part of this historically pivotal and defining moment, will be both fascinating and satisfying to any Volunteer willing to work hard, be tolerant of ambiguity, and give generously of his or her time.
Information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Kenya. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.