Marissa Galizia in Kenya

On the airplane flying back home after 10 solid weeks of adventure in Kenya, I wanted to reflect on everything I had seen and done over the past two and a half months. Yet, at the same time, it seemed like too much to think about. It seemed easier just to think about what was ahead with my pending arrival back in the USA. I would need a new laptop charger because my American one broke and I had been using one made for Kenyan sockets ever since; there would be SOM summer assignments to finish, plus two weddings to attend and a new apartment in New Haven to get settled into…

But nonetheless, as I flew over Africa, leaving the country and people that I had lived with, worked with and gotten comfortable with over the summer, I forced myself to put thoughts of the future out of my mind. Looking down through the clouds to the deserts, the plains and mountains of the African continent below, I spent some time savoring the memories of an adventure of a lifetime.

As I thought about the moments that stand out most from the past 10 weeks, some were just beautiful and fun weekend activities, but most came from my experiences working and volunteering in and around Kisumu. They are moments of uncertainty, of risk-taking, and of learning that will stick with me. Here are some snapshots.

1)      My first kerosene-lit dinner with a Kenyan family on Mfangano Island. I arrived to a Kenyan home without electricity just after dark. Dinner was already set on the table and a warm orange glow emanated from a kerosene lamp set to burn as bright as possible in the center of the table. Even so, the light barely extended past the heaping bowls of chapatti, fish, and sukuma wiki (spinach) and casted shadows across the faces of everyone at the table. By the end of dinner, I had learned a little bit more about each member of the family, but I did not have a clear view of their faces. My eyes were tired just from working so hard to see what I was eating and whom I was talking to.


2)      Interviewing a tailor on Rusinga Island about how having access to electricity would change his life and his business. I sat on a low bench in a shack off the main square of the village that served as the tailor shop. There was a manual sewing machine in one corner and a stack of rags and fabric pieces in another. The tailor was just telling me how he would like to have electricity so that he could get an electric sewing machine to serve his customers faster. He also wanted to start a barber shop business on the side so that he could make a living even when tailoring business was low. As his business is now, he doesn’t always make enough to feed his family. He has five children and shares whatever he makes with all of them. But sometimes, there isn’t enough to share. In the half hour that I sat talking with him, only one customer came in.  She had a small rip in her skirt that needed to be sewn up, but she didn’t have any money. He just took the skirt and fixed it for free while the girl and I waited.


3)      Watching women help each other navigate a new SMS system to buy renewable electricity through cell phones. I was sitting on the grass at Dunga Beach in the middle of about 8 ladies cleaning the fish that just came in with the early morning catch. My research assistant was trying to run the user acceptance test sequence that I developed with each of them – but some did not know how to text. Some did not even know how to read the words on their phone that instruct them how to text. I watched as he showed them which buttons to press and slowly walked them through the process. While he was helping one woman, the others huddled together squinting at their phones. They were helping each other decipher the messages and respond. Texting seems so simple, but not for these women who barely finished primary school before their parents had to pull them out.


4)      Riding on the backs of motorcycles. I never would have thought this, but riding piki-pikis (motorcycles) became a way of life this summer. It was the fastest and cheapest way to get around town. I could just walk out of my apartment, go to the corner, and wave down a piki-piki driver. I’d hop on the back of the bike, say where I was going, get a good grip and hold on tight. I loved the way the wind felt in my hair and on my face as we went. I tried not to think about the high accident rates and the fact that I wasn’t wearing a helmet.  Thankfully, I made it home safely.


5)      Lunch time with chickens at my feet, fresh avocados on my plate and a hearty discussion of Kenyan politics in the air. Margaret, our company chef, prepared delicious Kenyan lunches every day at the workshop. At around 1:30 PM, after she came around to announce that “lunch is ready,” everyone finished what they were doing and went outside to eat. Chickens and dogs also appeared at this time every day to share our scraps and provide some distraction from the sometimes intense conversations about politics, religion and culture that the diverse mix of Luo, Kikuyu, British and American employees got ourselves into.


6)      Volunteering with Innovate Kenya – a non-profit organization that runs a competition for high school students to develop a creative solution to a problem in their own communities. Out of over 100 applications, the top 10 teams were invited to the weekend-long Innovate Kenya camp just outside Kisumu. The camp participants had the opportunity to meet with mentors and participate in activities to help them refine their idea and develop an action plan to pilot it. I started to get involved with planning for the camp a couple of weeks beforehand and then volunteered at the camp as an extra pair of hands and a mentor. The camp was held at Maseno Secondary School, a large, all-boys boarding school. I slept in the dorms with all of the girls attending the camp and the other female volunteers. I chatted with students about their music tastes – it turns out that Eminem is still respected among Kenyan teenagers. I coached my team on their business plan to make green charcoal out of cassava. And, I learned some new dance moves from the teenage girls at the Saturday night dance party. Best of all, though, I met an amazing group of volunteers, both Kenyan and not, who ended up becoming my friends for the rest of my time in Kenya.


7)      Driving 8 hours from Kisumu to Lake Naivasha in a van named Mzee Ni Wewe (‘I am not older than you’). One of my new found friends from Innovate Kenya organized for a group of us to drive up to Lake Naivasha for a weekend getaway in a van. What I didn’t realize until we got into the van and started driving is that the van was probably from the late 1970s and was not in the best condition. It could not go faster than about 60 kilometers per hour (about 37 miles per hour), it was very prone to flat tires, and the door required a magic touch to open it. Nonetheless, the drive out of Western Kenya, through Kenyan tea country, and into the Rift Valley to Lake Naivasha with our motley crew of 3 Kenyan guys and 3 American girls was unforgettable. We took it pole pole (slowly slowly) and laughed at each struggle.


8)      White water rafting in Jinja, Uganda at the source of the Nile River. After a brief safety training in which we practiced jumping out of our rafts and getting back in again, we headed down the Nile to our first Class 5 Rapid. At first we couldn’t really see the rapid, just the river and then a drop off, we had no idea how steep it was. The guide told us that if the raft should flip when we go over the rapid, we should let go of the raft and NOT swim. Swimming would make it take longer for us to get to the surface and make it more likely for us to hit a rock. The best thing to do – just let the water carry us back to the surface. We approached the edge of the rapid and looked over. “Oh my God,” was the only thing I could think to scream. We were about to go over a waterfall in a raft that we were not attached to. But still, as the guide instructed, we paddled forward. We went over the edge and we were airborne. Screaming. All 6 of us collectively held our breath for an instant, before…splash. I was in the water. I tried to come up but I butted my head on the raft which had flipped over, dumping the whole team in the river. I waited another second and came up again, this time the raft was nowhere to be seen. Then, I saw a man coming for me in a kayak. I grabbed onto the kayak as we were instructed in the safety training and he brought me back to the raft. Nothing like a near death experience to get your adrenaline going. This happened on 5 of the 8 rapids we navigated that day.


9)      Piloting my new energy game, “The Get Mingi? Challenge” with a group of customers on Rusinga Island. My preliminary research about customers feelings and expectations about getting access to electricity revealed that many potential customers believed that once they got electricity, they would be able to use as much of it as they wanted. They seemed to have great expectations about all of the things that they would do with their electricity including very high-power activities like ironing their clothes and blow drying their hair straight. These kinds of activities would use a lot of power and could compromise a renewable electricity micro-grid system with a limited capacity. I realized that some kind of communication was necessary to manage these expectations, so I decided to create a game.


A few weeks later, I piloted the game with a community that was about get a wind and solar power micro-grid that would give them access to electricity for the first time ever. After a few rounds, I could see that they were getting it. They were having discussions about what their priorities for energy use were as a community and debating important questions like whether they wanted their energy to go towards more hours of television to watch football (soccer) or charging more re-chargeable lanterns. The game had initiated exactly the kinds of discussions that were necessary for the community to use their new renewable energy micro-grid sustainably and profitably.


10)   Seeing 20 giraffes in the Masai Mara. The Masai Mara is the name of the Serengeti ecosystem on the Kenyan side of the border. It was late July, so the wildebeest migration was in full swing and there were thousands of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and antelope running and grazing and lazing about the rolling plane. They hesitantly moved out of the way of the safari van as we rolled past. Then, we turned a corner and 20 giraffes were standing together looking tall and majestic against the long, dry grass that appeared golden in the setting sun. They moved gracefully, slowly, cautiously with their long limbs. We stopped and stared at their unique beauty for half an hour, mesmerized by the number of them and their amazing height.

Marissa Galizia

Marissa Galizia is a joint-degree student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Management.

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