School and Safari in Kenya: In the Wild with Gemma

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NameGemma Barlow
Role: Senior iOS Developer
Where to? Nairobi, Kenya
Couchsurfing makes a me a better… communicator.




Why Nairobi?

“They say it’s impossible, we say ‘we’re Kenyan’” – ‘Kenya Amazing Race’ promotional slogan

I chose Nairobi for two reasons. Firstly, as an iOS developer I had heard about Kenya’s unique mobile-first technology landscape and, secondly, I have a family connection to the region. For several years, my Mom has raised funds for a school in the Kibera slum – I wanted to see a similar environment first-hand and be able to convey to her what life in the city was really like, reinforcing her contribution.

The People Along the Way

The first person that I met on my CS trip was my host for my entire stay. She had been waiting at the airport for several hours holding a sign with my name on it – an amazing gesture. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the busiest airport in East Africa, but has not fully recovered from a massive fire in August, forcing non-ticketed visitors to stand outside. Due to the Christmas holiday, the crowds were particularly chaotic the evening I landed, and my host seemed as relieved to see me as I was her! She greeted me with a giant hug, the first of many I was to receive during my time in Africa.

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“My host had been waiting at the airport for several hours – what an amazing gesture!”


My host is a mother of four, an avid host of Couchsurfers and the founder of a Foundation which runs a school in the slum near the Komarocks region for approximately 35 students. The kids range from ages 3 to 12 and are taught by volunteers, sourced through various homestay and voluntourism sites. She loves having a busy, bustling home and also invites Couchsurfers to come and assist at the school for a day or so. The current set of desks used by the students were built by a previous Couchsurfing group, and serves as the only furniture in the school’s temporary location – a shed.


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“My host is a mother of four, an avid Couchsurfing host, and the founder of a organisation which runs a school for kids in the slum.”

People living and working in the house bond quickly and I was lucky enough to meet some fabulous Couchsurfers and travelers during my time there. Billy from Utah had previously been traveling in Tanzania and was just stopping in Nairobi for a few nights before heading to the coastal town of Mombasa; the kids loved his tattoos and the older boys, in particular, responded well to a male presence in the school who spoke excellent Swahili. Sam, a recent Law graduate from New Zealand, was  brilliant company. She loaned me money for the bus (matatu) and helped me work through language confusion and figure out cultural practices such as shaking everyone’s hand upon entering a room to greet them, rather than just as an introduction. With a bit of luck, she’ll be surfing my couch in San Francisco soon!

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Visiting the Kenyan International Conference Center with other members of my CS household.

After heading out on safari organized by Debby, both a Couchsurfer and travel agent, I also met Jun, who was in Kenya working as an Chinese-English translator for a Kenyan-Indian construction company. There is much travel diversity in Africa; the challenges of daily life seem to intrigue the most adventurous of people, who are usually exploring the continent solo. I also had the opportunity to meet several Maasai warriors. They dress in traditional robes but wear a belt with room for both a traditional knife and a tiny cell phone.

“I also had the opportunity to meet several Maasai warriors.”

One of the most memorable experiences during my stay was my final dinner at my host’s house – spaghetti bolognese, hungrily consumed by the 11-person household. We watched the Nairobi news which, interestingly enough, includes live International Signing for the Deaf in the bottom-left corner of the broadcast, and discussed the most dramatic story of the day, an horrific train crash in the Kibera slum. Debate led to further discussion of world politics as we traded Australian, Kiwi, Kenyan and Finnish perspectives on world politics (and the lives and loves of the British Royal Family).


“My final dinner at my host’s house – spaghetti bolognese, hungrily consumed by the 11-person household.”

Leaving it Better Than I Found It

During my stay with my host, I felt I wanted to do something to make the lives of future volunteers at her foundation easier. Towards the end of the week I felt more comfortable navigating on my own and whilst wandering found a mall, where I purchased exercise books, writing materials and storybooks for use when school returns in the New Year. Hopefully this will make the challenge of teaching with no permanent space, no set curriculum, a few battered books and a language barrier a little bit easier for visitors (not to mention the students). I was hoping to surprise my host by leaving them and have her find the stash later, but she caught me and gave me a big hug!

What Couchsurfing Means to Me

To me, Couchsurfing is the most authentic way of traveling; moving through a location and experiencing what it would truly be like to live there. I witnessed first-hand many of the challenges of daily life in Nairobi that would have remained hidden if my chosen accommodation was a large hotel in the center of the city. I also learned a great deal about Kenyan culture. I would never have giggled at my host telling the taxi driver over the phone that she ‘want(ed) you here at 6am, not 6am African time. Remember Europeans keep time well’. I would have never learned that everyone drinks instant coffee as its export price is so high it makes it incredibly expensive within Kenya itself. I would never have been startled by the phenomenon of the singing Kenyan answering machine. I would never have been followed around the estate by two tiny kids wanting to check if my freckles would wipe off. I would also have missed out on meeting some incredibly inspiring people.

Kenya is an awesome place and my trip to Nairobi was a fabulous introduction to Africa and the people that live and work there. Local knowledge is key when traveling in more challenging locations and the support of Couchsurfers and other travelers was so important to me during my stay. I intend to return to Africa as soon as possible, confident that I now have the experience to plan a much longer trip. Nairobi, I’ll miss you.


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