How my workaway experiences in Africa enriched my life and taught me that we are all family.
Wherever I go, I’m already home. I wrote these words in my diary twice: Once when I arrived in Nairobi for my first workaway and first journey to Africa, and for the second time a day after my arrival in Ghana, where I was going for my second workaway job.
In 2013, put faith over rationality and listened to my heart’s desire, and traveled solo to Africa to live and work with a lady I only knew from the internet. If everything would work out alright, I’d work in a school project in Nairobi. I arrive there with a four hour delay, pass the kenyan immigration where a friendly girl scribbles my first name in my visa, and I fall into Alices arms, Hakuna matata, the lady from the internet laughs when I try to apologize for the late arrival. She welcomes me into her home, a bright, colorful place that smells like dinner and adventure and incense. I didn’t know what to expect or whom I’d meet, but suddenly there are a bunch of happy, friendly people and we soon share a meal and some stories. I don’t know yet that I’ll not only work and travel with these guys for a while, but that we’ll be in touch for years and years to come. I don’t know yet that we’ll email each other and visit each other, tell each other bed time stories, our biggest dreams and our worst nightmares.
Mama Alice’s place is somewhat magical: Apart from the colorful walls and floor tiles that give you the feeling of living in a kaleidoscope, it’s the people and their love that make this house so special. Some of us are couch surfers, some are work awayers or volunteers, travelers, family members, or university students. I sometimes wonder how Mama Alice can manage all this- the many different people, the many, many chapatis we eat and the noise there sometimes is. In the mornings we teach at school and in the afternoon we mend the school children’s clothes, shop for groceries, cook dinner, and dance in the kitchen. We play cards sitting on cold floor tiles and wrapped in cozy blankets. On the weekends, we travel to national parks, to lakes and beaches and mountains, and we return home sunburnt and happily. Or we go out dancing in Nairobi, and come back in pitch black nights, tipsy and giggly and in love with this city, this country, and each other. There is an interesting, powerful energy in this house, and it takes me a while to be able to put it in words: It’s full of people who burn for others, who are passionate about the projects they engage with, and who love to share.
Being in a different culture and being challenged to work and live in new surroundings is an intense experience: It turns our worlds upside down so brutally and lovingly. Makes us question and discuss and dream in the dim light of oil lamps and candles at night, and it’s almost impossible to not feel connected to our fellow travelers and volunteers. We learn how each of us likes their tea, and we can recognize each other by our steps. We know the sound of our sleep, the scent of our mornings. We are generously filling each other’s cups, spilling love made of smiles and egg sandwiches and splintery bites of sugar cane bark. And it’s Mama Alices devotion for her guests and the children in the school project that keeps us together. She calls us watoto, children, and we call her Mama. I feel home right away, and I already know I will not want to leave again.
But another workaway experience is waiting for me in Ghana that I had arranged even before leaving to Kenya. I travel from Nairobi to Accra, almost missing my connecting flight in Addis Abeba. I am not surprised when I find out that my bag had not made it all the way to West Africa, but also, I am not meeting my workaway host at the airport (another guy from the internet). There must have been some miscomprehension about my arrival day, but he rushes to the airport once I call him. When I finally arrive at my new home – a small volunteer house just outside a village a bit north of Accra – I have already caused some trouble. I don’t have any clothes to wear, either, so I will have to ask one of the other volunteer girls to borrow some. Only I actually never have to ask– as soon as they find out that my bags are lost, I am given some shirts and pants. I have been to Ghana and to my new community for only a few hours, and already I am sweating in a foreign girls’ shirt. Before I had the chance to do something nice for the others or to make a good first impression, I am already dependent on them, and I understand that also here, we are family. We are here for each other and everything’s gonna be alright.
Before I go to bed that night – on a simple mattress on the floor of a room I share with the two other girls – I am not lying when I once again write Wherever I go, I’m already home in my diary. I look at the situation rationally for a moment: The simply furnished room in a place where I don’t really know anyone, the fact that at the moment, I don’t own anything but my carry-on … In Kenya I’ve learnt that in these communities, we look out for each other. I’ve learnt how beautiful and enriching it is to trust strangers and even to be dependent on them. I’ve learnt that I don’t even need my big backpack and that all the stuff is just stuff anyways. I’ve learnt to live in the moment and not worry too much. So this night, without any personal stuff, in a country far away from pretty everything and everyone else and without knowing what the next day would bring, I feel home. There’s no place I’d rather be. I feel happy, safe, and loved.
The workaway community I am living with in Ghana turns out to also be a lively, happy and loving place. We are a small house of many nations, many languages, stories and personalities. We share meals and stories, rooms and mattresses. We dance barefooted on cold floor tiles. We always look for the clothes pegs. We go for long walks and hikes together, we put our neighbors kids to sleep and sing christmas songs in the kitchen. We chop coconuts at the back of our house (and this is where we give each other hair cuts, too). We spread water bags and lesson plans on the table. We teach English and Math, but mostly, we learn a lot ourselves. How to properly hand wash and how to eat sugar cane. That the moon’s upside down in some places of the world. That it’s okay to be down somedays, and that we are all much more alike that it seems. We cry together, laugh together, pray together. Our house is tiny, but it feels almost too big when only one of us leaves for a day or two. Our house is tiny, and sometimes I think the walls must come down from all the joy and love. From all the dreams too big to keep to ourselves.
I had already made wonderful friends in Kenya, and I am now meeting new people in Ghana (Just think about all the other beautiful places and beautiful people in the world!). Even though I am already sensing that these relationships are special, I don’t know that some of my workaway friends will actually come to my wedding a few months later. I don’t know yet that I will hike many more mountains with my friend from England, that I will go on more camping adventures with my friend from Switzerland, or that I would receive beautiful letters from my soul sister from the U.S. That we’d bake pancakes again, in another kitchen, many miles away from where we once met and shared a workaway life. I am enjoying every moment of my workaway and community living experiences in Kenya and Ghana – the pillow talks in tents, the creative writing lessons we teach, the curry we cook on the stove – but only a few years later as I am still in touch with my brothers and sisters do I realize how truly special our connections really are. My workaway experiences in Africa may have been over when I left for home again, but my fellow volunteers became my brothers and sisters, and friends for life. I learnt that we were family, and that there are many, many beautiful and wonderful people out there with big hearts and big dreams and that together, we can maybe change the world. A tiny bit. Every day.