Merry Xmas From Kenya

In November of 2010 I sent a Christmas card to one of my coordinators in Kenya. It just got returned to me with a “return to sender” sticker on the envelope — two-and-a-half years later!

I wasn’t even sure what was inside, so I opened it. Here’s the front of the card:

That photo brings back some great memories. In the spring of 2010 I took a group of 30 students ages 11-12 (along with six of their teachers) to Vietnam to volunteer at an orphanage. That week remains one of the highlights of my career in the volunteer-travel field.

Cheers to the postal systems involved in returning the card to me. It’s impossible for me to tell which country’s dead-letter office — Kenya’s or the US’ — kept my card around so long without trashing it or hiding it.  Maybe I’ll side with Kenya on this one, if only because I’ve loved my visits there so much.

The last time I was in Kenya, in late 2011, I went to a rural post office in the town of Mwatate. I had some some postcards to mail to family and friends back home. My photo of the post office:

Post office in Mwatate, Kenya

The Kenyan postal staff were so nice. We chatted about Mwatate, the weather, and — just what in God’s name was a Mzungu doing in the middle of Kenya alone?? Well, I was there with a friend to visit Lumo Wildlife Park — a sanctuary where future clients of mine would work in wildlife conservation. The postal workers patiently waited as I counted out my Kenyan coins to pay for my postcards. They had time, I suppose, since I was the only customer there the entire time!

Now for the bad memories.

The Xmas card above that got returned me? I had sent it to a Kenyan Coordinator I no longer work with. In fact my experiences with her are some of the most painful ones from my 12+ years in this business.

The Coordinator’s name? It’s Hellen Githiaka from Nairobi. Here’s her Facebook Page. I have no qualms about posting her name here. The reason is that, because of her, there are now four people walking the earth who hate me, her and probably Kenya too.

The short version:

I hired Githiaka to arrange wildlife conservation internships for several of my clients in the spring of 2011. They arrived in Kenya and — no internships. They “fell through,” according to Githiaka. Something about the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) being at fault. I refunded the clients’ money and apologized to them for several weeks straight over the phone and on email. I also spent the following weeks yelling at Githiaka and demanding that she return the 2k I paid her. She never did.

One correction: The first client, a woman in her 30’s named “Lisa”, actually did arrive at a “wildlife placement”. It went like this:

> Githiaka sent Lisa to live — alone — at an empty rural farmhouse owned by a government minister (a judge I believe). This private land was a quasi wildlife sanctuary. It did have some wildlife, but nothing even close to the “Big Five” which includes the buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros.

> The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) made visits once in a while (they’re in charge of all wildlife in Kenya, even on private land), but there was absolutely no work for Lisa or any guidance given to her by Githiaka.

> Lisa’s wildlife internship ended after a couple of weeks when she and I decided (after talking on the phone almost daily) to get her back to Nairobi and try to find another placement with a different coordinator. Lisa returned by bus to Nairobi with the wife of a KWS boss.

> Lisa promptly got robbed as she got off the bus in Nairobi (passport, laptop, cash and credit cards all gone). The police told her it was likely an inside job. Signs pointed to the KWS boss — he apparently had insisted to my client that she let his wife accompany her to Nairobi. Upon arrival, the wife took her down a dark side street where her thugs were waiting. The wife disappeared that night, and neither she nor her KWS husband ever spoke to us again.

A bus depot in Nairobi

I stayed in touch with Githiaka over the next month or so, as we (mostly me) scrambled unsuccessfully to find wildlife placements for the three clients who had arrived after Lisa. After Githiaka again proved useless, I sent one last email to her — a kiss-off email telling her how awful she was. She replied but I never even opened it.

As bad as Githiaka was though, I take all of the blame for the situation with the clients. Githiaka was my hire — so my mistake.

I tried my best to pay for it:

First with the refunds and extra money I sent to Kenya — especially to Lisa to help her finish out her stay in Kenya.

Then with the guilty feelings that woke me up at night and gave me stomach aches for many weeks afterwards — from knowing that my clients’ experiences with my company ruined their volunteering trip to Kenya.

Not to mention the damage to my reputation in this field, as the clients surely told everyone in their world (and maybe online) about their trip.

Now, more than two years later, I’m reminded of all of this mess because of a dead-letter returned from Kenya.

Merry Christmas, Hellen. I enjoyed the card.

Main Street in Mwatate, Kenya