All Work, No Pay?

6/16/08
To get to my office you must first survive the chaos of downtown Kakamega. You must walk past the snickering schoolchildren, past the catcalling bicycle drivers, past the street children begging for money, past the corn/pineapple/shoe/cell phone/super tacky jewelry vendors and past the suited businesspeople on their way to work. When you cross the street, you must remember that you never, EVER have the right away and that the matatus (van-sized buses) don’t have a speed limit. Then you must turn down a dirt road, past the woman who really wants to make you a full-blown African outfit (to show to your friends, muzungu), past the butchery with really big unidentifiable something hanging in the window, past the four little girls that chant muzungu as you approach and past the babies that you have made cry (you’re scary, remember?).

Then you’ll be there. And by there, I mean an office with two rooms, five desks, two bookshelves and one computer. And some really, really great guys. There’s Ben, a handsome guy in his early twenties who doesn’t talk much. Malnoa is the oldest of the bunch, he’s forty at the oldest. Antony is the shorter guy, the one who asks awkward, awkwardly-phrased questions such as “do you mind coming to my house after work” to which you smile and pretend to not understand. But, perhaps two of the best guys you’ve ever met, the guys that you will spend most of your time with, are Alfred and Felix.

When I was first introduced to Felix, my supervisor, I immediately knew that I was going to like my job. He’s incredibly energetic, charming, impeccably dressed man who is really dedicated to what he does but is also really dedicated to having fun; fun usually meaning making really inappropriate jokes (think cow dicks) or getting me in trouble with my host mom because he somehow talked me into “just one more beer” with him and Alfred after work.

Alfred is the calmer of the two and has translating Felix’s spur of the moment ideas into action since the two of them went to college together. Alfred is the one who gets things done and the one that I’ve been spending pretty much every waking hour working with.

Right now both Alfred and Felix are finishing their masters, Felix on sustainable development and Alfred on disaster management. Both have been “working” for CARD since 2002. I say “working” not because they don’t work hard. They work extremely hard, CARD is their lives. No, I say “working” because they don’t get paid. Yep, besides a small stipend to live off of, ALL of the employees of CARD are volunteers.

This isn’t that uncommon in Kenya. The majority of non-profits (NGOs) or community based organizations (CBOs) run off of volunteers, at least at the beginning. In a country with a lot of need, little paid job opportunities and many idealistic university graduates, the volunteer system flourishes.

And it works. To my astonishment, these “volunteers” have been able to accomplish a lot more than I would have ever thought possible.