How I travel on a low budget in Kenya

and why a change in perspective is the key to all richness

Just to warn you: This is much more a blog post on your own attitude and how it can help you deal with the money issue while travelling. It’s not a guide to budget travel. BUT: With the right perspective, money issues become much easier to handle.

I went to Kenya as a volunteer because I didn’t have money. Or at least, that was one of the many reasons. I was fascinated by the African continent and I wanted to get in touch with people instead of visiting the place as a tourist.

In fact, travelling as a volunteer may not be as money-saving as you think.

I paid for my flight tickets, the German organisation that connected me to the Kenyan one, and for them I paid again, for hosting and food. Regardless for me, after finishing school, volunteering was a cheaper option to travel.

It is always good to have a bit of a buffer on your account when going abroad. Many people work extra and save money for their big trip. Tara wrote a non BS guide on how she earns money for travelling

It’s hard earned money. And it’s precious, so you don’t want to waste it.

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When you are feeling guilty, do this

Why I sometimes feel guilty in Kenya and what I do about it

When I came to Kenya the first time, something I call “white guilt” struck me. I felt guilty for having been born in a privileged country like Germany. I was wondering: Why had it been me who had been born by a German mother in a German hospital, with electricity and insurance and autobahn and good education? Could not have somebody, who is now living in a slum in Nairobi or in a clay house on the countryside, arrived there on my behalf? Was it not unfair that I had all these privileges and someone else on the other side of the equator didn’t?

And all the stuff we had at home!

Bathtubs and toilet paper handles and several sets of towels and several sets of dishes, a car, canned food for the dog and dry sweets for the guinea pigs, tile roofs and iPads and seven different types of milk. And all the money and access and possibilities to buy them.

And all the stupid stuff that my country and my continent had been doing to Kenya and the African continent: missionary undertakings, colonial expeditions, economic exploitation, geographical fragmentation. And what they still did to it: exploitation of resources and labour, marginalisation, stigmatisation, taking influence with moral, financial and social measures…

I was in the middle of this. Actually, I was clearly from the bad side. So I felt guilty and that numbed me down and made me feel powerless and sad and angry.

Obviously, feeling guilty is the solution to nothing. After reflections, interactions and research and many years later, I have mostly overcome that feeling of guilt and realised that it isn’t all my fault. Nowadays I am very grateful for having been born in a country that enabled me with the possibility and – yes – the privilege, to make these experiences, learn from them and become proactive.

I turned my guilt into my personal responsibility to adapt a certain attitude of awareness, and to travel carefully and respectfully.

This is how in the long run, Bandika Travel Connectors was born.simbi group

If you are feeling similar “white guilt”, here is what you can do:

  1. Recognise the feeling. Don’t just brush it away as home sickness or culture shock or the side effects of malaria prophylaxis. Those are different. If you are feeling miserable because of your origin, accept that and properly examine it.
  2. Examine what you are really sad or angry about, either in your mind or on a paper, maybe in your travel diary. Are they general points or do you have concrete examples? Do you, for example, find it unfair that you can easily get a visa to Kenya, but your Kenyan friend will have to struggle for a German one? Do you generally feel sad about how the BBC is reporting on African issues? Or do you feel plain shame for British colonialism in Africa?
  3. Examine your points and find out which ones you can influence and which ones are beyond your power. You cannot make history undone, for example. But you can try to do some research on it, or plan to do it once you are back in your home country. If you feel that the dumping of second hand clothes from your country in the global South is destroying the local textile industry, you can take action by telling others about it and stop donating second hand clothes to charities.
  4. But before you tell others about it from an expert standpoint, it is crucial to pause. Don’t write an email or Facebook post in the rush of your emotions. Try to talk to others in similar situations first, talk to people you are living or working with, your hosts, other volunteers, maybe your sending organisation. Get other viewpoints and clarification and try to balance your view and expand your emotions to be a foundation of knowledge.
  5. Let go of the guilt for the things you have no influence on and take action on one point you may be able to change. Don’t do it if you only want to calm your conscience. Do it because you realised your responsibility.

Accept that you can’t change the world. But you can move within it in an aware and responsible way, gaining knowledge and sharing experiences.

How do you deal with feeling uncomfortable or guilty while travelling? Let us know in the comments below!


This free worksheet shows you once more how to deal with your own confusion, resistance, and guilt.

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It’s part of our free online course to help you travel consciously, which you can join here. It’s full of helpful videos, curated articles, real life examples and printable prompts for your diary to make you more aware while travelling or volunteering.

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My grandmother thinks I’m a heroine

And she has all the reasons for that. Nobody in her family has ever before stepped on the African continent. Her father, who was a soldier during World War II, sent some photos of himself and some black men in France. He helped them when they were wounded, and my grandmother said they admired him and wanted to do everything for him down there in the trench.

What my grandparents know about “Africa”

Once I asked my grandfather about how the independence of African states that were former German colonies was presented in the German news at the time. He reacted like a child who was deprived of a toy. He said that since the end of the war “they” (the Germans) had always been seen as “the bad guys”, and “America” was ruling over them, and in general up to today it was “America” who got all the money and wealth that actually belonged to “Germany”. And he went on saying some actually racist things that shocked me and that I don’t want to repeat here.

When my grandmother saw photos, video clips and read my descriptions of farm life in Kenya, she was reminded of her own childhood. They didn’t have tractors and all labour was done manually with a hoe. Therefore she assumed that “Africa is still back in time”, a very common misconception.

How I became a heroine

Calling me in Kenya is expensive and connections are troublesome sometimes. My letters take long and have stamps with a foreign currency, depicting exotic birds or plants and an airmail stamp. All these things make my grandmother feel I am probably on another planet, and if not that, then merely surviving in the wildest bush.

hiking ngong

From her childhood to her current days she could have never thought of even dreaming to go to Africa. So to her, I certainly must be a heroine to undertake this great adventure and actually live in Nairobi (!!).

The problem with being a heroine

I am admired for something that is rather normal or at least not to be admired nowadays. Talking about my daily experiences here is hard, because they will look for the exotic features in my descriptions, they will ask for differences rather than similarities, and they will assume that it takes me a lot of courage to live in Kenya.

It’s a weird feeling, because I know that it’s due to my privilege of being from the global North that I can stay in Kenya. Since it is so hard to put things into perspective for my grandparents, sometimes I just keep silent and don’t share my experiences at all. And I share this strategy with many people who are living in the global South or coming back to their home country. They feel misunderstood and exoticised themselves.

But it is important that we share our experiences, so that others get to know another part of the world, and in order to process our experiences ourselves.

What you can do

Therefore, if you are talking to your grandparents or other admirers, make sure that you are not seen as a hero. You simply enjoy the privileges of a global Northerner.

Find people who lived, travelled or volunteered in the same place like you and share your experiences. They will understand the context and situations as well as your feelings much better.

If you feel like giving a bigger talk or presentation, do it in the most responsible way, including your own insecurities and general global relations.

Have you experienced the same? How did you feel? Let us know in the comments below!

With this free worksheet you can dismantle all the expected “extremes” in the country you are going to. This helps to not present you as a hero.

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It is part of our free email course that will help you travel responsibly to the global South.

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Dolly the dog sticking her nose into the camera.

This dog has a job (and a free worksheet for you!)

And the problem with the word EXOTIC

Once we got a present from our friend. It was tiny, had yellow fur, four legs and a tail. It was called Dolly. It was a dog.

I may have to say a few words about pets in Kenya.

In my entire time here, I have only seen three small white pet dogs. The others are usually either stray dogs or security personnel. That means they are not petted. They are being fed in the evening, but caned if they start getting on peoples’ nerves. I trained Dolly a bit but she is not the norm. Children as well as adults fear touching her like they fear touching any other dog.

Compared to the common dogs in Kenya, who have a rough short fur and are rather bony, Dolly is almost fluffy, especially her ears, and a bit smaller than other breeds.

dolly

When we called the vet to vaccinate her, he filled a little pink passport for her with her name: Dolly. Colour: brown. Breed: exotic.

That made me smile – and think. This breed is not common in Kenya, therefore it must be exotic. This applies to other areas, too. There are exotic trees and exotic cows. People here use the word exotic to describe species. And indeed, these species of animals or plants are often common in my country.

The word exotic originates in the late 16th century and stems from the Greek word exōtikos (foreign), from exō (outside). The Greeks therefore called anything outside Greece, or let’s say outside the European space, exotic.

Can something from inside Europe then be described as exotic at all?

Dolly and her puppy Dylan sleeping in their shack.

Another question: What is wrong with describing something or somebody as exotic, foreign, attractive? If you stress a certain population’s dancing talents, their colourful dresses, or the wild and rich nature, isn’t that a positive thing? What does it have to do with racism?

Here are the problems with exoticising people or countries:

  • People are generalised and certain characteristics are given to them. Differences and varieties disappear and they all become one mass.
  • Mostly such expressions stress the emotional or visual aspects. Single persons’ intellectual abilities or what makes them human are ignored.
  • The “exotic” global South is the contrast to the “enlightened”, “rational” and “well-organised” global North. When presenting a group of people like that, we also put ourselves and our own culture above them.
  • The same applies to wild, exotic stretches of nature, where travellers can present themselves as courageous adventurers, explorers and heroes. The academic, economic and governmental potential of these countries doesn’t count.

You can download this free worksheet with a little eye-opening puzzle with words used to describe the differences between global North and South. You will soon find out that they are hardly neutral. (It’s part of the free online course.)

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In my own opinion, it should be fine to describe a certain species of animals or plants as exotic, meaning uncommon, not indigenous, from outside.

But travellers must be aware and careful with exoticising landscapes, people and entire continents.

How do you deal with “the Exotic”? Let us know in the comments below. (Also let us know how you find Dolly. She’s our baby!)

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How to take photos in Africa

A guide to responsible travel photography

Preparation

Type the name of your destination in a search engine and look at the pictures. Question those photos! Can you find others beyond exotic wildlife and romanticised poverty? How do photographers from your country of destination portray their country?

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Use this free worksheet from our online course* to go deeper.
I searched for Kenya in Google pictures and this is what I got:

Google search results: sunsets, elephants, giraffes, acacia trees and maasai

Yet some Kenyan photographers give a very different perspective (click on the photos to get to their awesome websites!):

Street Artists (by Cedi Mungai)

The new Kenya Airways Dreamliner (by Mutua Matheka)

Gilbert Tongyo in his fish shop (by Mwangi Kirubi)

Patricia Kihoro (by Victor Peace)

The reason for taking pictures

If there are millions of photos of giraffes in sunsets already – why do you take them again? What do you want to proof with your photos? Why do you hunt “perfect moments” like trophies? We often unknowingly reproduce the photos – and the stereotypes coming with them – which we have already seen many times before.

Landscape

men on house

There is more to Africa than the savannah. There are urban areas and skyscrapers, lush green suburbs, highways, semi-urban centres and malls. Do you only take pictures of rural areas, because they are so exotic, so different from what you know? If you leave out the urban areas and all the zones in between, you will portray an unbalanced picture.

People

Always ask for permission. Always. And don’t take that permission for granted. Some people will agree because you took them by surprise and they don’t want to appear impolite. That is not a free ticket to publication.

Bakari at the shore of Lake Victoria

Take respectful photos of people. Avoid a higher angle forcing them to look up because that makes them look small. When taking photos together with them, how are you positioned? In the middle of decorative black children? Standing, while other people are sitting down? Don’t make objects out of the others.

Editing

When digitally editing your photos, consider what you exclude for aesthetic reasons and why. Why do you chose this frame, and what are you leaving out? A slight change in contrast can make a flat landscape look hostile or sharp, and other adjustments can lighten or darken peoples’ skin colours. The border between ethical enhancement and manipulation is extremely blurred, so be careful.

Sharing and Publication

Again, you need permission from the people in your photos for publication. It is not easy, but here on this website we ask the parents of the children before we publish the photos. Social media is a form of publication, too. What would you think if you one day found a photo of you online portraying you as poor or exotic?

If you take photos with or of people, they also have a right to have a copy of them. Make sure to develop them and give them out before you leave, or make sure to share them online.

Captions

Name everyone in the photo or nobody. “Me and some kids” is a caption that makes the white person the hero, the main subject, and the children become mere props. What about “First-graders of Garden School on their last day before the holidays”?

Also, try to avoid stressing stereotypes in the captions or downgrade people or situations.

Safety

Big cameras and equipment as well as expensive phones may present attractive opportunities to thieves. If you neither want to lose your expensive equipment, nor feel like being constantly on the run from possible pick-pocketers, just leave your equipment in the hotel or the house and enjoy the walk through the city. It will be much more stress-free.

Ask your friend or guide whether it is okay to take the camera along and also whether you may take photos in certain areas or situations.

people harvesting pears in Dundori

Law

In Nairobi, like in other places, it is forbidden to take photos of some government buildings. If you want to avoid trouble with the authorities, respect these rules.

Not taking photos is also an option!

In the beginning you might be uncomfortable and over-aware or over-sensitive about many things, including taking photos. That is a good thing! You don’t have to get rid of this sensitivity. Your intuitive shyness about taking photos is a sign that you are aware of the complex process behind taking photos. Not taking photos is just as well an expression of a responsible attitude.

What are your best tips for taking photos responsibly? Share them in the comments below!


*To learn more about responsible travel photography and generally a more responsible way of travelling the global South, join the free email course.

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our homestead in rural kenya

My house in Kenya (and a free worksheet)

or: How language carries stereotypes and racist ideas

My house in Kenya is situated on the countryside, close to the Ugandan border. It is built with a wooden structure filled and plastered with clay. It has a cemented floor and a veranda and the roof is made of iron sheets. I smoothened the walls myself, with a mixture of soil and cow dung. That’s probably the coolest natural material ever. Not only does it seal walls and baskets and smoothen front yards, it even keeps snakes away!

Lena and Paul smearing the wall of our house with a mixture of soil, cow dung and water.

Lena and Paul smearing the wall of our house with a mixture of soil, cow dung and water.

My house has two bedrooms, an inside shower, a large living room and glass windows. The high roof and the gap between the iron sheets and the walls prevent it from heating up too much even if the sun is really burning down on it. It’s basically air conditioned.

The living room. You can see the gap between roof and wall in the upper corner.

The living room. You can see the gap between roof and wall in the upper corner.*

My house is set on a family compound with the other houses of my in-laws (some grass-thatched, some with bricks and iron sheets), their kitchens, a kitchen garden, toilets, a cow shed, a house for chicken, an old granary and some small structures for ducks and dogs.

A house made off bricks that's not yet finished, on the family's compund.

A house made of bricks that’s not yet finished, on the family’s compund.*

When I help my mother in law with cooking or farming, she tells me: “Take the food to the house.” or “Father is not in the house.” or “Put the hoe in front of the house.”

Whenever I show some pictures of these houses to friends and family in Germany, they call them huts.

And that hurts, because it feels like I don’t even own a proper, valuable, universally acknowledged place of shelter (that is, a house). Instead, I stay in some undervalued, not perfect, maybe even dirty or poor structure – a hut.

In my old travel diaries from my first vists to Kenya, I also called the buildings huts, although to their owners and inhabitants they are houses.

Houses? Or huts? *

Houses? Or huts?*

That’s what I knew: Africans live in huts, right? Children’s books, teachers, movies and commercials tell us so. We go to the doctor, they go the medicine man. We have a mayor, they have a chief. We are organised in federal states, they in tribes and clans.

Let’s complicate the issue a bit more, shall we?

Kenyans actually use many of these words themselves. I learned from Kenyans that there are 42 tribes in Kenya, and everybody identifies with one. Imagine my surprise, when in my first semester of African Studies the lecturer told me that “tribes” and “chiefs” are a British colonial concept that is outdated and fiction and we shouldn’t use that term anymore? “But they say tribes themselves,” I revolted. I even met an assistant chief who introduced himself to me as such. It’s a political position.

But it’s also a word that carries values. A chief is not as competent as a mayor. Tribal conflicts are plain stupid and outdated. And a hut is not a proper house.

As travellers, we need to mind our language. Why don’t we name what we see in Africa in the same way we name things in our countries? Can we try and overcome the downgrading procedure of using colonial terms? It is very hard, but it opens our minds to constantly question our language and words.

Have you ever thought about the words you use? Share your experiences in the comments below!

(*Photos by my lovely sister.)


Click on the picture to get your free worksheet.

Click on the picture to get your free worksheet.

This free worksheet will help you when writing or talking about your trip to the global South. It has a language checklist reminding you of all the critical issues and a travel diary prompt to think beyond the common stereotypes and have a more awesome experience.

It is part of the free online course “My Conscious Trip to Africa” which you can join here.

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What it means to travel responsibly

My love-hate relationship with my own worldview and the Bandika Manifesto

me and baby Richie at a children's home in Nairobi

2008: With Richie, volunteering in Imani Children’s Home in Nairobi.

When I came to Kenya for the first time, I was 19 and had just graduated from high school. Both my German and Kenyan organisations had prepared me for the trip. Yet a certain amount of colonial baggage remained in my mind, a specific attitude and a way of looking at things, which took me years to become aware of.

I fell in love with the country and returned several times. Many Germans wanted to hear about my “adventures”.

So I filmed daily life situations in Germany in order to compare them later to clips I would take of daily life in Kenya. I wanted to proof that life in Kenya is not an adventure, it’s just life, too. I took the clips, but never got around to edit them.

Several years and long-term stays in Kenya later, a friend of mine sent me the German brochure “With Colonial Regards…” (scroll down for English).

It reveals the colonial influence that persists up to today.

Research on many blogs by German volunteers in the global South showed these reoccurring themes:

  • the superior feeling of the young volunteers over the global South
  • the exotication and romantisation of poverty
  • how racist and colonial ideas are unknowingly expressed in language and pictures
  • how stereotypes are reproduced, and so on
stepping on mud to make bricks

2010: Work camp in Anyiko.

When watching my own clips again, filmed with the honourable intention of showing “real life in Kenya”, I saw how I, too, had reproduced colonial stereotypes and held the camera with an unknowingly discriminative view.

After this revelation, I found organisations and websites presenting a different picture of Africa, beyond elephants, poverty and children playing football. (For a regular digest of those websites, follow us on Facebook.)

I slowly became aware of my own privileges and my role in the global context.

posing choir members in uniform

2012: Performing with the Narok University Choir

And that is why I started Bandika: to structure this process and help you become a responsible traveller – without the mess and ignorance I went through.

Responsible travel in the sense of Bandika Travel Connectors means a shift in awareness and a respectful attitude towards the people of the country you are visiting. It means to continuously reflect on global contexts, privileges and mind-sets.

manifesto simple upper

Click to read the whole manifesto.

And let me tell you: It doesn’t make things easier. On the contrary, feelings of guilt, uncertainty and being lost and powerless are on the daily agenda.

Yet it is worth to adapt this attitude, because it enables beautiful connections and interactions.

Traveling responsibly actually changes your entire worldview.

on the train to mombasa

2015: On the train to Mombasa.

It doesn’t erase all conflicts, but it empowers you to deal with them in a better way. It’s not all about carbon footprints, eco-labels, less bargaining and raising money for local charities – at least not for us.

Travelling responsibly means to humble ourselves, to appreciate everyone and sharing real-life experiences, in order to ultimately become a better person.

What are your strategies to travel responsibly? Let us know in the comments below!


If you want to read about a similar concept, check out Linger. They beautifully explain how by “Just Doing Nothing” you can travel responsibly.

Do you want to learn how to travel responsibly and change your worldview? Join the free email course.

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a woman selling fabrics with obama print

Why a Kenyan village goes crazy about Obama’s visit

Obama’s father is from Kenya, from a place in the West of the country called Kogelo. The area is dominated by Luo culture.

But Obama himself was born in the US, obviously.

Otherwise he couldn’t have become their president. Therefore many people don’t understand why the country makes such a fuss about Obama’s visit. And particularly people from Kogelo and the surrounding county are not being understood or even ridiculed for welcoming “their returning son”.

After all, he is not their son.

He is American, and apart from a few visits has nothing to do with Kogelo, right?

Wrong!

At least for Kenyans, especially Luos.

[READ MORE]

The one difference in food storage between Germany and Kenya

Probably applies to other countries from the global South and North respectively

My grandmother says: Food that has been warmed twice should not be warmed again.

And her son, my dad, used to store even canned food in the fridge.

Especially milk and milk products are moved directly from the shopping basket into the fridge, and I remember that my dad sometimes used to go even with a cooler box to do the groceries, in order to keep the stuff cool on the way home from the supermarket.

I got to know that in order to keep food fresh, you need to keep it cold.

But in Kenya I learned that the opposite way works just as well. [READ MORE]

3 questions you should ask yourself whenever you read or watch something about the global South

As a responsible traveller, you may want to prepare yourself by reading books or blogs about or from the country you are going to. Or you are watching some movies to get to know more about your destination.

Books, movies, blogs, and sometimes even the news, are not just presenting facts though.

That is why they are entertaining. They mix facts and opinion so that we don’t only have to struggle through numbers. They make us get a feel for the country.

But they also represent a certain mind set and a societal value system.

Therefore, whenever you read or watch something about your destination country, you should ask yourself these three questions: [READ MORE]