Women's Tennis
Abajian Travels to Kenya with SALSC

Former Illini tennis player Chelcie Abajian (lower right) traveled to Kenya this summer with Student-Athletes Leading Social Change.
Former Illini tennis player Chelcie Abajian (lower right) traveled to Kenya this summer with Student-Athletes Leading Social Change.

July 24, 2012

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Editor's Note: Former Illinois women's tennis player Chelcie Abajian traveled to Kenya through Student-Athletes Leading Social Change (SALSC) this summer along with student-athletes from Michigan, North Carolina and Lehigh. She wrote about her experiences and included photos for FightingIllini.com in this blog.

By Chelcie Abajian, former Illini women's tennis player

Jambo, everyone! I just returned from Kenya on the 2012 SALSC (Student-Athletes Leading Social Change) service trip and had an amazing time. I am proud to say that I went there with strangers (well, athletes from other schools and the family of Jeff Janssen, who heads up the Illini Leadership Academy) and left with a new family. Here is a blog of my day-to-day adventures in Kenya!

DAY 1: Travel day to Kenya!
My flight left at midnight from New York to travel to Istanbul, Turkey, where the group of seven of us was meeting up. I was fortunate enough to travel with Malia Cali, a cross country runner from North Carolina. The group was Malia and I, Adrienne Bicek (University of Michigan, swimming), Sophie Hoegh (University of Michigan, water polo), Katie Hazelrigg (University of Michigan, water polo), Lexi Dannemiller (University of Michigan, volleyball) and Anna Patterson (Lehigh University, lacrosse). After two long days of travel, we finally arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, at 3 a.m. and met our facilitator, Matt, and Jeff Janssen at the airport to head to Rosslyn (a district of Nairobi) to stay for the night (actually only about three hours!).

Highlight of The Day: Turkish Airlines had some awesome movie selections, so I was able to catch up on five really great movies and watch episodes of Friends.

DAY 2: Travel day to the Maasai Mara and Ngosuani village
Three hours after we got there, our wake-up call came! We ate a great breakfast in Rosslyn and headed out on our six-hour journey to the Maasai Mara. Our first stop was at a beautiful overlook of the Great Rift Valley. We then switched from vans to the lorry. Now if you have never been in a lorry, it is quite the experience. It is a pretty bumpy ride and it can handle any kind of terrain (Well, we had one mishap, but we will get to that later!). We were greeted at camp by all of the MeToWe staff and began settling in to our campsite. The view at our campsite was incredible. It was so secluded, yet began to feel like home right away! That night, we had our Swahili lesson from our Maasai warrior, Stephen. Stephen, along with facilitators Matt and Rachel, were our guides throughout the week and were extremely entertaining and funny. But we were so tired from all the travel that we all fell asleep before 9 p.m.! That is something I haven't done in my four years of college.

Highlight of The Day: Fresh-baked cinnamon rolls when we arrived at camp! Putting the fly swatter that I brought to use. My mom swore it would come in handy and she was definitely right. Thank you mom!

SALSC team members mix concrete to use as mortar.

DAY 3: First day on the build site and playing with the kids
Today was the first day we went to the community of Ngosuani and the build site. I was designated the leader of the day, also known as the hydration police (making sure we all drank enough water). We spent the morning working on the school classroom, which is the first of its kind in Ngosuani. There is a law in Kenya that there has to be one teacher per school building. What Free The Children does is build school classrooms (one per grade), so that more teachers will have to be employed in the community. On the build site today, we made concrete and started laying our first row of bricks onto the building. After building, we got to play with the kids! A lot of us played soccer, of which our team of Americans and a few Kenyans won! But I realized that my talents are better used on the tennis court. That night, we had a group discussion about the history of Kenya, followed by a pretty competitive game of "Mafia"!

Highlight of the Day: Getting sleep and feeling well rested. Making a new friend named Magdalena and teaching her new handshakes!

DAY 4: Water walk with the mamas and more building of the classroom
Today was a much-anticipated day, as we got to experience and learn about life of the "mamas" in the Maasai tribe. First, we got a tour of a typical Maasai house. The house had only a small hole for ventilation, no electricity and one bed. It made all of us feel thankful for where we live. We then got to fetch water from their closest water source, and carry 50-pound water jugs back to their homes. Together, we carried six jugs, which will provide water for them for about three days. On a normal day, they have to make three or four trips, carrying one jug at a time. After the water walk, the mamas joined us at our camp and we were able to ask them questions about their lives. It was so informative and they were very open to our wide array of questions. That afternoon, we returned to build for another three hours. We "keyed" the mortar around the bricks, which I almost earned semi-pro status at. I also taught our Maasai warrior, Stephen, to say "Yeaaaaa, buddy!" when someone did something well! That night was a different learning experience for me as Lexi taught me how to play euchre and Rachel showed me how to play Dutch blitz, two new card games.

Highlight of the Day: Realizing that not having a phone can really be amazing. This was my favorite food day, too; pancakes, eggplant and banana fritters!

DAY 5: Build, build, build!
This morning, the Janssen family went to Sikirar, the village that they spent a week at two years ago with SALSC (former Illini soccer player Julie Ewing and former swimmer CeCe Marizu were among those on that trip in 2010). The rest of us spent a few hours building and realized how small our world really is and how many connections we have in common! Being on the build site is my favorite aspect of this experience because we all talked and got to know each other on a better level. Before lunch, we had the privilege of sitting in a seventh grade social studies class. We learned about pastoral farming in Africa and the pros and cons of farming. During our building in the afternoon, there was a family of giraffes roaming around our community! We went on a walk with Stephen, where he showed us the different plants and trees that the Kenyans use for medicine, deodorant and toothbrushes! The toothbrush tree tasted so spicy! Stephen then taught us all how to throw a conga and we had a mini competition throwing the conga and hitting a tree. Proud to say my team came out on top, even with Adrienne throwing it straight up in the air. Wednesday night was also game night! We had an intense competition of "three times the lady" which is a combination of charades, "Catch Phrase" and "One Word."

Highlight of the Day: Learning how to play "ninja"! Our morning build session was the most fun and made our group feel like a family.

SALSC members in front of a hippo sanctuary on their safari day.

DAY 6: Safari Day and visiting Kisaruni Secondary School
Today started with a 5 a.m. wake up call! With July being winter in Africa, 5 a.m. is EXTREMELY cold. We all bundled up and got into the lorry to set out to find the animals. Animals that we saw today included zebras, giraffes (my favorite!), gazelles, hyenas, water buffalo, baboons and warthogs (so cute!). We stopped for lunch at a hippo sanctuary and man, are those animals big! We continued our journey to the Kisaruni Girls' Secondary School. Before arriving, we had an unfortunate incident of our lorry getting stuck in the mud! For the two hours that we were stuck, we played multiple games of "ninja" and had a blast. Once we made it to Kisaruni, we were all in awe of how beautiful the campus was and how motivated and friendly the girls were. We got a tour of this incredible school before heading back to our Ngosuani camp.

Highlight of the Day: Seeing how happy and motivated the Kisaruni girls were and learning more about their school. Bonding with Lexi on the lorry all day!

DAY 7: Beading with the mamas and closing ceremonies
I can't believe how this week has flown by. This morning, we learned how to bead key chains with the mamas. What took us about two hours to do takes them 20 minutes! Katie earned star beader of the day with her amazing six rows of circles! Before lunch, we learned about alternative income for Kenyan families and did an activity that taught us budgeting on an average income. We then headed up to the school for closing ceremonies. First, the kids sang and danced for us. It was incredible; the children are extremely talented. We then did our camp cheers for them. I think they liked it because they laughed a lot! Afterwards, we all were given necklaces from the mamas of the community and they also gave our group a goat! I accepted the goat on behalf of our group and had to hold it in front of everyone! We then headed to the field to play with all of the kids. Magdalena, my new friend, and I played a lot of "tiga, tiga, simba!" which means " giraffe, giraffe, lion," also known as "duck, duck, goose." After some sad goodbyes, we headed to camp for a feast with our staff. We tried goat, which had an interesting taste. They then brought out a cake and we sang and danced for a long time! That night, we sat around the campfire and learned about Maasai warriors and their upbringing from Stephen.

Highlight of the Day: This was my favorite day! Dancing with the staff at night, everyone had the biggest smile on their face. Doing our camp cheers for the kids was so much fun. Holding the goat was something new, too!

DAY 8: Travel back to Rosslyn and get ready to fly home
We had an early departure from camp today, which was sad. We made two stops along the way, though. First, we stopped at Sikirar, the community that SALSC worked in two years ago. It was great to see an almost-finished school ground and all of the hard work that has been done to make it so beautiful. We also went to the market, which was a very cool experience. When we got the Rosslyn, we had a lot of time to eat, play cards and nap before our 3:45 a.m. flight! After arriving in Istanbul, it was sad for all of us to part ways. Fortunately, Malia and I still had another 10-hour flight together to New York!

Not only was this a life-changing experience for me, it was extremely educational. Every topic that we discussed helped us become more knowledgeable about the Kenyan culture and what Free The Children is doing to support their people. I am very thankful for everyone who has supported this cause and hope to one day return to Kenya and continue work with Free The Children!