Our group of twenty volunteer students erupted in applause as the plane finally landed in Nairobi, Kenya. After a full year of fundraising, research and preparation, we finally made it. Empowered by Me to We and Free the Children (FTC), we knew were going to make a difference. The organization coordinated our two-week experience and their enthusiasm for change fuelled our desire to help a community break free from poverty. Coming from a small town in Ontario, where the number of dairy cows exceeds the number of people, it was no wonder why such a group felt so privileged to travel overseas.
Our unsuppressed laughter did not go unnoticed as we skipped our way through the airport and into a large truck to then be transported to the rural village, Oleleshwa. I remember looking out the window as we drove through the city expecting slums and broken-down buildings; however, Nairobi looked just like any other city. It was when we approached the suburban sprawl that I started to see a difference. Peeping above the tops of the fences that bordered the road were the chateau roofs of the wealthy. And scattered about on the other side of the fence, like scraps after a meal, were small huts where the poor tried to sell fruits and vegetables. There existed little to no middle class. My excitement and optimism for change evaporated as the harsh reality of poverty hit me.
On our journey through the untouched countryside, we heard the squeals of young children welcoming us with a friendly, “Jambo!” As they plastered their faces against the fences, we noticed their outstretched arms and open palms. Our Me to We coordinator, Brianna, explained that these families see trucks of NGO volunteers regularly and expect donations from these people. Me to We, however, believes in a helping-hand, not a handout. This means that tools, such as clean water, school buildings, and agricultural knowledge, are given to the communities so that they can become self-sustaining. Our group was mainly responsible for the construction of a girl’s secondary school. However, we did visit other completed projects around the area.
As the truck approached the camp, the staff welcomed us with songs and cheering. We quickly settled into our tents to have a good night’s rest after over 3 days of travel. I fell asleep to the sound of chirping crickets and the soft cries of the nocturnal bush baby, but then was quickly awakened by my two tent mates vomiting. Luckily, dehydration is easily treatable by drinking plenty of water and electrolytes. The Baraka hospital, which was built by FTC, treated three of our team members and they were up and ready to work with us at the school build by the second day! It then dawned on me, what if you did not have access to a water source? Let alone a clean and safe one? Of course, our team later became exposed to this tragedy as we helped the mammas collect water at a small pool located thirty minutes away from their bomas. The group fell silent as we approached the opaque, brown water hole. Although the mammas now consume clean water thanks to the FTC water projects, this was their main water source for years before the projects were implemented. Each volunteer strapped a 20L mitungi to their head and carried it halfway towards the bomas and then switched with a partner. The mammas however, do not have partners to help them carry the heavy load and can complete up to four water walks a day. Back home in Canada, we expect clean water to be readily available simply by the turn of a tap. Every day in Kenya, I learned more and more about how we often take things for granted like healthcare and clean water. On our first visit to Motony Primary School, it was clear that education was sadly undervalued in our society as well.
The beautifully constructed schoolhouses surrounded a common grassy courtyard, each one equipped with a small garden. School was out at the time of our first visit, but there remained a few grade 8 boys studying for an exam that determined their entrance into high school. They were all committed to their studies and enthusiastic to learn. During our second visit, school was very much in session. As our truck pulled into the school grounds, children of all ages burst out of the classrooms and surrounded our volunteer group with ear-to-ear smiles. They touched our skin and felt our hair, held our hands and pulled us towards the fields to play games. I immediately started a game of Simon Says for about 10 kids that rapidly turned into a game of Copy Cat. Every move, every dance, every sound that I made was echoed by these 10 children, and then 50, and then 100 children! Exhausted by the game, I sat with a few young girls. One of them, named Marine, claimed to have 5 boyfriends. We chatted and laughed as they asked me questions about life at home. Marine asked to come home to Canada with me; she wanted to become a doctor. The youthful girls were so enthusiastic and hopeful about their futures as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. And I couldn’t help but think that most, if not all, of these girls will not have the opportunity to pursue such careers.
Marine took me into one of her classrooms to challenge me with a math problem. She asked me to find the volume of a triangular prism that had a cylinder cut out of it. Quickly enough, I outlined all the equations necessary to solve the problem, I only needed one last thing: “Okay, I’m almost done. Now where’s your calculator?” I asked obliviously. “We don’t have calculators, Emillee”. She promptly took the pencil from my hand and effortlessly completed the three-digit multiplications and divisions. All of these children were so full of potential yet their means of harnessing that potential was hindered by poverty and by the unfairness that our world knowingly accepts today.
Although we were faced with the sad realities that existed in Kenya, we also encountered plenty of successful projects implemented by FTC. We visited a local farm that provided fresh produce for our camp and the surrounding schools. Their green houses bordered the fields, brimming with tomato and broccoli plants. The farmer pointed proudly at his watermelons, strawberries and pineapples. This project was the newest pillar of the organization, yet it was thriving as if it had been running for years. Earlier that day we toured a small community where the production of rungus (wooden clubs for hunting) was a large source of alternative income, as it was sold to tourists as souvenirs. From rough pieces of wood to polished, carefully crafted works of art, it was evident that rungu making was a lengthy, laborious process.
Kisoroni Girl’s boarding school was a gorgeous institution: murals decorated the walls, books accommodated all of the shelves and laptops were available in some classrooms. The girls explained to us that they voted to extend school hours despite waking up at 5:00am on a daily basis. Neighbouring Kisoroni was Bakara Hospital, where our ill members were treated with the upmost hospitality. The doctors explained that free healthcare was given to the youth while for others it was only 4 shillings a month. On the day we visited, three babies were successfully delivered.
At the camp, most days were spent on the build site where the local engineer, Dennis, happily witnessed the school slowly coming to completion. Most nights were spent stargazing and learning about Kenyan culture from our Maasai warriors, Izzy and Richard. To become a Maasai warrior is a great honour and involves bravery and self-control. Maasai warriors are essentially responsible for protecting their community and livestock from enemies and wild animals (even lions!). Lastly, we had the honour of touring a mamma’s boma. The boma was no larger than a small bathroom and was composed of sticks, mud and dung. The ceiling was low and the bed where the family slept was simply an array of mats on the hard, dirt ground. I could not help but feel sorry for this quality of living until I saw the expression on the mamma’s face as she shared her home: proud. It was the same expression that Marine had as she scribbled the solutions to the math problem with a short, almost depleted pencil; the farmer, as he presented the successful bounty of the last harvest; the rungu-makers as they let our group sand and polish their fine artworks; the Kisoroni school girls with their well equipped classrooms; the doctors with their flourishing medical facilities; and Izzy and Richard decorated with colourful jewellery representing their warrior status.
The entire community was steps away from becoming self-sustaining, and for that they were more than grateful. It was quite consistent among the locals that they valued what little they had more than I ever would. Was it that the less you have, the more appreciative you are? Perhaps. But happiness in Kenya was not driven by material goods and wealth, rather, the elements of life that would exist with or without money: family, friends and community. On the bus ride back to the Nairobi airport I contemplated my life back home in Canada, where I took far too much for granted. Passing the suburbs, I saw once again the struggling vendors at their produce stalls. It took me back to when my family was not so well off either, when my parents first immigrated to Canada. My mother worked as a nanny and my father juggled 3 jobs to make ends meet. As a child, I thought it normal to share a queen-sized mattress with your family of 8. During my childhood, being poor had no effect on my happiness. But in my adolescence, I strayed away from this and into a Canadian society’s norms and expectations. Kenya is what brought me back to remembering where I came from, and what my parents might have gone through in the Philippines. Kenya is embedded in my everyday life decisions from how long I take my showers to eating everything on my plate so as not to waste food. It is because of this life changing experience that I have learned to appreciate everything I have today. Especially calculators.