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Free the Children projects are changing lives across the world, as Africa specialist Mark finds when he visits a Me to We initiative in Kenya — and is inspired...

Some moments surprise you and catch you unawares, cutting through the dull expectation of experience with sharp hope. My moment came over a cup of chai, African-sweet and taken with a doughnut (mendazi), one afternoon at the Kisaruni High School for Girls.

My tea companions were four local girls, two from the Maasai community and two from the Kipsigi community, who, without the school, would probably never have had the chance to enjoy a full education.

I asked the girls what they wanted to be when they left school: 'an electrical engineer', 'an accountant', 'a nurse' and 'a doctor'. It wasn’t the statements themselves that surprised me, but my reaction. By that stage I believed that at least one of the girls would achieve her aim — 'bila shaka' — without doubt. That was my moment.

Kisaruni High School
Kisaruni High School is the best in the country

I had spent the previous three days staying at the ME to WE Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp to the north of the Mara conservancies in southwestern Kenya. ME to WE is a social enterprise established to provide visitors, volunteers and students with access to, and experience of, the Free The Children development projects that span eight countries.

‘Development’, when used in an African context, is a charged term that prompts a variety of reactions and understandings: many positive, but some increasingly negative, when a project born of good intentions becomes long forgotten, often because the money simply runs out.

So, when asked to join a ME to WE trip, I reserved my judgment, cautious of what I would encounter. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Put simply, Free The Children is dedicated to helping children worldwide make the most of their opportunities.

In the UK and North America, this means young people getting involved in their local communities, fundraising, volunteering and generally helping change happen. In Africa, Latin America and India, the organization helps children — and, by implication, their families too — lift themselves out of poverty and achieve sustainable change.

'Free the children helps young people — and their families too — lift themselves out of poverty and achieve sustainable change'

A genuine welcome

The heart of ME to WE Kenya is Bogani Camp, set in 30 acres of mature fever tree forest. It is a place of cool shade and reflection where groups of varying sizes can be hosted in luxury tents and rustic cottages without knowing of each other’s existence. Each group is hosted by ‘facilitators’ — some Kenyan, others Canadian or American — and guided by a qualified Maasai warrior field guide.

Our guide was Jackson, an immensely charismatic young Kenyan who stands with a foot in both the old and the new world, seemingly untroubled by the gap that yawns between. The facilitators’ job is to introduce group members to what lies ahead, the reasons behind the actions and support their interaction with the local people. From camp, groups head out twice a day to communities involved in Free The Children’s ‘Adopt a Village’ program, where they enjoy excursions designed to show what the local people had accomplished with the aid of the charity. I was afraid that this would feel voyeuristic or an intrusion into the lives of local people. It didn’t. Instead, what struck me was the genuine welcome that we received, wherever we went.

Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp, Kenya
Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp, Kenya

I have spent a lot of time in rural East Africa and so I’m able to spot when the locals are being polite rather than just enduring unwanted guests. This was certainly not the case in the Mara villages. Children rushed to greet us, followed by elders with firm, calloused handshakes and intense conversations. Passing mamas (local mothers) paused to wave, and even the teens clustered around a stationary motorbike risked looking uncool to break into a smile.

All of the excursions have an active element that ensures you are not passively receiving a presentation, but learning through experience. It’s this participation element that breaks down the barriers built by what’s different and foreign to you. The hands that help to reposition the barrel of water on your back; the shoulder next to you on the building site; the young mind that asks your opinion of a teacher’s right to strike, none of these remain strange for long.

Smallholding in Kenya
A local guide explains how simple changes to homes have had a profound impact on family health

For me, it was the visit to the small holding of Mama Joyce in the local Kipsigi community and my time in the Kisaruni High School for girls that left the deepest impressions.

The Kipsigis are an ethnic group found in southwestern Kenya. Although traditionally pastoralists, one of the results of colonization by the British in the 19th century was to coerce them into a market economy, with the result that they turned to farming, only retaining a small proportion of their livestock; livestock that presented a tempting target to Maasai cattle raiders and was forever a source of lethal conflict between the two groups.

The colonial administration and successive post-independence governments were unable to create circumstances in which the community could prosper. So, in many cases the men left the villages to find work in the cities, leaving the women to raise and support families on their own, contributing to the degrading of traditional social structures and the loss of previously shared knowledge. State healthcare and education provisions were sparse and difficult to access. Life was hard and heavy with the poverty we have learnt to associate with Africa, forgetting it was not always so.

Free The Children began working in this area with modest aims to encourage and support simple changes that are having a substantial, sustained and positive impact on the lives of over 15 communities throughout the Mara region. This change is achieved through working closely with local people — discussing, not commanding — and building organizational structures of local coordinators and action groups to implement programs for change.

Dining area, Bogani Camp, Kenya
Dining area, Bogani Camp, Kenya

Meeting Mama Joyce

Mama Joyce met us on the dirt road nearest her shamba (farm) with her friend, Mama Alice. Dressed smartly, with immaculate hairstyles that put my bedraggled appearance to shame, Joyce and Alice greeted us in confident English, interspersed with some Swahili when the words flowed more easily in that language. This was no gawping traipse around hovels, but an introduction to another way of life, where a people too often mistreated are seizing the opportunity to help themselves.

In Mama Joyce’s nyumba (home), new measures are changing her world. She now knows the importance of clean water and boils it before drinking or cooking. Now a long-drop toilet (with a basin) offers privacy and waste control. A shower cubicle has been built close to the house to aid cleanliness, privacy and female security.

Clothes are hung on a washing line to dry, instead of being draped on bushes or the ground (previously a cause of scabies). Her rubbish is collected regularly, leaving the compound clear for the cultivation of vegetables to provide greater nutrition in the diet of her family. Finally, the cooking fire in the hut is now housed within a chimney that funnels smoke out of the hut and lowers the chance of accidents.

Mama Joyce in the home she was able to build with the support of Free The Children
Mama Joyce in the home she was able to build with the support of Free The Children

These simple changes have a profound impact on family health, but of almost equal importance is the formation of local women into small commercial groups where individuals are encouraged to generate their own income through raising chickens or goats, with financial assistance from other group members. When Joyce told us of her success, a mischievous pride was evident as she described how it was her money that enabled her house to be renovated and her daughter to enter full-time education.

In exchange for her time, we accompanied her to the Mara River to draw 25 liters of water and carry them back up the steep hill to her nyumba in a plastic jerry can balanced on our backs, a securing rope tight against our foreheads. With my neck stiff, the can heavy and water dribbling down, I was glad I didn’t have to do this three times a day, every day, often with a baby strapped to my front.

Kipsigis community
Mamas beading jewelry which they're able to sell as an alternative income

Getting an education

And so to close where this story began, at the Kisaruni High School for Girls. A few years ago the Kenyan government made primary school education free and available for all, but secondary education remains subject to school fees, something that makes it unaffordable for many rural children. Where enough money is available for one child, but not two, it will normally be the boy who is educated rather than the girl.

In Kisaruni, Free The Children have funded the construction and operation of a high school for girls. Free to attend, it is nonetheless selective: aspiring girls must prove both personal ability and commitment to earn a scholarship. Maasai and Kipsigi are integrated and the ethos of the school is on reconciliation, partnership and communication, as well as personal achievement.

Leaving the school, I couldn’t help but remember a darker day, 20 years ago in Rwanda. Then, at another school for girls, genocidaires demanded that pupils separate into their Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. The girls refused, declaring themselves to be neither, but Rwandan. They were all killed. I could see the Kisaruni girls doing the same in similar circumstances. But Kenya is not Rwanda 20 years ago. Thanks to the commitment of the people of the Mara and the work of Free The Children, I suspect that the future for the girls who welcomed me is to be leaders, not martyrs. 

In their marketing, ME to WE tell you to ‘Be the Change’. By joining these inspirational, normal Kenyans, you can be.

Monkeys, Amazon

Charity Volunteering with ME to WE

A stay at the Minga Lodge offers a unique opportunity to get to grips with what life is really like in the Amazon. Culturally, this is far more in-depth, interactive and rewarding than a regular Amazon visit and allows you to spend time with the local community during your stay.

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