How a simple volunteering experience changed this woman’s life forever.
Marta Baeta’s first volunteering experience abroad changed her whole life. This young Portuguese woman never thought her existence would be turned upside down the second she set foot in Africa. She didn’t know what was ahead of her, back in 2012, when she arrived in Kenya. This is her story.
Marta Baeta took the plane from Portugal in November of the year 2012 to Nairobi, Kenya. It was her first time travelling so far away from her home country for such a long time and her English was wobbly. She saw the world through the eyes of a Portuguese girl studying Public Relations and Corporate Communication.
Coming to Africa to volunteer wasn’t a spontaneous decision. Marta had been a scout for most of her life and her parents always pushed her to volunteer for charities. She always knew that one day she would do the same abroad. When the time finally arrived, she saved some money, and found an opportunity to work in a public school in Kibera, home to 2.5 million people living in some of the worst conditions you can find on the planet. She believed this volunteering experience would be like her friends had told her: an enhanced travelling experience. She couldn’t be further away from the truth. Her first few steps out of the matatu through the muddy streets of the largest slum of Kenya swept her off her feet.
She couldn’t understand the misery that stood before her eyes. She had read about what life was like here. She knew that so many people were HIV positive. She was aware that sanitation barely existed. But Kibera is the kind of place that makes you lose all bearings within seconds. People everywhere, walking in all sorts of direction as if the slum was an anthill. The smells and the sounds were so unfamiliar for Marta, and she couldn’t take her eyes off some kids playing in the middle of this chaos. What was their story? Where did they live? How could they find their way in this maze? Where were their parents? Right away, she thought about the kind of lives those young ones must lead in such a place.
As she carried herself back to the volunteer house at the end of that day, Marta tried to make sense out of this experience. She kept thinking about those children, who were born imprisoned in Kibera. It seemed like they were doomed to live the lives of their parents, with ever growing problems due to the increasing population of the slum. Those thoughts followed her through the 4 months she spent in Kibera.
As her Kenyan time approached its end, Marta had gotten close to many of the kids she was tutoring day after day. She had to accept that she could never go back home and continue her life from before. She created a Facebook page “From Kibera With love”, which was attracting a lot of followers. She would post pictures that portrayed the situation on the ground, and show the smiles of those youngsters. Marta’s dedication was apparent and people asked how they could help. She realised that she could be a link between people willing to contribute, and the ones that could benefit from this contribution. That became her mission.
Corruption, a poison in Kibera
This is also when her story started to take some unexpected turns. Kibera is a place where the conventional ways of doing things according to her European standards were largely different. When she came back to Kenya for 2ndtime, Marta started to get close to some parents and other teachers from the school. Soon, she learned that the school she was working at was public, and thereby wasn’t supposed to charge for education. That made Marta furious, because she had been raising funds for 16 kids’ education fees through Facebook and paying that school. It was unfair, and she tried to do something about it. She didn’t want to take part in corruption, and went to the ministry of education to report the school, bringing with her the fake receipts she had been given upon payment. As she walked down the stairs in front of the ministry, she felt like she had made a difference, and hoped that the parents would use the extra money to feed their children. But her hopes were shattered when 2 days later, the director of the school asked her to leave Kibera and to never come back. She even received threats from other teachers.
What started as a good intention from Marta soon turned into a scandal. The director, supported by two inspectors from the ministry, organised a meeting with all the parents. Their message was full of lies about Marta and astonishing statements. It went as far as saying that Marta would eat the children if they accepted her help.
Luckily, some of the parents realised that what they were being told didn’t make any sense, and saw the potential value Marta’s help could bring, not only to them, but for their whole family. So, Marta didn’t surrender, she managed to meet with some of the parents, and soon enough kids started to see Marta after school. At first, it was only about tuition. Marta would help them with homework. However, she didn’t want to stop there.
Marta Baeta, creating champions in Kibera
Marta’s dream is to empower the children from Kibera to leave the slum. But a good scholar education doesn’t suffice, because growing in the largest slum of central and eastern Africa meant that their personal development as individual was deeply impaired. In order to prepare them for the world outside of the slum’s misery, she put a lot of emphasis on “life” education. She set strict rules that changed the way the kids behaved the second they entered the centre now called “From Kibera With Love”. First, to speak English, and only English. Second, to wash your hands before eating, and brush your teeth before you go home at night. Third, to respect all your comrades, especially the girls. Those may seem like simple rules, but Marta started seeing improvement very fast. The kids quickly became fluent English speakers, and the number of diseases due to poor sanitation dropped down drastically. But the biggest shift was in their attitude towards one another and towards adults. They started exchanging together, and asked questions about the world. Quickly, they could identify other countries on the map with ease. Marta also got a dog for the centre, named “Hope”, and says that the kids realised that animals could be friends, which would never happen in Kibera, where dogs and other animals are restless, continuously bullied by humans.
Those small changes were meant to open their minds and develop a sense of tolerance towards others, as well as respect for themselves. The first step towards leaving the slum is realising that the world is full of opportunities, and that if they work hard enough they will be able to seize them. Marta’s approach continues to prove successful day after day. Kids are eager to come to the centre.
Today, Marta spends most of her time in Kibera. To further help the families, she set up a microcredit program to help mothers create their own business, hopefully generating a stable source of income. Around 60 children come to the centre on a daily basis, and once they will reach the age of university, Marta plans to help them as best as she can to finally leave the slum, and attend a good school.
Education is often portrayed as one of the most important issue to tackle to reduce the level of poverty. But it cannot be done by applying the same concepts as we have in developed countries. By adapting to the needs of specific communities, it becomes more efficient and increases the chances for a faster positive development. Marta Baeta found her way to do so. It was definitely not easy, but her resilience and her dedication to help young children is making a real, sustainable difference. Let’s help her help more kids!
Share A Dream visited Marta in October 2016. We decided to put her project on the platform because of the impact it is having. It will be released in the coming weeks.
Originally published at www.share-a-dream.org.