Two years of planning, injections and fundraising all came down to 12 extraordinary days in summer 2014
The adventure to Africa was planned almost two years prior to take-off and that time had been spent fundraising, preparing and promoting the trip. At midday on Saturday 28th June 2014, 21 pupils and three teachers set off on the experience of a lifetime. Everyone met at DSMS where they said their goodbyes to family and friends before boarding a bus to the airport for the airplane to Amsterdam.
I always find take-off a surreal experience; before you know it, you are soaring around 37,000ft from the ground at 562mph in a hollow cylinder of metal which weighs something close to 400,000kg and you can look out of your window to admire the cloud tundra with intermittent pools of blue sky.
From Newcastle to Amsterdam we flew with KLM where after the flight, the pilot was nice enough to let us see his cockpit which was smaller than many people expected. It did however have hundreds of buttons, switches and dials which we needed to resist touching!
From Amsterdam to Nairobi we flew with Kenyan Airways who brand themselves ‘the pride of Africa’. Some spent the night flight watching a small but suitable range of in-flight entertainment however I opted for the option of listening to music whilst watching an animated plane move across a satellite map, pixel by pixel, over the course of the six hour flight until we landed. Some only got two hours sleep before breakfast was served at quarter to five EAT. Touchdown in Kenya was ten to six.
Unfortunately, on arrival at Nairobi airport we discovered that one of the suitcases packed full of donations for the Kenyan schools had gone missing so the teachers needed to spend a further hour talking to airport staff. When details had been taken, we finally packed our suitcases onto a van and climbed onto a large bus which would take us to Nakuru (via the Rift Valley). From the outside, the bus looked extremely smart — which was misleading as the bus was old and uncomfortable on the inside.
The journey was hot, bumpy and even a little terrifying at times. Everytime the bus ricocheted off the road, a locket with a religious picture on the inside, hanging from the rear-view mirror would resume its frenzy of aggressively swinging in all directions. Unsurprisingly, the journey was not very pleasant and the only relief from the constant jerking around was when the bus pulled over for service stations or military checks. As we were in a large bus full of white people, a sight not commonly seen in the North West of Kenya, there were numerous checks by army men in uniform with guns to make sure paperwork was in order, that the driver had the correct insurance and to ensure we were all wearing seatbelts. After hours and hours of travelling, everyone was either travel sick, sleep deprived or bored out of their mind which made the last part of the bus journey miserable.
On the plus side, those who stayed awake long enough saw that Nairobi is an indefinable city. High-raised blocks of flats stand next to old-fashioned shops, shanty towns where people live in poverty sit in the shadow of modern glass offices which would look at home in the financial district of London, and wastelands with signs saying ‘not for sale’ are meters away from half built buildings which look decades old but the builders stopped building for whatever reason so the skeleton remains however with gaping holes where windows and doors should have been put in place. Nairobi is an oxymoron of a city; a complete contradiction of any definition given to it.
Before we could finally go to the accommodation, we had a formal meal of beef stew, rice, potato and vegetables — we would later find out that stews are common meals in Kenya. African Adventures’ Fred then conducted an orientation welcoming us, providing us with vital information and introducing us to people who would be with us all week.
Exhausted and full, we arrived at Kivu; a secure, western-like accommodation sat on a few acres of land surrounded by slums. The first thing we noticed was large hedge sculptures in front of the rooms of various things from guitars and men to motorbikes and abstract shapes.
Most people were in groups of four or five people and they shared two adjoining rooms with a bathroom to share. The floors were concrete. Everyone had a single bed with a malaria net hanging above and the lucky ones even got curtains with silhouettes of Elephants on … sadly, most were just plain. All the rooms were in a street like formation so once we left our rooms we were outside where there was grass to sit, hedge sculptures to admire and plants. Beyond that: a path running straight down to the lounge/bar which connected all of the rooms.
As well as a bar/lounge area, where most people chose to spend their evenings, there was a gym, a swimming pool, a large field used for playing sports, the reception and a pool table under a gazebo-like structure next to a souvenir stall.
The souvenir stall was a table full of animals skillfully carved from wood, 3D pictures made from recycled objects and bracelets which came in a variety of colours and styles. This is where pupils, especially Frank, Joe, and James, practiced bartering. The highlight haggle of the trip was either Miss Phillips’ 8kg elephant which was reduced from 3000 Kenyan shillings to 2000 (plus a bag or three of sweets) or the five pictures which were given to us for free as long as Ben beat the young seller at a game of pool — which Ben did. (1000 Kenyan shillings ≈ approximately 6.60 British Pounds).
Children of Destiny
Work on the two projects commenced on Monday morning so there was an early wake-up call from Mr. Johnson who knocked on all of our doors to ensure we would have time for breakfast at 7:30am. We were then split into two groups: Jubilee (a large school set up in 1988) or Destiny (a smaller school set up in 2010). I was in Destiny.
With a bag of essentials packed, such as water, mosquito repellant, and sun cream, we set off for our project in the Church bus.
Destiny School was based in a rectangular, mud building with a skeleton of sticks, with a tin roof situated in the middle of a rented plot of land. In one corner of the land was a small structure which the cooks used to make the two daily meals for the children (breakfast and lunch), and in the opposite corner was a large wooden building which was used as a storage space by the owner of the land. Surrounding the school — and accompanying buildings — was a wooden fence with tall, wonky sticks strapped on vertically for a small amount of security.
As soon as we pulled up outside the stick school gates, we had a welcome fit for a rock star by the 42 children at the school. Shouting “Mzungu!”, which is Swahili for foreigner/white person, and holding our hands they dragged us into the school where we were taken straight to an office. The office was a small, single windowed room, with two framed documents on the wall: one was a portrait of President Kenyatta and the other one was the school’s business permit. We all sat down on green plastic garden chairs circling Pastor Stephen Omani (aka Stevie), the project coordinator at Destiny, and his desk.
Stevie welcomed us and explained in a low voice close to a whisper what we would be doing over the next week. “There is a big gap between the rich people and the poor people and there are a lot of poor people. The government does nothing about it. We provide them with education because without it they will have no future. We believe through your great support to us, we can reach our goals at Destiny Centre.”
He then asked if anyone had been to Kenya before. Nobody raised their hand. “You will get to see their houses … you will never have experienced anything like it before.”
We were then introduced to Pastor Caleb, the head-teacher, who said: “If you have any problems, come and see me so I can sort them out. I want you to be free.” And with that, we split into three groups: one to cook, one to teach, and one to paint, and we started working.
Frank and I opted to teach on the first day. There were two classes both with female teachers; a large class of 6-7 year-olds and a smaller class of 8-9 year olds. Frank and I got the older class which we assumed would be slightly easier work since there weren’t as many children; however we were thrown straight in at the deep end. Once the blackboard had been nailed to one of the walls, the teacher handed us a book and expected us to teach an English lesson!
It soon became clear that there were going to be communication problems. Swahili was all the children’s first language and English was only something that they learnt slowly in schools. It wasn’t long until we realised they knew only how to say ‘How are you?’ and ‘Fine!’. This did mean that we could ask the children how they were however they only ever answered ‘Fine!’ regardless of how they were actually feeling. We had taken the liberty to learn some basic Swahili words so we could say ‘hello’ (jambo) and ‘thank you’ (asante).
Knowing this, and with the assistance of Miss Bane, Frank and I persevered teaching the different sentences they should use when people have possession of something. Blank faces gazed at us as we repeated “This is my food. That is your food.” numerous times whilst pointing, drawing food on the blackboard and over-emphasizing hand actions for eating.
Thankfully, break time soon came and after the children ate a nutritious breakfast they came to play with us outside the school. Some children wanted to just hold hands or sit with the volunteers however some children used the volunteers as a human climbing frame and hung off their raised arms and shoulders.
In the two lessons before lunch time, Frank and I learnt two things: 1 — Despite the class being predominantly girls, violent fist fights erupted on an hourly basis which the teacher would break up with a few firm Swahili words or pulling them, by their ears, away from each other. And 2 — The children instinctively copy whatever is inscribed on the blackboard into their exercise books so they can get it marked and then refer to it later.
The next day, the jobs rotated so volunteers got a chance doing everything. I found myself painting walls both inside and out with a white limestone solution. By the end of the day we had managed to paint a whole outside wall, two classrooms, James and Miss Bane! Admittedly, the latter two were painted by accident.
By the time the day was at its hottest, and the beating sun was making me swelter, we ran out of paint, so James and I grabbed a green, plastic chair from inside and topped up our vitamin D levels. Whilst doing this we asked Pastor Hezborn, one of many Kenyan volunteers working at Destiny, some questions.
In answer to a question about further education in Kenya he said: “Destiny School helps children to the maximum. But very few will get degrees; university is expensive and people often can’t raise the funds.”
We then asked him if he got paid for working at the school every day and he said “Only the teachers get paid at the end of the month, others make furniture for a local shop called ‘Destiny Furniture’. High quality and quantity makes a few coins.” It was clear that Pastor Hezborn had big ideas for the school. All week, the permanent volunteers and staff at the school were politely asking for more resources so they could expand the school. Items such as a larger pan would allow the school to grow and ensure that the uneducated children who snuck through the fence on a lunchtime and break time could stay at the school all day and be educated.
It was evident that more resources were needed at the school. What little stationery they had was used very conservatively; pencils were worn down to blunt stumps and only earlier that day, Mrs. Phillips was teaching a class and was told that one child didn’t have an exercise book because they had apparently finished it a week before and the school didn’t have more.
Our conversation with Pastor Hezborn was concluded with him talking about Kenyan culture and language: “There are 42 tribes and villages with a different language each. If I speak in my mother tongue from my village those from other villages would not understand me so Swahili unites us all. Most people also learn English however not in depth so some of the sentences they say are broken.”
We were picked up from the projects at around 3pm most days and returned to the accommodation where we could get a shower and discuss the day whilst seated on the grass with the teachers. Dinner would be served at 6:30pm in the same conference room where we ate breakfast. Following tea, any notices and plans for the next day were discussed. Before bedtime — which was usually around 10pm, we had freetime to do what we liked whether this was sitting in the bar/lounge, playing pool, or spending hours haggling with the stall owner for him to reduce his prices.
The work we did on our projects was making an instant noticeable difference. Bland walls became alive with colour, tables started to be constructed so the children didn’t need to work on benches the same height as the ones they were sat on, and hours spent playing with the children brought them so much joy. Much of the work, especially the manual labour, was strenuous however we all knew it was worth it.
Whilst painting the inside of a classroom one day with Calib and Godfrey they inquired about the hours people work in the UK and what time work usually starts. After explaining, I asked if it was the same sort of thing in Kenya, Calib replied: “People in Kenya work long hours for not much money. People are usually up from 7am no matter where they work; a shop, garage or where ever.”
Godfrey then told us his dream of moving to the UK for a year, getting a job and returning with plenty of money for the project. Talking about this made both Calib and himself smile. “There are a lot of things you can do if you have money. With 40,000 British pounds you can buy a big house however you need big security.” Godfrey grinned.
“Or you could get killed” Calib added, the smile from his face removed. The conversation quickly changed to them talking about Calib being a pastor. “I bet you don’t have Pastors as young as me in England.”
One morning we got the option to visit a local Angelical church to dive deep into Kenyan culture to meet some more of the community. However with the service predicted to last two and a half hours, everyone just chose to have some much needed sleep and relaxation time by the pool. With at least three pastors volunteering at Destiny and churches on every other street, it was very clear to us that most Kenyans were Christian.
There was a Muslim presence also which we were aware off by the ‘call to prayer’ which awoke many of the DSMS volunteers very early in the morning.
Before we knew it, it was Friday — the much anticipated day with a packed agenda. Before lessons started we were privileged enough to watch the Kenyan flag being raised out the front of the school by Diana, one of the oldest children at the school, before all the children sung some songs.
This was following by the normal morning routine of cooking, teaching, painting and playing. After a lunch of cheese sandwiches, we were led off the school grounds for the first time since starting work on the project.
Lead by Caleb, we walked through the dusty streets of Nakuru towards the home of a pupil whose family had been kind enough to let us look at where they live. We soon arrived at the first of three houses we would be visiting that afternoon bearing gifts of basic food for the home-owners. Vacuous of what to expect, we crammed into the house where we were greeted by Monica, the mother of one of Destiny’s children — plus three other daughters and adopted son. Everyone listened in silence as Monica told us that her whole family sleeps in the room we were sat in. The room was tiny and only beheld two long, wooden seats, a small table and a storage cupboard. This put things in perspective for Charlotte; she admitted to complaining about needing to share a room bigger than that with her sister back at home.
To find the next house we needed to travel through a maze of alleyways. The story we heard from Beatrice, home-owner of the second house, was remarkably similar to that of Monica. Both had large families and struggled to cope. Beatrice even had a new, four month-old baby to care for.
With the words “God bless you” we departed for the third and final house.
The last house we visited was in a street close to the school. It had two rows of houses, rather than one row of houses and then a large wall opposite, all with identical cyan doors. Like the two houses before it, the last house we visited had a single electrical light hanging from the ceiling, a high roof and sheets hung on washing lines across the house so they could stop you seeing things they didn't want you to. Pastor Hezborn explained to me that the last house had a higher rent because of the large garden to the front which was being used to grow cabbages. The male owner of the last house assured us that things weren't bad for him because living there meant that his son can go to Destiny school and if he had more money he would move to a bigger place. We were allowed to ask questions to the home owners however we remained speechless.
Mrs. Phillips reminded us that we shouldn't feel guilty because you can’t change where we are born and whether we are born into wealth or poverty.
We were then driven to Jubilee to meet up with the other half of the group before being shown around ‘The Walk Centre’ which was the first school African Adventures worked on. It was amazing to see how developed that school was compared to the projects we were working on. ‘The Walk Centre’ had climbing frames and goal posts so the children could play football. The toilets were in a permanent building rather than a cesspit in a shack and classrooms had decorative educational displays on the walls. The school was an environment that children from hardship could enjoy being in.
We made the short journey to the dump. The bus could only make it half way up the steep bank until it grinded to an unexpected stop and we were told that we must walk the rest of the way. It was only a short walk to the top and the view over Nakuru was spectacular however that was not the purpose of the trip. We had gone to witness what kind of environment a regular town dump in Kenya was like.
Before entering, the three teachers told us to be respectful when taking photographs and to not take photos of natives in the dump. We were welcomed with a firm handshake from strangers lingering around the entrance of the dump. We snaked through Nakuru’s dumped waste materials in single file and watched the people, who like vultures, were scavenging for items of use through a large rubbish truck. The strong smell of rotting made volunteers gag and cover their mouths with their hands although the dozens of locals and hundreds of stalks, stood only meters away, remained unfazed by the scents they must deal with every day.
Once we stopped at a clearing, Fred, the in-country coordinator from African Adventures, explained that approximately 14,000 people live on the dump in basic, unsafe housing. He said: “Within five or ten years the dump will be gone because the government wants to renovate the area. Police now restrict the population from growing here. Most families living on the dump aren’t full families. Members have died from HIV or families have split from divorce.” Hearing this and observing how the thousands of Kenyans on the dump live was too much for many of the volunteers; they were reduced to tears.
Most children who live on the dump attend ‘The Walk Centre’. Fred even led us up to higher ground to the house of an ex-pupil who is the first boy from the school to attend university. We said hello to his Grandmother who still lived on the dump. Fred said “Once people are in poverty it is very hard for them to get out.” However this boy is obviously an exception.
A line of over a dozen women selling hats, bracelets, necklaces and other accessories sourced from whatever they could find amongst the rubbish awaited us. Fred promoted a variety of handbags made completely of recycled supermarket plastic bags which had been woven together. Before we were allowed to purchase anything, Fred told us that we were to think of buying from these ladies as “helping a family.” Seeing, first hand, what could be made from Nakuru’s waste was inspirational.
Mr. Johnson kindly awoke everyone at 6am on Saturday morning so we would be ready for breakfast at 6:30am before being herded into three safari vans which took us to Lake Nakuru National Park — a 73 square mile plain of land protected for the enjoyment of the public since 1961.
It took literally minutes to spot the first wild animals; two black rhino battling each other for territory. The driver of one of the vans who had conducted tours three days a week, every week for the past half-a-decade said he had never seen a sight as rare as that before. We were very lucky to have witnessed it even though the battle wasn’t very interesting because both animals were exhausted after fighting all night.
Next we came across a lioness. It prowled across a plain towards us moving stealthily in the grass. The bus driver warned us that he would need to move the van once the mighty beast came within 20 meters however as the lion edged closer, the driver decided to stand his ground so we could get astonishing up-close pictures of the lioness through the windows.
Giraffes, gazelles, zebras, baboons, buffaloes and warthogs were also spotted grazing majestically at various places around the national park…. or so I was told. Sadly I slept through most of the safari and awoke only when the bus stopped hours later at a Nakumatt (a local brand of supermarket) where we stopped to buy lunch.
The remaining journey to Thomson Falls (via the equator) was torturous. Mr. Johnson sat in the passenger seat of one of the vans and said it was impossible for him to sleep on the journey because he could see how dangerous the roads were; he just kept getting ready to brace himself. At times, extremely thin roads had three lanes of traffic meaning the single lane heading in the opposite direction was forced to migrate onto the paths where people were walking. The roads were peppered with potholes the size of craters, which the drivers needed to dodge, making some passengers feel sick. When we thought things couldn’t get much worse, disaster stuck when one of the vans broke down delaying us by almost an hour. Breathtaking views over Kenyan countryside and seeing shops with modest names such as ‘Nice Hotel’ and ‘Amazing Chemist’ were the only consolations.
We finally arrived at the equator and to my disgust I learnt that there isn’t actually a line separating the northern and southern hemisphere! Instead a sign and gift shop! It was fascinating to watch though as a scientific experiment was carried using water and a blade of grass which proved what hemisphere we were in. We also learnt that our crowns grow in a different direction depending on the hemisphere we were born in.
Another 40 minute drive to Thomson falls followed; a magnificent 74 meter picturesque waterfall swarming in tourists. Taking advantage of the strong tourist presence were dozens of shop owners who waited until we had ascended from the bottom of the falls before ambushing us.
Once we could see the beautiful backdrop of the falls close up, we forgot about the steep and tiring descent down to the valley — until we needed to climb back up there again in order to return to the bus.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
The last day working on the projects came way too quickly and had a rather abrupt and poignant ending. It became a reality that we were leaving soon when we spent the last afternoon at Destiny distributing the donations we had brought with us. Children who had tattered and ripped old clothes were given new clothes which would last them for the foreseeable future. It was heart-warming to see the overwhelmed faces of the children as clothes, toiletries and sweets were given to them.
Before we knew it, the bus had come to pick us up and we were getting our names called out one by one so we could be awarded with a certificate from Calib, thanking us for our work.
There were tears from teachers and pupils alike as we waved our last goodbyes to the children and the Kenyan volunteers we had become so close with over the six days at the school.
Already packed, early Wednesday morning we boarded the same bus we came to Nakuru on and set off on the long journey home. Most people slept during the journey, only waking up for some local cuisine (a KFC) for lunch, to see baby elephants at the elephant orphanage and to kiss giraffes at the giraffe sanctuary.
At the elephant orphanage we saw baby elephants brought out a dozen at a time to be fed milk from huge bottles. The elephants were cute however mischievous because they kept kicking the sun-bleached dust into the air and into our eyes. Warthogs and monkeys were also mooching around at the orphanage for the attention of visitors.
If we put a piece of giraffe food between our lips, the giraffes would come to eat, their tongues as rough as sandpaper smothering our lower faces . The giraffes that came over to get some lunch were surprisingly friendly and happily posed for what seemed like hundreds of photos and selfies with eager excitable fellow pupils. We were then shepherded into a semi-circular room and informed about the main subspecies of giraffes and the qualities they own. For example, did you know that giraffes don’t have bone marrow?
Both flights back were with KLM, and although they packed us onto their two floored Boeing like cattle, their range of in-flight entertainment was significantly better than that of Kenyan Airways. Over the long flight I got chance to reflect on the past 11 days.
It has been a humbling experience to see how people, old and young, live their everyday lives in parts of Kenya affected by poverty. Everyone seemed to have such an inimitable positive outlook on life which is rarely seen in the UK. I’m privileged that I got the opportunity to travel 6000+ miles to Kenya to have the eye-opening experience which has made me realize how grateful and appreciative I should be of simple things we have in England which they are deprived of in Kenya. I am also thankful that I could help in the school.
The work isn’t over yet though; DSMS has offered to send the schools more donations in the form of Maths and English work booklets for the children so they can get an even better education. This is hopefully a legacy that will last for many years to come.