Into Kenya – and a Nightmare

By Gemma Baker

For The Bali Times

MOMBASA, Kenya ~ I returned to Kenya three weeks ago, this time independent of the volunteering agency I had been with previously. After seeing what was unfolding on the news, I knew I had to come back to help.

My first day back was heart wrenching I walked around Mombasa with tear-filled eyes; I was so sad to see the usually happy Kenyan people looking more subdued and contemplative.

There is a certain tension in the air, but the Kenyan people are still so welcoming to volunteers and tourists, with their big smiles and swahili greetings of jambo! and karibu! (hello! welcome!). I have found the experience this time to be just as rewarding as the few months I spent here before Christmas.

I have not seen any skirmishes, only evidence of demonstrations in the streets. The school where I work is in the area where most of the riots took place; there is ash and the smell of burning where little wooden and corrugated-iron makeshift homes and prized food stalls were erected.

While the politicians dispute, and locals and security forces battle on the streets, it is the children who have the most to lose, so it was good to see the schools reopen last week, and I was there to greet them.

A few of the children did not return as their family homes and businesses had been burned down. They were in displacement camps elsewhere or otherwise they could not return as their parents were unable to afford the fees due to lack of employment.

Mombasa relies heavily on tourism. It’s the backbone industry here, and a lot of the hotels have had to let their staff go due to the decrease in visitors, and the slowdown has had a knock-on effect on local businesses. The locals keep telling me to go home and tell everyone that Kenyans are a “peace-loving” people, and that it’s the thugs causing all the problems.

The first day back at school was full of the cheeky and loveable faces that I had tearfully said goodbye to on the last day of term last year. These children are so keen to learn, with their dog-eared books, torn clothes, dirty bare feet and skeletal bodies. They were happy to return to school. The school I work in is a long mud hut made up of three classrooms, with catering for 160 students ranging from 3 to 16 years old. Last year I taught alongside six other volunteers, and two skilled African teachers. This year I am the only volunteer. The work is hard. It’s hard to keep the students’ concentration up with so little staff, and especially for those children who have not eaten a meal, and fall asleep on the desks or mud floor in the afternoon.

When a mango from the tree outside hits the corrugated iron roof of the mud hut, all the children race out of the classroom and scramble for the fruit that has fallen. The winner takes the first bite, but usually shares it with his friends. It’s amazing how generous the African people can be – I was even offered a bite of a mango from a grubby-handed child the other day. Most of these children are starving and have limited access to water. I saw one of them eating the shavings from my pencil the other day.

Teaching in a mud hut with very small windows and no fan is like trying to work in a sauna. I am constantly wiping my brow, and I am worn out by day’s end. My job is to teach English and maths (every evening I have to go over the next day’s class and become reacquainted with the likes of long division and fractions). Thankfully I am not responsible for teaching the older students. There are no toilet facilities – I usually have to plan ahead and hike 10 minutes to the nearest one – and the children go in the local dump next to the school, which means there is always a foul smell in the air.

Last year there were no textbooks, but thankfully, due a generous donation from my employer, Vodafone, I was able to fill a cupboard full of textbooks for the various different grades in the school, and pay for all the students to complete their end-of-year exams. Students who don’t complete them don’t advance to the next grade, so therefore students from very poor families were repeating the same kindergarten class over and over, with children half their age.

I also purchased an extensive first-aid kit as the children were walking around with the biggest gaping wounds, burns and grazes. The only problem with that is, the children without bandages were insistent on getting bandages too, so I had queues of children wanting to have a pink plaster on their little black limbs. Today I was advised to get a HIV test, as some of the children have the virus. I get the results on Monday.

Last year, thanks to donations, I was able to contribute to every class in the school going on a day trip to either a local wildlife park or the beach for the day. Even though these children live next to a paradise of beaches and in the midst of the best safari parks in the world, they very rarely get to see anything more than the area surrounding their homes.

The children are a pleasure to teach, and insist on me assigning homework at the end of each day – they won’t go home without it. The homework is completed in their small wooden or mud huts before sunset or by the light of a kerosene lamp. Most of the children work very hard when they get home. I have seen them sitting in the front of their huts washing the family clothes, fetching heavy loads of food or fuel and even sometimes cooking.

I have lots of stories to tell of my time here in Africa. Kenya and the Kenyan children will always be in my heart. I know I will return here again soon. I’ll have to start saving again when I return to Dublin. We are so lucky in the Western world to have luxuries, but what I have seen of the African people, they live day to day, food to mouth and have no savings accounts, big cars, electricity, TV or hot water.

But they are happy people, welcoming and friendly, and they have a great community setup. They would all trade their existence in Kenya for a life like ours in Dublin – a muzungu (white person’s) life.

The writer, based in the Irish capital Dublin, is an executive with the Vodafone telecommunications company who is on a 12-month sabbatical to help children in one Kenyan community. Her arrival in Kenya preceded the outbreak of deadly post-election violence that has ravaged the once-stable nation and brought it to the brink of despair.

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