Monday, November 3, 2008

Time to Come Home

A (retired) African Farmer's Journal

03 November 2008

Well, the time has finally arrived for me to shut down the tractor, throw off me oul’ wellie boots and pull over the gate behind me as I leave my Africa Farm behind for good ...... well ..... maybe for just a short while anyway!. My two year VMM contract is up, and it's time to go home.
I frequently ask myself though: where is 'home' now? And to be honest, I'm not too sure at this stage. From the beautiful South Africa, where I worked as a volunteer in 2005; to the beautiful, wild and expansive Maasai lands of Tanzania’s Serengeti, to the filth and grime and congestion of the Mukuru slums in Nairobi, I’ve begun to feel much more at home there than I do in Ireland - despite the dangers of snakes, mosquitoes, malaria and typhoid, speeding matatus, and spiders and ants that crawl into your bed and go ‘chomp’ in the night.
So I imagine it's going to take a bit of adjusting to fit myself back into life in Ireland.
I arrived at Dublin Airport on Sunday last, to a bitingly cold shower of sleet and rain, ice-cold winds swept across the tarmac as we came down the steps of the plane, penetrating through to the very marrow of my bones; and I began to wonder if the source of the wind and sleet might be that deep abyss they’re calling ‘The Recession’.
Doom & Gloom is on everyone’s lips, and I half expected to see starving and wasted skeletal bodies lining the side of the road, with bony outstretched hands pleading for aid from passers-by; or half-starved families, struggling down along the Quays with their few belongings stuffed into torn and tattered suitcases, heading for the boat to Holyhead.
A deep depression was fast setting in, and I was just short of jumping back on the plane and pleading to be taken back to Nairobi..... and home!
However, as we drove across the M50 from the airport, I saw little sign that the Celtic Tiger’s teeth had fallen out with decay, or that his stripes are fading in the slightest. The motorway was jammed with brand new cars, most with just the driver onboard, whizzing along and apparently oblivious to fuel shortages, global warming ..... or the dreaded Recession! I noticed that the motorway itself has been expanded since I left, with a new toll system to process cars through much quicker. Obviously all of this is a sign of confidence that the numbers of cars on our roads is set to continue to increase in the future. Supermarkets too, show little sign of closing down, and shelves are well stocked with lots of expensive goodies, and signs of Christmas are already beginning to show.
Recession? To be honest, I could see little sign of it anywhere!!
I don’t want to sound pious or self-righteous, but I couldn’t help reflecting on the situation I had left behind in the slums just a few short days before. In recent weeks, the prices of many basic commodities like milk and bread have sky-rocketed, in relative terms, beyond the reach of many households. Milk went up from 28sh to 33sh (28c to 33c Euro) per ½ltr; while bread went up from 25sh to 30sh). The price of a 1kg packet of maize flour went up from 55shillings to 60sh. The flour is mixed as a watery porridge in the mornings (uji), and as a bland and tasteless mash (ugali) for the evening meal, very occasionally enhanced with some vegetables or soup when available cash allows. These increases however, literally mean the difference between eating and not eating for many families in the slums living on ‘less than a dollar a day’. ----- Now that’s what I call a Recession!!!.
But the people of Mukuru are resilient if nothing else. They’ll always find a smile for a stranger, and you dare not refuse chai (tea) and a share of whatever is in the pot when you visit a person’s home. The kids in particular seem to defy all logic when it comes to survival. Many get nothing to eat at home, with the schools providing the only meal they’ll get for the whole day. Some will eat just a small amount of their school meal, packing away the rest for their parents or siblings at home.
And yet they still manage to laugh and smile and play and be happy. It’s a wonderful experience to visit one of the local schools for morning assembly, and to see the children’s faces explode with joy and pleasure and welcome, sparkling teeth flashing like thousands of welcoming beacons of light.
School days lasts from 7am to 4pm in the slums. In practice though, due to the security and relaxed atmosphere in the schools compared to their homes in the slums, children usually arrive much earlier into school, and will stay long after school hours, playing or studying, and eventually having to be sent home by their teachers before darkness falls at around 6pm.
In my two years working as a volunteer in Mukuru, I got immense pleasure and satisfaction working with the people there. Their eagerness to work, and their willingness, despite their own difficulties, to share and to help one another never failed to amaze me.
And now, although I feel sad at leaving, I never the less feel very happy with all that has been achieved with the hard work and dedication of the team of local volunteers I worked with.
One of our biggest projects, and possibly the most successful and satisfying for me, was the Harambee Scholarship Fund, which was established with support from staff and students at IT Tallaght, to provide secondary school scholarships to children from the slums.
The head teachers in each of the local primary schools appointed two members of staff to form the committee, with the task of selecting students from their various schools for scholarship into secondary school. During term breaks and at the end of each school year, the committee monitors the students’ progress and exam results, offering counselling and additional support where needed. It was agreed from the outset, that not only the best achievers would be selected, but those who, in the opinion of their teachers would make the most of the chance they were given. Also, to counter the cultural and domestic obstacles placed in the way of girls continuing into secondary, we insisted that at least an equal number of girls should be selected at all times. And they have consistently rewarded our trust with equal, if not higher grades to their male counterparts.
It must be remembered that teachers in Kenya, and in particular primary teachers in the schools of Mukuru are very poorly paid, struggling to raise their own families in the slums. Very often, because they were the bright children in their families, their parents struggled hard to put them through college. Now they, in their turn, struggle to repay this by helping to maintain the family homestead, or by putting their younger siblings through school or college. And yet, these teachers are volunteers in the Harambee project, giving their time free of charge to help their former primary students.
Since its inception in 2006, Harambee has provided scholarships to forty-six students from Mukuru, with additional support for others who needed school uniforms, text books, and other necessary items for their studies. For them, their lives have been utterly changed and they now see some hope for a brighter future, where previously there was little or no hope beyond early marriage (particularly for girls), and an endless struggle to find enough money to buy food for the day.
Below is a profile of one of our students, Hawo Jarso, written in 2006 by her primary teachers. It gives a good indication of the hardships facing children in the slums. Girls suffer the additional burdens of being expected to carry out household chores, child-minding, and the dangers of abuse and rape in the overcrowded slums:
“Hawo is 5th born in a family of 8 children. Her mother does casual labour and is the sole breadwinner in the family. The family live in a single room house in LungaLunga slum village, and because of their poverty, they often have to go without food and depend on the primary school or well-wishers for support. The girl is an extremely hard working and bright student, but because of hardship in the family, she has had to forego secondary education for the past two years. Without her scholarship, Hawo was to have been married off for her 'bride-wealth' and to ease the burden on the family.” Hawo is now in Form II at Ruchu High School, and is doing extremely well in her studies, coming twentieth out of over two hundred students in Form II in her school.
In recent weeks, Harambee was registered as a Community Based Organisation (CBO) and adopted a new constitution, safeguarding the continuing success of the project for future generations of children from Mukuru. Plans are in place for the construction of an Administration Office, which will incorporate a Community Library (previously unheard of in the slums), and an Adult-Learning Centre. The Centre will encourage parents and students who have dropped out of school early to continue their education. A support group for women living with HIV&AIDS and a Home Based Care (HBC) group will also use the Centre for counselling and support, and for training, education and income generation projects.
The library will be used as a place of study and recreation by adults and school-goers alike, and special attention will be paid to providing facilities and assistance to the disabled in the community, often marginalised because of the stigma attached to disability in the slums, and in many parts of Kenyan society to this day.
To establish the Centre, a team of Irish volunteers will travel to Mukuru in 2009 to work alongside local volunteers, including Harambee committee members and sponsored students. Together they will carry out the construction work on the Centre, landscape and fence the gardens, and begin the process of establishing the Centre’s programme of activities.
We can do with as much support as possible, so if you’d like to take part or to help in any way, please give me a call or email me, and I’ll send you more details (my contact details are below).
Best wishes to one and all,

Harambee Scholarship Fund
PO Box 60221 - 00200 Nairobi, Kenya

+353 862 437043 (Ireland)
+254 720 334453 or +254 722 646354 (Kenya)

No comments: