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Harriet’s East African Journey Continues!

Harriet is well into her 3 month journey evaluating our projects at Maasai Academy and Mercy Primary and we are pleased to say we have not one but two updates this month from her travels!

Maasai Academy, Safari and the journey to Mercy Primary!

My final 2 weeks in Olorte have been very busy. I’ve been working to finish off all of my reports and collect data which COCO can use in the future. I spent a week carrying out basic health checks on all the students at Maasai Academy. I looked at their height, weight, BMI, condition of their teeth, eyesight, how many meals they have a day and if they have anything to eat or drink before the leave for school. Although trying to measure the height and weight of 140 very excited children was pretty hectic it was also a lot of fun and was nice getting to talk to each child one on one (via a teacher for translation).

Maasai Kids

The results proved to be very interesting and painted a very good picture of daily life for many children growing up within this remote Maasai community. The first difficulty I encountered was that many children didn’t know how old they were. Births are rarely officially recorded and birthdays aren’t celebrated so your real date of birth is not seen as important. Those that do have a birth certificate will often say they are a few years younger than they really are so that they are legally able to work for longer before retiring. Some children knew the year they were born in so we were able to work out their age give or take a few months, but there were definitely some who improvised! The statistical data I collected will be sent back to the COCO office where it will be analysed.

The data will be used to get an understanding of some of the health issues affecting the children within the community and will see if COCO can help in addressing these issues. Through the checks I found that a large proportion of students have nothing more than a cup of tea before they leave for school. Some then walk up to an hour and a half to reach school and will not eat until lunchtime. It is also common on the weekend for the children to have only two meals. Many of the children, in particular the boys, from about the age of 6 will spend the weekends up in the hills with their family’s cows, sheep and goats looking for grass so they can graze. They will have a small meal early in the morning and then apart from some wild fruits they may find on the hillside, they will not eat until they return home at sunset.

I was shocked by how many young students had had teeth removed due to cavities. I spoke to Florence, the local nurse, about the reasons for this. She says that from birth children are given sugar to lick if they are crying and they also drink multiple cups of Maasai tea a day to which they add huge amounts of sugar. As toothbrushes and toothpaste are too expensive for many families to afford, it is commonplace to take a small branch and split the ends and use this as a brush. All of this sugar combined with the fact that many parents are unaware of the connection between sugar and cavities means that teeth extraction is common. During my visit Florence went into the school to deliver an oral health lesson to the older students. It was great to see the clinic and the academy linking up and to see how one can benefit the other.

Group smiling kids

During the week I was also speaking to students to gather information which could be created into case studies. I asked the children about their home lives, what they enjoyed about school, their hopes for the future and how they think the school could be improved. The students all said how grateful they were to be in school as they knew that without an education their future would probably be goat herding. It was interesting hearing their thoughts about how the school could be made better with ideas including dormitories, a school bus and from one girl who dreams of being a pilot.. an on-site aeroplane to play in!

An important role for my time at Maasai Academy was to evaluate the success of COCO’s current projects. Both of the classrooms are completed to a very high standard and are light, airy and spacious. There are blackboards at either ends and large square tables designed to encourage student to student interaction and group work. All of the staff and students are extremely happy with the new classrooms and agree that they have created an area which promotes good teaching and learning.

Maasai Classroom

As explained in the previous blog the kitchen has been hugely beneficial to the school and had a very positive impact. COCO’s final project was the sports pitch. The recent dry weather has meant that the grass has been very slow to grow. The grass that has grown is at risk of being eaten by cows so to prevent this students have all been bringing in bags of manure which is being spread over the field to deter the cows. It’s great to see just how committed the whole school and community is to the success of the sports pitch. There are plans to create football, volleyball and net ball teams at the school and invite other schools to play matches on the sports pitch. This will bring the whole community together and give the children a real sense of pride in being able to represent their school.

Alongside the work for COCO I was able to take a safari trip into the Masai Mara. Going on safari is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time so I was very excited! We set off from Olorte in a taxi at 5am. As the taxi travelled along the same bumpy road that I took on my very first day in Kenya, we listened to traditional Maasai songs mixed up with the occasional Westlife track. The trip to the Mara completely lived up to my expectations and everything from my private tent to the game drives was amazing. Many of the staff at the camp were Maasai and I think I impressed them with my basic Ki’maasai language…especially when I said the numbers 1 to 5! I hadn’t realised just how many animals you can see on the game drives and was expecting to see just one or two every now and then but we saw LOADS. The zebra, antelope and impala were out in force and there were herds all over. We also saw several herds of elephants who came really close to the vehicle, giraffes, lots of hyenas and some with cubs, cheetahs, hippos, crocodiles, jackals, vultures a large pride of lions and so many colourful birds that I couldn’t name. The whole trip was amazing and after 5 weeks of being pretty cut off from everything in the bush it was great to get out and see a different area.

I’ve since left Olorte and Maasai land and have travelled to the remote village of Lwanda, on the shore of Lake Victoria, to visit another of COCO’s projects at Mercy Primary School. I travelled from Olorte to Homa Bay, the largest town near Lwanda, 2 days ago by taxi and then bus. The journey went very smoothly and the bus was only 1 hour late leaving so was great having a travel plan that went so well!! During my stay in Lwanda I will be visiting Mercy Primary, seeing the work that COCO has funded, creating case studies of teachers and students, discussing potential future projects and interviewing the small loan recipients to see how the loan has benefited them and their families. I’m looking forward to my time on Lwanda; the setting looking over Lake Victoria is beautiful and the community seems very friendly and welcoming. I’ve already been promised that by the time I leave I will be able to make chapatti and steer a donkey!

My first few weeks in Mbita!

I’m currently staying in the small village of Lwanda which is situated up in the hills overlooking Lake Victoria. The lake is very impressive and from a distance reminds me of the lakes in Italy, although when you get a bit closer and you see the crocodiles and hippos you’re quickly reminded you’re not in Italy!

COCO is working in the village supporting Mercy Primary School. COCO has been involved with Mercy Primary since October 2013 and both Brad and Lucy have visited the school several times to see the work that is being done and determine how COCO can be further involved. COCO has earmarked Mercy Primary to become one of the schools involved in the ‘Schools for Life’ scheme so it is important regular contact with the school can be maintained.

My role whilst in Lwanda is varied and involves working at the school as well as travelling around the community. At Mercy Primary I will be evaluating the success of past COCO projects which are the compost toilets, a block of three classrooms which includes an Early Childhood Development class, a water harvesting system and a sustainable agriculture garden. I will also be identifying potential new projects COCO could be involved with to assist the development of the school costing up budgets and creating plans. Alongside this I will be speaking to teachers and students to assess the impact of the completed projects and identify any common issues.

mercy kids studying under hot tree

Outside of working at Mercy I will be speaking to those individuals who received a loan from COCO as part of the Mercy care-givers scheme. It has been almost a year since 15 individuals, all who have dependents attending Mercy, were selected to receive at 20,000 Kenyan Shillings (£137) loan from COCO. Over the course of a weekend COCO organised a business start-up work shop with was open to anyone who was supporting children at Mercy. From those that attended COCO selected 15 individuals to receive loans based on their business proposals and current financial situation. It was hoped that by starting or developing a small business the income of each individual would increase. The care-givers could then use this increased income to pay their children’s school fees on time and in full meaning that the income of the school would also increase. The recipients pay back the loan over a 40 week period at a rate of 650KS a week.

I am coming to the end of my second week in Lwanda and have spent part of my time meeting the loan recipients to discuss with them their business and determine if it a success. I visited with Bernard who coordinated the distribution of the loans and who also was able to translate for me those recipients that spoke in the local language, Dho Luo. As the recipients are located all over the district it took time to travel, either by foot, matatu or a car (if we were lucky!) to meet them so it was important Bernard phoned ahead to make sure they would be home. Despite our best planning we turned up to speak to one lady to be told she had gone out to find her missing donkey and wouldn’t be back for a few hours.

It has been great to speak to the recipients and find out how their loans were spent and hear about their new businesses. The businesses included selling cereals and vegetables, selling handwoven mats, providing a water collection service and selling phone accessories and motorcycle parts. It is clear just how valuable the businesses are to the owner and for many it is their first opportunity to earn an income and be able to support their family.

I have also spent time visiting Mercy Primary meeting the students and staff and seeing COCO’s past projects. I have been working with George who is the COCO in country coordinator for Mercy Primary. It was a pretty hectic first week at the school with our first task being to construct a plan and budget for the construction of an admin block and classrooms. COCO hopes to build both using a relatively new technique involving earth-bags. The kitchen funded by COCO at Maasai Academy, where I recently travelled from, was built using this technique and it proved to be very cost effective as well as producing a building which was of high quality and durable. This building is particularly suited to a school within this hot environment as it keeps the inside cool as well as being soundproof to ensure that students can focus well in their lessons. As it is such a new technique creating a budget is more complicated but Hennie, who organised the earth-bag kitchen build in Olorte, has been extremely helpful. It is intended that builders from Mbita will travel to Olorte to learn from the builders there about constructing with earth-bags. On returning to Mercy Primary they will then be able to confidently construct the buildings using this technique.

George and I have also been working to try and find a solution for the water shortage problem at the school. In January 2014 COCO funded the development of a sustainable agriculture garden. It was intended that crops grown in the garden using sustainable techniques would feed the student’s at the school and then the remainder would be sold and provide a source of income for the school. However, a severe dry spell has meant that few crops have grown and the garden is at risk of failing this year. Despite Lake Victoria being only a few kilometres away finding a way for the school to have a permanent water source is proving to be a complicated task. Currently George and I are exploring various options including having water pumped up from the water tank below and I hope that the issue can be resolved during my time here.

During the week I had the privilege of being invited along to a women’s group meeting where they were discussing about how to spend a 100,000ks loan then had received to expand their small business. The group is self-named Joy Hearts Women’s Group and consists of 7 widows ranging in ages from 60 up to 80+. This is the second loan they had received and they were planning on using it to buy more chairs and tents which they then hire out. They were all strong, independent women and despite only 2 group members being able to read and write, they all had a good understanding of business. It was great to meet them and I think they are a great role model and an inspiration for all the women and girls within the community.

I am becoming very familiar with my new environment and it hasn’t taken long for everyone in the community to know my name. When I’m walking down to the town I can hear shouts of ‘Harriet Harriet’ and the occasional ‘Mzungu’ (white person) coming from all directions but I do feel very welcomed by the whole community. The food here has been good but not good for my health! It’s African food for breakfast, lunch and dinner which means plenty of carbs! Traditional Kenyan food is rice, beans, chappati and ugali which is maize flour mixed with water and then fried. I have also eaten some nice fish caught from the lake although one night I did notice I was eating the same tiny fish the cat is fed every night!

Mercy - Street

I have three more weeks in Mbita before I travel back to Nairobi and then back to the UK and I think I will be kept very busy! ‘African time’ is definitely real and things do happen at a slower pace here which can be frustrating, especially as my time here is limited, but I’m looking forward to assisting the school to develop and helping to solve some of their issues.

mercy happy child

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