On our approach to Maasai Academy progress is clear as the brand new kitchen building stands prominent on the hillside with the words ‘Maasai Academy’ painted by Becca and the women using their fine art skills. The welcome we receive reminds me of my first visit here last year when I was 3 days through a 4 day cycle challenge with some of COCO’s most dedicated supporters and I can’t help but wish that they were here to witness what their fundraising has achieved in such a short period of time. The outdoor kitchen has been transformed into a purpose built, clean, airy building with specialised cookers designed to use only the smallest amount of firewood to save on deforestation and improve the air quality for the cook.
The Maasai elders are present to bless the kitchen, a tradition for new things to ensure that they last long and prosper. The Maasai leader dips a bunch of leaves in goat milk and walks around the classroom shaking the leaves to spread droplets of milk, chanting in Maa to complete the blessing. The number of parents and community members present for this blessing is incredible and testament to the active role that this community take on ensuring their children can go to school and have a better education to survive in this ever globalised world.
From the kitchen, we move to the classroom and a similar blessing takes place after Steve had opened the building by officially cutting the ribbon across the door. The COCO classroom sign has been placed with care at the top of the door to show pride in the partnership we have established here. The last stop is the sports field which for now is just a dry brown flat piece of land due to a lack of rain but Hennie assures us the grass will come. It wouldn’t be a visit to the Maasai Academy without several speeches from Massai leaders, teachers and even the local priest. Despite the combination of Maa, Swahili and English the message is clear, the community have achieved so much for their children and education is the key to success and the future.
Steve is asked to speak and then me which I know, as a woman, is a huge privilege. Once translated, our words are met with clapping and cheering and we feel a part of this place and very positive about the future. Little filming is done today as the ceremony takes over and building a relationship with the school and community is important if this development is to be sustainable. We return the next day to film and Kat and Steve yet again show their professionalism and we are done in no time and en route to Narok, packed lunch courtesy of Becca and a boot full of people and chickens. We say our goodbyes and I am sad to leave.
I needn’t have been so sad as 20 minutes down the road the vehicle breaks down and Steve, Kat and I have to walk back to the house in the midday sun to find signal to call the driver who is waiting for us in Narok. We soon find another driver and are on our way 2 hours later than planned and in a car thick with dust and without any functioning gauges on the dashboard. Our driver assures us we will make it and we do, despite an incredibly rough road, we are across Maasai Land and past the Zebra and Baboons in record time.
We meet Ogada, our new driver in Narok and after a quick stop at the supermarket for supplies we head off to Mbita, keen to get there as soon as possible. Our delay has meant that we will have to drive in the dark which means more police road blocks than the day time. We are stopped with about 2 hours to go by a police officer holding a huge gun and smelling of alcohol (not a great combination), he just wants to see some ID and find out what we are doing and where we are going. We leave without having to succumb to a bribe and arrive at the volunteer house in Mbita, near Lake Victoria at about 10pm. I meet George for the first time, he is our coordinator here and has only been working with us for a few months but he is friendly and has a lot of experience with NGO’s and his sense of humour comes across from the outset. We say very sleepy hellos and goodbyes knowing tomorrow we will be on better form! Mbita is hot, the house has no power and we are all exhausted. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and despite the sweltering heat and rock hard mattress we sleep.
After a hearty breakfast we set off for Mercy Primary School, on first appearances the land looks incredibly dry and despite the new classrooms and water harvesting that COCO have recently completed, there is no water. The rains have not come and the food forest is suffering. Many of the crops have failed but I am happy to see that the gardener has taken note of what has survived this inhospitable climate. He has taken the initiative to plant more cassava and sweet potatoes which are flourishing in the extended garden he has created. It is clear that water is going to be our biggest challenge here and I am reminded of its vital importance to all that we do.
I am delighted to see that the compost toilets are almost finished and there are hand washing stations spread out across the school. The teachers tell me that the hand washing has already had an impact on the reduction of the number of students who are absent due to stomach problems. Unfortunately typhoid is still an issue due to the lack of drinking water and the need for students to take water from the lake when at home. Also, malaria is still a huge problem here due to the number of mosquitoes inhabiting the lake side, bed nets are regarded as an unaffordable luxury for many, even at a cost of $3 which is more than some people make in a working week.
We talk to the teachers and some of the students too, the head boy and girl speak excellent English and the whole school are delighted with the new nursery classrooms and the hand washing. The message from all of them is the same, the lack of rain is a major issue. It rained last in October and even then the rains were shorter than expected. In addition, the next rains will not come until March which means another 2 months of dry desolation at Mercy.
We film the school and interview some of the students, teachers and parents all of which is incredibly encouraging. We return to the volunteer house for lunch and Steve leaves for his 2 week stay at the athletes camp in Iten. He has a long journey ahead but he is in good hands with Ogada. We say goodbye and thank Steve for a great few days and we are down to two. Kat and I spend the remainder of the afternoon going through footage and planning for tomorrow before my meeting with George and Bernard. Bernard heads up the loans programme and George is responsible for overseeing all of COCO’s activities in the area so these meetings are vital to ensure we are on the right track and our interventions are having the desired impact.
The requests for further support are endless, a school van to bring the children who are coming from several kilometers away, either by foot which is exhausting or by motor cycle which is dangerous. A connection to the mains electricity is requested as opposed to solar power due to the unreliable maintenance of solar. George is keen to develop the team in Mbita and a request for capacity building in the form of training in IT, monitoring and evaluation and NGO management is requested. Bernard is struggling to keep up with the evaluations necessary on the loan recipients and requests a motor cycle to enable him to reach all 15 in a timely manner so that he can report to us on time for our donors. These meetings, although vitally important can seem overwhelming as there is always so much to do and so many requests for support. COCO have to make a balance between supporting community projects and encouraging donor aid dependency and it is always a difficult task. I’m grateful to be able to discuss this with Brad when we meet in Tanzania next week and I am reminded again how great it is to share these issues with my colleagues.
Bernard updates me on his work. When we first visited Mercy Primary, it was clear that a large number of children were orphaned and living with grandparents or carers. It was because of this that COCO established a small loans programme for which parents of Mercy students could apply. We received over 90 applications, some viable, some not. Loans were given to 15 people as a pilot project and one of the purposes of this visit is to see how they have worked. Kat and I will meet them tomorrow and hopefully they will be willing to be interviewed.
Thursday comes and it’s our last day in Mbita, a second visit to the school and a great deal more filming, this time inside the new classrooms and with teachers and happy students. We interview more people and clarify possible plans to find a reliable water source, say our goodbyes and head to town to interview the loan recipients. Kat is so good at this, we have worked together for over 5 years and she has interviewed many COCO beneficiaries, her experience is evident in her role as producer, director and film maker as she makes our loan recipients relaxed enough to talk to us about their small businesses.
The first lady we interview has started a business selling cooked maize, it is like giant corn on the cob and cooks on a small charcoal stove next to the road, she also sells tomatoes and we are delighted to watch her do business whilst continuing to answer our interview questions. The art of multi tasking is alive and well here! She must sell 4 or 5 pieces of corn in the time we interview her and she tells us that the loan has enabled her to send her children to school, buy uniforms and pay for medicines when needed.
We needn’t have been worried about a shortage of interviewees, Bernard is being hounded by others asking to be interviewed. We only have an hour or so until the sun goes down so some of them have to make do with our promise that we will do it next time! Next on the list is a lady who sells chips, they smell incredible and she is a very happy interviewee. We go on to meet a man who has started a phone accessories shop and a barbers and he too is very happy to have been given the capital needed to start his own business. Each person lists the benefits of the loan, the first one is always school for the children and affording contributions for uniforms and health.
Feeling elated after the interviews Kat and I take a walk by the lake and film the sun going down before heading off home for our last night in Mbita. Tomorrow we head back to Nairobi and go our separate ways. I will be in Tanzania on Saturday when I get to do it all again. There is no doubt that Kenya has its problems, land grabbing, threats of terrorism and corruption but for us, the issue of climate change and its consequential drought will be the biggest challenge to overcome for our projects and the communities we work with.