After last weeks cycle challenge, this week has been very different. This is the first time I have brought my other half, Colin, to a COCO project and he has been given the task of photographer and film editor to earn his keep! We left the cool Nairobi climate for the heat and humidity of Kisumu en route to meet with a community that is fairly new to the COCO family. The geography and climate significantly different, although the Kenyan welcome as warm as ever.
It has been 2 years since I last visited this small community, half an hour away from the Ugandan border in western Kenya but the welcome was as if I had never been away. Phaustine Ogollo is our main contact for the partnership between COCO and FOCUSSA, a community organisation established to address the issues concerning the high number of AIDS orphans in the area.
After a 2 hour bumpy bus journey from the regions capital, Kisumu, we reach Matayos and are greeted with the smiling face of Phaustine who at 6 foot 4, towers over me and hugs me. Eager to show us the new classroom that has been built after a donation from COCO before Christmas, we make our way to FOCUSSA Primary School.
As we reach the crest of the hill, I can already see the difference in the school in the valley below. The mud classrooms that had been destroyed by torrential rain a few years ago have been replaced with a strong brick and concrete structure painted blue. As we get closer, I see there is a yellow ribbon and balloons across the doorway to the new classroom. Phaustine says, "the classroom has just been finished, we wanted to wait for you to open it and have planned a ceremony to bless the class and those who study inside". There is a clear sense of pride and excitement attached to the new classroom and the children are desperate to see inside, as am I.
Colin and I are asked to plant a tree each, to give the school strong roots. The community has made small wooden signs with our names on them so that we can identify our tree in years to come, although Colin will need to be sure to look for Collins’ tree! The desire to create a long-term partnership here is clear and I can't help but feel a sense of commitment and friendship in this ceremonial tree planting. We each plant our trees, cover them with red soil and water them. Phaustine then asks us to place a foundation stone in the plot of land adjacent to the new classroom, which has been earmarked for a second class once funds become available.
It is then time to unveil the sign on the classroom and cut the yellow ribbon to the singing of teachers and students alike. As I open the door, the smell of fresh plaster and paint wafts out of the spacious, light and cool classroom. It is unfurnished and the walls are bare save for a blackboard on one. The teacher brings in 4 weathered posters and I make a mental note that we must look into the provision of more visual aids for the school. The children are instructed to bring their desks and chairs from their old classroom, which has walls made of old iron sheets, a roof made of polythene and a blackboard made of card. The children rush to carry the furniture and take great pride in placing it in the new class. Teaching begins immediately, first counting and then vowels, all in English (with the odd Swahili word thrown in for good measure, the children are under 7 years old after all).
We leave the teachers to it and make our way to the home across the road where many of the children live after having lost their parents to AIDS. Phaustine and his wife Anna live at the home, which currently houses 32 girls and boys. We sit in the library, which separates the boys’ dorm rooms; the older ones and the younger ones in separate rooms. Phaustine tells me that the well has broken and there are insufficient toilets for the increasing number of children. We discuss water harvesting and composting toilets and I am encouraged by Phaustine’s open mind and ideas to sustain the school.
A framer by profession, Phaustine has already generated income for the school through sales of fish from a large pond dug by FOCUSSA and stocked with local fish, Tilapia. A goat-breeding programme has also provided income for the home to enable Anna to feed the children at least once a day. There is still much to be done and hopes for a poultry project to create income and provide eggs for the nutrition of the children are discussed.
FOCUSSA is also keen to continue the building of strong classrooms to improve the learning environment for the children and enable them to improve on their academic results. The commitment of the teachers is clear in their desire to give these children a strong foundation in education but resources are lacking. There is a clear desire for the school and the home to operate free from aid and donations so sustainable development is our mutual goal.
Phaustine’s vision is for these young children to have the best possible chance in life, he is keen to install solar power to enable evening study and IT. Renewable energy is an area COCO is keen to partner with communities to develop.
After discussions and plans for the future, we help Anna feed the children with rice and cabbage before speaking to the nurse about the need for more malaria nets and testing kits. 3 boys are ill today with fever and only one of them can be tested for malaria, as there is only one kit, his test is positive. He must be given medication that costs 70 Kenyan Shillings (50 pence). It is unlikely his family will be able to afford it so it is left to the committee at FOCUSSA to chip in to provide this for him. They can't always manage it as they are volunteers, but they do all that they can.
Whilst it is still early days in our partnership with FOCUSSA, my visit has given me great confidence that together we can achieve great things for the children of Matayos.