This time last year I was finally stepping foot onto African soil after two years of fundraising.
I went to Kenya for three weeks and 10 of those days I spent with an aid organization called One Horizon. My friend, Hannah Mason, and I started fundraising in 2012 with the goal of raising $10,000 over two years to put towards education and women's initiatives in a developing country.
I turned 30 in 2014 and I wanted to mark it by doing something positive, by challenging myself to look at the world from someone else's perspective and learn from that experience. I have grown up with the privilege of freedom of speech, gender equality (almost), and social infrastructures that act as a safety net.
In Kenya there's 50-per-cent unemployment; 65 per cent of the children I saw suffered from chronic malnutrition, and bureaucratic corruption was rife.
However, my experience wasn't one of sadness or desperation — it was incredibly full of hope.
Our gift of hope
We had wanted to visit the place where we were donating the funds — to make sure the money was going to the right organization, and to find a connection we hoped would last more than a one-off cash transaction.
After a lot of research we decided on two organizations that both work in Kenya. Influenced by speakers like Stephen Lewis, Hilary Clinton and a recent film called Girl Rising, we were adamant that the funds go into education, as investments of this kind seemed to have the most long-lasting and positive effect.
We also wanted to find organizations that were small enough that we could ask questions of them and get a response — we wanted to feel part of the team and understand where our money was going so we could measure the impact.
We chose Change Heroes, a Canadian company that works in conjunction with Free The Children to build schools, and an Australian organization called One Horizon that also works in education, as well as food and women's programs.
In fact it was a one-hour Skype call with the director of One Horizon that led to me booking my flight to Kenya. The passionate words of this organizer, and the fact that this team was on the ground in the slums every day, made it an obvious choice for me.
Hannah unfortunately couldn't make the trip I took back in February last year, and so I embarked by myself on my first-ever journey to a developing country. However, I didn't feel alone — I was carrying a bag of clothes that had come from multiple donours throughout the Sea to Sky. One girl asked me to give a card to the people I met. On the front it said:
"One seed can start a garden, one smile can lift a spirit, one candle can light a room, one conversation can start a friendship."
I was also going because 24 people — family, friends, colleagues, and community members had paid $3.33 for three months in order to raise the $10,000 needed to build a school.
I was representing myself, Hannah, and everyone who had been a part of the process over the last two years — this included an incredibly patient husband.
I stayed with the director of One Horizon, the only non-local member of the organization, which was launched in 2007 — it now runs 23 centres and schools in Kenya.
In the morning, the One Horizon team would come to our gated community condo and we'd gather art easels, paints, weighing scales, and cooking utensils. We'd set off in a black van with tinted windows, battling through the crazy Kenyan traffic. It happened to be the middle of the month and the highways were full of people walking — this was typical as a bus ride was often too expensive until their next pay came in. I saw building blocks with precarious looking scaffolding supporting workers with no harnesses, men digging ditches in full suits, as they would take any work they could get, and wildly painted matatu's (minibus taxis) packed with more people than we'd put in a full-sized coach. There are no public emergency services in Kenya, there's no 911 call if the matatu goes off the road, the scaffolding collapses or you keel over in the heat from over excersion. It is a tough place to live.
When we got closer to the schools located in the slums, we'd get out on foot, picking our way through dirt streets filled with bags of human excrement. Most of these areas don't have running water or sewage systems, so toilets are a nonexistent luxury. In the heat of the African sun it was an assault to my untrained senses, as I tried to keep my gag reflex under control so I didn't embarrass myself or my guides. This obviously leads to a lot of health issues and is one of the many battles that One Horizon helps its centres and schools with. Sighing, a One Horizon team member told me about the time they put a water system into one of the schools. A lot of the slums are tribally segmented, and in this particular case their enterprising neighbours re-diverted the water pipes to their area. The organization now pays them for the water to avoid conflict. It is like playing chess with a master; the One Horizon team would make a move only to be sided by the unexpected.
I visited seven schools while I was there and helped with art classes, played musical chairs, tug of war, and jump rope. As we did this, the kids shrieking with laughter and covered in paint, the Kenyan staff of One Horizon were looking for the ones who held back, showed signs of abuse or had obvious maladies that needed attention. Sometimes the kids would quickly loose their breath and start to wheeze and cough. The burning of kerosene lamps for cooking often causes these respiratory problems. They are also the cause of fires, which rip through tightly-packed slum areas with no running water.
I noticed a little boy called Francis, an HIV orphan, whose misjudgment of the skipping rope led us to realize he had a vision issue. Over the last year One Horizon has kept me up to date with Francis, and after seeing two specialists he's been fitted with glasses, and is being monitored in case he needs corrective surgery. If One Horizon wasn't around to help children like Francis, it would be a very tough life, and likely a short one for them.
I am not being overly dramatic; since I left there have been several deaths at the schools, each one devastating to the One Horizon team. A lot of aid organizations don't believe in food donations, but this group sees this as a critical part of what it does. What use is a rebuilt school if the children meant to be attending it are dying of malnutrition?
Carol is in charge of the food programs for One Horizon. As a field officer she'll often go the market and haggle with the stall owners over rice, beans and vegetables. I went with her one day, the people in the market staring at my whiteness. Carol looped my arm in hers guiding me through the maze of fly-ridden fruit and veg, nestled next to mouldy mattresses and broken TV sets. The stall's owners she knew added extra scoops of this and that where they could — it was likely Carol would be feeding this to a child they knew. Next to this kindness lives corruption. Carol has to make sure the children are getting the food, they can often tell if this is the case or not if they are putting on weight and not coming up for third servings. If the people running the school are caught putting the money or food to other uses, the team attempts to intervene as much as they can by buying and cooking the food themselves. This makes their job more intensive, and in the long run, if the school doesn't improve then they have to move on to another one, because they don't have the resources to pour into corrupt operations. These things are rigorously recorded — you wouldn't want to mess with Carol.
The Curse of the volunteer
While there I learned the story of Cynthia, as we watched her play tug of war at St.Veronica's School in Mwiki. Her mother had simply got up and left one day, leaving Cynthia with her dad, who suffers with a drinking problem. When Cynthia didn't turn up to school for three days in a row her teacher got nervous. She was eventually found wandering the streets, likely sleeping on them; easy prey for rapists, of which there are many. Cynthia is three years old.
I am not overly used to being around children, especially not in the hundreds. I often found a little hand creeping into mine as we played games or into my hair, which they found fascinating, and when we were sitting down there would be a line-up for my lap. It reminded me of a book I read called The Voluntourist, by Ken Budd. The story follows Ken as he embarks on volunteering in six different countries, and his fear of not being useful to the people he was trying to help. I had the same thoughts and expressed them to one of the One Horizon team. I asked if I was more of a hindrance than help. He told me that to give time to these children even just for an hour, a day, a week tells them that someone cares, that they are worthy of love, and that they matter. After hearing that I stopped worrying about it.
Helping women help themselves
I also visited a women's centre in the Ngong slum area about half an hour outside of Nairobi, where I had sent patterns ahead of time for reusable sanitary pads, given to us by Vancouver-based company Lunapads.
The women of the centre had been thrown out on the street, often with their children, after becoming sick with HIV/AIDS, which their husbands had passed onto them.
One Horizon has been working with the Ngong Centre since 2007, where women learn sewing and candle making so they can make a living and support their families, as well as another centre in Kibera, a slum that houses over one million people.
The women were so welcoming and dignified that thinking of them makes me want to cry with the injustice of it, and their incredible strength. With the help of a One Horizon worker, one woman had the courage to share her story.
Susan was the first of five children born in the Vihiga District of Western Kenya, all of whom suffered physical abuse at the hands of their father.
Susan was the oldest, and by the age of 10 was working as "house help," where her employers would feed her scraps from their table once a day after a gruelling litany of chores.
When she was 15 she pleaded with her parents to take her home, but they needed the money and turned her away. She did this for eight years without ever seeing a single cent.
At 18 she ran away and found work for herself that lasted three years. It was a tough life and once again she tried to return to her parents.
They forced her to marry, and nine years later her husband passed away, leaving her with four children and another one on the way. Her in-laws forced her to marry her husband's brother (as is tradition), and as he didn't work she was now responsible for providing for them all.
She started working at a sugar plantation, but being heavily pregnant and malnourished she was often too weak to work. She was then diagnosed with skin cancer. Again, she went to her parents who disowned her when they saw her health was so bad she couldn't work.
This news finally broke Susan who believed death for her and her children was inevitable. She went out and bought arsenic to poison all of them. As she began serving the laced tea to her children she realized that she couldn't take their lives. Instead she would have to figure out a new plan to keep them all alive.
When she woke the following morning, her mother had gathered all the family members and they drove her away from home.
Incredibly, a Good Samaritan helped Susan and her children get to Nairobi where she found a support group in the Kibera slum.
Connecting with her peers gave her the support she needed to seek treatment for her cancer, and she began to regain her health, even though she lost the child she'd been carrying.
They helped her find a house to rent and a supply of food. Susan now enjoys beadwork and wants to learn sewing and soap making. Her dream is simple: to educate her children so they will be able to support themselves and their families, so they don't have to go through what she has.
Susan's story illustrates just how critical these support groups and centres are — without them hope quickly fades.
Over the last summer the Ngong Centre made its first large batch of reusable sanitary pads, which will help keep girls from dropping out of school for fear of embarrassment during menstruation, and also provide a source of revenue for the women and their families.
The Mathare Creche
That same morning I visited the Mathare Creche just down the road where the women's children go to school. I helped record the height and weight of the children, noting signs of ringworm, lice, fleas and any other signs of illness. Sixty-five per cent of them were chronically underweight when One Horizon stepped in to start a feeding program that would help stabilize the children's health.
I was also looking for anyone who needed a new school uniform. These are actually made by the women at the Ngong Centre. One Horizon gives them the contract for the uniforms and pays them to produce the garments, which are then delivered into the hands of children in the schools that they operate in. I will never forget the look of pride that came over the children's faces when they got a new uniform — I could have been giving out Olympic medals.
The sanitary pad distribution would be started in the same way, with the potential of a commercial order that would help elevate the pull of funds solely from One Horizon.
The most recent news from Change Heroes is that our school will most likely be built in the Narok South District in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya later this year. In some tribes they still practice female genital mutilation as part of their cultural rites, and also tend to marry their girls very young, even though a new law has made marriage under the age of 18 illegal in Kenya.
Hopefully with more access to education this will start to change, as it has in other areas where schools have be built.
I spoke to some of the staff at the hotel I was staying at when I visited the Maasai Mara and they told me that they themselves were the product of having schools go into their rural villages. Some of them chose to stay, but having the choice and opportunity is what they said was important — especially to the girls who are no longer being looked upon as something that could only earn their families money through marriage.
The Whistler connection
Last October 2014 in celebration of International Day of the Girl, over 200 people in Whistler turned up to listen to three powerful women speakers on the subject of "closing the confidence gap" for girls.
We premiered the all-women ski movie Pretty Faces, raising enough to build a small home to house some of the graduates of the Ngong Women's Centre, to help them get back on their feet and provide for themselves and their families.
This year I am hopeful we can raise even more and continue to help people like Susan and Cynthia get the shelter, food, love and education they need to flourish.
For me the impact of this trip is that I feel a deep connection with the people I met. I had the opportunity to spend time in an incredible country with amazingly resilient people who will be the conduits for change their country needs. I hope to remember the promises I made when I was there — to never forget them, and to tell their stories whenever I can.
If you want to stay in touch with me about International Day of the Girl events and the fundraising associated with it, please email me at email@example.com, and for more information on One Horizon visit OneHorizon.net. n