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.

Maasai GuyThe 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.

Kid with Blackboard 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 permaculture 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 child drinking water      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.

Mercy kids in classroomI 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.

mercy GardenGeorge 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 permaculture 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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One Way Ticket to Olorte with Red Tribe and MAF

Here is an amazing account from Katie at MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) on the huge impact COCO has had at Maasai Academy in Olorte, Kenya. As part of their commitment to community development, MAF provide missionary pilots to enable NGO’s to visit remote areas.

One Way Ticket to Olorte

The Maasai village of Olorte, tucked deep in the south-west of Kenya near the Tanzanian border, may appear unremarkable at first glance. Yet in this small community, God is at work and great things are happening: a partnership between the local primary school, Maasai Academy, and UK charity Comrades of Children Overseas (COCO), is facilitating tangible, sustainable and life-improving change.

I have been offered the opportunity to see this for myself as I have been invited by Hennie and Becca Marais, missionaries with RedTribe, residents of Olorte since 2009, and parents of two children at the school, to join a team from COCO flying down with MAF to attend the opening ceremony of some newly constructed buildings at Maasai Academy.

To reach Olorte by plane means landing 20km away at the village of Entasekera where an airstrip has been cleared, and then completing the journey by road. This particular strip is classed as ‘marginal’ and is renowned amongst MAF Kenya pilots for its challenging features. Sitting atop a hill, the grass runway lies short and very narrow in places; because of its height and exposure to the elements, crosswinds are significant and any rain quickly makes the surface soft. In fact, it is so marginal that passengers travelling there can only be issued with a one-way ticket: the Cessna 206 that makes the flight cannot take off carrying anything other than the pilot. You have to find your own way back.

1. Maasai plane

We land with no problems and cheerfully wave farewell to pilot and plane. Our luggage safely stowed in the back of Hennie’s trusty Landrover , we all pile in: Steve Cram, former Olympic and Commonwealth athlete and a founder of COCO; Lucy Philipson, passionate advocate of responsible development and CEO of COCO; Kat Hodgkinson, generous supporter of COCO and independent film maker; and me. There is so much to take in. Hennie’s children Caleb and Taliah, quiet and inquisitive, balanced on visitors’ knees; windows open and dust swirling through the air we bump over dirt roads and dry river beds; smiles and stares from passing pedestrians, always hopeful for a lift; and the way the ground seems to glisten and shimmer, a result of the pinkish quartz embedded in it. Conversation flows as Hennie patiently answers wide-ranging questions from me and Kat, the first-timers. And stories, memories, cries of recognition from Steve and Lucy as they recall their fund-raising cycle ride a year previously, which came through this area and along these tracks.

2. Maasai womenEventually we arrive at the school; those summoned to attend the ceremony are already present and the scene is a riot of colour: parents, staff, church leaders and village elders sit resplendent in traditional Maasai dress, the bright patterns of the cloth and the beads of their distinctive jewellery appearing intensified, magnified by the still air and the heat of the sun. Alongside them, the students are proud and quiet in their uniforms, looking us over, curious and fascinated, taking it all in just as we are. We mill around, greeting the elders and the community leaders, shaking hands over and over as the soft murmur of the Maasai greeting ‘Supa’ and the response, ‘Eepa’ repeats between us.

3. maasai ChildrenThe children remain seated as Steve is handed a pair of scissors and led to the new kitchen, classrooms and sports field he is to officially open. Each location has been marked with a beautifully-painted COCO logo, and prepared with a ribbon for him to cut. Once this is done, an elder is appointed to pronounce a blessing over the new facilities that they may be used to the glory of God and for the good of the school community.

Maasai classroom  Sports Pitch

maasai kitchen

These buildings are evidence of not only the practical ways the school is developing but also some more subtle changes. Formal education has not always been embraced by the Maasai as it has seemed at odds with traditional culture; the blossoming of the original group of three children and one teacher at Maasai Academy to the current count of 140 students and 10 staff shows new openness and enthusiasm amongst parents, a willingness to invest in a different future for their children. Steve and Lucy are delighted with the developments to the school since their last visit, and the official ceremony ends with translated speeches in which they warmly congratulate the community on their achievements, while they in turn are thanked for their involvement, and are presented with gifts. All the while Kat moves about with her camera, gathering footage and filming interviews that will be used for marketing and fund-raising in the UK. As evening draws in, we make the short journey to Hennie and Becca’s home where we will spend the night.

4. Steve Cram Maasai Academy

The following day, our time in Olorte is at an end and we must go our separate ways: Steve, Lucy and Kat to the town of Narok and then on to another COCO project; me, home to Nairobi. However Hennie’s vehicle has other plans and only a few miles into our journey, there is a terrible grinding noise, followed by wisps of smoke, and a complete stop. Some rapid reviewing of plans, some quick decisions, some silent prayer. A bike is dispatched to find another vehicle to take the COCO team to Narok, meanwhile they head back on foot to Hennie and Becca’s house in search of a phone signal. Standing beside the stricken Landrover, I am weighing up my options when a car pulls up and four people clamber out to offer assistance. They too are visitors: Tim was a missionary in Entasekera for 10 years and has come back with his daughter Jill to visit old friends; they have been joined by Chase and Audrey, a newly-arrived couple who plan to work in Maasailand, and have been language –learning and looking for a place to live. They are going to spend one more night at Entasekera and then head back to Nairobi tomorrow. I can join them. For the second time in as many days, I throw my baggage in the back of a stranger’s vehicle and take off on an amazing, God-ordained adventure in a place I have never been before but am rapidly growing to love.

The rest of the day is filled with new experiences: clambering over rocks to look across to Tanzania, accompanied by children and goats that seemed to appear from nowhere. Searching for a few bars on my phone to snatch a conversation with my husband and explain why I won’t be home tonight. Sharing sodas with my travelling companions in a tin-roofed shack in a small village, and fending off a local who wants to have me for his wife. Pitching a tent next to a Maasai hut where we will be spending the night; then visiting three different homes for tea, rice, potatoes 5. Maasai rocksand goat stew. And at every turn, everywhere we stop and every time Tim steps out of the car, he is recognised, remembered, greeted and delighted over. He clearly poured himself deeply into the lives of those he ministered to, and their joy at seeing him again is a testimony to his commitment and service to the Maasai. It is a truly humbling experience.

Another night under the uninterrupted stars that can only be seen from deep in the bush, another dawn opening up a cloudless sky, and long journey home finally begins. Punctuated with more handshakes, more tea, and more precious glimpses of the kingdom of God here on earth, it takes all day; I would not have chosen to spend it any other way.

Thank you to Katie for letting us share her wonderful story on the COCO Chronicles. You can find out more about the work MAF do across the globe right here

Brad begins to explore Uganda!

This is my first visit to Uganda. Since my arrival I have witnessed many similarities between Uganda and its neighbours Tanzania and Kenya. That said, I have also noticed subtle differences.

For example, upon arriving at Entebbe Airport, I noticed the friendly, laid-back attitude of the general population even extended to immigration personnel and airport security, which it certainly doesn’t in its neighbouring countries. I retrieved my bag from the luggage belt to realise that my razor was going off inside, so I opened up my bag, rummaged through to find my razor and switched it off. The security guard nearby worked out what had happened and started laughing. From experience at Nairobi airport, had the same thing happened there, they certainly wouldn’t have seen the funny side… They would probably have even tried to charge me import tax on it!

Having arrived in Uganda from Tanzania, customer service also seems to be a step up from what I had grown accustomed to experiencing over the past few weeks. Since my arrival, I have had a waiter “praying for forgiveness” (direct quote!) as they didn’t have my order. When I went to buy a sim card, I was also given the rather odd choice of which phone number I wanted. The sales assistant spread out around 40 different sim cards on the desk, apparently expecting me to wade through and choose my favourite 11-digit number. She seemed a bit put out when I picked a random card up and handed it to her.

As mentioned earlier though, these subtle differences are not quite as abundant as the similarities between Uganda and other East African countries. The day after arriving into Uganda, I was due to travel to Kasese, a small town in the west. I had arranged to meet someone at my hostel at 8am, before we travelled together to Kasese. However, I received a text at around 6.30am to inform me that there were problems with the bus and so he would be late… Which sounded very similar to my experiences in Tanzania and Kenya!

The similarities continued when I arrived in Kasese, a quiet little town enveloped by the Rwenzori Mountains, and met members of the community who continued to be unbelievably self-motivated and proactive despite terrible hardships that have been suffered by the area over the years. Clearly this is a characteristic which crosses over borders in East Africa.

The Rwenzori Mountains are famed for being home to gorillas and chimpanzees, but during conflict in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, they also became the home to hopeless rebels who had been exiled. These rebels, desperately used to charge into areas on the Ugandan side of the border, pillage the local area and kidnap people to fight on their behalf.

I have been shown around Kasese by Buluku, who is just over a year older than me. Buluku had to flee for his life at nine years old as rebels broke through an army barracks and charged into his school. Many of his schoolmates were kidnapped and faced the unenviable choice of fighting on behalf of the rebels or being killed.

Remarkably, this story only came out when I was being shown evidence of a more recent hardship to hit the local area. Towards the end of last year, floods tore through the area and swept away schools, houses and part of a hospital. 20 people lost their lives and from looking at the trail of destruction, it wasn’t difficult to see how… The volume of water must have been utterly immense to carry bolders, trees and entire buildings.

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When we reached the beginning of the trail of destruction, we hit upon Buluku’s former school and I was told the story. One may expect such an ordeal at such a young age to put unbearable pressure on a young boy, but Buluku has achieved regardless of this terrible atrocity. He is currently playing a prominent role in NYAKU, the organisation I was in Kasese to visit.

NYAKU have founded a primary school in a village close to Kasese. Surrounded by coffee trees and a banana plantation, the school currently accommodates three nursery classes and the first year of primary school, having been founded four years ago. The school is supported by several income-generation strategies; Nursery bed, poultry, pigs and most innovatively, charcoal briquettes.

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I had the process of manufacturing charcoal briquettes demonstrated to me. Paper is mixed with water to create a pulp. This pulp is mixed with either sawdust or charcoal until it binds together and is then put into a mold and pressed, to create a doughnut shape.

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The briquettes have many benefits, for example, they are cheaper than using charcoal or firewood and the charcoal briquettes don’t produce any smoke. The most profound benefit comes when you consider the floods that the area faced last year. The briquettes eliminate the need for the community to cut down trees, which on a large scale can lead to floods, landslides and general erosion of the local area… The floods weren’t down to this problem, but the community recognised that deforestation didn’t help and could lead to similar issues in the future and have acted to do something about it.

As with many other communities in East Africa, I have heard stories in Kasese, which made me question how people continued to have the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. However, much the same as with the other communities I have heard such stories in, the communities have shown resolve and have coordinated to tackle the issues that they face. If ever a community deserves a helping hand, it is this community and I hope that COCO is able to give it to them, as they have demonstrated in abundance that they are capable of achieving amazing things.

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