Family Portraits

From time to time, data that COCO requires can be difficult to obtain and, therefore, the way in which it is collected has to be considered carefully and strategically.

One subject that often proves problematic is finding out about children’s families. For some children, the structure of the family is a sensitive topic and so direct questioning can be inappropriate. What’s more, holding the attention of nursery pupils can be challenging in itself.

As a result, COCO has had to come up with a child-friendly method to collect information in this field and it has been largely successful. Working in Tanzania recently, COCO asked younger children simply to draw pictures of their families for the team. In doing so, the task was transformed into a fun activity for the children and the chance of upsetting them over what could be a delicate issue was minimised.

Family drawing 3

Unfortunately, this method does have some drawbacks. Given that many do not understand the purpose of the task, it can be inaccurate as certain children just replicate the example family they are shown. On top of this, it can often be hard to distinguish family members in the drawings as stickmen do not always clearly distinguish gender or age.

Having said that, the majority of the pictures did provide an insight into the children’s families, with some children making gender particularly easy to determine!

Family drawing 1


Guest Blog: Our Communications and Events Officer Rebecca Churchill

After we were visited by Heart North East radio.

My name’s Rebecca and I’m currently interning as a Communications and Events Officer at COCO! I had always really liked the idea of working in the charity sector because it seemed to combine creativity and social justice, and when the opportunity came up at COCO I was excited to find out if this was true.

So far the experience has been brilliant- everyone’s so friendly, and because it’s a small team, work is varied and stays interesting. Chiefly my role is to use the donor database and assist our lovely Fundraising Manager Kievah, though in the past seven weeks this has expanded to involve community fundraising, finances, and event planning.

The gorgeous Slaley Hall at our Steve Cram Celebrity Golf Day.

As it can take a while to learn the ropes at a new job, Kievah made sure that we were gradually introduced to tasks so we didn’t feel overwhelmed, and that has meant I am really comfortable with what I’m doing now. In the first few weeks I learnt how to operate the database on Iris, and send group emails with MailChimp, as well as other administrative tasks like distributing fundraising packs. I attended my first event- the annual Golf Day with Steve Cram, which made me appreciate how much energy and planning goes into ensuring guests have a brilliant time. There was a brief painful moment where I had to go on stage to model some merchandise without warning and felt a bit like I was dying, but overall it was a great night and Slaley Hall was a beautiful venue.

What has surprised me most at COCO is that after being talked through some financial procedures by our Finance Manager Diane, I got the hang of it and now operate the donations we receive through Just Giving. Other highlights include working with several volunteers to develop a social media strategy in response to a report produced by the Newcastle University Business School, and most hilariously, receiving a call from Tom Campbell at Heart Radio North East, and realising we were on air!

My sunny work space at COCO HQ.

At the moment I’m focusing on some independent projects; developing a COCO Alumni scheme, as well as planning an event to honour our volunteers, and organising Christmas card sales. I also gave some suggestions to Brad on ways to keep improving the way we work with universities, and it’s been great to contribute what I’ve learnt from my experience in societies.

Having just graduated, it’s amazing to already be working in a role I enjoy this much, and I am definitely set on staying in this sector after my placement finishes.

An update on the fantastic research our volunteers have been conducting in Tanzania, and a conversation about FGM education in Lekrumuni


Having defeated Mount Kilimanjaro, six of our student trekkers decided to stick around in Tanzania to complete some voluntary placements. As COCO is committed to sustainable volunteering placements, the volunteers put the analytical skills the students had gained from late nights in the library to good use by performing some research on new and existing projects.

Not only will the data received help COCO to measure impact, but having volunteers in the country using such skills will build capacity of local communities so that in the longer run, this research can be performed directly.


The first week of the volunteering placement was spent in Lekrumuni, a Maasai community sandwiched between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro. With such an impressive view, you would expect land in the village to be prime real estate, but in contrast the community has gone largely neglected with students having to walk approximately 13km to the nearest secondary school.

In response, COCO is planning to partner with the community to construct a secondary school within the village. The school will also be the only boarding school in the area, which will ensure that even those students living a long walk away will be able to attend school full of energy!


The research consisted of health assessments of primary school students, interviews with members of the community and a group feedback session with ‘local’ secondary school students. The secondary school students were asked to shout out reasons why education was important, before discussing which of these reasons was the most key.Interestingly, it was decided that ‘education removes ignorance’ was the most important reason for education.


FGM Education

This sentiment was echoed in our interviews with the community, in which the issues of polygamy and female genital mutilation (FGM) were frequent topics. Encouragingly, I spoke to one member of the community who had previously been a FGM surgeon, but had discontinued her work having received education, which had disproved the myths she believed about the practice.

The education was provided by an organisation called NAFGEM, who informed me that in spite of their success there had still been 12 reported instances of FGM in the village in the last year. The members of the community whom still supported the practice, tended to be in support because they were ill informed; citing reasons such as health benefits and a fear of their daughter struggling to find a husband. If a parent genuinely believes that it is of medical benefit for their daughter to go through the procedure, it’s easy to see why they would push ahead with it.

Whilst in the long term, the solution to the problem seems so simple, there are still girls here and now having their lives ruined due to misinformation. With this in mind, our partner organisation in Lekrumuni, Hope, has taken on a dedicated project coordinator for the secondary school to ensure that the school and the resultant benefits can be experienced as soon as possible.

By facilitating the younger generations to receive education, we can help to disprove the myths that fuel FGM, and the practice will die out.

Communities Combine: Shared Knowledge Speeds Up Development

As COCO partner rural communities, we’re used to operating in areas well off the beaten track. In rural areas, basic building materials can suffer inflated prices due to the high transport cost and their scarce supply in the area. With this in mind, it is often necessary to be innovative to keep construction costs down.

Last year, COCO supported the Maasai Academy in Olorte, Kenya towards the construction of a kitchen. As the name suggests, the Maasai Academy is located in Maasailand with Olorte happening to be in a particularly remote corner!

The dusty and rocky ground of Olorte doesn’t lend itself to the manufacture of traditional bricks and the difficult roads make transporting bricks from elsewhere a laborious process. Therefore, in order to manufacture a good quality kitchen at reasonable cost, it was necessary to be resourceful.

Olorte walls going up

COCO’s partners in Olorte are Red Tribe, an organisation who are operating within the Maasai community to promote development through education, health and entrepreneurism. When constructing the kitchen at Maasai Academy, Red Tribe trialled a method which involved sewing an old maize sack into three chambers. The two outer chambers were filled with sand, dirt and whatever else was lying around and the middle chamber was left empty to enable the bags to stack together snugly.

The bags were piled high before the structure was plastered. No one would ever know that some old maize sacks had been used in the construction! Each maize sack cost 23 Kenyan Shillings (approximately 16 pence) and the building required 800 sacks giving a total cost of 18,400KES (£128); far cheaper the anticipated cost of using stones in the construction, but equally as sturdy!

Having visited Olorte late in 2014, George Odhiambo, who is coordinating the development of Mercy Primary School in Mbita was taken aback by the simplicity and effectiveness of the technique.

George is now aiming to use the construction technique for a new administration block at Mercy Primary. Last week, George returned to Olorte with two fundis (contractors) to observe the construction of Red Tribe’s new beadwork building, which is being constructed using the same method. The beadwork building will be used for the manufacture of jewellery by the Maasai community, which generates income and will sustain the longer-term development of Olorte.

2015 01 George Mbita LP (3)George explained that the visit was successful; “I was delighted that the fundis learnt the process very fast. They were so mesmerised by the method of
building and agreed that the earth bag building is cost effective and does not require a lot of skilled work.”

“We agreed to have a model similar to the beadwork building in Olorte, which will be cost-effective, simple to construct and will allow us to construct the administration block at Mercy Primary quickly!”

If you wish to see the eco-bricks at Maasai Academy, take part in our Maasai Cycle Challenge, which visits the school en route! Spaces remain for the September 2015 and January 2016 challenges, email for more details.

Inspirational Women: Inspiration in the face of abject poverty

Today is International Women’s Day and as we reflect on the role of women in our society, celebrate their achievements and acknowledge their importance, COCO’s Director Lucy Philipson recalls her visit to one inspirational woman she met in Uganda recently...

As its International Women’s Day today I thought I’d share a story about an inspiring woman that I met whilst on my 10 week project evaluation last year. I have to tell you I have a few to choose from but one in particular stands out. In November, I posted a message on my Facebook page, so sorry to those of you who have already seen it but I thought it was important to share it again with all of COCO’s supporters.

I had been visiting a farming cooperative that COCO support in Uganda and after speaking to John who runs the project, he asked me if I would mind visiting a neighbouring community that also needed support with food security . I told him that funding was in short supply and I couldn’t promise financial assistance but would be very keen to visit. After a very uncomfortable 40 minute ride on a motorcycle, we arrived at a small village and my experience there prompted me to write this:

“I met a 62 year old lady today, who is HIV positive, widowed and has nothing. Her cataracts mean she is almost blind and the virus has made her small and frail. All she wants is a mattress to stop the bed springs from digging in her frail skin and a mozzie net because if she gets Malaria it will almost definitely kill her. My Dad is 62 next year and I can’t imagine him suffering like this. Despite this, the lady smiled, welcomed me into her home and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. It cost me 72,000 Shillings (£17) to buy her a mattress and a net but what she really needs is the ability to buy her own mattress and net, giving her the choice and dignity to live her life free of pain. COCO is a children’s charity but women like this suffer because their children were not given the opportunity to improve their lives to care for themselves or their parents.  By giving children access to education and basic health now, we can make sure that they do not have to live like this when they are 62.”

Empowering women is key to addressing global poverty and something that COCO is very aware of in all of our projects. This Women’s Day, we will be thinking of all those women and girls that we work with who show strength and dignity even in the face of abject poverty and give us the privilege of working with them to establish long term poverty alleviation.

If you are a woman, what would your life have been like if you had been born in Uganda or any of the countries that COCO work in? Would you have had the same opportunities and expectations for your life? At COCO we are proud of the women we work with and support, they are our inspiration and they are the driving force behind so many of our projects.