Norbert Benker – 2013 for 3 days and 2014 for 11 days
I only spent a few days in Kimilili, but the impressions are like stones thrown into my soul and I watch the ripple expanding across the bay, wondering from which shores they might be reflected. As I am sitting in the bus heading back to Nairobi, I wonder what it was that fascinated me most during my stay. What was it that went under my skin? Will it last?
As I had only limited time due to other commitments, it was a real effort to get there. Astrid, Agnes and I got up before sunrise to beat the notorious Nairobi morning traffic downtown. We arrived at the bus stop and got on a local bus, supported by friends from the Kimilili community that are staying at Nairobi. From Kenya’s capital, the bus heads North, along the edge of the Rift Valley with its majestic views, passing Lake Naivasha, further up North towards the Ugandan boarder. It takes nearly 8 hours to arrive in Bungoma, from where we are picked up by a taxi to get to Kimilili. A full day of travelling.
After being dropped somewhere in town, we branched of the main road by feet onto a muddy side road, and here we are – in rural Kenya. Astrid and Agnes are greeted warmly by many people passing by. They whistle a song and around the corner a bunch of kids come screaming and running into their arms. No doubt, they are well known here. There are small shops and residential houses along the road, but there is nothing like the impressive structure of the school that raises on our right side as the cloud of kids around us gets bigger. This is not just a school. This is a massive construction project in the middle of nowhere. You have to see it in comparison to the other buildings in the vicinity, in the town, maybe in the region, to understand its dimensions. It’s huge, and it’s only 25% done yet.
We drop our bags at the director’s house and head to the school to look at the latest construction work that was done, we drop into ongoing classes to say “Hi”, we walk around the school grounds. The girls explain to me the history of their project by pointing at some mud huts and saying “this was all that existed when we arrived”, or “this part of the area we bought later”, or “here we will collect rain water to irrigate our own garden”. Again, simply impressive.
The counterpart for the girls are Phyllis and her husband, the Reverend. They are the eyes on the ground. While the Reverend is in Nairobi, Phyllis is overlooking the project. She explains the latest personnel changes she had to make: create new positions, promote teachers, change the salary structure. I have been working in Africa for more than 6 years – I know what this means. Hard and difficult work in a poor society where such changes change family lives. And the way she explains her motivation behind the changes could have come from an HR Manager with year of experience. Phyllis was guided by her judgment and her desire to make changes for the better. Again, I am impressed.
My days start with: kids. So many kids. Hundreds of kids. You hear the number and you think impressive; but if you see how many souls found a future at this school, it blows your mind. Agnes and Astrid brought shoes for the kids, and a couple of hours before lunch time we are busy pairing children feet and new shoes. Some have never met before as you can judge as they walk away – it’s like wearing skiing hard boots for the first time, if you know what I mean. I get a tour around the school administration unit and the library. It’s a mud hut, one door left, the other right. The teachers leave the permanent structure to the kids. Teachers pass by in the evening, coming from other schools on their way home, to train the 8th form for their final exams in November. This is their school project too, even if they don’t work here. These exams will determine what ranking the school will get compared to other schools in Kimilili, the county and in Kenya. And they all take it as their personal project, it’s their pride that will raise or fall with the school ranking. Again, put this eagerness into context and you will be ashamed of how we in the West misuse free education.
One event stands out in my mind: when we arrived, Agnes and Astrid wanted to tell the 8th form about the secondary school. This is about future and hope. This is about whether you will continue to go to school and get education, knowledge and certificates you can use when applying for a job, or you stay at home, work on a farm, and stay stagnant for the rest of your life. If it would have been me, I would have made a big event out of it, gathering all children, their parents and government officials to announce that there will be a secondary school in the premises of the School4Life project. But the girls had other plans. They walked into an ongoing 8th grade class at 9pm, they said they have something to announce, and here is the “ripple” (or stone) I will not forget. Agnes asked:” You will finish primary school after the exams, but where will you go?” – Silence. “We thought it would be good to give you all a future and use some of the newly built classrooms to turn it into the secondary school.” – First silence, then the information is digested and pure enthusiasm explodes (no, it’s beyond your imagination, don’t even try…). “We will turn one classroom into the secondary school classroom, we will hire teachers and continue your education.” That’s it. No big deal. And then I have to give a lesson in maths. Changing destinies in fast-forward. I think the girls sell their work here under value.
Let me put this clear: what I just saw was amazing and life-changing. But Agnes and Astrid don’t make a big fuzz out of it. And this holds true with their project. And as a consequence, you might understand that what you see and read and hear is the tip of an iceberg. The volunteers at SCHOOL4LIFE change lives and communicate it as “and then we did this”. My deepest respect to such an understatement. Maybe it’s like the bumble-bee which has physically too short wings to fly – but it doesn’t know it and just flies. I think this is it that went under my skin. Pure activism, the willingness to change lives, while accepting the sacrifices of being in Kimilili and using unpaid leave and holidays (no warm water, toilet is a hole in the ground, no meat for weeks, no entertainment, just rural life in Africa.
I worked in many different countries in Africa and I worked in poor conditions such as Kimilili. But to repeatedly come to such places, eager to make a change – I don’t think I would have the fundamental conviction to do this. Again, this went under my skin.
I arrived in Nairobi, took a taxi home for the same price I could feed a child in Kimilili for a week, I took a long warm shower with water pressure, I spent a teacher’s monthly salary on my hotel room for two nights, and I slept in a fluffy clean bed. I hope the impressions will last to keep my alert of the luck that I have. I hope the ripple will continue to be reflected from shores I don’t know to keep me happy, because this is what I should be. I am a very lucky guy (to be with a woman like Astrid).
Anna Waggemann – 2014 for 44 days
After an exciting and very demanding working year 2015, I was very happy about being given the opportunity of concluding the year as School4Life volunteer in Kimilili. With a mind still full of measures how to increase efficiency and optimize processes at my client, I arrived at Nairobi airport in the morning and was already warmly welcomed by a School4Life employee waiting for me at the exit – good start, I thought! He organized a taxi and we went together to the shuttle station in Nairobi city, where I got in touch again with what I call a “real” African city – it was loud, chaotic, dirty – and simply lovely! Despite the chaotic atmosphere around, the trip to Kimilili was perfectly organized by School4Life, so that I could already enjoy my first delicious Kenyan food in Kimilili in the evening – not knowing at this point in time that I will come across Ugali (made out of corn flour and water), Chapati (flat bread), Sukuma (local vegetables), rice and green grams (similar to lentils) almost every day as of now.
As the school was closed due to year´s end holidays, I spent most of my time at the Children Home, organizing activities for the children allowing them to make use of and benefit from their free time.
Next to a lot of touching and moving moments during common computer classes, mixed football matches, the visit of a coffee factory or mudding the walls of the new dining room, there is one activity which particularly stayed in my mind: swimming.
Following up an initial idea of the Children Home manager Patricia that swimming would be an enriching experience for the children, I started my search for a suitable swimming location. This already turned out to be a challenge, as swimming is not at all common in the poor rural area of Western Kenya and only very few people can swim at all. Luckily, the Kamusinga Friends School for boys near the Home had a wonderful pool and after some chat with the gate guards we were also exceptionally accepted as mixed swimming group where boys and girls of all ages (from little child to young adult) could participate.
The evening before the swimming I stayed overnight at the Children Home and discussed the planned excursion with the children. Although they were excited to go, I also realized they were very nervous and even anxious. I knew before most of them could not swim, however I – who grew up at the North Sea and was always surrounded by water in my childhood – was really surprised that going swimming is such a big and exceptional event for the children. On top of that, it turned out that they didn´t even know what to wear in the water – no one had the usual swimming dresses we know in Europe. After we sorted who is wearing what (and I could convince the girls to include a trouser to the skirt they planned to wear in the water) and I distracted their nervousness, we started motivated the next morning direction Kamusinga Friends School.
At the pool, the next challenging situation materialized – some of the children could not even stand in the water. They just slipped away, although the water was calm and not deep at all. Seeing all the incertitude in their faces and the shaky movements they made I realized the children could not only not swim – they haven´t been into water at all in their whole life! They simply had no clue how it feels and how their body moves when being in water!
While we – Home manager Patricia, her husband Paul and me – still thought of how we can support the children in feeling more confident in the water, we came across a very lucky coincidence – Jacob arrived. He was a lifeguard (most probably the only one in the whole region) and offered us to instruct the children in swimming – at no cost! Happy about this offer, we accepted and in the following 1.5 hours we could observe from minute to minute how the children got more and more confident in the water. Jacob started with very easy exercises to allow the children familiarize with the water, and finished his session with supporting them swimming through the whole pool – partially even in the deep water! At the end of the day, the children played hilariously in the water as if they had never done anything else – full of self-confidence and pride of having overcome their fear and even having learnt how to swim and control their movements in the water. These sparkling eyes full of lust for life and enthusiasm really made my day! Once back to the Home, the children happily told Matron Mama Beatrice about their exceptional experience. Here is her immediate reaction: “Hey, where is my swimming costume? I want to learn how to swim!” 🙂
Laura Mati – 2018 for 14 days
Here goes the somewhat typical conversation of the weeks before taking off to Nairobi.
Friend: “Are you going to Kenya for two weeks?”
Friend: “Do you go on a safari?”
Me: “No”. Friend: “Do you go to the beach?”
Friend: “What are you going to do then?!”
Let me try to explain with a few words and numbers what we did in Kimilili and what I took back from this unique experience.
What we did:
11 Deloitte volunteers, 2 weeks, 5’772 km from Zurich, in remote Kimilili (“the town has an urban population of 10,251” declares Wikipedia). We moved more than 3’000 stones (massive bricks), served more than 2’000 meals, built 2 new classrooms, and painted all the classrooms’ blackboards. We kicked off some improvement projects for the kitchen, the IT infrastructure, the specials needs school and the children home. We fundraised an incredibly high amount of money and raised awareness about Kimilili to probably more than 1’500 people.
What I took back:
Friend: “You didn’t buy any Kazuri beads? No real-size giraffe toy?”. Me: “Unfortunately not, but this experience…”
- Equipped a new undertone to the word “compassion,” far from pity and very close to “feeling together”. I felt it when I was sitting on a bus with one of the special needs children, Sylvia, and she couldn’t stop crying for apparently no reason, and I felt it when Massi, another special needs girl, managed to ace her drama performance in front of an audience of 100+ people. “Feeling with” – Kimilili taught me real compassion.
- Made me grasp a new perspective on happiness. The kids in Kimilili taught me we don’t need much to be happy and it takes very little to help others to be happy.
- Gave me a renewed sense of gratitude. We have everything we could possibly imagine – affections, education, safety, employment, health, etc. – and we seldom appreciate it. Kimilili taught me to count my blessings every day, and refrain from complaining for trivial issues.
- Allowed me to believe that we can make a difference. It has always been very frustrating for me to see that the world does not go in the right direction: so much could be done to improve the lives of millions, yet very little is actually done. Being in Kimilili gave me a new sense of purpose: I can make a difference. Even if it’s small, it has helped a kid to go to school, or a special needs teacher to support her kids in a better way, or a single mother to pay for rent –who can actually claim that is a small thing to them?
I have loved every second of this unique experience and I will never forget Kimilili and its people “until”, as one of the locals put it, “my father gets pregnant” and / or “the Indian Ocean dries up” 🙂