By Kevin Francis
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in one of Africa’s most dangerous cities, Nairobi, Kenya. It has been given the nickname ‘Nairobbery’ for its terrible reputation of robbery and malicious acts of crime, in the cities core, especially towards tourists. After having a life changing volunteer experience in India (2010), I decided to start a volunteer company to call my own. I set out to spend most of this year in Africa and have made an attempt on this trip to tie in travel with work and build my company while still getting to see the world.
As I was travelling my way through Rwanda, and into Uganda, I was contacted by several NGO’s in Kenya that claimed to be in desperate need of a volunteer placement company such as my own. I must have received at least a dozen emails all from needy NGOs and it was a difficult decision for me who was worthy of such a partnership. One of the most important aspects to ensure I can offer others worthwhile volunteering opportunities is in the selection process. Thousands of NGOs are set up all over world and while some serve their purpose, others seem to have various problems in raising funds and allocating them in the manner they promise. Since February of 2010, I have met with over 50 non-governmental organizations along my travels and have seen some great projects but also some doomed for failure. Selecting legitimate and genuine NGO’s is always on the top of my priority list. Before getting to Kenya, I began corresponding with a few small organizations out of Nairobi that seemed to be in desire need of my help. I was almost immediately drawn to one of the organizations in particular, which was created and directed by a man named Victor Ochieng. His organization was fairly new, small and in need of all the help they could get. I liked what he had started in Kenya and also his vision for helping those in desperate need. I could feel that he had a big heart, a big vision and was devoted to ensure the people who were suffering from malnutrition, HIV/Aids, orphaned, or given no means to education would all be helped. After conversing back and forth through emails, we made arrangements to meet and discuss the possibility of partnering once I made my way to his home in Nairobi. I expected very little from him but was pleased to be on the receiving end of his generosity before we even arrived. He put my girlfriend and I up in a home stay with a priest friend of his in the city at no cost. It was more than I could have ever expected and was looking forward to working together with his dreams and vision for the people of Kenya in the future.
I spent close to a week in Nairobi visiting his projects, his office, learning about his contributions to society, his vision and also his financial problems. He was younger than I and it wasn’t long before he revealed to me the story of his struggles as how he was orphaned at a young age. He spoke of hard times growing up and the fact that he wanted nothing more that to get involved in humanitarian work and to start his very own NGO which was inspiring to me. Unfortunately, Victor’s story was not the first one of his kind that I had heard on my journey across Africa. Sadly enough, I can’t even count on two hands the number of young Africans I have met with no parents. Because of such a high presence of HIV/Aids, malaria, malnutrition and suffering, the life expectancy of many countries in Africa has dipped below an astonishing 40 years. With such a low life expectancy in African countries, parents often parish before their children even become adults. Quite often other family members such as aunts, uncles, brothers, or sisters or even grandparents are called upon to continue caring for the child. If a child has no other family member to care for him or her, THEY HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO GO INTO THE COLD HARD WORLD ON THEIR OWN. In many cases not just in Africa, but also in other poor countries in the world, these children often are picked up by a boss like figure and forced into child labor, trafficking, drug trade or begin working on the streets begging, stealing, or finding any means to ensure their own survival.
So many people in Africa have never been given the chance to go to school, have no access to family planning or contraceptives, and don’t see the harm in having large families. The typical African family can have as many as 6 -10 children in the hopes that they may help contribute to their families income once they grow of age. Being HIV+ in Africa is still deeply misunderstood and frowned upon by most of the continent. In a lot of cases, both men and women refuse to get tested. With them testing positive, this usually means them losing their jobs and maybe their only source of income to feed their family. EVERYDAY LIFE FOR MOST IN AFRICA.. IS A STRUGGLE. HIV/Aids is a growing epidemic that has been affecting Africans at an alarming rate and even though the numbers are decreasing in some countries, the problem still lingers in others. If Africans refuse to get tested, and keep having many children, there often will come a time in their lives where they can’t afford to feed their families or care for their young. It is not all that uncommon for children like Victor to continue on their own. And so, this is just one of the many problems that have and still continue to affect Africa even today.
One of the projects we visited was deep inside the heart of one of the major slum areas in Nairobi. The biggest slum of Africa is in Nairobi known as Kibera. The name of the area we went to is called Kwangware and is a prime example of the deep dark side of the African slum life that exists across the continent. Most people living in these environments, not just in Africa, but worldwide have no access to running water, no electricity, no radios or televisions, no stoves, or even utensils or plates to eat with. The slums are areas where no sanitation exists and most of the shanty tin homes are built on garbage dumps or forgotten waste sewage lands of the city. To try and paint a vivid picture, these people literally live on a never-ending mound of garbage and the only water that runs through their areas is often a yellowish brown color, filled with urine or feces and reeks of an unbearable smell. The only garbage collection program they have in the slums consists of sweeping it into a large pile every evening and burning it when it gets too large. During the day, the domesticated animals that roam Africa such as dogs, cats, sheep, and goats spend most of their days sifting through heaps of garbage in hopes of finding leftovers that might partially fill the empty void in their stomachs. Somehow, someway, when you wander through these neighborhoods the people still seem as full of life as any civilized wealthy individual living in a luxurious home. Smiles and welcoming gestures are easy to come by here and giving a child an empty water bottle or an old t-shirt off your back could very well be the best present they’ve ever been given in their lives. Life here is as hard for these people as any foreigner could imagine living in a developed world. Life for these people is just not fair and even their own government has left them starving and given no rights or even citizenship.
We took one step off the main road of civilization, dipped into a small alley way and we had entered the Kwangware slums. It doesn’t take much time before you walk up and down the muddy and slippery paths that you begin to realize how little these people really do have. As we wandered deeper and deeper into the slum, Victor assured us that this ‘special school’ was just ahead. We approached a building not much larger than any of the homes that was beside a massive mound of garbage. The building was a make shift school primarily composed of spare scraps of tin for the walls and roof, mangled pieces of decayed wood for the tables, and gravel for the floor. The walls looked to be pieced together by hundreds of small sections of tin attached to pillars of wood (that stood as the structure) by a few rusty nails and string. The first thing I noticed once we entered the building is that there was no sign of electricity within miles of where we were. AN OLDER LOOKING LADY GREETED US BY SHAKING OUR HANDS AND WELCOMED US WITH A SMALL SMILE AND SINCERE LOOK OF THANKFULNESS. As we entered the rather dark space, we quickly drew the attention of the children and they set their little beady gaze upon us. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with a feeling of sorrow and empathy for these children. Victor introduced us to the class and I greeted the children with as much of my open heart as I could. Right away, I saw the desperation on their faces and saw the smallest glimmer of hope in their eyes that life might just get better for them someday. Inside this small tin building were three other teachers but unfortunately none of them spoke a word of English, which made communication very difficult. By using Victor as a translator, the teacher told us this was the only school these children went to and the school was doing everything they could to distribute at least one meal a day for them as it could easily be their only one. The head teacher pointed to a table in the corner of the room. On top of it were a dozen or so plastic cups or varying colors and some bowls. She went on to tell us that there were not enough cups for every child so they had to take turns using the glasses and bowls to eat their food. I could tell that their school was in desperate need of help and only a few of the children in the room were wearing anything that might have resembled a school uniform.
Before I was about to leave, I asked our translator to ask the children if there was anything else they wanted to ask me before I went and one little girl quickly raised her arm and said in the sweetest and most gentle voice imaginable "can you help to get us uniforms?" Her plea stunned me and instantly struck a soft chord in my heart. Right then and there I knew I had to do something for them. My reply back to her was "I’ll do the best I can to help you." I’m sure my reply was seen as an empty promise as the people in the slums are the forgotten part of society and not used to handouts from anyone. Once we left, a little voice in my head began brainstorming ways that I could contribute. The soft and gentle plea of the little girl kept playing in my head over and over again. That evening, I phoned Victor and told him I had some great news. MY ANNOUNCEMENT WAS THAT ON BEHALF OF PROJECT VOLUNTEER ABROAD, I WANTED TO MAKE A DONATION TO HIS PROJECT BY BUYING EVERY CHILD AT THE SCHOOL A NICE NEW UNIFORM.
The moment brought me back to when I was volunteering on a project in India at an outdoor school that was set up in a park for children from the slum areas and kids from the streets. The director had gone into slum areas like these and devoted her life to create the school to ensure the children there received some sort of education in hopes it will break the cycle of poverty. Working with this lady was an absolute privilege and sometimes she spoke to me of how difficult it can be to convince the parents to allow her to take her children away to provide education for them. Most of the time she would have no other choice but to beg and plea with the parents and explain that school was the future for their success. At first, most of the parents would oppose to the idea as they often use their children to help with tasks at the home or in the village. If she took their children away for the day then she would be taking away their workers and the parents would have to do everything on their own. She explained this harsh reality that not all the children stay in school because their parents often demand they stay at home to help them. It is the cycle of poverty that continues to happen all over the world and it seems that the best way to break the cycle is to educate these children so that they can discover a skill that will help break them free from the slums. If so many of these so called ‘slum kids’ are not given the right to education or have it swept right out from under them, then they will go on living un-educated, have many kids of their own, and their kids wont receive any education. If their children are not educated, they will have more kids and the cycle will continue on as it has been for so many years in so many poor areas of our world.
The uniforms that were donated to this slum school on behalf of Project Volunteer Abroad was done so not for a pat on the back or any recognition, but more to help these children feel like they really belong. By having a uniform to call their very own, it will give them a place and purpose in continuing to be educated. My hope is that it will prove to their parents that they are privileged, have been invested in, and are obligated to continue to go to school everyday. My wish is that they can walk through the slums or the cities and wear them proudly.
A few of the local women from the slums were employed to make the uniforms and it took about one week after my phone call to finish them. I was notified upon completion, and so I returned back to the school and presented each child with his or her very own uniform. It was a beautiful experience to deliver their gifts and the majority of the kids had a look of astonishment on their face closely resembling that of surprise and seemed a bit stunned as to why they were receiving such a gift. A few of the children dawned a little smile and that was enough for me to see they appreciated finding a new found place in our world. Before leaving, I encouraged Victor to explain to the children that these uniforms are a gift. By receiving them, it meant that they had to come to school every day and tell their parents it was no longer a choice, but a new found obligation.
If you wish to volunteer and give back to a country in the world that needs you, please visit our website at: www.projectvolunteerabroad.org to find out how you can help. As the President and Founder of Project Volunteer Abroad, I am happy to announce that we now offer various placements in 15 different countries and we encourage you to tell others about the opportunity and to share this article with them. To get involved, it does not require any skill or previous experience and is available to anyone. Please join the movement and volunteer with us today!