20 April 2012
On Sunday 1st April, another Virgin Atlantic plane touched down in Nairobi airport. Although this was just another plane landing in Kenya’s busy main airport, for 21 excited Irish people onboard, it was the beginning of what became an amazing trip of a lifetime. Months of planning and preparation had led to this day and no amount of April Fool’s jokes could take from excitement! Students and teachers from Moate and Killinarden Community Schools had joined together to travel to Londiani to meet and work with their partner schools - Moi Sorget and Kapcheplanga respectively. These school links form two-thirds of the Friends of Londiani Schools Network which is supported by Irish Aid through the Worldwise programme. Although not in the travel group, the third part of the network - Mountrath Community School & Londiani Girls Academy - were represented through a backpack of letters and books which were being exchanged. As part of these school links, teachers from Londiani visited Ireland last year and so this reciprocal visit was an opportunity to renew friendships and forge new ones. KCS in Tallaght, Dublin and Kapcheplanga Secondary School were the first two schools to develop a FOL supported partnership. For some of the teachers in the group, this was a return visit and it was a pleasure to be returning to see their friends with whom they have been communicating and working with since 2009. For others in the group it was their first time outside Ireland and for some their first time in Africa. MCS in Co. Westmeath, developed a partnership with Moi Sorget Secondary School in 2010 and this was the second Irish visit from Moate to Londiani. Both teachers and students were brimming with anticipation as they waited to finally put their feet on Kenyan soil. Having worked hard to prepare for the journey, the group of 10 students and 11 teachers were eager to get to Londiani and meet their partners. As the group drove out of Nairobi airport, a small family of giraffes greeted them and so began the theme for this trip - you never knew what would happen next! Onwards through the Great Rift Valley this group travelled towards Nakuru National Park. Within minutes of entering this 188 square km park, the monkeys had jumped in the vehicle and stolen a bag of nuts! Next they met the impala and gazelle who mingled with the zebras grazing away but keeping one eye on the students as they captured this experience on camera. Shortly on the horizon a pink hue was visible as the safari group approached the Park’s infamous flamingos. Although waiting for the rains to come, the vegetation here still provides food for the resident hyenas, buffalo and endangered white rhino. On arrival at a spectacular viewpoint, the group gazed at the mirror like reflections on Lake Nakuru. To a backing track of beautiful birdsong, the trip had well and truly begun. As the sun began to set on Day 1, the final leg of the outward journey was completed. The vehicles bumped along from Nakuru via the good road, then the not-so-good road and then the not-so-bad road to Londiani. Arriving in St. Kizito’s, which became ‘home’ for the week, the group were tired but delighted with their first day in Africa. Monday morning saw the Irish students don their school uniforms and despite being on Easter Holidays, head to school for the day. Warm welcomes were expressed in each school as the teachers and students were greeted with numerous handshakes. Work began straight away with students working on building smoke-less stoves. These handmade stoves of clay, sawdust, cement and brick would replace the smokey open fires and in time reduce the amount of firewood used. Under the guidance of the local Public Health Officers, the Kenyan and Irish students learned the basics of stove-building. In the classrooms, students mingled and chatted about the plans for the week and began to learn more about their partner schools. Although the Kenyan students were doing end-of-term exams, there was still plenty of time to swap letters and facebook details. The Irish teachers also had an opportunity to share their experiences with Kenyan students and the atmosphere on Monday night ‘at home in St. Kizito’s’ was full of anticipation for the rest of the week. As dinner time approached, the warmth felt during the day was personified by Fr. Martin and Fr. Con, two Irish priests who have lived in Kenya for over 40 years. Issuing a warm and hearty welcome, the two priests cast aside any notion that this group of 21 were invading their peaceful home! Tuesday was another busy day as the students and teachers spent the day in school working on creating newsletters, singing, reading stories and preparing for a seminar on the Millennium Development Goals which was planned for later in the week. In Kapcheplanga, the irish students sat the English exam and in Moi Sorget, the teachers shared some Irish dancing and music with the students. That evening there was a little time for the Irish to write postcards and practice their volleyball skills in preparation for Saturday’s tournament! The evening meal of cabbage, rice and potatoes was deliciously prepared by the excellent cooks Consolata, Sophie and Prista who also treated the group to a mandazi-making lesson. These donut-like pastries were quickly devoured before the group headed into Fr. Martin’s house for the Champions League live match. Wednesday dawned bright and early as the group arose before the sun to walk to school like the local students. What began as a quiet road in Londiani at 6.30 am, soon became busy with students of all ages striding to school for 7am! Both Irish and Kenyan students enjoyed the opportunity and the importance placed on education was apparent to all. After a short morning in the two schools, the group reconvened for an afternoon trip. Leaving the town of Londiani behind, the group travelled the 15km to the village of Benditai. After visiting the Chiefs office en route, they were warmly welcomed to Masaita Secondary School. This school is one of the first in the district to become a ‘Healthy School’ and the Kenyan students performed a drama about avoiding the practice of female circumcision. Then it was off to visit one of the old mama’s who had been instrumental in this village’s abandonment of that illegal practice. To the sounds of singing and dancing, the group were welcomed by ninety-year old Teresia and her neighbours. The family treated everyone to a cup of chai and mandazi’s, made on the new smokeless stove she had installed with Friends of Londiani last summer. As the sun began to set, the teachers and students felt privileged to be welcomed into her home and left Benditai with a warm inner glow. But the day wasn’t over yet! And next the group visited Esther Korir’s home in the village of Lelsothet. Esther has been involved with Friends of Londiani since 2002 and her home was another special part of the day. More chai and mandazi’s and a chance to meet Esther’s sons who were home for the Easter break. Although it was planting season, the people of Londiani still found time to be friendly and welcoming and this touched the hearts of everyone in the group. To everyone’s joy, the cooks had risen early on Thursday to treat the visitors to French Toast and despite having walked to their fields (shamba’s) and planted acres of maize the previous day, they were still cheerful and smiling. These women represent the hard-working dedicated women in villages across Kenya and their commitment made a big impact on the Irish students and teachers. Thursday was a special day for the Ministry of Education and Friends of Londiani. They jointly organised a Teacher Seminar for 42 Kenyan and the 10 Irish teachers. Discussions on topics such as management, school links, special educational needs and the healthy schools programme could be heard as teachers got to mix and chat about issues relevant to all schools around the world. A fantastic student seminar on the Millennium Development Goals was also held in Londiani on Thursday. This first-time event involved students from 5 schools and each MDG was presented by a mix of Irish and Kenyan students. As a peer-education model of learning, this event excelled and later in the afternoon as they presented their findings to the teachers and representatives of the Ministry of Education, a palpable sense of pride for all involved was felt around the hall in St. Kizitos. To see and hear the youth of today come together to discuss how we can all improve our world, is inspiring and brings hope for the future. The seminar finished with words of praise by the Ministry of Education and a heartfelt prayer of thanks for the occasion by one of the Irish students. That evening, the group were enthralled by Esther Korir’s talk on Kenyan culture and traditions. Rounding off the evening with a sing-song, Esther, Sophie and Consolata brought the group to their feet, dancing and singing in Kiswahili! As the group headed to bed, one student remarked, “each day, this trip gets better and better”. On Friday morning, the group visited the third school in the Network, Londiani Girls Academy, and were met with a very warm welcome. Games of scrabble, songs and speeches ensued and reluctantly the students had to leave for a day trip in to a tea plantation in the town of Kericho. Although the rain poured down, the experience of seeing tea being transformed from a lush green leafy bush into a brown, finely ground powder is one that the students will not forget. A new appreciation for Fairtrade teabags was felt by all. That evening, some members of the local choir joined the group and as the group shared some irish and Kenyan songs, a sadness was beginning to creep in. No one wanted to go home! On Saturday, a tournament of the link schools brought an end to our joint activities for the week and it was a pleasure to watch the athleticism of the Kenyan students as the Irish struggled with the altitude! Congratulations were expressed to all who took part and in the final speeches of this link visit, it was re-iterated that although it was the end of this trip, it was certainly not the end of the partnership and friendships formed. Amidst the packing of bags, a group of students travelled to the nearby equator for a photo opportunity and the group prepared for the Easter services that evening. The vigil mass included 40 baptisms and confirmations and culminated in lots of singing by both Irish and Kenyan choirs! On Sunday morning, through sleepy eyes, the students and teachers gathered to say their goodbyes and thanked all those who made the trip possible - Friends of Londiani for initiating the links, Fr. Martin and Fr. Con for providing a ‘home from home’, the cooks - Consolata, Sophie &Prista for sustaining the group all week, the drivers Ben, Joe & Wycliff for their patience and skill on Kenya’s roads, the families and friends of the group who fundraised and helped prepare, and all the schools’ students and staff for supporting the link and its activities. Although everyone was sad to leave Londiani, they left with wonderful memories of an amazing week. As a group, the atmosphere had been fantastic, everyone rowed in and worked well together. Building friendships across Ireland and between Ireland and Kenya were two of the many objectives met by this group. With various phrases of Kiswahili, photos galore and souvenirs, the group headed south to Nairobi for the long journey home. They left their laughter echoing in St. Kizitos’s and took with them a sense of happiness and joy from this unique experience. Learning and sharing was a key part of the link and as one of the Kenyan teachers said, “you have built bridges between Africans and Europeans and are righting the wrongs of history”. On their final night in Nairobi, the group went to the Carnivore restaurant and enjoyed a celebration of the week that was. On Monday morning, just 8 days after arriving in Kenya, the group headed back to the airport. And just as the trip began with giraffes, so the trip ended as again the giraffes stood tall and proud near the gates of the airport. Although sad to be leaving, the teachers and students were already vowing to come again. Asante sana to all the teachers and students of Moi Sorget and Kapcheplanga.