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St Martins Program Visit

My name is Elena Rossi and I am a Sr. Program Manager with

I have been involved with St.Martin’s school since 2004, originally supporting my manager and eventually inheriting the full project in 2013.

I can’t deny this has been an incredible journey for me, one that has lead me to develop a real passion for international development. Despite the long engagement, the work with St.Martin’s has retained its focus and its mission of helping the poorest of the Kenyan society, through education and family support. It’s been great to build a relationship with the school, which is based on mutual respect and trust and to join forces to supporting the Kibagare children.

Central to this relationship is still the sponsorship program. St.Martin’s provides primary education to 700 children from the Kibagare slum and secondary-level education to about 300 girls from rural communities. With $500 a year we are able to provide food and education for a child whom otherwise will be out of primary school and forced to be on the streets begging. The secondary girls are boarders, which means they live in school while receiving their education, and the sponsorship is $1000 a year.

Throughout the years we have been going to Kibagare regularly, bringing groups of volunteers keen to use their skills and energy to support the school’s programs. The last trip, in late June 2017, it’s been different, let me tell you why….

26 June 2017 - Nairobi

I have been in Nairobi for a day and I am always surprised how familiar this place has become. I have been here for short periods several time now throughout the years, and I find there is something about this culture that gets into you. Kenyans are certainly very friendly people and I have started to pick up some basic Swahili which helps to connect with the people around you. It’s cold as it is winter here; Nairobi is 1700mt high and the temperature stays within the 20s most all year around. The hotel I selected is the one we stayed many years ago, beside the consular area to ensure extra security. Many hotels were built during the colonial past and they bring you back in time, when British aristocracy met the African Savannah. Most of the volunteers have arrived and we are all getting ready for tomorrow’s start of the program which this time will largely focus in capacity building and skill-based trainings to the school’s staff. Beside our group we are going to work along-side, a long-time partner, which delivers Education & Technology to schools in Europe as well as in East Africa. Camara has been supporting St.Martin’s in the past, however part of this year’s program, we have collaborated with them to set up an e-learning centre, to support St.Martin’s literacy program and looking to upskill teachers in using ICT in the school curriculum, a defined priority set broadly throughout the East African Educational system.

27 June 2017 – ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round..’

St.Martin’s school bus arrives, as always, at 8 am to bring us through the crazy Nairobi traffic, crossing a major Nairobi slum to eventually reach the Kibagare village. This is a community of around 15,000 people, concentrated in less than a 3k long strip of land, defined by the Government as an ‘unofficial settlement’, a polite way to classify slums. 60% of the Nairobi population live in slums. The Kibagare houses are all built out of corrugated iron on dirt floor, 2 square meters wide. Despited the limited space they can host large families: typically a mother and a grand-mother and many children. There are only 4 public toilets in Kibagare, and 12 points providing free access to water. Street lamps were only set up this year. Even the Nairobi police is scared to patrol the area at night, for fear of attacks.

As we enter the village the bus is welcome by the loud cheers of children of all sizes. Alfred – the secondary school bursar and salesforce liaison officer - is driving the bus and knows all the children by name. Going into the slum as members of the school community, grants us permission and security. Our team of 10 people is glued to the windows, waving and taking in the incredible ecosystem of shops, onlookers, motorbikes whizzing by and the general buzzling of the place. Beside the open sewers and the long road of shanty houses, the place is full of life and people are busy with everyday life, like in any community around the world. At some point half way of the village, the St. Martin’s school emerges.

In the past all around the school perimeters there was a thick layer of rubbish but since the school staff cleaned it out, the villagers have kept the area clear and the kids can play without endangering themselves. We go through a toll iron gate and the school is revealed in its physical scale and orderly setting. Sr. Emmah Karanja, the school Director and Sr. Damiana Mutiso, the Secondary Principal, are there to welcome us. These two incredible women are from the Assumption Order of Nairobi, a local arm of the Catholic Church. They work and live in the school together with other sisters from the congregation. These women are truly dedicated to the cause and live in humble yet very dignified conditions and are kept in very high estimation by the whole Kibagare community.

Day 1 is focusing on reviewing our programs. We have implemented a great deal of technology for the school to support the sponsorship program, in particular we implemented a donour-management system to manage the information and payments of 100 sponsors and nearly 200 children. Our EMEA webteam has designed a great website integrated with social medias, the Milano Foundation in collaboration with Camara have set up a e-learning facility which is being used to upskill teachers to better support the children’s literacy needs.

Our group is quite mixed: we have some returning volunteers, some new sponsors, and some family members. All SF volunteers are very senior members of staff, and we are also accompanied by Stephen Kiernan, the Artistic Director from a production company we work with in EMEA, called Atomic. Atomic management had spent a week prior our arrival and produced a beautifully and professionally made portfolio of pictures and videos, which we decided to show for the first time to the school, during our opening meeting. Their reaction was incredible, a mixture of pride and sorrow, for the reality displayed and the realization that their jobs go way beyond their educational tasks.

28 June 2017 – ‘Time for serious fun’

We arrive at school this time to be welcomed by hundreds of happy children! We can hear a whisper emerging from the crowd… ‘Sofi’s here’… and they all rush to Sofia Milano who has become a real superstar among the children. Most volunteers have established friendships and are pulled in to engage in all sort of playful activities.

When eventually we get to the third floor of the secondary building – where the staff room is – we are all inebriated by the sweetness of these cute kids. We split in two groups: Tyler Harnish, Zahid Jiwa, Karen Muldoon, and Karen’s niece Alexandra, are going to support the ‘literacy planet’ training in the e-labs, whereas Miguel & Kelli Milano together with Raphael O’Donoghue, the school Management and I work on strategic planning. I must say I am impressed by the overall achievements and alignment. Our President has a great analytical mind and loves working with mathematical formulas, something that also impressed the Sisters who place great importance on academic studies. Most of the focus went to align the sponsorship program with the school processes, from finance to the selection of the most needy students, and the broader family support provided. The day finishes with a friendly football game where our team comes under serious pression from the school boy team! Back in the hotel, we spend time at dinner with the Camara team.

29 June 2017 – ‘Digital nuns’

It’s day 3 of the volunteering trip and everybody is now comfortable with their tasks and school life. The big focus of today is the ‘e-learning’ facility. Most of the teachers are now fully trained and really enjoying the opportunity to have two fully-kitted computer labs. Camara has done a lot of work around the facility including some carpentry work and electrical wiring; they even modified the desks layout to make it more spacious and inclusive. The rooms are bright and welcoming, where both students and teachers like to hang around. One of the funniest moments for me was seeing sister ‘Banda’ glued to the screen enjoying playing literacy games. As you can imagine this is very new for the sisters, and their enthusiasm was equal to the children’s! As this is the end of the training module (which run for 2 weeks) we are all gathering into the secondary lab to provide teachers with certificates and small gifts. The Milanos together with the school Management host a brief ceremony. The short speeches from the teachers tell us how empowering this experience has been and how great it is for them to have access to internet, something too expensive for them to have otherwise.

Another key activity for the week is to meet all the sponsored children and bring back visuals to those who couldn’t be with us. Stephen set up in a room a wall of drawings made by our children for the children of St.Martin’s . The success is immediate! The loud group arrives in the room like a thunderstorm, laughing and joking about what they see. Communicating with them can be hard at time due to language barriers so we use this display as a way to connect with them. With the teenage girls is a completely different experience as they all speak English. The Secondary girls are all so sweet and well-educated and they are really keen to share their reality and learn about our lives in the West. As most of us are sponsors we also take time to meet our sponsored children and see how they are doing.

I meet Margareth and Denis, whom I’ve been sponsoring for few years now. Margareth is a cute little 8 year old, she’s shy but she tells me how much she likes school and learning. She’s an only child being cared by an aunty and she’s doing much better now that is in school. Her health is also better and it makes me happy to see her doing so well. Denis is toller than the average 10 year old, a very smart little boy who aspires to be an acrobat! He performs a couple of backwards summersets – impressive stuff indeed!

30 June 2017 – ‘the Talent show’

This is the last day of school week, so all volunteers are keen to make the best of the time they have with the children. Some of us are helping in the classroom, some others are spending time with the girls, some other with member of staff. We have also largely completed the work we had set out to do and Sr. Emmah offers me and a couple of others the opportunity to go and visit some of the houses in the slum, in order to really understand the living condition of the children we sponsor and their families. Zahid, Tyler and I walk out the school gate with the sister and Luke, the social worker. It’s different walking through this community than passing by with the bus, it feels surreal and a bit overwhelming. The nun is welcome warmly by everyone we encounter: a testimony of the sisters’ good work in this community. The first house we enter is not too far from the school gate. Luke knocks on the blue-painted, corrugated iron door and a lady holding a tiny baby on her hip, welcomes us to get in. The tiny entrance can hardly fit all 5 of us so the sister and I are left there, talking to this lady alone. She’s the gran-mother with one of her 4 grandchildren. The house is dark, it smells of urine, it’s squalled. There’s a dirty curtain hiding what it is described as ‘the bed’. It’s hard to imagine how 5 people can live here. The second house is further down the road. Same set up, same smell, same misery. There are some rusty pots laying around. The mother is there with a little boy who cannot be in school as a motorbike hit him days before, he seems dazed. One of his little fingers is bandaged, a mixture of dirt and blood are seeping through. The mother is explaining they went to the hospital but she hasn’t got much money for medical care, she’s a casual worker and a single mom with another smaller child to maintain. She thanks me for being a sponsor and she assures the boy will be in school soon. I walk out in shock, as thoughts and emotions are rushing through my head, feeling hopeless and guilty at the same time. The third house we go is located down on the side of the main road, where a river-turned-damp is flowing. The first thing we notice is the fact that all the houses in this area are dangerously at risk of flooding. The rubbish, plastic and human waste are in large quantity here. Again we knock a door and a voice tells us to come in. From behind the bed-curtain a head pops out. This woman is infirm, she can barely walk. In front of the curtain there is a bawl full of a yellowish liquid beside a small cooker. Pots and pans are scattered around together with a rusty cage containing 2 chickens. The smell is so strong I can barely stay in there. She’s been living here since the 1980s. Both my work-mates are outside, I believe this situation hit them the worse. We wish the lady all the best and we start walking back. It’s like I’ve been here for the first time and just learnt about the conditions of extreme poverty this people live in. I feel motivated more than ever to do all I can to help this community, with a sense of justice prevailing.

As we walk through the school we hear the drumming beat of the djembe and loud cheers. The dining room has been cleared to give space to the students who are performing a mixture of arts: singing, dancing and drama. Their faces are painted, some wearing masai ‘shuka’ cloths over their clothes.

They have obviously rehearsed a lot and every class comes in with a higher intensity of energy. The running themes are: education and poverty but also child-pregnancy, relationships, love. Eventually we are all pulled in to dancing and actively participating to the show, which is a lot of fun.

On the way home we reflect on the week and the overall experience, all of us feeling exhausted but enriched of all we have understood and lived during our stay in this community.

01 July 2017 – ‘The feeding program’.

This is probably the most awaited event of the week. Those of us who have had this experience before have warned the others of being prepared, the feeding program is full on, 2 hours of non-stop work, 1700 children minimum the target.

We arrive in school and get ready for the 12 o clock start. The queue of the children had started early in the morning so when we arrive at 11 we already see them waiting outside with their plastic bags, one after the other in an orderly fashion, waiting patiently for the school to open. This will be the only warm meal the children receive this weekend. The plastic bags are used to contain any remaining scrap of food, which will go to feed other members of the family. The length of the queue will eventually stretch way back the entrance of the slum. The feeding program is an incredibly well-organized affair and it runs 3 weekend a month, depending on the funds. Children come in through the school grounds, reach the water station where they wash their hands with the little dribble of running water coming though the mains- normally with no soap, but this time they have a large soapy pot to use. They enter school and they are divided in groups of 50 and given a spoon each. Next step is the banana and milk station and finally, on the last stop, they receive a large plate with a mixture of beans, vegetable and ugali (Kenyan national staple food). At this point they go and sit on the large tables. Many of these children come with younger siblings and it’s common to see children as young as 6 carrying babies on their backs. All this operation, normally managed by less than 10 people, happens at a great speed and efficiency. Our group of volunteers are divided among the different stations. As time goes by we see an increase of smaller children and we move Alexandra, Karen and myself to help with the seating arrangements, the plates are too big and heavy for the little ones to carry. At some stage I see my little Margareth arriving with a filthy pajama and a big smile on her face. My heart sinks to see her there, but I have only time to give her a last hug, as I have to return to the banana and milk station. The food finishes as we fill the last 2 plates. We are amazed on the precision the sisters know how much food is required. They say the number of kids has increased in recent times and we are now close to the 2000. Our group managed to pay for this month’s feeding, Zahid Jiwa and his Family have provided funds for 2 weekends.

Conclusion – ‘Kwaheri’: goodbye!

It never ceases me to surprise how motivating these trips are for all those involved. Naively, some people think this ‘Kenyan development trip’ is an easy way to fulfill the VTO quota. This experience is a complex one that will hit your central emotional core. The demographic you will meet, with their desperate needs and their unyielding hopes, will bring you to a place you likely have never been before. You will spend 12 hours together with your team mates, you will meet a lot of local personalities, you will be totally immersed in the situation. Nairobi is high up so they first couple of days you will need to get used to it and likely feel a bit out of breath. Beside all of this, this experience will be extremely rewarding because you will feel you are adding value, you will be giving back in a real and immediate way which will make you feel empowered and invested. Don’t miss to experience something so unique and become part of the St. Martin’s Family!

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