The St. Kilian’s Concern debating team, Leah Fellenz (captain), Oscar Toomey, Aisling Burns, Isabel Van Der Voort and Siddarth Sethuraman accompanied by their teacher, Linda Golden, set off to Nairobi, Kenya, as part of the prize for winning the national Concern debating competition 2017/18. Here are some photographs and extracts from their blog:
On the first day of our journey we visited two Primary schools in the slums of Nairobi. We met up with our Guide for the week, Francis Mwangi, at Concern’s Kenya HQ. Then, we got a short briefing on Concern’s aid programmes in Kenya and the surrounding countries. From there we made our way straight to the M.M. Chandaria Primary School. Once we got out of our van we were immediately greeted by throngs of excited pupils rushing up to us to say hello. After giving everyone a high-five, we went to the principal’s office. We introduced ourselves there and talked for some time on the differences between the Irish and Kenyan school systems. Then, we made our way to the 6th class classrooms, where we greeted the children. The reason why we visited the pupils of class 6 was because they had been previously visited by Dublin Footballer Michael Darragh MacAuley, who had played Gaelic football with them and taken some of their messages home with him to present to his class in Ireland. We delivered the replies from his class in Ireland as well as some Footballs and Dublin GAA jerseys to be used by the school soccer team. One of the standout parts of this experience was not only the sheer number of students, but the sheer enthusiasm in the eyes of the pupils and their desire to learn. We got to talk to students and share parts of our lives through scrapbooks that we had brought with us and even though some of them had only been learning English for 6 months or less we could still hold a conversation with them. With a heavy heart we departed the school and headed to our next destination, Dandora IV Prep. Education Centre. The difference between the 2 schools was stark. The first school had been created with government funding and this could clearly be seen as they had their own allotted plot of land on which they had erected the school. Dandora IV Prep was funded through the community. The entrance was tiny and the classrooms dark, with one solitary lightbulb being the source of light. This certainly did not deter the pupils from learning, even with the small resources that they had. A mock debate was held between us and the school, which they clearly won. The standout moment for me here was the happiness in the eyes of the teacher when he saw how his class debated the issue. We then made our way to a community congregation where we met some of the elders of the community. They discussed the issues within their community, the main one being that girls are being supported a lot more now than they used to be, which they are extremely grateful for. However they wish that the boys receive their support too as more and more are unemployed and turn to criminality in their community. They sang a prayer with us and we presented them with some gifts from our side, and with a newfound knowledge of what Concern is doing for communities like Dandora in Kenya, we made our way back to our lodgings.
On the second day we made our way to the Irish Embassy. There, we learned all about the different tribes and ethnic groups in Kenya and how they shaped the political landscape there. Then we made our way to the University of Nairobi. Here we met with Derek who brought us to the Maker Space on campus where the students of the STEM fields were designing locally produced medical equipment to be used in healthcare throughout the country. The idea behind this was to make the equipment easily fixable in case it broke, as the production facilities were local, and to make Kenya a manufacturing economy. The first product they had designed, a suction pump designed to remove fluids during operations, is now in it’s 3rd and final test iteration, and was approved for production. Other projects they were working on were a reclining chair to be used for giving birth and a desk lamp with a flexible neck. All of these products have been made before, but these students are trying to make them locally sourced, allowing for cheaper products for the hospitals. We then went to a local market, bought some souvenirs and made our way to the hostel.
On Wednesday, we went to the Kariobangi North Girls’ Secondary School. Visiting the classrooms there was a different experience as the pupils were our age now. We held another Mock debate with them, which they handily won as they had one very outspoken speaker who was an excellent debater. We then showed them parts of our life through the scrapbooks that we had brought with us. Bidding farewell to them was difficult and we made our way to a Health centre that, on its own, served 44,722 people in its area. There we got to see how they managed to, with the little materials they had, effectively care for the people who were the most in need. We got to see their lab as well as their recently opened maternity ward. Wednesday was rather short but it allowed us to get some rest before the main event of our stay, Young Scientist Kenya.
Day four was the big day. We arrived at the KICC at 8:30 in the morning and made our way to the ballroom where the opening ceremony was to be held. We waited in the hall for the president to finish touring the exhibitions privately and then hold some speeches during the official opening of the ceremony. After lunch, it was our turn to tour the exhibits. All of the projects provided ingenious solutions to local problems. And all of them approached these problems in a thoughtful, innovative way. We also got to judge some of the projects on their understanding and presentation, and the applicability and usefulness of their project. All of this was possible through Concern’s involvement with the YSK initiative, and it must be said that it was difficult not to give everybody a perfect score. Overall the YSK was extremely interesting and showed how many ideas the youth have, and how the youth are truly not only the leaders of the future, but the leaders of the present too.
The first thing we did on Friday was go visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where we got to visit the orphaned baby elephants that are being taken care of there. Afterwards we made our way to the Awards Ceremony of the YSK. The winning project we felt completely deserved it, as it was the most practical and ideal in our eyes for the environment it was to be used for. But on that day, it almost felt like everybody was a winner. Everybody was just happy to be there. Finally, at the end of the day we made our way to the gala dinner held at the Intercontinental in Nairobi. There we met Prof. Scott, the founding father of the YS in Ireland. After the dinner, with heavy hearts and stomachs, we made our way to the hotel for the final night in Kenya, able to look back on all of the happy, eye-opening and lifelong memories we had made there.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent when visiting Nairobi is the levels of security that appear to almost border on paranoia. When driving through the streets, one can see housing estates, offices and hotels dotting the road side, but in contrast to Ireland they are built like compounds or fortresses. High walls, large, rugged steel gates and barricades, private security and active surveillance are what welcome you home everyday, instead of the unrestrained and open entrances that are common place here in Ireland. Needless to say, barbed wire is a lucrative business in Kenya.
There is, of course, a reason behind the seemingly superfluous amount of security. It was one that we learned on the second day of our visit, from the Irish ambassador to Kenya, Somalia and Sudan: Dr. Vincent O’Neill. We were invited to his equally heavily secured embassy in Nairobi, where Mr. O’Neill gave us a brief, but very informative, presentation on the different ethnicities existing in Kenya, as well as some of the political relationships the country has with its neighbours. Among these there are three, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia; who have seen armed conflict within the last two decades. Due to this surrounding conflict, and because Kenya is one of the strongest democracies in eastern Africa, foreign intelligence agencies have a strong presence there. For instance, we were told that the American embassy employs over 1,600 workers in Nairobi. The violence itself is deeply rooted in the region’s history, starting with European colonialism. The countries’ borders were drawn with rulers, with no regard for the people living in the area. It is because of these reasons that there are groups in those surrounding countries that show a profound resentment towards Kenya. Between 2008 and 2015 for example, Al-Shabaab, a terrorist organisation in Somalia, carried out more than 270 attacks in Kenya. As recently as 2016, an attack on Westgate shopping mall killed 71 people, injuring 175. Those attacks, we were told, are the reason behind the intense security in Kenya.
It is very interesting to see how an excess of security can have the opposite desired effect. Instead of feeling safe in the city, you are constantly aware of the fact that the security is there for a reason. It’s quite an uncomfortable feeling. And then, out in the streets, you feel vulnerable without the half metre of concrete and steel to seal you from the outside world.
After a full 2 days of traveling, Monday was the first day we got to actually go into Nairobi and see Concern’s involvement in communities. We went to Concern headquarters where we got to meet Francis Mwangi, a Concern staff member who kindly took care of us for the week and made sure we made it to our hotel safely every night, and that every day was packed full of interesting and insightful activities to show us all the amazing projects that Concern is a part of in Kenya, and for us specifically he showed us a few of the projects in Nairobi. After visiting the lovely head quarters we were off to our first (primary) school, called M.M Chandaria. As soon as we got off the bus we were surrounded by kind and welcoming children who we had conversations with and high-fived until we were able to meet the principal. We heard that one class alone could consist of around 60 students, which was very surprising to hear as our year made up of two classes barely consists of 35 people.
After visiting M.M. Chandaria we visited another primary school called Dandora IV preparatory school. The classes were a bit smaller in this school, with about 15 kids per class. When we arrived we were surprised by a debate with the students. The motion was ‘It is better to be a farmer than to work in an office’. What I didn’t expect was the high level of debating skills the students had, especially because they were 8 years younger than us. After the debate we had 5 minutes left to walk around and talk to the students again but we soon had to go on to our next activity.
Our third and last visit of Monday was the community discussion, which I found the most interesting of the day. The schools were very impressive and gave me a lot of insight into what it is like to go to school in Nairobi, but the community group gave me an even deeper insight into what it is like to live in Nairobi. The community discussion was set up in an almost classroom like environment with benches and chairs along the walls of the room where everyone sat, leaving the middle of the room for whoever was speaking at the time. Many people spoke and made us aware of the things that they do together as a group. For example, even though a lot of the people attending don’t have a lot of money, every single person attending contributes a little bit and if they see that a child is unable to go to school, they use the money that they chipped in to make sure that the child can attend school and they ensure that they stay in school. Concern has got involved and further encourages the group and gives financial aid so more children can attend school in that neighbourhood. It was very inspiring to me to see how these people didn’t have a lot but even then ensured to give back to their community and make sure everyone in their community has an opportunity to receive a good education.
Before debating, I can honestly say I wasn’t the most informed person on development issues, the SDG’s or Concern’s work in general. However, throughout the competition I learned a lot, but, without first-hand experience, without seeing things with my own eyes, everything felt disconnected. What this trip has done for me is show me that these issues are real. On top of all that, I knew very little about Kenya; I knew they were a former colony, they speak Swahili and English and its location. So, with this all this in mind I was ready for the trip and the learning experience of a lifetime!
I had no idea what slums really looked like apart from pictures. Throughout our trip we saw the slums of Nairobi and Nairobi itself from different perspectives. We saw people living their lives as we drove to schools and community groups and clinics. The point of our trip was to learn about Concern’s programmes in Nairobi, with a special emphasis on education. During our week-long trip, we visited two primary schools and one secondary school.
As we arrived at the first primary school, M.M.Chandaria, on the first day, we were greeted with the welcoming and curious smiles of the younger kids and the sceptical outlook of the older ones. Our arrival was overwhelming to say the least – every kid wanted a high-five and an opportunity to greet us personally. They were so excited to have visitors and their excitement was infectious and put any worries I may have had at ease. This school was one of the schools Michael Darragh Mc Auley, the footballer, had visited on his trip to Kenya previously. So, we had the pleasure of presenting to the kids he had met, the responses to their letters from his class here in Ireland. We got to listen to some of them read them out and listen to one poor kid try to pronounce Siobhan! We also had the opportunity to talk to the kids and share scrapbooks we had made about our lives back home. It was such a lovely experience -having them listen so intently to what I had to say and asking questions. None of us wanted to leave when it was time to go.
Dandora IV Preparatory Education Centre, the second primary school we visited, was another wonderful experience. Upon arriving at this school in the middle of the slums, we were greeted not only with amazingly decorated walls but with a surprise debate. We were split up into two teams with the kids and our motion was “To work on a Farm is better than in an Office”. We had the lovely opportunity to be made look slightly stupid by a group of 9-12 year olds! But it was such an amazing thing to see such young kids stand up in front of all their peers and give their opinion so eloquently.
The third and final school we visited was Kariobangi North Girls’ Secondary School. We visited them on the third day. Again, we were surprised with a debate, the six of us v six of them, debating whether or not “Day schools are better than boarding schools”. It was a cool experience and we indirectly learned a lot about schools in Kenya versus school at home. We had the opposing side, it was interesting as we were not just debating about day schools and boarding schools but also about Irish boarding/ day schools versus Kenyan ones. We both spoke from our own experiences and knowledge. They won in the end but it was so nice to have flown across the world and met more teens our age as passionate about debating as us. After the debate we were given time to just chat with the girls and show them our scrapbooks, but in the end to my relief and delight, I ended up just chatting for ages and taking selfies and joking about with the girls. They were so lovely, and I actually got to learn about their lives and what they do for hobbies and what they want to do when they grow up. We got to talk and talk and had to be pulled away when it was time to leave! Their ambition and drive towards their future was so inspiring, and that goes for all the kids we met in all the schools.
What I experienced from the school left me with hope and almost certainty that with the ambition of all these kids and teens that Kenya is in good hands. And that is a sentiment that carried on throughout the trip in every place we visited. The future is bright!
To continue on the note of education, one of the next programmes that we visited was Makerspace. Makerspace is a programme run in Nairobi University using students and lecturers to solve local issues with local solutions, mainly equipment issues in hospitals and clinics. It was fascinating – they take things as basic as a lamp but seriously lacking in hospitals, and find a way to build a new one using locally sourced materials. This programme was not only helping the health sector but also providing practical experience for engineering students. The best thing about seeing this programme was being able to link it to all the programmes we had seen and had yet to see. The difference these products, as simple as a birthing bed, could make is enormous. Or one of the microscopes they were working on for schools could enhance the education of students immensely.
One of the places we could clearly see the effect that these products could have was in the Ruben medical clinic that was in a compound with many facilities including a school. This clinic was amazing and one of my favourite visits. They showed us everything from their lab, which though very simple got the job done, to their brand-new delivery ward only opened a month previously. I was thoroughly amazed at how they functioned so efficiently with so little and how appreciative they were of what they had. They had recently got ONE ambulance and the difference it made was just outstanding. And because of all this, you could see what a difference the things the people in Makerspace made could have.
The reason for going to Kenya specifically on our Concern trip was because it was the first year of Young Scientist Kenya, of whom Concern are gold sponsors. And what an amazing experience it was to see and listen to the remarkable projects these young scientists had come up with. My favourite memory of YSK was while we were waiting for the President to open YSK, we sat in our seats and got talking to the people behind us – Teens from a boarding school there to support their classmates who were participating in the competition. We ended up talking for ages as we were waiting for a couple of hours for the ceremony to start. This memory just sums up how nice and welcoming everyone we met was and how they were all willing to talk to us and were just as interested in our lives as we were in theirs. We all also got the chance to judge some of the projects on behalf of Concern to give an alternative, young person’s view. On the last day of YSK we attended the award ceremony which was great. We got to meet the winners and attend the gala dinner at the end where we got to meet and listen to a bunch of outstanding people speak, including Dr. Tony Scott, one of the founders of Young Scientist competition in Ireland over 50 years ago and the Irish ambassador Dr.Vincent O’Neill, who is the one who brought the idea of Young Scientist to Kenya. We had also previously met the ambassador in the embassy where he chatted to us about the long incredible history of Irish people in Kenya and the work they as an embassy continue to do.
During our trip we not only got to see the remarkable work Concern does and meet the amazing people they work with, but we also got the chance to visit some of the wonderful animals of Kenya. We went to see the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Orphans’ Project, where we saw orphaned elephants being bottle fed and were given each of their stories from their mothers being poached for ivory to being victims of drought. On our last day we also got to go on a safari. It was incredible – we saw black rhinos, a lion, zebras, giraffes, buffalo, monkeys and impalas.
To conclude, the trip was amazing! I don’t know how many times I’ve used that word in this but there’s no other way to describe what I had the absolute privilege of seeing. I will never forget what I saw or the people I have met. I hope to one day return to Kenya and see the other parts other than Nairobi as it is such a big country with such a diverse culture. This trip has inspired me to help spread awareness of Kenya and its problems but also to help counter the stereotypes that are formed around it and Africa as a continent. It is so much more than a “developing” country – it is full of some of the most lovely and welcoming people I have ever met and full of life and so much culture with 42 different tribes, each with their own customs. Of course, it has many problems with extreme poverty, drought, corruption etc. and I wish to also spread awareness about these issues. But I also wish for Kenya not to be defined and viewed by only their problems by the rest of the world especially within the developed world.
The main thing I learned from this trip was how Concern helps these communities. You don’t just throw money and food at these people – you support them and help them solve their own problems. You give the people who aren’t heard a voice because who knows more about their problems and local ways to solve them than the people themselves. And I hope to continue to work with Concern or similar charities to do just that – to help people help themselves.
Stepping out of the airplane in Kenyatta International Airport at around 12 noon on Sunday 1st July, we walked into a small building that looked like a large shack. We walked through immigration and collected our bags, making our way to the taxi. Walking out of the airport, we saw palm trees, blue skies and friendly faces. Throughout the drive from the airport to our hotel called Pride Inn Lantana, we saw two different worlds that seemed to be meshed into one in the same city. Stalls full of trinkets, men roasting corn on the cob, people walking through traffic knocking on car windows trying to sell anything from bananas to hoodies and chocolate. The driving itself seemed like a hard game of Tetris with no rules. You found slots and gaps and drove into any area hoping the shape of your vehicle would fit. Indicators were forgotten and car horns were a way of communicating.
After settling into our hotel and recharging our batteries overnight, we had an early start on Monday 2nd July, making our way to the Concern Worldwide Headquarters in the Westlands of Nairobi. Here we were given a briefing on what our trip would entail and some of the rules we needed to stand by in order to ensure our safety on the trip. From here we drove to a primary school called MM Chandaria. As we stepped out of our van we were bombarded by young girls and boys in bright purple uniforms who were smiling from ear to ear, wanting high-fives and fist-pumps. It was quite overwhelming but in a heart-warming way. We visited one classroom in particular, after being welcomed to the school by the principal who was extremely happy about our visit. In the classroom of about 60 children, we introduced ourselves and showed them the scrapbooks that each of us had brought with us to give them a bigger insight into what our lives at home are like. From this school we made our way to another primary school named Dandora, which was located at the edge of one of the largest slums in Nairobi. This school is not funded by the government. As we arrived, it was class time so we were greeted by the principal who was very soft-spoken and kind. She led us to a very small classroom with only around 20 children. They greeted us openly and they must have been around 11 years of age. We were asked to have a debate with them and the motion was “being a farmer is better than working in an office”. Two of the children came into our team and two of us went into their team. The kids’ group was proposing the motion and we were opposing. They won! Afterwards we met with a community group and there were women here between the ages of 20 and 60 years. They usually meet every Thursday from 3pm until 5pm, however they came on a Monday to meet us specifically, which was very kind of them. They spoke about topics mostly to do with their own children such as health, wealth and education. The main subject however, was their sons, who they feel have been slightly forgotten about. They spoke about all the projects for young girls’ education and how helpful they have been but they feel as though their young boys have been left behind. It was a topic that had never crossed my mind and hearing their views was eye-opening. Finally, to end the day, we headed back to Concern Worldwide Headquarters to meet with the head of Concern Worldwide Kenya – a woman named Amina. She was truly welcoming and made us feel at home. Afterwards we returned to our hotel and had dinner. During dinner we had a short debrief about the long day that was now behind us. It was lovely to hear other people’s interpretations of the exact same situations.
Day 2 also started early. We made our way to the Irish Embassy after breakfast and met with the Irish Embassador to Kenya, Vincent O’Neill. He was a truly lovely man, not only explaining to us what they do in the Embassy but also telling us about Kenya itself. He spoke about the different provinces and ethnic groups, giving us a greater insight into the country of Kenya as a whole. Afterwards we made our way to the University of Nairobi to the building where the Maker Space Programme was situated. Here a man called Derek explained what they do there. Essentially, they try to make equipment for schools and hospitals such as 3-D printers, hospital beds, microscopes, incubators and hospital lamps out of local resources. Their aim is to use local resources so that they can easily fix them if they break instead of having to wait for weeks- if not months- for equipment to be shipped from places like China. Afterwards we made our way to a typical Kenyan Market in Nairobi.
Day 3 began bright and early as well and after breakfast we headed straight to a girls’ secondary school called Kariobangi North Girls Secondary School. Here we met the principal and a teacher. The teacher brought us to her classroom and we were greeted by the girls. They were about 15 years old, so interacting with them was very different compared to the two primary schools that we had visited previously during the week. Again, we were invited to debate with them and the motion this time was “boarding school is better than day school”. We were the proposition and they were the opposition. Their arguments were very impressive, mostly based on the benefits the students in a day school have by having their family at home every day after school time was over. They spoke about how you can go home and share with your parents the issues that you have faced that day in school and that their advice is the main help that students need to get through rough situations and how in boarding school you don’t have that opportunity. They won! After the debate, we showed them our scrapbooks and they loved them so much! It was heart-warming how much they wanted to know about us – they were genuinely excited – and we didn’t want to leave!
Afterwards we made our way to one of the largest slums in Nairobi as the ‘Ruben Health Clinic’ that we were visiting was situated directly in the middle of the slum. Here we were given a tour and were shown all of the different facilities that they had like a dentist’s room, a HIV centre, a maternity ward and even a pharmacy. It was lovely to see that they were making the most out of what little they had. Afterwards we made our way to a shopping mall and bought some Kenyan treats to bring back home for our families.
Day 4 began even earlier than the previous days as it was our first day of Young Scientists Kenya (YSK). When we arrived, we signed in and made our way to the auditorium. The plan was for the president to come and make a speech at the ceremony, however, he was running about two hours late, so we had the chance to talk to some Kenyan students that were seated near us. They told us how they were in boarding school and that they got up at 4am every morning, that class started at 6.20 every day, and they either had school until 5pm or 10pm. It was shocking to realise how we complain about starting school at 8.25 every morning yet they start two hours earlier and don’t complain at all. After ‘His Excellency the President Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta, C.G.H’ made his speech, we were given the opportunity to look at the different projects and meet some of the students who had exhibited them. The talent, education and wisdom that was shown by the students was remarkable and their drive to do well in their education was motivational.
The 5th day of our trip began by visiting the ‘David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts’ Orphans’ Project’. It was incredible to see elephants so close up and we all were able to buy souvenirs and all the proceeds went to the elephants. Afterwards we made our way back to YSK and looked at some more of the amazing projects. Then we attended the award ceremony for the winners. When the award ceremony came to a close we made our way to a Gala Dinner for YSK in the Intercontinental Hotel nearby. Irish Ambassador,Vincent O’Neill, made a lovely speech and so did Dr. Tony Scott, one of the founders of YSD.
Day 6 started extremely early, at around 4.30 am as we were going on a Safari in Nairobi’s National Park. It was an incredible experience as we saw Rhinos, Giraffes and a Lion. Everyone loved the Safari and the weather held up for us. Sadly, from here we made our way to Kenyatta International Airport for the first leg of our trip, to Abu Dhabi.
The overall experience was one full of emotional and touching moments. At the last debrief that we had, we realised that the overall theme of our trip was education. This trip opened my eyes to the fact that education is everything. Education is not and should not be something taken for granted. Not everyone gets the chance to be educated and it has been difficult coming to terms with that. Many people mention how we have much more than others on the planet and that poverty is so extreme in some areas of our world, however hearing people say that and then seeing it first-hand are two fundamentally different things. The Kenyans gave me hope. Their smiles painted a picture of a thousand words and I shall never forget this opportunity that I have been given. It truly has been heart-warming, eye-opening and life-changing.