Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bungoma: Nearing the end

As the trip neared its end, it became harder and harder to find consistent internet connection, so I was unable to post much. Sad to say, I am currently at the Nairobi airport on my “safari” back to Austin. I said my goodbyes to the others at our favorite restaurant in Kisumu, Laughing Buddha, known for its Bailey’s milkshakes and pizza!

Although I am heading home to start school on Tuesday, the others have an extra week before the semester begins and are staying four more days. As we have been working extra hard on getting all of the orphans’ background info and pictures for the website, they will probably be able to finish up the editing and finishing touches. They are also doing a more advanced after school HIV/AIDS club and, of course, enjoying time with the kids.

Great news…Theresa and Stephen now have a computer! Thanks to Alex’s sister who agreed to donate it, we are leaving behind her macbook that Alex brought on the trip. We were definitely worried about how they could begin to implement the work we had done without a working computer or e-mail, so this is a huge relief. When we told them the news, they were ecstatic and full of thanks.

On that note, we have been teaching Theresa and Stephen, as well as the teachers and older kids, computer lessons consistently so they will know how to use it when we leave. Alex will be setting up gmail accounts for all of the older students within the next few days, and an exchange program has been coordinated with a high school class from his old school in New York. This will be a great “cultural” exchange for the kids and they will enjoy getting to correspond with students their age in America. This will also increase awareness and support for WEMA while getting high school students involved. Killing two birds with one stone!

Esther and I finished up our HIV/AIDS drama performances on Friday afternoon. After several practices and critiquing sessions throughout the week, the students were eager to show us their work. We all congregated in the “hall” as the grade 8 students (some even in makeshift costumes!) performed their dramas in front of their peers while we filmed. It was quite a production, and they got really into it. We awarded the first place team with huge bags of candy, and they were going crazy!

I got the chance to lecture in chemistry to a secondary (high school level) class. Some topics that can be really confusing for students learning them the first time are not explained well in their small, cheap textbooks. It was even hard for me to understand what I was teaching them so I can’t imagine how it is for them! They liked the few tricks, though, that I taught them about electron configuration and energy shells.

We took a day trip with Liz (Stephen and Theresa’s daughter) to Bungoma and also to Uganda this weekend! It was last-minute but well planned, and we had an amazing time. It was the perfect way to end my trip. We braved the public transportation to get there (about 5 hours total  of driving) and stayed in a hostel right on the mouth of the Nile. We took a boat trip out into the Nile and also saw the falls. Apparently, we were in the right place at the right time because this was the hang out spot of many professional kayakers from all over. We enjoyed hanging out with them and hearing all of their crazy stories!

One huge thing I realized on this trip is how transient life is. In the weekly bible studies organized by the older pupils at WEMA, two students came up front to say that multiple family members died over the holiday in car accidents, leaving them as the only survivors. I can’t imagine having a tragic event like that happen when they already have such fragile pasts.

Also, my mother notified me that an old friend back in Clear Lake, someone who I cheered with for many years, died in a car accident. I always admired Heather for her fun personality and she was like a big sister to me. It was hard to not be there for the funeral, and also eery to think that when I was in such a dangerous place (with many road accidents every night), the same things were happening in the “safe” bubble of Clear Lake. I mourn the loss of such a great girl and her family is in my thoughts and prayers.

On the way home from Uganda, we took the only option, public transportation “mutatus,” that are jam-packed with 16 people per van. We thought we found what seemed like a good ride and a good bargain because a man was doing basically anything to get us into his van in a hurry. All five of us piled in and got comfortable. The mutatu was not yet full, but we were accompanied by two other Westerners, and then about 3 men from the middle-east. We didn’t see any issue at first, but soon the dots started to connect. Meredith was sitting in the same row as them, and was trying to start up casual conversation. Their body language was strange, and they each had small briefcases on their laps. They wouldn’t refer to where they were going, and then started talking in another language. Fifteen minutes into the ride, Meredith said they were making hand gestures to note an intersection and explosions, or something of the sort. She motioned to us immediately that we had to get out. None of us really knew what was going on, but one thing is for sure, you don’t just get out of a mutatu in Africa before you pay because that means they are losing customers and money. Meredith told the driver, forcefully, that we had to leave. He was non compliant and wanted to know why. We kept on saying that she was “sick” and needed to wait a little while at a rest stop. We ended up having to pay them $40 US dollars to let us out and leave. If this tells you anything, our 4-hr ride to Kisumu was supposed to be only about $4 per person. We were making quite a scene, but Meredith told us the story once we were walking off to find another taxi. She said she got a really bad feeling and was sure that they were plotting something, especially since they tried so hard to get all of the ‘westerners” to join them in their same mutatu. Who knows if anything would have happened, but it is better safe than sorry. I trusted Meredith’s opinion, especially since she followed the news stories of the bombings in Uganda this past summer. We were all a little shook-up, but we ended up finding a taxi soon after to take us the rest of the way. I’m learning that it is so important to always be on guard, no matter where you are.

Although I feel sad to leave the others, I am excited and rejuvenated for school to start. We are still in the works of figuring out how to set-up an international money tranfer for paypal and donations; it involves a bunch of legal implications and tricky rules. The others will most likely set up an account at Harvard and form an organization there; I will then form a UT branch by the same name. We will use the organizations to fundraise and promote future trips to WEMA in the future. Hopefully we can expand our involvement to many universities in the future. As I left, Theresa begged me to come back this summer, but I told her I didn’t know when the next time would be. I do think, however, it will be a lifelong project, and I am dedicated to helping them from across the pond. It will be exciting to see their progress when I am able to visit again.

Theresa also mentioned their plan of action. She showed me the brochures that birthed the WEMA idea, one that lists the MDG’s and the Stand Up Take Action campaign. She went through all of the Millenium Development Goals with me and told me which ones they have started to tackle versus which ones they still need work on. One that they haven’t quite tackled yet is health and medical care and the eradication of diseases that are plaguing them. She told me that she would love my help, in the future, to set up a medical clinic at WEMA for the orphans and surrounding neighbors. I look forward to helping out in that way as I continue with my pre-med concentration.

I hope everyone has enjoyed reading my blog to find out more about WEMA orphanage and Highway Academy. This has been such a great, refreshing experience, and I will surely miss everyone back in Bukembe.

I will keep everyone posted as opportunities become available to donate online. If you are interested in donating right now, contact me at sarahollis123@gmail.com.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

No electricity!

Jambo sana!

Today is day two of being completely out of electricity, which is why I was not able to post yesterday. Luckily we went to town today and found a shop to charge our laptops at temporarily!

Tuesday morning we woke up to some bad news: someone had stolen our transformer in the night, and one of the directors (Stephen)  has come down with malaria. We have been making due with flashlights and lamps and hopefully another transformer will be here by tomorrow. Stephen is feeling better already and has gotten medication; he informed us that people here don't usually take malaria pills until they are sick. Good thing we are all on track with ours, and we all hope he gets to feeling better very soon.

It is truly amazing to witness the amount of faith, and sometimes blind faith, that the people here have. Upon finding out about Stephen's sickness, a group of the aunties and the directors stayed up the entire night praying and singing. Almost every night, in sickness or health, prayers can be heard until midnight and they sometimes wake up as early as 5 to continue on until their morning work begins. It has been really cool to witness and even take part!

Today, Esther and I worked with our 8th graders on their HIV/AIDS dramas. The kids are being pretty creative and we can't wait to film them on Friday. Hopefully doing things like this will reduce the stigma  surrounding AIDS in the school and community.

We were also able to take pictures of the orphans today; we will use these for the website under the "Sponsor A Child" section. The website is in the works and Laura's brother has agreed to help us out with it, which is great!

We went into Bungoma today to try and look for a computer to leave with the orphanage when we leave, but didn't have much luck and will look more in Kisumu this weekend. We decided at a team meeting last night that having a computer for them is one of our biggest priorities; without a computer they cannot check their website, receive their Paypal donations, or communicate with us. We are going to try to find a good deal here and split the cost, and if not, find a way to get one donated shortly after we leave.

I helped cook dinner tonight and made the cabbage and ugali, they said I was a natural!

Hopefully all is well with everyone,


Monday, January 10, 2011

Back to Bukembe


Sorry that it has taken me so long to get this blog started, but I figured it was better late than never! We have been here for a little over a week but it feels like we have gotten so much accomplished already. 

I will give you all some background information on what exactly I am doing in Bukembe village in Western Kenya. At the end of my fall semester, an opportunity arose to join four other students, Laura D'Asaro, Alex Breinin, Esther Moon, and Meredith Baker on a trip to stay at WEMA Children's Centre and work with the orphanage and its affliliated school, Highway Academy. Stephen and Theresa, our hosts and directors, have shared with us information about why they started Highway Academy and WEMA.

Stephen and Teresa, both teachers, established Highway Academy in 1999 because they found the conditions at the local public schools terrible.  The average class has 120 students, and students become discouraged from attending.  Their goal at Highway Academy was to provide smaller classes (of around 30 students) where students are encouraged to learn in a supportive environment that stresses education is the key to their success. 

In the early 2000s, the AIDS crisis hit Western Kenya, and many of the students attending the school became orphans.  In response, Stephen and Teresa bought five more acres, built new facilities, and created WEMA Children's Centre to give the orphans an opportunity to continue attending Highway Academy. They felt a strong responsibility to do everything in their power to provide education for their struggling community, even in the midst of the turmoil caused by HIV/AIDS. Aside from just orphans, many children who come from very poor families board here to ease the burden on their families.

Today, the facilities are inadequate, and their only funding is from the few parents who can afford to pay the school fees.  Wema's main goal is to build new boarding facilities because many of the students live in the school, which is illegal. The government has requested they build dorms as soon as possible to make the orphanage and school two separate entities.  They would also like to build a dining hall.  Currently, they have 106 orphans and approximately 300 more day students.  There are about 30 teachers.  In 2010, one of their students was the top scorer in the Western Province on the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education.  Overall, they were the second highest scoring school in Western Province, and in 2009, they were third.

As you can see, Stephen and Theresa have seen great fruits from their labor. However, they were in fear of shutting down at the end of 2010 due to lack of funds. To see a school with so much potential and no financial means is disheartening, and our overall goal it to stabilize Highway Academy and WEMA financially so they can continue to give the children of Bukembe the opportunities they deserve.

Since our arrival, we have established timelines for various projects we have. Our first goal is to create a website with a PayPal account to facilitate monetary donations and create awareness for WEMA. We will hopefully have this set up before we leave and have been working with the teachers and directors on computer skills to manage the website. We are aware that many potential donors are skeptical of donating money to organizations that they are not sure are reputable. One of our main goals is to show our friends and family that WEMA is reputable and the directors (Stephen and Theresa) are determined, sincere, and passionate about their cause. 

We are also teaching academic classes while we are here to expose the students to some different teaching styles. I am personally working with Esther on teaching HIV/AIDS lessons to the grade 8 science class. We have done several fun activities so far with the kids, such as hanging up posters and flyers that they created in the local marketplace. They seemed super excited to have a role in helping their community; some of them have probably never even thought of doing something like that. We are also coordinating dramas for the kids to perform next week; they will deal with different situations involved with HIV/AIDS. I will be sure to post the link to the videos once they are filmed!

Besides our work at the orphanage, we were able to take this weekend to explore the beauty of Kenya. What better way than a safari? We braved the seven-hour journey to Masai Mara and had an awesome time. We saw all of the animals that I wanted to see, and even got to stop in Kisumu for a boat ride on Lake Victoria to see hippos (preceded by a motorcycle ride with locals to get there, sorry mom). We just returned back and are excited and rejuvenated for this week. On the ride back, the taxi stalled in a dark area, but Theresa came to the rescue soon after. Everyone was a little on edge, so it is nice to be safe and sound back at WEMA.

I will update and post more pictures later, but here are a few so far. Hope all is well!

Tutaonana badaaye,