Alexi Lubomirski — world-famous fashion photographer and Concern Celebrity Partner — is on the road with our team in Kenya. For the past two days he has been in Marsabit County, seeing Concern’s education and nutrition programs.
We are at the northern most point of Kenya, close to the Ethiopian border, where the land is barren and seems inhospitable to a city person like me. The heat is scorching, and people must deal with one weather extreme to another. Sometimes, there is no rain and they are left searching for water for their livestock. Other times, there is flooding. Heavy rains in Ethiopia turn into floods that make their way down to the people here and wash away their livestock, homes, and sometimes the people themselves.
We asked the men of the village if, like in many other rural areas of the world, the young men leave to find work in cities. The answer came from a young man, “We were born here, and this is our life. Why would we betray the soil that gave birth to us?”
Concern comes to villages like this and brings nutritional supplements to children, pregnant, and breastfeeding moms. One mother we met here told us that she was amazed that people from other parts of the world (like us) had even heard of them and their problems, let alone wanted to help them.
“It is the culture here for girls to be seen, but not heard… Agnes and the teachers work to help these incredibly bright girls overcome their shyness, so that they can thrive.”
Fiona, an incredibly positive woman who works for Concern, is the nutritional expert in these parts. She comes in and visits all of the various villages in the area to screen children, and to tackle the massive malnutrition problem. She told us that due to Concern’s “blanket feeding” program, she has seen vast nutritional and developmental improvements with all the children.
It’s our last day and one that affected me the most. Today was about education and we visited a school on the edge of the Chalbi desert. We met Concern staffer Agnes, who visits schools that are scattered across this vast, barren countryside, and trains teachers about “gender sensitivity” — involving girl students as much as the boys. She explained that because of the culture here, girls are meant to be seen but not heard. That means that when they come to school, they are extremely shy, rarely ask or answer questions, engage in discussion, or come up to the blackboard. Agnes and the teachers work to help these incredibly bright girls overcome their shyness, so that they can thrive, and realize their dreams of who they want to be when they are adults.
It’s important to consider that here, there is nearly 100% FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). As soon as a girl goes through that, they generally are married off as young as 9 or 10, which means that they will stop going to school.
“If only we could all have this deep love for one another, and a wish to help those around us.”
But the best part of today was meeting a 12-year-old girl named Botu Ali. She refused FGM so that she could continue her education — with her mother’s support. She told us that she wants to become a teacher, so she can teach other young girls that they can refuse FGM in order to study and follow their dreams. Concern’s Agnes has started “Children to Children conversations” (a kid’s version of the “Community Conversations” program). Botu used this platform to teach other girls about FGM, and how they can avoid it. She also teaches boys about why they should support their female counterparts in their decision. Hearing her speak so bravely (she was still incredibly shy), made me so emotional — I’m not her dad, and yet, I felt an overwhelming fatherly pride for her and her desire to better the lives of her classmates. On the outside, Botu is shy and quiet, but on the inside she is strong, brave, and determined with her mission. I told her how impressed I was with her. With this kind of drive to help people around her, at this young age, there is nothing that she could not achieve in her life. If only we could all have this deep love for one another, and a wish to help those around us as she does… Botu Ali for President!
A lasting change
Before we left for Nairobi, we asked the Headmistress of one of the schools, Leonora, if Concern had been a help to her. Taking a deep breath, she said “If it were not for Concern, we would not be here now. Before Concern came, we had no running water. We had to send our girls into the village to collect water where they were sometimes pelted with stones by the villagers. The water was salty, and gave the girls stomachaches. Due to their travel time to collect water, classes were late or missed and girls dropped out of school,” she explained.
“The classrooms are so full, that desks are lined up all the way to the blackboard!”
“Concern came and brought solar power to the school which meant we could pump clean, sweet water to our school,” she continued. “We now have taps in every room, we have a bathroom for the girls, we have clean classrooms, and we can even plant trees and water them. Life changed overnight here and now there is 100% attendance and the school has tripled in students. The classrooms are so full, that desks are lined up all the way to the blackboard — just to fit all these bright girls!”
I couldn’t leave without asking the girls what they wanted to be. And in poured the answers: lawyers, journalists, politicians, doctors and teachers… I see a bright future for the young girls of Kenya!