Willow Wheelers Kenyan Mission Trip 2020
By Áine O Donoghue
In February 2020, 43 members of the Willow Wheelers cycling club including 15 students travelled to Kenya. For the past 30 years the Willow Wheelers have made an annual mission trip to some of the poorest countries in the world. The purpose of trips is to learn more about the lives of people living on the margins and to touch base with those who working with the poorest of the poor. Subsequently, projects visited by the group receive funding from proceeds of a 100-mile charity cycle which takes place the following May bank holiday. Most of the projects visited by the Wheelers have strong links with the Spiritan missionary work, and the itinerary of project visits is based on Spiritan knowledge of the locality. After the trip, experiences are shared with all three schools on the Blackrock campus, thus strengthening the Spiritan ethos among the whole school community.
This is a pattern which has emerged over many years, however it didn’t happen like this after the 2020 trip due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Who could have foreseen the crisis that was about to unfold in front of our eyes? Little did we believe that the spread of the virus would result in a major lockdown, and daily news bulletins would begin with announcements of the number of deaths that has occurred the previous day. At the time of writing, the government have extended the lockdown until May 5th, saying that we have not yet reached the peak of the crisis. With all that is happening, the Kenyan trip seems a long time ago, even though it has only been month since our return.
Shanty Towns under Lockdown
Potentially, the COVID-19 pandemic has disastrous consequences for marginalised communities visited by the Willow Wheelers. Living in a lockdown is a necessary state to curtail the spread of the virus. Yet, it is hard to imagine how the residents of Nairobi’s shanty towns can isolate themselves. Homes in the shanty towns, consist of cramped makeshift huts, many of these huts house families of eight or more. For some children, their only meal of the day is supplied by feeding programmes run by schools. Unfortunately, the closure of shanty town schools, due to the pandemic, has affected funding for feeding programmes. In response to an emergency appeal, the Willow Wheelers sent money to sustain two feeding programmes one in Riruta and the other in Mukuru. Both areas had been visited by the Wheelers earlier in the year. Residents of the shanty towns survive on meagre incomes, their sanitation facilities and access to water is almost non-existent. One can only hope that the virus does not take hold in these shanty towns, as the potential scale of the devastation is unimaginable.
Memories of the trip fill me with mixed emotion, on one hand we saw many encouraging signs of growth but on the other hand these developments are now threatened by the possible spread of COVID-19. While in Kenya there was a consensus among the group that this was one of the best Willow Wheeler mission trips. Everything seemed to go well and the group saw steady progress among the projects supported by the Willow Wheelers.
One such is Gatoto School which was founded by Betty Nyagoha to provide an education for children of Riruta shanty town. Through determination and hard work, Betty has developed a high achieving school. Today Gatoto School is among the top 10% performing school in Nairobi and the school choir has won the highest awards in Kenya. This is a remarkable achievement considering the poor back grounds most of the pupils come from. We also heard of success stories of children reared in an orphanage founded by Anna Chebet. Some of the abandoned babies she rescued, from all over Nairobi, have now progressed to third level universities and many return to help in the orphanage. It was also heartening to see the produce grown on the grounds of a school run by Sisters of the Precious Blood thanks to a well installed, and paid for, by the Willow Wheelers. Development is slow, nevertheless we saw a determined effort to build on successes and the Willow Wheelers continue to support these projects.
Sadly, recent reports indicate that some of the poorest communities visited by the Willow Wheelers will suffer greatly as a result of COVID-19. More worryingly, many of these communities are defenceless in the face of disasters. Now more than ever it seems critical that the wider community reach out to weaker communities, because what happens in one community can have adverse consequences for all of us. Who would have believed that a microscopic virus, believed to have originated in a market in China, could have disastrous consequences for the global community? There is a saying in Irish, Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,
Roughly translated this means that people live within each other’s shadow. In other words, we are all connected and reliant on each other. The word ‘scáth’ can also mean shelter, and the saying can also be interpreted as follows; people survive when sheltered by others.
In a strange way, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed a new light on the relevance of the Willow Wheeler mission trips. Travelling to places and listening to people gives a unique insight into the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. As one of our members said, “the mission trip is a privilege” one that allows us to visit people in their homes and witness first-hand the daily struggles they endure. One of the striking features of these visits is the gratitude expressed by people that someone is willing to listen to them. Listening to their stories it becomes apparent that all of us have the same needs, such as, a decent place to live, a sufficient income, health and a good future for our children. “It is an act of love to spend time with others, to listen to them and their needs, and to try to see them as Christ sees them”, Pope Francis said in his New Year’s Eve address. In these uncertain times, it seems more important than ever that we are aware of communities in need of support, because their struggles may have implications for all of us.
There were so many wonderful aspects to this trip, and there was great comradery among the group. However the shadow the current pandemic has pushed those memories aside for the time being. Hopefully in the future, the happy memories can be brought to the fore to be shared with others. In the meantime the Willow Wheelers have promised to continue supporting the poorest of the poor. Latest predictions indicate that third world communities are facing a famine of “biblical proportions” as a result of COVID-19. These include communities visited by the Willow Wheelers. Unfortunately this year’s 100-Mile Cycle has been deferred due to COVID-19, funds raised by the event are entirely for third world projects. Members of the club are exploring alternative methods of fundraising as our support is needed now more than ever. It is not surprising that members of the club are planning other methods of fund raising, for a deep sense of reaching out to others lies at the core of the Willow Wheelers ethos. An ethos that evokes the goodness in its members, a goodness that is called upon now to help those living with the threat of starvation.