Willow Wheelers Mission Trip Kenya 2023
The Willow Wheelers were delighted to resume the annual mission trip after a gap of two years due to Covid lockdowns. During the same time, Fourth and Fifth Year students have missed out on normal mile-stone events including the usual Willow Wheeler trips and Club activities. Yet, they showed remarkable fortitude by continuing to cycle and fundraise, when it was permitted to do so, under the leadership of Joan Kavanagh. Therefore, it was particularly rewarding that this group were able to experience a mission trip. Christy was keen that the students would get a chance to see how their fundraising efforts had improved the lives of many.
Kenya was chosen as the destination for the Willow Wheeler Mission Trip 2023 as the Wheelers have supported communities there for many years. As it happens, most of these communities endured severe food shortages during Covid and the Wheelers responded to many emergency appeals for food and medical aid. Consequently, the Wheelers were anxious to reconnect with communities and let them know that they were not forgotten. Hence, arrangements were put in place and in February a group of thirty Wheelers, including nine students, headed off to Kenya.
Each Mission trip involves months of planning and this one was no different. Apart from flights and accommodation there are a multitude of considerations to take into account when travelling to a third world country. Visas and vaccinations are essential, and the itinerary has to be cognisant of time constraints and travel difficulties in remote areas. In addition, the Wheelers bring donated items such as medicines, school materials and clothes and it is not always easy to get extra baggage allowance from airlines. Yet all the planning proved more than worthwhile based on the experiences of all who travelled and benefits to communities visited in Kenya.
Project Visits in Nairobi
Throughout the Covid pandemic the Willow Wheelers responded to many appeals for emergency food and medical aid. One such appeal came from Gatoto School in Makuru Shanty town, where feeding programmes stopped due to school closures and starvation ensued. The school suffered another sad loss when Betty, founder of the school, died of Covid. Betty started the school from nothing and faced many challenges to keep the school open. She persisted because she believed that education was the key to a better future for children of the shanty town. She encouraged children to shine and never give up hope despite circumstances. Regardless of setbacks the school managed to grow and is one of the top performing school in Nairobi, an extraordinary achievement considering the backgrounds of the children. Gideon, the new Principal carries on the work Betty saying “without Gatoto Primary School the students would have no chance of an education”. Indeed, six of the teachers are past pupils and serve as role models for students in Gatoto.
Crowns of Honour
On the day we visited, children presented the Willow Wheelers with hand-made crowns to show how happy they were by our presence. The Willow Wheeler students were clearly touched by the joyful welcome of the Gatoto children who sang songs, recited poems, and performed a scout drill all in an uplifting manner. Afterwards we walked around the shanty town to see where the children lived. Raw sewerage trickles past shacks of corrugated iron which the children call home and food is scarce. So much so, parents ask their children not to eat the school lunch of beans and maize but to bring it home for the rest of the family. Consequently, teachers monitor children eating their lunch as it is the only meal they will get and without nourishment the children are less likely to learn. This is the reality of living in poverty, difficult choices have to be made and it was a real eye opener for first time visitors on the mission trip.
Water in Riruta
In Riruta shanty town the Wheelers visited a school run by the Sister of the Precious Blood for street children, many abandoned because of poverty. Here, a small farm provides nourishing foodstuffs for children thanks to a water tower installed by the Wheelers. However, water levels have dropped, possibly due to climate change or water being syphoned off by locals, meaning the school has to buy tanks of water. Of course, the Wheelers were disappointed but this is the reality of living in the Third World. To investigate the causes of falling water levels the Wheelers recommended carrying out an engineering survey. On a more positive note, the school promotes gymnastic formation teams and have won many awards in competitions. We were treated to a breath-taking performance of gymnastics and dance and invited to join them on stage. Needless to say my attempt at dancing would not win any competitions!
The Anna Chebet Orphanage
Before, leaving Nairobi we also visited Anna Chebet who set up an orphanage for abandoned children. Anna never intended to set up an orphanage, it started with one child being left outside her home. Since then she has taken in many children, fed, educated and cared for them. On our visit we met past residents of the orphanage who have come back to help Anna. Many are attending third level studying subjects such as Computer Studies, Social Work, Procurement, and Journalism. Today Anna has 60 children in primary school, 40 in secondary and 23 attending third level.
The Willow Wheelers support all of the above projects and without that support it is difficult to imagine how they would survive. It is fair to say that thousands of children are alive today thanks to the Willow Wheelers.
Before travelling north to visit rural projects the group split into three smaller groups, each visiting a different venue which were ; Tangulbei, Rotu and Barpello, the Wheelers support water, health and education projects in each of these areas. In Tangulbei the Willow Wheelers support a maternity unit, a health clinic and a feeding programme. Similarly, the Wheelers have supported education, and food projects in Rotu through the ‘work for food scheme’ run by Fr Sean Mc Govern CSSp. The Wheelers have also played a pivotal role in the building of the new church in Rotu and the group who travelled there were excited to see the almost completed church. My group travelled to Barpello an area that has received a lot of support from the Willow Wheelers.
Green Shoots in Barpello
No matter how many times I visit Barpello I am always struck by the welcome we receive and the dedication of those who work to support marginalized communities. People like Fr. Tom Wangouyi CSSp face an uphill struggle to support communities deprived of food and water. A series of droughts, attributed to climate change, makes it very difficult to sustain life here, yet the people have nowhere else to go. Seeing the situation first hand brings home the reality of what it means to be so poor. This had a profound effect on the Willow Wheeler students, to such an extent, that it prompted each of them to speak openly about their ‘eye opening’ and indeed life changing experiences. Happily, there are signs of ‘green shoots’ in Barpello. In the schools we visited, including outdoor schools, we saw children engaged in more child-friendly tasks rather than rote learning. Moreover, Barpello High School is increasing in student numbers after it lost many students during lockdowns. On the day we visited the students performed a play which they had written themselves. The theme of the play was about young girls being rescued from forced marriages and enabled to continue their education. What is remarkable about this is that the message had come from the students. In other words, they understood that education was the key to a better future and they were prepared to take ownership of their future. Those of us who watched the play felt the hairs tingling at the back of our necks.
Unfortunately there is isn’t enough room here to write about everything we experienced as it is I have only touched on parts of the trip. For instance I haven’t mentioned the Safari trip, a colourful Mass in Nairobi, crossing the equator, tribal singing and dancing, and travelling through the Rift Valley. Above all the mission trip is a privilege, one that gives a real insight into the struggles of our fellow human beings. One of the things that stood out on this trip was the impact it had on the Willow Wheeler students. Time and time again they responded to people with sincerity and were keen to find out more about the lives of some of the poorest people in the world. They also threw themselves into football matches with their Kenyan counterparts. Since our return, the students organised their own fundraiser prompted by the experiences in Kenya, Joan Kavanagh and Arnaud Fine have also held fundraisers to provide food for communities experiencing severe food shortages.
All the good that comes out of the mission trip can be attributed to the work done by Christy. In fact it is a mystery how he manages it all. Those of us who have been lucky enough to go on a mission trip are truly grateful for the experience. More importantly, the people who benefit the most are the poor and forgotten people.