Back in 2011, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Kenya to assist with the building of two new classrooms at the Inspirations School in Timbwani. The entire school, and in fact three others, have been funded and built by Linda and Mike Radford, who run the Maji Safi Project - A project which was started in 1999 after a branch fell on Linda's head whilst her and Mike were on holiday in Kenya, and her hospitalisation not only delayed their trip home, but allowed her to bond with the locals that visited her at the hospital each day. After recovering from the accident, (which obviously The Sun reported as her being crushed by a tree) Linda contracted Malaria, meaning that her and Mike were left with even more time to bond with the locals whilst she recovered, which spurred them to create the charity. Maji Safi has strong links with my old Secondary School, Ashton Park, (and that's exactly how I came to be on the trip in the first place, along with a team of twenty or so other people!)
The Maji Safi charity has (deservedly) had lots of recent news exposure, and it's really got me thinking about my time in Kenya a lot more than usual. Obviously, if I'd had a blog back in 2011, then I would have written a post about it then, but I've decided that there's nothing stopping me from writing one now. (Though working about eight thousand hours in the last couple of weeks has done a pretty good job of postponing it.)
Our trip was split into two parts - building classrooms at the school and then, a week long safari. I'd dreamt of going on a safari ever since watching The Lion King (and The Wild Thornberrys) as a kid, so for me it was the perfect treat after helping to build the classrooms.
Before heading to Kenya, I had my reservations about whether or not I'd be any good at bricklaying. Turns out that I'm a natural. (Sort of.) It helped that the bricks were all slightly different shapes and sizes, so I had the perfect excuse for my wall not being perfectly straight. It was really hard work, lugging bricks around in the baking sun but in fact the hardest part about it all was trying to refrain from being distracted by so many inquisitive children. The school was open whilst we were building the new classrooms, and every ten minutes or so, a giggling child would try to get your attention because they wanted to play. At lunch times, the local villagers would cook us a traditional African lunch (which I'd look forward to every day and still crave fairly often!)
On our days off, most of the group went to the beach. A couple of us spent our free days visiting orphanages and feeding programmes, which were really eye opening. The children at the school were poor, but seeing the children that had lost their parents to HIV, and the very young children who would walk kilometres and kilometres to the feeding programme, with their baby brothers or sister tied to their back so they could take two meals instead of one - that was heartbreaking. I felt that it was important to go and help where possible.
At the school, our teams would take it in turns building, or in the classrooms with the children, teaching them to sing songs or helping with their lessons. Nearly five years on and I still get emotional when I hear 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' as it reminds me of how excited the children were to learn it! Our days in the classroom seemed fly by in a flash of smiles and tears and laughter and singing. I'm yet to meet a group of happier children, which I often reflect on when I think of how little they have.
Building at the school was almost done - but first we had to take the children on a daytrip to the beach. For many of the forty children, it would be the first and maybe the last time they saw the sea, as back in the village, they had jobs such as tending to the goats or crops. I can't begin to describe to you the joy in their laughter as we raced them through the waves. All of us were drenched by the end of the day (and as a result weren't allowed on the bus home.)
The last day at the school was emotional. We'd gotten to know the kids during our time there, and they were as gutted about us leaving as we were. There were lots of hugs and tears, but at least I knew I'd done a good job in my bricklaying.... Plus it was time for safari!
Safari is something I imagine I will never tire of. Day one consisted of a group of 20 excitable ex-school builders, all stood up in the safari buses, excitedly pointing out the animals they spotted. By day four, the number of standing people had severely dwindled, and by the last day, I'm pretty sure I was still the only one shouting 'HEY LOOK, AN ELEPHANT!' (Which usually returned a couple of groans, considering by that point we'd seen about fifteen thousand elephants.)
Our first excitement came on day one, as upon entry to the park we spotted some lions. Right as the sump guard fell off the bottom of our bus. (I still don't really know what a sump guard is, but I'll always remember the name as our driver got out to fix it, and the passengers of every single safari vehicle that went past would worriedly ask why he wasn't in the bus, and he'd just reply 'sump guard.')
I can promise you that for me there were many, many more excitements to come - mainly in the form of every single animal that happened to wander into my vision. We were lucky enough to see the Big Five during our week in the parks. I will never forget moments such as eating breakfast whilst a family of elephants walked through our campsite, or watching a leopard eating his dinner right next to where we'd just eaten ours at the lodge! My favourite moment was watching a cheetah teaching her cubs to hunt (and then one of them messing up the hunt, so I didn't have to watch any gore.) We were also privileged enough to be invited to meet some of the Maasai Tribe, who put on a singing and dancing display for us.
It's safe to say that my time in Kenya was one of the best experiences of my life so far. It's going to take a lot to top it. A huge thanks to Paul Miller for ever allowing me on the trip in the first place, and of course Linda and Mike for all the amazing work they do. I definitely want to return to Kenya - it really did change my life.