In October 2013 I packed my bags to go to Kenya for a month. This had all come round very quickly. This was my first trip to Africa, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only thing I was sure of was, despite the terrorist and travel warnings, that I would be well looked after. This was a Guiding trip after all!
I was going to Kenya to take part in a community action experience as part of the Fifth World Centre Pilot Project. I was a real privilege to be able to take part in this pilot project. There are currently four World Centres. We have two in Europe (Pax Lodge in London and Our Chalet in Switzerland). Our Cabaña is in Mexico, in the Western Hemisphere and Sangam is in India, in the Asia Pacific region. For a very long time girls in Africa have been asking, “What about us?” It was suggested that the existing infrastructure that African Guides have could be used rather than building and maintaining a new centre. At the last World Conference in Edinburgh in 2011 a pilot project was approved. This new World Centre, if it is approved, will travel around Africa. The Pilot Project has been to Ghana, South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya.
When I arrived at the airport in Nairobi, I filled in my visa and immigration forms and stood in a queue for a visa… for a long time… until the man working at the desk left. I eventually pushed my way into the queue next door, got my visa and officially arrived in Kenya. I was then met by a group of Kenyan young leaders who had been wondering if I’d actually got on the plane because it had taken me so long to get through immigration.
My first few days in Kenya were spent in Nairobi getting to know the other volunteers who I’d be living and working with and learning more about Kenya. We met some very inspirational Kenyan Young Leaders, Guiders and Commissioners, and visited the Kibera Girls Centre and the Hawkers Market Girls Centre, two projects run by the Kenya Girl Guides Association providing training and opportunities for young women.
The project I took part in was at Shanzu Transitional Workshop for Disabled Young Women. This is a centre run by the Kenya Girl Guides in Mombasa. After flying to Mombasa from Nairobi (and repacking everyone’s luggage several times so we each had a bag that weighed less than 20kg) and watching my luggage being strapped to the roof of a bus, we were greeted at Shanzu by singing and dancing from the Shanzu girls and a traditional coastal welcome coconut.
The next day was the opening ceremony for the event. In Africa ceremonies are never small or low-scale. There was singing, dancing, poetry, speeches, music, cake… Local Rainbows, Brownies and Guides came, as well as local officials, KGGA board members, WAGGGS representatives and supporters of Shanzu.
The young women who live at Shanzu are either physically disabled or deaf. In Kenya, there is still stigma around being disabled. There is not much support for people with disabilities. Shanzu’s motto is “Opportunity not Sympathy” which is what the Kenya Girl Guides aim to provide. The young women spend at least two years at Shanzu. They learn life skills and how to take care of themselves, as well as tailoring skills and a tailoring qualification. They leave Shanzu with a qualification, a sewing machine and a small amount of capital to start their own business. They also have the option to stay at Shanzu where they can work in the production unit and earn money for the items they make. They make bags and souvenirs which are sold to tourists and members of the public, and also Kenya Girl Guide uniform.
I was one of eight WAGGGS volunteers taking part in this project. The other girls were from Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Liberia, Lebanon and the USA. During our time in Kenya, we worked on a variety of different projects including marketing, a website, a sensory garden and classes with the young women.
My main focus was on sessions with the disabled young women who live at Shanzu. I led sessions on self-esteem and on sexual and reproductive health every day. As part of the self-esteem sessions, I used activities from the WAGGGS Free Being Me curriculum. The girls always wanted to have fun, were always happy and always wanted to learn. It was a real pleasure to be with them. It was also a challenge to me to work with such a diverse group of young women. Some were deaf, some only spoke Swahili, some had not had many educational opportunities in the past so weren’t as good at reading and writing as others. Nonetheless, we had lots of fun together, and I know the girls and I learnt a lot from each other in the short time I was in Kenya.
I discovered that some of the young women are uncomfortable to leave Shanzu because people look down on them when they go out and that they don’t believe that they can do the same things that anyone else can. Others, however, are very positive role models and leaders amongst their peers. They often proudly say that “disability is not inability and inability is not disability”. They believe in themselves and their own abilities. They wrote messages for the Free Being Me website including, “You are beautiful just the way you are” and “Always like to enjoy your life even when things are hard”. I hope that the girls will continue to develop their self-esteem and confidence after we have left and that there will be a lasting difference.
Before coming to Shanzu, I had never led any sessions on sexual and reproductive health before. At first it was a challenge to talk about these topics, but I learnt how to do this and had fun with the girls. I was surprised at the gap in knowledge between young people in Kenya (and I think other African countries) and young people in my home country. I know that the girls learned a lot from our sessions and I learned a lot from them and also from Edith who I ran the sessions with.
Highlights of my time Kenya were going on safari, exploring the Free Being Me activities and taking the girls swimming at Pangoni hotel. Beatrice told me that she had never been in the water before and that it was an experience she will remember for her whole life.