Sunday, October 15, 2017

Animal and Human Orphans Are Rescued from Despair

Although massive elephants appear to be robust and tough, they are in fact the most fragile of all animals, according to Angela Sheldrick, the dynamic director of the Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, a sanctuary of hope, part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, set up in memory of her legendary father.

So when a baby elephant is left alone and stranded in the wilderness when its mother dies from poaching or drought, the helpless infant is desperately vulnerable and terrified. This is a heartbreaking tragedy.

Elephants are just like humans. They have a long life span of 80 or more years and a long childhood of dependency. Babies in the wild suckle from their patient mothers for years and orphans are bottle-fed for up to five years, every three hours around the clock, seven days a week by devoted keepers who even sleep in the stockades to care for the babies through the night.


Orphan eli’s are not ready for release to join the wild herds at Tsavo for 10 years. The orphanage is rescuing one new stranded baby every week because of the devastating drought. That’s a lot of baby elephants to care for over the next decade. People who love elephants can foster an elephant baby on the Trust’s website.

Visitors from around the world to the famous orphanage watch in sheer delight as the adorable babies drink their bottles of milk and then frolic gleefully, slipping and sliding, splashing and thrashing, in the rust-red mud. Angela says wallowing in mud is the equivalent pleasure to humans enjoying a pampering spa!

Meeting Pili

I was lucky to meet the tiniest elephant I’ve every seen, three-week old Pili. His name means ‘pepper’ in Swahili because he was rescued clinging to a pepper tree after falling in the river in the Maasai Mara. Quivering and shy, Pili now sticks close to the larger female baby eli’s, who encircle him protectively. Elephants are so nurturing they will adopt babies from outside their herd and even other species of animals.


Big Cats

At another Animal Orphanage inside the Nairobi National Park, the rescued babies are mostly big cats. These majestic apex predators are sadly reduced to lazing away their days in enclosures and being handfed chunks of meat, instead of hunting. Rescued as babies, they have been raised in captivity and would be incapable of fending for themselves in the wild.

I discover that lions, unlike elephants, do not care for orphans outside their family group so the ferocious lion and lioness must be kept away from the lonely little cub in separate enclosures or they would kill him.

Seeing these magnificent, powerful animals behind wire mesh, instead of roaming the plains, tugs at my heart but I realise it’s a better alternative than them dying. Most of the big cats have been victims of the drought caused by climate change, which is caused by human pollution. Tragically, the disruption to nature usually leads back to us humans.

Cheating death 

The elegant cheetah with its distinctive streaks under the eyes, is the fastest of all the big cats with their long, greyhound-like legs.

I remember seeing a family of cheetahs relaxing in the shade of a tree on the Maasai Mara last year, looking so proud with disdainful superiority in their ability to reprimand any foolish human with one swipe of a powerful paw.

However baby ‘Derick Duma’ was a sick three-week old cub from Wajir when taken into the orphanage in 2014. The keepers say he cried through months of painful injections, but seemed to know they were helping him to recover. Derek became one of the friendliest cheetahs and loves his animal toys.

Leopards are beautiful with their profusion of spots. Little Talek joined the orphanage in 2006 as a two-week-old cub after being found all alone and crying pitifully near the Maasai Mara. He was hand reared, drinking milk from a bottle, and soon started eating steak mince. Now he is a beautiful, fully-grown leopard affectionate with the keeper who has cared for him since a baby.

Humans Babies without Parents

Sandy McDonald, an eloquent, compassionate woman, living in Melbourne Australia, originally from Zimbabwe, read my stories and contacted me about her own phenomenal charity work in Kenya. Such is the ease of connectivity through social media and the wonders of the worldwide web.

If your heart breaks for the animal orphans, the suffering of Africa’s human orphans is beyond comprehension.
Sandy’s research revealed the unimaginable tragedy of one child losing a parent every 22 seconds to HIV-AIDS and the staggering figure of 40 million babies and children abandoned and orphaned across the continent of Africa.

Sandy started the charity, Knit-A-Square with the creative idea of recruiting knitters from around the world to knit squares to sew together to make comforting blankets for orphans. She was deluged with parcels of hand knitted squares made with tears and love.

Sandy explains: "I came up with the idea and started the website and the community, but the squares went to my Aunt, Ronda Lowrie in South Africa, who agreed to the idea and who since then has organised the sorting and stitching of over 1,000,000 squares and items, and the distribution of the blankets to the children over the last 9 years.  

"At over 72 now, that is no mean feat.  She is still working tirelessly to do this work supported by the worldwide community."

Sandy launched CreateCare GLOBAL and now partners with the Kenyan orphanage, Rafiki Mwema, which cares for and rehabilitates damaged children, who have been the victims of sexual abuse.

Watch Sandy’s enthralling TED Talk and be touched by her passion and astonishing work that has taken off from a humble idea of providing comfort to homeless, parentless desperate children.

For animal and human babies who suffer cruelty, it restores faith in humanity to know that nurturing, protective love is a powerful healing force.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Power To Fly

Something wonderful is taking shape – colourful plans to bring groups of visitors from the UK, Europe, Australia, the US and other developed countries on life-changing trips to Kenya for a combination of volunteering and exciting travel.

I first came across the term “voluntourism” in 2012 when I met an extraordinary man, John Lawler who founded Madventurer– a scheme for students on their gap year - between graduating high school and starting university - to volunteer in challenging projects in developing countries with the opportunity to Make A Difference while having a grand adventure.

John Lawler, a pioneer of voluntourism
I interviewed this modest achiever one sunny day near the Tower of London and was inspired by John's story of starting out with a tiny seed of an idea that grew into the mighty tree of a flourishing worldwide charity.

That summer I did an exciting trip with Madventurer to Ghana as possibly the oldest “gap year” volunteer ever and discovered the joy of making heartwarming connections with people living in another culture!

Coming Alive in Ghana 

Meeting the beautiful children and talented musicians in Ghana on my Madventurer trip in 2012
Voluntourism takes hold 
And here I am five years later in rural Kenya returning to the theme of ‘voluntourism’, excited about the possibility of empowerment and transformation for both visitors and local people.

Millicent and I imagine that international visitors can come and volunteer in the Faraja Community Centre and help with the kids’ activities, the ladies’ sewing project, nutritious cooking classes and planting the community vegetable garden.

Volunteering is certainly NOT about White People flying in as superior, condescending Saviours to tell poor Black People what to do! Oh no, no, no! Volunteering is about an equal, respectful cultural exchange – a sharing of knowledge, creativity and traditions that becomes enriching and expansive for everyone. For example visitors can share their favourite recipes with local women who will share their traditional dishes.

Sweet Bananas

Here’s how respectful, equal friendship works. On Sunday I gave Anne some chocolate to say ‘Asante’ for her delicious meals – a real treat for Anne, who, unlike me, doesn’t get to have much chocolate! Today Anne gave me a perfect bunch of yellow, dainty Lady Finger bananas from her garden – a real treat for me, who relishes good quality, sweet bananas!

I believe people from different cultures can learn much from each other. The cultural exchange adds spice and novelty to bland, jaded lives. And we can make interesting new friends across countries, despite how politicians would divide us and build borders and walls to keep people apart, cultivating ignorance, fear and hostility. The truth is we are all human beings, connected as one big global family – mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.

Adventure for All Ages

And what about adventure? Together with Millicent and Garama and their sons, Peter and Eliud, we are devising a range of exhilarating trips to integrate into a three-week stay in rural Kenya.

On arriving in Nairobi, groups will visit the heart-warming Giraffe Centre and Elephant Orphanage before heading upcountry where trips will include game drives to see African wildlife in spectacular Meru National Park staying in the beautiful eco lodge; camping in Mount Kenya National Park , field trips to the remote villages with Millicent, day trips to the nearby tranquil waterfall lagoon, visits to lush hillside coffee and tea plantations and optional extras such as visiting the exotic tribal people, the Maasai Mara  and finally the ultimate add-on for those who are up for experiencing a tropical paradise?

Tongue kissing a giraffe at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi 

Keepers feeding the babies at the Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi

Brothers, Eliud and Peter at Mount Kenya national Park

A Colobus monkey we spotted on the road to Mount Kenya 

Eco lodge at Meru National Park

Chogoria waterfall

Maasai women on my safari in 2016

George, my new Maasai friend

Peter, a Maasai chief on his smart phone near the Mara River,
teeming with crocodiles

A sleepy lioness spotted by the road on my first game drive on the Maasai Mara

A family of cheetah relax in the shade on the Maasai plains

Magnetic Mombasa

When I first saw the word ‘Mombasa’ on the map of Kenya and neighbouring Diani Beach (with my name on it!), I was enchanted by the musical sound of the word as it rolled around my tongue. I quietly vowed to visit. However I never made it to the legendary coastal town on my last trip in 2016.

Mombasa is apparently a laid-back hippy haven of non-stop reggae parties and hot and steamy, glorious beaches, full of beautiful bodies basking in endless sunshine.

Over and over the hypnotic word “Mombasa” keeps cropping up. People whisper about romantic adventures camping under the stars with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro on the way to Mombasa!

And now the long-awaited new train from Nairobi to Mombasa is finally running, taking travellers right through spectacular Tsavo National Park with wild animals roaming free – you can spot buffalo, zebra, giraffes, lions, elephants from the window of the train!

The word ‘Mombasa’ evokes rapturous reactions even in reserved people.
While having lunch - a mountain of masala chips and spanish omelette -  on the balcony overlooking the rainforest at the Snow Peak Hotel, Pastor Garama’s face lights up at the mention of Mombasa! Suddenly he is lost in the revelry of fond memories of the magical town where he grew up with three brothers and three sisters, running free!  

Young Mark, the surgeon I met at the guesthouse, raves about Mombasa as some kind of paradise and warns that once you succumb to Mombasa’s idyllic charms, the danger is you never want to leave!  

Idyllic Mombasa beach that captures the heart and soul of visitors

For the Wild At Heart Only 

For the wild at heart and the eternally youthful, I’m imagining running three trips a year – in the dry months of January/February (a great escape from the bleak English winter); May/June (slightly cooler in Kenya) and the springtime of August/September for groups of nine to 12 people, in age groups of energetic young people aged 20 to 35, mid-lifers, aged 35 – 50 and the adventurous Over 50s. The question is, can you see yourself joining in the life-changing voluntourism movement?

The Power to Fly

The metamorphosis of the lowly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly is an inspiring symbol of transformation. But have you imagined what it actually FEELS like to be that mundane grub, wriggling along munching through leaves mindlessly, running on instinct, never looking beyond the next leaf, until one day you decide to spin yourself a reclusive cocoon where you retreat to contemplate your life’s higher purpose. While in this dark slumber something miraculous is taking place. You are being transformed! Suddenly you emerge with shock and exhilaration – you are reborn in a different form – with a set of beautiful wings with the power to fly! 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Giving and Receiving, Loving and Laughing

 Pulling stuff out of my battered duffel bag, it feels like Christmas! I feel pure joy in giving the gifts I’ve been collecting for months while Millicent and her team express pure delight in receiving loads of goodies for the Faraja Community Centre in Chogoria, rural Kenya.

My bag was full of good quality, second-hand colourful clothes I’d bought from charity shops back home in Tenterden, Kent to donate to the local ladies to sell in the markets and make some income for themselves with a percentage going to Faraja.

I give Fridah sewing supplies I’d bought cheap on Amazon, give Millicent musical instruments, games and books for the children and Faith and Robert notebooks, pens and stationery for their fieldwork taking health information to remote villages; items I’d bought cheap from Poundland that can make their work easier.

I ask Fridah to hem a dress and long skirt and take in some baggy pants for me as part of the mending project, which generates income for Faraja.

Caring visitors from other countries can donate clothes to support this little income-generating business and bring other useful resources to support the work of the centre. 

Fridah hard at work sewing bags

Faith and Robert who take health information to remote villages 

And then I show Millicent and Garama my idea for the kitchen in the corner of the large, spacious room, for use in the feeding program for the kids and how we can teach nutritious cooking classes and even have a café that draws in the whole community. We discuss how we could install flush toilets and go outside to the rough but fertile ground and visualise a community vegetable garden.

Millicent and Garama on the site for the community vegetable garden
The dynamic and dedicated couple are overwhelmed with excitement, saying they have always wanted to make these improvements to the centre but lacked the funds.

So now the vision for adding the electricity, plumbing and kitchen and expanding the services of Faraja will be possible with some enthusiastic volunteers pitching in with the trade skills and labour and a fundraising campaign amongst supporters in the UK, Australia and the States.

A realistic plan is starting to form in our minds and hearts, which already feels unstoppable and achievable. 

The Friday night party at the guesthouse for the hospital staff and their gorgeous children is a fun-filled occasion with a potluck dinner and rowdy games and quizzes. My instant new friends warmly welcome me to join in.

Meeting The Faraja Kids

Saturday is my first experience meeting the Faraja kids. It’s such a pleasure to watch the children sitting quietly and tucking into their hearty meal of rice and beans before playtime erupts, with boys kicking balls and doing handstands and filling the room with laughter.
The children eating their meal of rice and beans
Ball games and hand stands! 

Around 30 children, aged 4 to 14, come to the centre every Saturday for food and fun! They are vulnerable children from troubled, unstable families and many are orphans living with relatives in poor conditions.  

I introduce myself as ‘Mama Dee’ and then ask each child to come forward and write their name and age in my book. It is such a simple exercise but the children are enthralled watching intently and applauding riotously as each child completes the task and beams with pride!

Me leading the 'name game'!
But my idea for singing and dancing is a flop! I’d brought a jawbone speaker to sync to my iphone playlist but the music isn’t loud enough above the noise of the excited kids. So I decide to buy an old-fashioned CD player for next week’s session and Millicent suggests we teach the children the words to the songs before they try to sing them! What a good idea! In my eagerness to jump in, I have overlooked the obvious!    

But Pastor Garama saves the day by telling the kids an animated Bible story about the Good Samaritan with the message of being kind and helping each other.

Pastor Garama tells a bible story
Dinner with new American Friends

Beth and Larry from Alaska are living in a house in the hospital compound. Larry is a senior doctor training medical staff and Beth is a human rights lawyer. They are dedicated humanitarians and Christians devoted to Making A Difference to the community here during their two-year tenure.

They kindly invite Millicent and Garama and me for dinner on Saturday night and over a delicious meal of spaghetti we talk about the volatile political situation in Kenya with a second disruptive election and we all agree that peace is the most important issue for people struggling daily with poverty.

Ree’L and Jason, a paediatrician, and their young son Silas pop by. The adventurous family from Los Angeles are devoting five years to working here. Ree’L is a business expert and has volunteered to create a new website for Faraja and so I offer to write the content. It is funny how things are just flowing naturally with like-minded people coming together!

 Ree'L who is creating a Faraja website
Sunday is for 
Praise and Worship

I wake up at 5 am to the heavenly sound of the girls at Boarding School singing hymns in rich harmonies that float across the misty gardens.

Sunday is devoted to church and groups of men and ladies, dressed in immaculate suits, hurry to services at a myriad churches, all singing praises to God,throughout the vibrant community.

I join the congregation of Pastor Garama’s Baptist Church to sing hymns together, and hear his inspiring sermon, in English, Meru and Swahili. It is a joyful, uplifting experience worshipping God and praying together and meeting everyone.

The congregation of the Baptist church
Glorious Locations 

That night in the guesthouse, over dinner, Uli, a university student from Germany, and Mark, a Kenyan surgeon, and myself talk about the challenges of social change and how the beauty of God’s own country gets into your soul. Looking at a faded map of East Africa on the wall, Mark points out some of the most glorious locations to visit, which I add to my wish list! 

The idea of bringing groups of visitors to volunteer in the Faraja centre combined with experiencing adventurous wildlife safaris is taking shape in my mind.

Checking Out Accommodation

So on Monday morning, drenched in sunshine, Millicent and her friend Rebecca, driven in the mini-van by her son Eliud, collect Beth and me to visit the imposing hotel being built near by.

From the outside the Snow Peak Hotel, on the busy main road, looks like a building site with the top floor still under construction but inside the lower area is impressive with shiny marble floors, 14 pristine guest rooms, a busy restaurant overlooking the rainforest, stylish bar and spacious conference room.

Rebecca, me, Millicent, Kuka and Beth on the balcony of the Snow Peak  hotel
Kuka, a vivacious woman with an irresistible sense of humour, shows us around and we all agree that Snow Peak would provide quality accommodation at a very reasonable rate for groups of visitors.

With Beth and Rebecca opting to walk back to the hospital, Eliud drives Millicent and me to check out another accommodation option. Driving through lush farmlands we reach the idyllic Kilimo Talii resort with nine beautiful thatched roof huts providing luxurious privacy to guests amid the tranquil tropical gardens.

Beautiful thatched roof cottages at Kilimo Talii
Relaxing with soft drinks in the traditional circular restaurant, Eliud tells me he has a German Shepherd puppy called Daisy. As a dog lover missing my two Cocker Spaniels, I’m captivated and we chat about puppies. I can’t wait to meet her! 

That afternoon, I get stuck into writing content for the Faraja website, my creativity flowing with enthusiasm. Back home in Kent, my ideas for making a difference were all theoretical but now, being here, the whimsical dreams become feasible!

Tuesday morning I ceremoniously wave farewell to the three German hikers who have conquered majestic Mount Kenya. Karl, Holger and his son Uli are off for their next adventure in Tsavo National Park to see the beautiful African wildlife: elephants, rhino’s, lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes and antelope.

Karl, Holger and Uli with Douglas, their hiking guide and driver setting off for Tsavo
Meeting with Ree’L over coffee we discuss our shared goal to attract international interest in the humble community centre with its massive potential to transform lives.

That afternoon Millicent introduces me to charming David and Justus, retired teachers, who serve on the executive board of the Faraja Community Centre.
When I lay out the vision to install power, plumbing and a kitchen, the men are elated and bursting with ideas. Justus wants to introduce local kids and adults to the wonders of healthy fresh juices made by a Juicer! 

Board member Justus and David with Millicent and Garama at the Faraja centre 

Discovering the Markets 

I meet Jane, over dinner, who is staying at the main guesthouse while she leads a series of seminars on Preparing for Retirement for hospital staff. I meet her son Paul, a super intelligent young man highly qualified in maths, science and computer programming, who has driven his mum from Nairobi.

It’s Wednesday already and after another morning of working solidly writing the website copy, I venture to the nearby markets with my purse and camera, returning with some delightful photos of colourful street life, a new long dress, a t-shirt, African fabric for Fridah to make bags and bunches of spinach and avocadoes for Douglas and Anne in the kitchen!

Chogoria's colourful markets 
 Feels like home

In less than two weeks I have settled into the funny old guesthouse and the relaxed rhythm of life here. I am soaking up the fragrance of tropical flowers on the gentle breeze, basking in the clear blue skies and caressing sunshine, and delighting in the purple Jacaranda, Bougainvillea, pretty Hibiscus, orange Poinciana and red Banksia reminding me of my former home on the Sunshine Coast, Australia. 

I am overjoyed to meet warm and friendly local people who smile and say ‘Jambo, karibu’… ‘Hello, you are welcome’ and good-hearted humanitarian workers who share the dream to make a difference for people living with the horrendous challenges of poverty.

And my courage to take a risk to commit to the ambitious project of fundraising and recruiting volunteers to build amenities in the Faraja community centre has taken me by surprise.

Suddenly the impossible seems possible … if I can just inspire enough people to care.