Friday, October 27, 2017

Helping the Batwa Find a Home

Setting out on a nine-hour, 326 miles, road trip from the bustling, traffic-jammed Ugandan capital of Kampala heading south to the spectacular, volcanic mountains of Kisoro, we were on a mission.

Our unlikely little group comprised Obed, the Head of a major NGO called ACODEV, with skilful driver, Edson at the wheel, and me in the back seat mesmerised by the fast-moving, colourful scenery.

I was chuffed to have persuaded Mr Kabanda Obed, a dynamic grassroots community development expert, jetlagged from a high powered international conference with Bill Gates in Washington DC, to join me in this challenging venture.

This epic trip, nine months in the planning, was finally happening! The brainwave took hold last October when I visited Kisoro for a gruelling gorilla trek while on safari with Absolute Africa. I met dedicated tour guide Ndabahariye Joseph, who took my Mexican friend, Julio and me to meet the Batwa tribespeople.

Displaced Outcasts

Back then, we discovered a dishevelled group of adults and children living in a few tiny huts perched on a craggy hilltop, on a scrap of unusable land owned by the neighbouring farmers. We were gobsmacked by their heart-wrenching story of being evicted from their hunting grounds when massive tracts of forests were gazetted as a national park to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. These displaced tribes people now lived in extreme poverty without the basics of survival – without proper homes, food security, water and sanitation and with very little access to a sustainable livelihood, medical care and education for their children, who suffered malnutrition and eye and skin infections.

Joseph was their champion. He yearned for a breakthrough that would transform the quality of life for the Batwa people. He worked closely with the devoted team at the Mgahinga Community Development Organization (MCDO) funded by a Swedish charity. However the Ugandan government appeared to completely overlook the desperate plight of this victimised community.

“My grandparents were evicted from the forests and suffered hardship ever since so I feel strongly for all the people who were displaced,” says Joseph.

And so I made a promise to Joseph that I would do whatever I could to help the Batwa. I don’t know where that outlandish promise came from! It welled up from somewhere in the depths of my being that responded to their helpless and hopeless predicament. I believed there had to be a solution to meeting basic survival needs in the advanced 21st century. I was fired by my passionate belief in human rights and social justice that people should not be condemned to live in abject poverty and misery, shame and humiliation.

I had met Obed at a Tostan training course in Senegal last July and was impressed by his outstanding achievements over 14 years of empowering rural communities throughout Uganda. Obed had perfected a five-step process of research, awareness-raising, capacity building, activism and collaboration that took communities rife with overwhelming problems such as post-war trauma, orphans, HIV/AIDS, horrendous health problems, domestic violence and abject poverty into flourishing, sustainable, safe and healthy communities.    

Obed's Expertise 

I knew Obed was THE MAN to take on the challenge of the Batwa. So it was a joyful moment of sublime networking when Obed and Joseph, two compassionate and strong crusaders, finally embraced in a bearhug at the Rafiki guesthouse in Kisoro, run by the charming and capable Gloria.

We walked to the MCDO office and met Godfrey, Jackson and Abel and learned about their projects and initiatives such as enrolling some of the Batwa children into schools.

And they told us the backstory. As many as 25,000 tribespeople were evicted from the Mgahinga and Bwindi Gorilla National Parks in 1991. The small Batwa community that live on the Kisoro hilltop number around 58 adults with dozens of children. They have survived for 26 years, marginalised and shunned as outcasts, scavenging food from the farmers that work the fertile slopes, growing Irish potatoes, maize, corn and vegetables.

The next day, Obed and Joseph and me, joined by International Co-ordinator, Kamanzi Festo and young Batwa leader, James, trekked through the idyllic green hills, waving and calling to the children and men and women swinging their hoes in the fields, side-stepping goats and cattle, awe-struck by the heavenly views of the surrounding volcanoes and misty expanse of Lake Mutanda.

Celebration amidst Desperation  
The tribespeople greeted us with songs, dancing and drama that told their story of eviction to protect the mountain gorillas they revered. They are proud of their heritage, remembering how they once lived wild and free in the beautiful forests, hunting buffalo and antelope and foraging for honey and living safe and warm in caves.

Obed listened carefully to the community leaders’ passionate pleas as they outlined their daily challenges and desperate needs.

Land is the Start

Having heard similar stories of struggling communities, Obed identifies immediately that owning land is the first priority for these people. He said: “You can’t build proper housing, you can’t build toilets, if you don’t first own the land. Everything else follows from there; growing food and finding sustainable work and accessing medical and education services.”

And he lays the responsibility clearly with the government that failed 26 years ago to humanely relocate the tribes people on their own land with decent housing. 

He points out that funding exists. In a cynical political move, the Ugandan government is currently giving around $8500USD to every MP to campaign in a referendum to increase the presidential retirement age limit so the aging President Museveni can stay in power.

Obed says it would cost the government very little to purchase a plot of land for the Batwa people. And land would not just provide a place to live; land would restore their dignity, hope and respect in the wider community.

Healing the Pain

During our visit, one woman lay on the ground nursing painful bruises from being beaten by a man when she ventured into town the previous day. We sat and soothed her but the problem runs much deeper than words of sympathy and Joseph’s efforts to take a doctor to the remote patient. The community’s hostility to the Batwa is increasing. Everyone wants a solution to this chronic problem of social outcasts.

After our hilltop visit, during lunch in the rustic Amajyambere camp relentless torrential rain thundered down on the tin roof and flooded the surrounding bush. While a welcome blessing for the growing crops, I could only picture, with a shudder, the Batwa people and their children huddling together in their tiny damp straw huts. Everyone deserves shelter from the storm.

So our exuberant road trip from Kampala to Kisoro is just the beginning. Obed and Joseph and the MCDO team will continue working together to ensure the forgotten Batwa people, after 26 years of exile, will finally find a place to call home. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Meet Esmael - A Man who is a Champion for the Rights of Women

I met Esmael Omar at The Girl Generation office in Nairobi to discuss the challenges of ending Female Genital Mutilation and discovered a man passionately committed to protecting and empowering girls and women.

Esmael explains: “I am a male champion to end FGM because most female members of my family have undergone FGM  - my sisters, mother, aunts, cousins, everyone - apart from my little niece, who’s only eight, and I don’t want her to go through this trauma and suffer throughout her life.

“I remember my sisters and cousins as teenagers telling me about their painful menstrual cycle, the cramps, the extreme distress and later the agony they suffered in childbirth. So all these terrible experiences of the important women in my life have inspired me in doing what I do.

Esmael’s passionate commitment to this cause is not theoretic. His motivation to stop the harmful traditional practice is deeply personal, born of compassion and concern for those he loves.

Esmael Omar is Programme Officer in Kenya for The Girl Generation, a powerful global project dedicated to ending the harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), embracing one of the key UN Global Goals, adopted by world leaders in 2015, with a target of achieving the goals by 2030. Ending FGM comes under Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Dedication to Health Education 

Esmael, 31, joined The Girl Generation early this year. 

Previously he worked tirelessly with communities on sexual reproductive health, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and stopping FGM. In 2007, he founded a non-profit called AFYAFRIKA, to support youth with health education in the Narok region, where he was partly raised.

He says: “We tackled issues like HIV/AIDS, which at that time, the prevalence was very high with little information available to young people about sexual health.”

“I have witnessed the suffering of my community members on a variety of issues – like HIV/AIDS, FGM, early and forced marriage and gender-based violence. For these reasons I have devoted myself to this campaign.”

The Somali Community in Kenya

Esmael is part of the Somali community living in Kenya, and for generations the Somali people have practised the most severe form of FGM – infibulation, where a girl’s clitoris and labia are removed and her vulva is sewn together leaving only a small hole. Mutilating a child like this risks death through blood loss, infection and shock. If she survives, she suffers emotional trauma and a lifetime of pain and the risk of infection during urination, menstruation, intercourse and childbirth.

Esmael says that many Somali communities have stopped infibulation but now practise ‘sunna’, removing the tip of the clitoris.

He says sadly and wrongly FGM has been justified as a Moslem practice and yet a faction of respected leaders say that the Koran does not advocate the practice.

Esmael says: “In our culture we need to emphasise the value of girls. They are mothers of tomorrow. We have to reach out to them to show them they have a future, a dignified life, free from all forms of violence. Every day when I wake up this is the goal that drives me.

“These are fundamental human rights - the right to health, the right to safety and being free from abuse and violence. The greatest challenge has been the social norms in our communities that justify these harmful practices.

Grassroots is where Social Change Starts to Grow 

“My role is to work with all the grassroots organisations across Kenya. We offer Social Change Communication training, which explores the best ways to reach communities to engage in dialogue about these hidden issues and inspire them to take action.

“I also support The Girl Generation – End FGM grants programme so that grassroots organisations have the capacity and resources to reach a wider audience and have a wider impact.

“And The Girl Generation has a team of End FGM Ambassadors who are highly respected, influential people who inspire change.
“We would like to see a FGM-free generation, where every girl in every village is safe to grow up healthy without being cut.”

Esmael has also had international experience, working for Diaspora Community Services based in Brooklyn, New York last year, working to ensure that ‘people of colour’ received medication for HIV-AIDS.

“Access to health care is key for needy and poor people everywhere.”

“I am glad that I’m able to understand these complex issues through research and through talking with people in remote communities throughout Kenya. FGM is a dynamic issue that is constantly changing. In the past, some communities cut teenage girls, now it’s being done at a younger age, even to infants,” he says.

December is known as the “cutting season” when girls are on school holiday. Esmael says that in the remote, impoverished northern region, over 94 per cent of girls suffer from female genital mutilation.

He adds that even though the practice is illegal in Kenya, parents still risk prosecution and cut their daughters, not because they want to harm them, but out of cultural obligation, believing they are doing the right thing by their daughters, making them marriageable, honourable and chaste.

Only grassroots campaigns and community-led dialogues in the villages everywhere will stop the harmful practice.

Men As Champions

Esmael is one courageous man who is standing up as a champion for girls and women, defending their rights to living a healthy life, free of the trauma, abuse and violation of genital mutilation. 
In the next few months, Esmael will be part of a team that will be launching a global campaign to end FGM.
In collaboration with NTV, he is planning to produce a documentary that will bring to light the efforts of male champions from four different counties of Kenya in ending FGM.

Empowering Youth with a Voice 

Esmael is also part of a team from The Girl Generation that is planning the first pan-african 2018 END FGM YOUTH FESTIVAL, which will be held in Nairobi.

“The Youth#EndFGM Festival will bring together young people from across the continent – placing them at the centre of the movement to end FGM, and catalysing their collective action, reach and influence, Esmael explains.

“The #EndFGM festival will be an opportunity to celebrate the change that is already taking place, share together what has worked and what hasn’t, and to show the world that African young people are seriously committed to ending FGM.

“The youth will make their call to action, and deliver their demands to African leaders about the future they want to be part of.”
This generation is standing up as champions to end FGM and protect future generations of sisters and daughters, wives and mothers so they can live healthy, happy lives.    

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 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. 

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. She was deluged with parcels of hand knitted squares made with tears and love! Aunt Ronda organised the sorting and stitching of over one million squares and items, and the distribution of the blankets to the children over the last nine 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 supports 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!