Plan International

Visiting Gladys

When we booked our winter holiday to Kenya, we thought that the highlight of the trip was going to be the 4-day safari at the beginning. However, once we got confirmation from the Plan office in Hamburg via their Kenyan colleagues in Plan's local office in Kilifi, the safari was pushed firmly back into second place by the prospect of visiting Gladys, an 8 year old girl we have sponsored for the past five years via Plan International.

Setting off by taxi early in the morning from our holiday hotel in Diani Beach we were happy to reach our first meeting point in Mombasa at the pre-arranged time of 8.45 am. To our relief, Kalama and Kenneth from the Plan office in Kilifi slightly further up the coast were waiting for us in a four-wheel drive bearing the blue Plan logo. During the hour's drive to their office, Kalama answered all the questions we had about how the day would most likely proceed. He also gave us a lot of really helpful and important background information about the family, their community, and living situation.

 After briefly meeting the office staff, drinking a quick but delicious cup of tea, and making a last visit to the toilet (there would be no further facilities until we returned later in the day) we set off, this time with George and David but with Kenneth still driving, to the nearby supermarket where we bought provisions for the family. George explained how important it is for the family to 'feel' our visit. And the best way to do that is to buy for them the items they need, but cannot afford.  While we were more than happy to do this, we were surprised to find out that food prices in Kenya, where many people earn little more than a euro a day, are roughly similar to those in Germany.

Now laden with three boxes containing staples such as maize flour, rice, beans, soap, and toothpaste, but also a few luxuries such as sweets, biscuits and a leather football, we turned off the main coastal tarmac-surfaced road onto a rough dusty road and headed into the interior. It soon became clear why we were in a Land Cruiser being driven by an experienced driver- no conventional car would have made it through to Gladys' village. During this further hour's drive we saw for the first time some of the projects that Plan is involved in.


We saw two stations where clean water, brought in via pipelines paid for by Plan, is now available; we passed schools with newly provided classrooms, and we saw land planted with drought-resistant crops. Although we had read about these in the yearly reports we receive about Gladys and her community, it was a different matter to see them with our own eyes. George also took the opportunity to explain to us about the educational and training programmes Plan run in the area. For example, he told us about how they teach the children that they too have rights and that it is not acceptable for them to be exploited or abused. In a country where an estimated 40% of the population are HIV positive, teenage pregnancies are the norm, and female genital mutilation, although not officially allowed, is still carried out in some parts, these kinds of social and educational programmes are as important as those which teach how to keep crops from dying.


As soon as our vehicle pulled into Gladys' school it was surrounded by a moving sea of yellow and blue. Primary schooling, classes 1 to 8, is free to all children in Kenya. Their parents are, however, responsible for buying the school uniforms and books and writing equipment. Only around three-quarters of the children were wearing the blue and yellow school uniform, but all were eager to see who was getting out of the vehicle. For some, it was certainly the first time they had seen white people and consequently we were the focus of much interest and a certain amount of polite hilarity. We were met by the head teacher who told us that there were over 300 children in classes 1 to 8 plus an additional 250 in the pre-school kindergarten classes. It felt like every single one of them had come to meet us!


We were taken to a classroom where, after general introductions, we finally met Gladys face to face for the very first time. A moving moment for us all. Gladys had prepared a welcome sentence for us in English but, overwhelmed as she was, the words came out in a whisper that was lost in the classroom. After presenting Gladys' teacher with the children's atlas and 60 or so pens we had brought with us for the school, we took Gladys with us in the vehicle back to her homestead as arranged.


Before we left, the head teacher proudly showed us the running water facility that Plan had built in the schoolyard. As he thanked us for making this possible we realised that this was the first evidence of Gladys directly profiting from our monthly donations via Plan.


Although Gladys' father Charles, a day labourer, was unable to be there to meet us at his family's homestead, everyone else in the extended family was there. Gladys wasn't the only one who was slightly overwhelmed that day. Frequently we had to rely on George and David from Plan not only to interpret for us from Swahili into English and vice versa, but also for cultural etiquette prompts and help with what we should do next.


After being introduced to Gladys's mother Joyce and her other 6 children, we were introduced to her father's other wife, Nyevu, and her 6 children. Unusually for their tribe, both wives and all the children share one simple (no water, electricity, or amenities of any other kind) three-roomed daub and wattle house. George suggested that it would be a good time to hand out the balloons we had brought with us from Germany as well as the sweets. That certainly broke the ice! Almost immediately the whole homestead was full of laughter and smiling faces, and the buildings were creatively decorated with balloons. This released Gladys from being the focus of everyone's attention and we were able to give her the t-shirt, magazine and small toys we had brought with us especially for her.


With the initial awkwardness (on our part) evaporated, the biscuits shared out, and the shopping from the supermarket ceremoniously handed over to Joyce, we showed the family the photos we had printed out of our family and home. Everyone wanted to see the snowman and other snowy photos for a second and third time as they had never seen snow before. The football was received with enormous glee and we were amazed at the skill and dexterity immediately displayed by Gladys' brothers and the other barefoot footballers in the homestead.


Presents here or there, sometimes the things we take for granted turn out to be the most interesting. We quickly found that one of the things that the children were most impressed with, and found most entertaining, was being able to see themselves on the tiny screen on the back of my digital camera.


A visit such as this is not only a big day for us but also for the sponsored child and their family. Hospitality is very important in the Kenyan culture and so we were treated as guests of honour at lunchtime. A table was borrowed from a neighbour and two plastic chairs were placed next to it for us on the veranda of the house. Gladys, the most important person that day, had lunch with us, giggling quietly at our attempts to eat the ugali, freshly slaughtered chicken, and kale so carefully cooked for us. Did we need spoons? They could probably get some from another family. No, Gladys should show us how to eat correctly with our hands, Kenyan-style.


After lunch, a tour of the house brought it home to us just how poor the family are compared to us. Inside the house we saw that they had three beds (shared between 3 adults and 13 children) but no mattresses. Apart from the beds, their sole possessions were a few sleeping mats, a plastic chair, and some clothes lines with a few garments slung over them and a couple of plastic bowls. That was it.


Talking about other challenges the family have to face, we found out that we were on the edge of Tsavo East National Park, one of the places we had visited on safari the previous week. George explained how occasionally elephants stray into the village and cause havoc by trampling and eating the maize Gladys' mother and step-mother so carefully tend. Poisonous snakes also pose a constant danger, especially when you have to share a pair of shoes with your sister, so we were pleased to hear that Plan keeps some of the sponsorship money aside to help the sponsored children should they require emergency medical treatment.


All too soon, it was time to leave. It seems almost a cliché to say that the experience changed our lives, but one week later, at my favourite up-market department store in Stuttgart, as I watched well-dressed women crowding around a table that displayed reduced-price designer handbags, the only thought that went through my head was: "you could sponsor a child for ten years for the cost of just one of those handbags".


If you already sponsor a child, do try to write regularly so that your sponsored child knows that you actually exit. We saw for ourselves what a joy it brings to the child and his or her family to receive letters and small gifts from their sponsors who live so far away. If you do not yet sponsor a child in Kenya or in one of the other 21 countries Plan work in, please consider doing so. At the same time as making your money work where it is most needed, you will increase your intercultural understanding, broaden your horizons, make new friends, and almost certainly, enrich your life in ways you have not yet imagined.


We took many photos on our trip to see Gladys. In many of them she looks rather serious, although 'overwhelmed' might be a better way to describe it. Thankfully additional images are indelibly fixed in our mind's eye: For me, the most memorable of these is the picture I have of Gladys' huge, beaming, and obviously heartfelt, smile as she waved us goodbye that sunny January Thursday afternoon in the costal hinterland of Kenya.


Karen Richardson & Werner Scheibling, January 2014

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