Through the BIG Foundation – which was set up by two Black Isle Group directors in 2017 – a group of us travelled to the Tsavo region of Kenya to join a team of volunteers to help build, from the bricks up, a nursery at Itinyi primary school, and join some of the other community projects.
After arriving in Mombassa Airport we made our way to Camp Tsavo which was a three hour drive on the main Mombassa to Nairobi road. Having come from a number of locations it was great to finally arrive and we were excited to join the team and get started. During our first three days we worked at Itinyi Primary School building the new nursery. The work was physically very tiring, but we had the chance to spend our breaks with the children at the school to play games together. Many of the children – even the very young ones – walk miles to school each day (and then home again) and some of them did so without shoes. They are given a meal at school which for many will be their main or only meal. Parents have to pay school fees and despite living in poverty they find the money to do so because they recognise that education is likely to be the main way to escape the widespread poverty. The children themselves were really happy, normal kids, fascinated by us, and keen for lots of hugs and attention. On our last day the principal gathered them all together and we presented pencils, pens and even footballs that we had brought with us. It was such a lovely experience to witness the happiness on the children’s faces from some simple – but much needed – gifts.
On Thursday we had the opportunity to work with a women’s group run by Mama Mercy, a lady who lives in the camp. Mama Mercy is well known in the community for helping women and children. At what for us all was a very emotional experience, we worked with the women as they showed us how they make bracelets and elephant dung paper. With 90% unemployment in the area, it is important for the women to learn these skills in order to have the chance to make a living. One of the ladies explained how the work we (and other charities) were doing was really making a difference, as it actually meant that the level of education in the area was rising.
Many of us had also gathered bras from family and friends back home which we presented to Mama Mercy – we had collected over 300! Wearing bras helps the girls protect their modesty and reduce unwanted attention from men wanting premature marriage, which would take them out of education. Since returning we have been able to see images of Mama Mercy distributing these incredibly useful pieces of clothing to the local female community.
We also had the chance to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage to meet with our adopted elephants. These elephants are all orphaned and rescued into the care of the sanctuary. Whilst the elephants are babies the keepers sleep by their side to offer them comfort and then slowly distance themselves as they get older. Every day the seven keepers walk 30 elephants around Tsavo National Park on foot allowing them to experience life in the wild. When they are eight years old they are officially released but every few months they come back, usually spending a few nights at the Orphanage before heading back off again. When the elephants get older and have their own young they bring their babies back to the orphanage to meet their keepers.
During the week we stayed in some very basic huts in the area. Every night most of us were joined by an unusual creature or creepy crawly of some kind! Thankfully we also got the chance to see some of the African wildlife when we visited Tsavo National Park where we saw lions, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, monkeys, ostriches and zebras.
It goes without saying that the week with the BIG Foundation offered us all a truly incredible and very humbling experience from start to finish. It’s so hard to pick out the highlights of what was ultimately a very rewarding week. None of us had been to Africa before, and we all loved meeting the friendly Kenyan people and working with the teams and projects for a few days. It certainly was the experience of a lifetime, and we hope we’ve made a small difference to the people living in Camp Tsavo.