“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”. – Lao Tzu
I left for Kenya on a Thursday afternoon feeling the normal pre-trip jitters of an exceptionally long 24 hours of travel ahead. I was flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam with a five hour layover, and then I had another eight hour flight to reach Nairobi. I knew that it was going to be a long, exhausting journey yet I was exhilarated all the same to be off on a trip into the unknown.
I boarded my first flight with anticipation wondering what was in store for me when I finally arrived in Kenya. I had been chosen to join LifeStraw’s Follow the Liters campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. I had a packet of detailed information about the program and the campaign but that was all I honestly knew. I was traveling alone and would meet up with ten of the 130 members of the the LifeStraw team in Amsterdam to continue our journey.
LifeStraw, a part of the Vestergaard global health company, began the Follow the Liters program four years ago in Western Kenya after realizing they could be a catalyst for positive change throughout the region. Children were missing many days of school due to waterborne diseases and illness caused by drinking unsafe water. Some were even dying. The need was immense, and LifeStraw had the answer.
With over twenty years of experience working on global health issues in Kenya, Vestergaard understood that Western Kenya was the perfect place to launch the campaign given the fact that it is one of the most populous, rural parts of the country which is in dire need for safe water. At the end of 2014, 158,000 school children were reached during the first Follow the Liters Campaign. Four years later, we would be reaching one million kids! I could hardly wait to be a part of it.
Giving Back through Retail
LifeStraw is not a pure one-for-one program (like TOMS shoes) because the needs of the retail market and local market on the ground in Kenya are quite different.
For each LifeStraw product sold in retail markets in Canada and the U.S, one child receives safe drinking water for a year. It is not a “buy one give one” model but instead a comprehensive program implemented and adapted for the needs of the local market. For each school LifeStraw serves, they provide ongoing training, education and follow-up for a minimum of five years. It is a long term commitment that employs local staff from the community to ensure sustainability of the program.
Arriving in Kenya
As we crossed the African continent heading towards Nairobi, my excitement and anticipation sparked. This trip was coming at a very opportune time in my life. The past few months, I have been struggling with some kind of strange mid-life funk which has lead me to ponder the future direction of my life. A lot of things have been changing as my kids are growing older and don’t need me as much as before. This has left me in a constant state of worry wondering and questioning incessantly what the next step should be. I decided on the flight that I would set a personal goal for the trip to try to clear up some of my confusion and regain a path. I was hopeful that this experience would be all that I hoped for and more. Thankfully my instincts were right.
We landed into Nairobi in a sea of darkness and sparkling lights. It was already ten o’clock in the evening and we would spend the night at the hotel before continuing our journey to Kakamega in the morning. Despite the nine hour time difference, I was so exhausted from all the flying that I slept peacefully. The next morning, we boarded a domestic flight to Kisumu, and then continued by car for another hour and a half to reach our base in Kakamega. I had already become fast friends with our group, and was truly looking forward to meeting the rest of the staff.
We were welcomed at the hotel with song and dance by the local Kenya staff, all wearing their blue LifeStraw t-shirts. I would soon discover that song and dance is an essential part of Kenyan life as we would be singing and dancing all week long. We had a group lunch and then proceeded to a welcome training at the hotel with all 130 LifeStraw Team members and volunteers. For the next two days, we would learn all about the campaign, and be trained on how to assemble the LifeStraw Community units, train the staff and students, and of course learn all the songs and dances to entertain the kids. It was going to be quite an exciting week ahead!
The highlight of the weekend was the group hike to the Kakamega Rainforest on Sunday. After we completed a long day of technical training, we loaded up into a caravan of cars and headed to the outskirts of town where we did a forty minute steep hike up to the top of Kakamega Hill. The views on top were absolutely stunning as all you could see where the lush, green tops of the trees. We would get our hike in just before the late afternoon rain that would come every day around sunset.
As much as I wanted to stay for sunset, it was time for us to leave. It would be too hard to get back down the path in the dark and if the rains hit we could get stuck in the muddy roads. Furthermore, we had a kick off BBQ dinner that night before the campaign began early the next morning. There would be no time to waste.
It was going to be an incredible week! I could feel it.