I rose with excitement and anticipation to the pre-dawn sound of the birds outside my hotel room in Kakamega, Western Kenya. Although the sky was still an inky black, the world outside my window was alive with noise and commotion as drivers rolled into the parking lot thumping African rap music and fellow LifeStraw staff for the LifeStraw Follow the Liters Campaign began to start their day. The smell of breakfast being served two floors below crept through the cracks in my door. Despite not having a huge appetite in the early hours of the morning, I knew that the omelette and perfectly ripe mango I had that morning at 6 would have to fill me up until dinner time.
I jumped out of bed, untangling myself from my mosquito net and quickly dressed in my uniform for the day. A blue LifeStraw t-shirt, a long pair of gray cargo pants, closed-toe hiking shoes, sunscreen, hat and ponytail. Today was to be my first day out in the field and I didn’t want to be late. Despite utter exhaustion, jet lag and concern that I had only slept a little over an hour the night before, I could hardly wait. It was the start of our campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. Little did I know what a massive operation this would be and how incredibly inspired I’d feel by the end of the week.
Given the size and scale of the campaign, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day all in different parts of Western Kenya. My team was called “Team Crocodile” and was lead by Rebecca Masoni, the local Area Coordinator for LifeStraw. We also had local Sub-Country Coordinators Vincent, Patrick and Dorice (known as Mama LifeStraw) and Dehli-based Raju, myself, and mother and daughter pair Detria and Sophia, from California. Over the course of the next five days, our team alone would reach 15 primary schools and 11,923 school children throughout Vihiga, Hamisi, Khwisero, Butere, and Lurambi counties in Western Kenya.
By 6:30 am, the parking lot was jammed pack with a motorcade of SUVs, drivers and enthusiastic LifeStaw staff and volunteers all setting out to start the day. Some of the teams had already departed as early as four in the morning to reach some of the most remote schools. We were lucky to have the region surrounding Kakamega meaning our daily drive to reach the first school would only take about two hours.
As we left our base, we set off into the rising sun leaving behind the chaos of early morning in Kakamega. Markets of fruits and vegetables stands were being set into place. Clumps of shoes, clothing and homewares were laid out on colorful blankets across the dirt ground. Motorcycles of entire families and buses packed to the rim were scurrying around. Children in their school uniforms of baby blue and white, pink and green, maroon and navy blue, were walking alongside the road heading to school.
After a half of hour, the paved roads ended and we began our trek along the bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads of rural Kenya. The roads that always remind me of what it is like to get around in the developing world. The urban landscape began to fade and the beauty of rural, Western Kenya greeted my hungry soul. The lushness and greenery such a delight to see after so many months of colorless winter back at home.
We passed several single-plot farms growing maize and tea surrounded by traditional mud huts interspersed by small rural towns of nothing more than a few shacks and rundown buildings. Women walked side by side gracefully balancing 20 liter jerrycans of water on top of their head while farmers worked the fields. Children frantically waved and yelled “Mzungu!” (foreigner) as our car passed them by along the way. As the morning dew began to lift off the horizon, the beauty of the landscape took my breath away. It was spellbinding.
An hour and a half later we reached the entrance of our first school, the Khanirir G. Jeptorol Primary School in Hamisi. A faded hand painted wooden sign stood proudly at the gate beckoning us to enter. Our caravan of three SUVs slowly drove up the dirt path to the school, to the sound of laughter, cries of joy and song. As we got out of the car, a large cow bell was rung and out came 500 excited school children dressed in green and pink uniforms, running out the open doors of the school rooms thrilled to meet us.
As much as we ached to say hello and greet the children, I quickly learned that proper protocol is of utter importance in Kenya. The first thing our team had to do was go inside to meet the Head Teacher and cover a few formalities. We briefly introduced ourselves and went over the plans for the next two hours. At the first school, we would be installing five LifeStraw Communities. Each LifeStraw Community can serve 100 children and five would serve the entire population of the school.
While our drivers began installing the LifeStraws, our team assembled inside a large circle with the children surrounding us, for introductions which of course involved song and dance. This was my absolute favorite part of the presentation! It is hard to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of joyous children singing, dancing, clapping and laughing together as one. By the end of the week, I couldn’t get the songs out of my head and still wake up in the middle of the night singing them.
Since I had such a hard time capturing my experience into words, I created this short video of some of the footage I took during the week. Every time I watch the video it makes me smile. Hope you can get a sense for what my week was like by viewing it
Once the greeting and introductions were completed, it was time for the large group presentation where the children, teachers and staff would be educated on the LifeStraw Communities and the importance of using safe water for drinking, washing fruits and vegetables, brushing teeth and washing hands.
Safe water is something that most Westerners including myself often take for granted. However, as astounding as it may sound, 663 million people in this world do not have access to safe water. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 42% lack basic drinking water services leading to an increase in waterborne diseases and illnesses such as Typhoid, Cholera, Diarrhea and more. The LifeStraw Community removes 99.9% of bacteria, viruses and protozoa making unsafe water safe to drink while the kids are at school and don’t have access to safe water. Not only does this keep them healthy, it saves lives.
Once the large group presentation was finished, the real fun began. Our team divided the children up into two groups: One group was for the older children where we played games of true and false to test them on what they had learned, and the second group was with the younger children where we used songs and dance to reinforce the importance of safe water. This group ended up being my absolute favorite as there was nothing better than acting silly and making the kids laugh, and seriously it didn’t take much. Funny faces, taking my blond hair out of my ponytail, doing group selfies and chasing the kids was the best!
When they meet you, they love you with all of their heart
What made this trip so incredibly magical was by far the beautiful children that we met. The moment we arrived at the school, the children opened their hearts to us. They greeted us with laughter and smiles, songs and dance, clapping and singing. Their joy was infectious and overwhelming.
No matter what, every single pair of eyes was on us, welcoming us and wanting to meet us and get to know us. Their smiles touched my soul. To feel their instant, deep affection was a magical, powerful experience. And, to know that we were making a direct difference on their lives by providing safe water made it life-changing.
Despite their poverty, they were filled with joy, laughter and hope. I met young children who aspired to be teachers, lawyers, doctors and nurses and if they studied hard enough they had the opportunity to succeed. The girls were especially drawn to me and I enjoyed learning more about their favorite subjects in school and telling them about my own children back at home in the United States. The best part of all is we got to continue on to three more schools each day and do it all over again. Our team alone interacted and provided safe water to almost 12,000 kids!
One of the most essential parts of the LifeStraw campaign was teamwork. There is something truly inspiring about gathering up 130 people from all over the world, coming together for a week to work towards a common goal. Each and every person I met with LifeStraw and Vestergaard was truly passionate about their work and giving back. I had finally found my tribe!
At the start of the week when I arrived, I remember hearing LifeStraw being referred to as a “family”. I did not know a soul yet one week later I felt truly connected to this amazing group of people. The support, passion and enthusiasm of my own group, Team Crocodile, was astounding. By the end of the very first day, our team understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses and had divided up into roles accordingly. We felt like old friends by the end of the campaign working together and it was hard to say goodbye.
What we accomplished
By the end of the week, we had reached our goal and it was a monumental feeling to know that now 1,015,652 kids at 1,621 schools now have safe water. Over 10,677 LifeStraw Communities are now out in the field and there are still many more schools waiting. The fantastic news is that the Follow the Liters Campaign is far from being done. Each retail sale of a LifeStraw product will continue to support the campaign and more children will continue to receive safe water at their schools. Imagine what the future holds!
What I personally learned
For some reason, I have had a very difficult time putting this trip into words and telling the story. I believe it is because the experience of being on the ground, as part of such a massive, incredible campaign, was one of the most powerful things I have ever personally done. To say that this trip changed my life is an understatement. It has put me back on the path to continuing my work to do good and make a difference in the world. There is so much work to be done and I can hardly wait to be a part of it.
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