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Recurrent drought is having a devastating impact on pastoralist communities in northern Kenya.
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After a long trip to Nairobi, the Debate champions first day is likely to be one they will never forget. The Dublin students first port of call was the MM Chandaria primary school, where they were greeted by smiling faces.
“Our arrival was overwhelming to say the least,” said Aisling Burns.
“Every kid wanted a high-five and an opportunity to greet us personally. They were so excited to have visitors and their excitement was infectious and put any worries I may have had at ease.”
"What surprised me about the classes is the incredibly high amount of respect the students have for their education and their teachers, something that some students may take for granted here in Ireland,” she said.
“Some of the students received letters from students from [Concern Ambassador and Dublin GAA star] Michael Darragh Macauley, who visited Kenya and Concern’s projects earlier on this year.”
This wasn’t the only school the team visited on their first day. They also paid a visit to Dandora IV Preparatory Education Centre, which is located in the middle of one of Nairobi’s slums.
"Dandora IV was funded through the community,” explains Siddarth Sethuraman.
“The entrance was tiny and the classrooms dark, with one solitary lightbulb being the source of light. This certainly did not deter the pupils from learning, even with the small resources that they had."
The talented debaters even had to chance to show off their skills with a sudden debate against their younger counterparts, with the motion being ‘to work on a farm is better than in an office’.
"We had the lovely opportunity to be made look slightly stupid by a group of 9-12 year olds,” joked Aisling.
“But it was such an amazing thing to see such young kids stand up in front of all their peers and give their opinion so eloquently. I myself, even after debating in front of a crowd of 400, would still be nervous to do that."
After leaving Dandora IV, the champs met a community group made up of women and men from the ages of 20 to 60.
“They discussed the issues within their community, the main one being that girls are being supported a lot more now than they used to be, which they are extremely grateful for,” Siddarth said.
“However they wish that the boys receive their support too as more and more are unemployed and turn to criminality in their community. They sang a prayer with us and we presented them with some gifts from our side, and with a newfound knowledge of what Concern is doing for communities like Dandora in Kenya."
After a very busy first day, the team started their second day with a visit to the Irish Embassy to meet Irish Ambassador to Kenya Vincent O’Neill.
“He was a truly lovely man, not only explaining to us what they do in the Embassy but also telling us about Kenya itself,” said Team Captain Leah Fellenz.
“Mr. O’Neill gave us a brief, but very informative, presentation on the different ethnicities existing in Kenya, as well as some of the political relationships the country has with its neighbours,” added Oscar Toomey.
“He informed us that neighbouring countries’ borders were drawn with rulers, with no regard for the people living in the area.”
Their final destination for the day is Makespace in Nairobi University, where they create innovative solutions for local problems, explains Leah.
“They make equipment for schools and hospitals such as 3-D printers, hospital beds, microscopes, incubators and hospital lamps out of local resources. Their aim is to use local resources so that they can easily fix them if they break instead of having to wait for weeks - if not months - for equipment to be shipped from places like China.”
To kick off their third day in Kenya, the team visited Kariobangi North Girls Secondary School, where they found out what life is like for people their own age.
They also had the opportunity to show off their debating skills with this school, this time the motion was ‘day schools are better than boarding school’.
"They won in the end, but it was so nice to have met more teens our age as passionate about debating as us,” Aisling said.
After the debate, the teams got to know each other, become firm friends within minutes, to Aisling’s delight.
“They were so lovely, and I actually got to learn about their lives and what they do as hobbies and what they want to do when they grow up. We got to talk and talk and had to be pulled away when it was time to leave. Their ambition and drive towards their future was so inspiring, and that goes for all the kids we met in all the schools."
Following this, the team made their way to the Ruben Health Centre, which is located close to one of the city’s biggest landfills. Despite this, the young Dubliners were impressed with their resilience and passion, particularly Aisling.
“As an aspiring nurse, I was thoroughly amazed and inspired how they functioned so efficiently with so little and how appreciative they were of what they had.
“They had recently gotten an ambulance and the difference it made was just outstanding. And because of all this, you could see what a difference the things the people in Makerspace made could have.”
On the fourth day of their trip, the team paid a visit to Kenya’s first ever Young Scientist Exhibition, which has been a key date in Ireland’s education calendar for decades.
While the Kenyan president toured the exhibition, our team had to chance to meet with some more local students who were taking part this year. They spoke at length about their lives, which came as a culture shock to Leah.
"They told us how they were in boarding school and that they got up at 4am every morning, that class started at 6.20 every day and they either had school until 5pm or 10pm,” she said.
“It was shocking to realise how we complain about starting school at 8.25 every morning yet they start two hours earlier and don’t complain at all."
After the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta gave a speech to open the exhibition, the students were given time to look around and see the brilliant project the schoolchildren of Kenya put together.
“All of this was possible through Concern’s involvement with the Young Scientist Kenya [YSK] initiative, and it must be said that it was difficult not to give everybody a perfect score,” Siddarth said.
“Overall the YSK was extremely interesting and showed how many ideas the youth have, and how the youth are truly not only the leaders of the future, but the leaders of the present too.”
On the fifth day, the Dublin pupils got close to elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts’ Orphans’ Project, before returning to the Young Scientist Exhibition. As well as getting to grips with more projects, the team attended the award ceremony.
The overall prize was won by Nakuru High School students Abdirahman Sheikh Ali and Wilson Irungu, who exhibited their innovative project entitled ‘Internet Based Energy Monitoring and Audit System’, which aims to help consumers monitor their power usage so that they can be able to plan for it.
"The winning project we felt completely deserved it, as it was the most practical and ideal in our eyes for the environment it was to be used for,” Siddarth said.
“But on that day, it almost felt like everybody was a winner. Everybody was just happy to be there."
After a very early rise, the team were treated to a safari, before making their way to the airport for their trip home, but not before they reflected on an amazing and eye-opening week.
"Throughout the week I have seen a range of schools, universities, project groups and community conversations that again shows how diverse the work of Concern is, Isabel said.
“This trip has inspired me to look at possible problems in my community and beyond and to try and find solutions for them.”
Leah agreed, saying:
“The Kenyans gave me hope. Their smiles painted a picture of a thousand words and I shall never forget this opportunity that I have been given. It truly has been heart-warming, eye-opening and life-changing."
As for Aisling, she got a first-hand look at how charities actually work, which was a source of inspiration for her.
“The main thing I learned from this trip was how Concern helps these communities and people. You don’t just throw money and food at these people - you support them and help them solve their own problems.
“You give the people who aren’t heard a voice because who knows more about their problems and local ways to solve them than the people themselves. And I hope to continue to work with Concern or similar charities to do just that - to help people help themselves.”
If you are interested in finding out how you or your school can take part in Concern Debates, find out more information here.
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