On the way to our first primary school of the day, Dorcas and I drove past a man sitting along the side of the road selling an array of blue and green tarps. He shouted something in Kiswahili that I didn’t understand.
“I don’t know why but when people see you they see money, he just asked you for KES 20. I guess there is a mentality that if you ask a white person for money they’ll give it to you.”
I was immediately transported back to a small shantytown built along a river under a bridge in the Dominican Republic. The organization we were working with is usually reluctant to bring visitors here but agreed to take us. The people here are living in extreme poverty in cramped tin and wood houses. Young boys can often be seen fishing along the trash-laden river hoping to catch some food for the day.
Some years back a group of visitors from the United States was brought to the town and without a word a woman in the group pulled out a wad of bills and started handing out $20s to every person she came across. First of all, the Dominican Republic uses pesos…what are they going to do with US dollars? Second of all, handing out money to people may make someone feel like they are helping out a community and improving the lives of the people they give it to, but in reality it can create dependency and a mentality that white people=money and gifts. Handouts usually aren’t the way to go. It's best to empower people and give them the resources to provide for themselves. For a great example on how harmful handouts can be, check out this article my co-op adviser sent me about volunteer short-term international medical visits.
Karima Primary is perched on the edge of a steep hill and overlooks a beautiful valley followed by more hills. I really didn’t think our car was going to make it up to the school but somehow it miraculously did. The head teacher invited us into her office and told us about the issues the school is currently facing.
The students are supposed to carry lunch to school but most don’t have anything to bring. At least 10 students are HIV+ and aren’t getting a proper diet. Alcoholism is a major problem among the parents, “fathers are drunkards” she said. They often spend the little money they have on alcohol instead of food for their children.
She gave us a quick tour of the school and showed us the latrines MKMF built. A small group of women were seated outside of her office when we returned. They were mothers of some of the children. One said something in Kiswahili and Dorcas said, “She wants you to greet her.” A toddler timidly held out her hand to me.
Then we returned to the office to sign her guest book. While there she keep thanking us for all the Foundation has done, saying how grateful she was, strangely focusing her attention solely on me as she said it. I couldn’t figure out why she was directing her thanks at me until she referred to me as a “donor” and said “People from the United States are so good. I had a sponsor, but she died.” Later I asked Dorcas why she’d called me a donor when I’d been introduced as a volunteer helping out at MKMF, “I guess she just saw you and figured you were a donor”, she laughed, “We’ll have to tell her next time that you’re a volunteer.”
The school is packed past capacity with over 700 students and the numbers are rising. Despite their huge population, they have some of the best performance rates in the area and the students try to avoid missing class as much as possible. One young boy was missing his morning classes and the teachers thought it was because he was looking for food. It turned out that he only had one pair of shorts which he would wash at night but the thick material stayed damp into the morning hours causing him to be late for school.
I asked how starting a feeding program at Kathithi would affect the school, “they will go crazy” she said in reference to the students. They predicted that the population would increase dramatically as students moved there from other schools. Once the other schools are “drained” of students they will have to start feeding programs themselves to retain enrollment. They believed that starting a single feeding program at Kathithi would, in turn, benefit the entire community.
Our meeting concluded with a story about two twin 9 year old boys. Their mother couldn’t feed them anymore so she ran away to find work. They were left to cook and take care of themselves, “locking the door at night.” The little food she had left them quickly ran out and they approached the head teacher looking for food. She tracked down the mother yesterday who told her that if she could get food she would return to her sons, “She cannot just sit there and watch her children die and herself.”
We walked from classroom to classroom to say hi to the students. Each and every time we walked into a classroom all the students would stand and recite a rehearsed welcome. We walked to the back field to see the toilets MKMF had built and the borehole which had recently broken down, leaving them without water. On our way back to the car the head teacher said, “They didn’t sign the visitors book!” Of course we couldn’t leave without doing that first!
Ravena, Alexia’s mom, came to visit for a few days and took us out to dinner that night. A cat kept wandering into the restaurant and each time we’d point it out to Alexia to chase it away. She loved it.