Kenya Visit: in which I make a promise and I lose my heart

I have arrived in Kisumu, over 1300 km from Mandera, and I am in a different Kenya now. The earth is not screaming out for water. Instead, it is a fresh, verdant landscape, with blue skies and hazy hills that seem to gently usher the city of Kisumu down to the shores of Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in Africa.

One of my Practical Action colleagues in the UK has a nickname for me: ‘passion in a can’ . Yet after 12 hours in Kisumu I feel like my passion comes nowhere close to what is here. This is passion’s hometown, and laughter seems to surf on every molecule in the air.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the informal settlements of Nyalenda and Manyatta, which lie just outside Kisumu city. Wandering through the slum of Manyatta, where over 20,000 people live in an area that is just 1.5 square km, all I can hear is laughter – of the young men making jokes, of the women chatting while they clean their mountains of coloured clothes. And the laughter of the children who call after me ‘mzungumzunguhowareyouy?i’mfinethankyouhowareyou?’, running the words together so the phrase sounds like one long exhalation. I want to record all their sing-song voices and play them constantly because they make me smile so much.

It is amid this cacophony of laughter that Practical Action is delivering one of its largest and most notable projects in Africa, aiming to improve the homes and environments of around 190,000 people who live in slum areas around Kisumu and Kitale.

The people here are determined to transform their own lives, so much so that the project has been developed according to their own vision. Instead of Practical Action telling communities ‘what you really need is a lovely new community hall’, we have listened to their voices and worked with them to draw up their own development plans for their homes. These plans are largely focused on improving access to clean water, constructing safe sanitation, improving the structure of houses, and establishing rubbish collection processes. And people themselves are driving this change – with passion and practical action.

I spend my morning weaving through the slums to look at the host of appropriate technologies the project comprises – boreholes and protected natural springs to secure clean water, ecological toilets and bathrooms with showers to promote safe sanitation, bricks made from sand to improve housing, and composting bins so that rubbish can be disposed of properly. The scale of the work is impressive, and the stories are so inspiring. One man tells me that for the first time in his life he feels as if he matters. Another lady informs me that before this project, it was not uncommon for as many as 10 people to die from cholera each day. And now, because there is clean water, there are no unnecessary deaths at all.

After an afternoon with another community in Nyalenda, the community chairperson asks me what I think of Kenya.

“My whole life I have wanted to come to Kenya, and it has been wonderful.” I smile.

“And Kisumu?” he asks.

“I love it!” I declare.

“Did you know the most powerful man in the world has his roots right here?” the man says proudly.

“Barack Obama? Then no wonder I love Kisumu, I love Obama!”

There is much laughter at this. So much laughter. I leave Nyalenda with laughter filling my heart and my head. But I feel deeply serious too. I promised to the people I met in Nyalenda and Manyatta that I would tell their stories, the stories of how they changed their own lives. I do not want to let them down. Their passion has inspired me. And in turn, I hope I can use my own passion to inspire you, and your friends, and your family, to support Practical Action.

We finish the day by watching the sun slowly sinking into the lake, colouring the huge sky apricot. I bask in the beauty of my surroundings and a flash of joy infuses every vein in my body. I have fallen in love with Africa, and my heart will remain here when I return to the UK on Thursday night.

3 responses to “Kenya Visit: in which I make a promise and I lose my heart”

  1. Robert Bwage Says:

    Jolly,you mean you are leavin this early. Wish you a great journey back. I know this is a good experience in my motherland. Thanks.

  2. Mathew Says:

    Thanks Ella for the beautiful stories and fond memories of Africa, Kenya and Kisumu. The stories are inspiring. Keep up the good work. The old man from Nyalenda keeps asking about you….and now I know why….you left your heart here and carried his away. Most welcome!!

  3. Ella Jolly Says:

    Thank you Mathew for your lovely commnet! I am so glad you enjoyed reading my stories of my time in Africa. I keep thinking of the man in Nyalenda too – and everyone I met in the Kisumu office! Wishing I was there right now in fact!

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