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Alison Kelford
Alison Kelford. Photo by Dawn Marchand

What a School Can Be

Dr. Alison Kelford finds new meaning for “community” in Maasai Mara, Kenya

I had wanted to volunteer overseas for a long time. However, as a family doctor and mother of four, I felt unable to make the time commitment some volunteer humanitarian trips require. So when I read a U of T alumni brochure describing an opportunity for meaningful travel to Kenya, I was immediately drawn to it. This trip required only 12 days and was facilitated by Free the Children, an organization I was familiar with through projects I had been involved in at my kids’ school. I believed in their philosophy of kids helping kids and was curious to see how they worked on the ground.

In October, I travelled to East Africa to help build classrooms at Emorijoi elementary school. I first flew to Nairobi where I joined 15 other alumni travellers, who turned out to be a great group of people from a range of careers, like-minded in their desire to lend a hand. From Nairobi we flew in a small plane over the spectacular Rift Valley to the Maasai Mara region. Landing in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, Maasai warriors escorted us to the Free the Children compound where the organization has been hosting trips for several years. The local staff warmly welcomed us, and we settled into cottages made of indigenous, renewable materials. Immediately, they taught us about Free the Children’s commitment to education, health, clean water and alternative income projects such as beekeeping and raising goats. This helped us to understand how our brief time in Kenya was part of a larger program aimed at long-term community development.

The next morning, after a bumpy ride along a rugged road flanked by cattle, load-carrying donkeys and smiling, waving children, we arrived at the Emorijoi elementary school. Kids ran to meet us, grabbing our hands, asking us questions, showing us their classrooms. Emorijoi is an established site with an academic building, classrooms, library, kitchen and teacher accommodation. Our task was to help build two classrooms necessary to house the growing number of students. A local construction crew patiently taught us how to mix concrete, build block walls, and construct and hoist trusses. Working side by side with the local crew gave us an opportunity to get to know them, and for them to ask about our lives back in Canada. The kids often watched us from the playground and were keen for us to take their picture so they could look at themselves on the camera’s back screen.

It soon became obvious that the school offered much more than education; it also provided a source of food and clean water. Since girls have traditionally spent their days collecting water, the provision of water allowed them to attend school. In addition to the Kenyan curriculum, the children learn about sanitation, handwashing, health education and gardening.

Although constructing the school was physically demanding at times, more challenging was the “water walk” we took with one of the “mamas.” After learning about home life, we walked 1.5 kilometres to the river and each carried 10 to 20 litres of water on our backs, uphill! (The mamas make this journey four or five times each day.) This woman inspired us as she spoke of her life and community issues. She talked about the changes that were occurring from Free the Children being in the community, such as the creation of new sources of income, improved sanitation practices within the home and the establishment of collectives.

From the morning walks in the Kenyan countryside to the meeting of the community on our last day, the trip was truly amazing. Each day was better than the previous one, and we appreciated a generosity of spirit rarely experienced. My plan is to go back, perhaps to build a school with my family or to help with the newly constructed medical centre. I am not sure exactly what my project will be but I am going back.

Dr. Alison Kelford (BSc 1984 Victoria, MHSc 1986) is a family physician in Oakville, Ontario.

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  1. One Response to “ What a School Can Be ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was somewhat puzzled by Dr. Alison Kelford’s description of her trip to Kenya to work on building a school. Experiences such as Dr. Kelford’s with Free the Children are a wonderful way for Canadians to learn about a culture and country very different from their own.

    But to suggest that it is a source of community development for Kenyans is a bit of a stretch. Local people benefit more from being paid to build their own schools than from peering in from the outside and smiling at imported workers from privileged countries. There is no shortage of general labourers in Kenya.

    Lise Watson
    MA 2002