Me to We

The Canadian social enterprise, lets visitors help transform a community in Kenya

MAASAI MARA, KENYA-Jane Marindany is a vivacious matriarch with a quick, sweeping smile. But Mama Jane, as she likes to be called, turns serious when she tells us about a time when her community's only source of water was the wide muddy river that flows a few kilometres from her home. Women would go down multiple times a day with hulking 20-litre jugs that they’d carry back, strapped to their heads.

"At that time, there was cholera and also typhoid and many people died," she says from the shade of a house decorated with cutouts from notebooks and newspapers. Outside, fruit trees soak in the dazzling Kenyan sun.

Now everyone is close to clean water.”

Marindany lives in the community of Laila in southwestern Kenya’s Maasai Mara region, where animals such as giraffes and zebras graze in the tall savanna grass abutting farms and pastureland. Free the Children, Craig Kielburger’s Canadian non-profit that is now known as We Charity, arrived in the community in 2004 with a mission to transform.

Today, Me to We, a We Charity offshoot, runs volunteer trips here for everyone from student groups to families to corporate teams. A for-profit social enterprise, half of the proceeds from trips go back to We Charity, which focuses on development work and youth empowerment in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But being in a community is only temporary, says Michelle Hambly, We Charity's Kenya country director. Through programs focusing on water, health, education, food security and alternative income, they hope to create sustainable communities. This one is meant to showcase that work.

Hambly, a Canadian transplant, has called Kenya home for more than a dozen years. I can’t help but ask her if it wouldn’t be more helpful to have would-be volunteers simply donate the thousands of dollars it costs them to come out here.

"Sure, maybe it would have been easier to write a $5,000 cheque," she says from a breezy pavilion where we’re served lunch. “But then, from the actual experience — what they’ve gained and how that’s changed and how they lead the rest of their lives and how they choose to give back for the rest of their lives — actually, exponentially and financially, it’s far much more worth it to invest that initial money in actually coming on a trip versus just giving the cash.”

Inside Bogani, the sprawling fenced grounds where Me to We’s volunteers stay, trees cast shade over luxurious tents and villas. Winding footpaths meander through the 14-hectare property that includes a bar, a stage, a vegetable garden and a shop that sells exquisite beadwork crafted by Me to We’s 1,400 Kenyan artisans, offering local women a chance to increase their household income by as much as 300 per cent.

After a short bumpy drive, we reach the Baraka Health Clinic, built by Free the Children in 2010. This year, the facility transformed into a fully functioning hospital.

Caribou! Welcome,” Joseph Gachira, associate director for health, says in a warm baritone as we enter the compound.

Gachira walks us through, past new surgical rooms, a pharmacy, laboratory, medicinal garden and an array of solar panels that glitter in the sun.

On a day like today, I don’t have to pay electricity bills,” Gachira says.

Gachira is proud of the clinic. He tells us the people here once had to travel for hours to get medical aid. If you can’t afford the subsidized treatment, the clinic will not turn you away, Gachira adds.

We also do pro bono. If someone doesn’t have money, they can also bring chickens and eggs!

Tobiko Sankei, a local Me to We trip facilitator, takes us to a construction site where student volunteers can help local labourers dig foundations, mix cement and lay stones for a new school.

When Free the Children arrived in the community, few girls were being educated, Sankei says. Their duty had been to spend their days fetching water for their families’ farms. To get parents to allow girls to go to classes, Free the Children simply dug wells at schools.

Today, nearly an equal number of boys and girls are getting educations here. One of them is 16-year-old Rebecca Sanaipei Shunkur.

Shunkur knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. Outgoing and articulate, she says she'll put off marriage until at least the age of 24. For now, she wants to focus on becoming a journalist.

"I want to be on television!" she says. I tell her I’ve always been too shy to be on camera. She grins. “I’m not shy.”

Shunkur is one of 112 students boarding at Kisaruni Girls Secondary School. At the end of our tour, we’re taken to an auditorium where the girls sing, thanking us for coming, before pulling us onstage for a dance.

In that auditorium, there’s a mural that stretches across an entire wall of 12-year-old Craig Kielburger reading a copy of the Toronto Star. That’s the moment he learned about another 12-year-old boy named Iqbal Masih, who was sold to a Pakistani carpet factory at the age of 4, only to be shot to death once he began speaking out against child labour. That moment sparked Kielburger’s life mission and the creation of Free the Children; a moment without which, perhaps, this community wouldn’t be shining quite as brightly as it does today.

The above article by Daniel Ortis first published on in Oct, 2016.