I have just returned from ten days in Kenya visiting some of our projects funded by Comic Relief. I was delighted that Gethin Jones (Television Presenter) and his friend Oli Goodier (Art Director) decided to come out with us too. Together we met some of the poorest people on the planet on the shores of Lake Victoria.
We met women who are beaten every day by their husbands for asking for money for food. They are brought up to believe that if your husband doesn’t hit you he doesn’t love you. We met women who have to sell fish their husbands have caught. But the tradesmen buying the fish know they will rot after 4-5 hrs in the heat. So they stand there with their trucks full of ice and toy with the women as the price of their fish decreases while the clock ticks, eventually agreeing only to buy them from the women who will grant them sexual favours. I met women who have to walk four kilometres to fetch a can of water eight times a day. I consider myself fairly strong but I tried lifting one can and could barely carry it a metre. Some of these women have to send their daughters alone after school from the age of seven to collect this water instead, where they are often abused by men from other villages.
We interviewed women who are taking care of three orphans as well as their own five or six children because their parents died of HIV after being exploited by the fish traders. We met families who all drink and bath in the same lake water they defecate in. They know it is wrong but only a few can afford to buy chlorine to treat the water. Cholera, Typhoid and diarrhoea are rife. And if that wasn’t enough, they are also at risk of being killed by hippos which share these shores and so must pay watchmen to keep guard when they wade out to collect water. Every woman we met had blood red swollen eyes and painful lungs from cooking five hours a day with toxic kerosene. Despite all these horrors one thing which touched me unexpectedly was when the women explained to me that they cannot afford to be beautiful. They cannot afford the 200 Kenyan shillings (£1.40) return trip to a town where they can get their hair done. They cannot afford to buy new clothes. They cannot compete with the beautiful women their husbands meet when they go and drink in other towns. But these women have so much pride. They wear colourful dresses and somehow manage to keep themselves immaculately clean. And every community, no matter how little they have, provided us with a beautifully cooked meal. Their hospitality was exceptional.
I was honoured to be invited into some of their homes; simple one room shacks housing sometimes eight people but surprisingly spotless and attractive inside. One lady, Atieno, had a poster of Leonardo Dicaprio & Kate Winslet on the wall. I asked her if she had seen Titanic. Of course she hadn’t. That was just a dream. I held back my tears….again. But my tears were not of pity. My tears were and are for how lucky I am. My tears are for the shame in what we in the west are doing to these women just by living our lives. They all talk of climate change. It is already a reality for them. And when the rains don’t come and their crops don’t grow and their boreholes dry up, they have no means to survive. But these are strong women who are coming together and forming cooperatives and seeking out ways to work together to improve their lives. I was so inspired by their strength. Not all the men are bad either. A few of them are allowed to join these women’s groups, or even help set them up because they know it is women who have the toughest time and are striving for change.
At Renewable World we don’t give hand-outs. That has proven time and time again not to work. We create opportunities for people to build business and enterprise. We give them choices and we give them hope – a way to lift themselves out of desperate poverty. It’s hard to believe that something as simple as installing one solar panel can provide power for refrigeration so a women’s cooperative can chill their own fish, take control of the price and cease being exploited. A wind turbine can provide light for children to study after school and scare hippos away at night, or pump water for irrigation so a family can increase their annual income by 400%! That is life changing. That is how you get your children out of this desperate cycle.
Power from renewable energy does not only help address climate change. It empowers people. It prevents sexual exploitation, it gives children an education. It puts food on the table. It prevents people becoming blind. Environmental issues cannot be separated from social issues, health problems, economic issues and politics. It means creating equality. It means improving people’s lives and livelihoods.
One super smart young boy of sixteen I met wants to be a lawyer in America. Well, President Obama comes from a village we passed just down the dusty road from him, so why ever not. He has already planned how he will use our interventions to raise money for university. I think he will make it. Atieno may never get to see a film in her life, but perhaps with our help, her children will. When my plane landed back in Heathrow this morning I walked straight into a washroom. I turned on the tap and instant clean water flowed. I felt blessed. By bizarre coincidence the Titanic theme tune was playing, and I knew I had brought Kenya home with me.
I am grateful to Gethin, Oli and our wonderful Kenyan staff and partners for working so hard on this trip and I am so proud to be part of Renewable World. On behalf of the children whose hands I held and the women who looked me in the eye and said “Madame Sarah, please do not forget us” please help fund our work so we can ‘give them the power’ they so desperately need.
- £30 can provide solar power for a fish chiller for 65 days enabling a ladies fishing cooperative to take control, cease being exploited and increase their income by 35% in one year
- £10 can enable us to provide power from a wind turbine to irrigate an acre of land for 60 days, doubling household income for the desperately poor
- £5 helps us install a Hydram pumping 30,000 litres of clean water and eliminating 3 cases of Typhoid
Sarah Donnelly, Trustee, Renewable World
*Please note that Gethin, Oli and I all paid our own way on this trip and not a penny of Renewable World’s money was spent on us being there