I share this with you so that you might avoid finding yourself in a similar fix. Always check your blind spots!
My ordeal happened six years ago. I was 26, a great age. I had literally no fears or concerns. My wife, Ruth, and I were living in central London and had a close circle of friends who we saw most evenings. We ate out and frequented the cinema and theatre, hung out in parks at weekends and occasionally took in an odd art exhibition that always went over our heads, hit the wall behind us and clattered to the ground disturbing all the quiet, cultured folk. But we didn’t mind, we were loving life. We had sufficient income to support the occasional skiing trip or holiday to South Africa and I was fit; I ran a couple of half-marathons a week and thought nothing of it. Life was good and we had the enthusiasm to know that it would only get better.
We had plans to ‘travel’, which when used as an unattached verb means we were going to see the world, or at least the bits that most appealed to our sense of adventure and we considered sophistication as having eaten McDonald’s in many different cultures. Do you know that in Malaysia they serve chicken strips in porridge? We had discussed ‘doing’ China then venturing down to Thailand and New Zealand, up and over the Pacific to Canada before working down through Central and South America: Cuba, Colombia and Peru, then finally stopping off in Kenya for safari. They were our A-list spots; we also had B and C lists. You’re right, it was going to be awesome; the adventure of our lifetimes after which, under Ruth’s guidance, we planned to settle down, buy a house and have children. The dream.
Just as our schemes were nearing completion, Ruth decided that she wanted to retrain as a dietitian. The only snag was that this required a year of evening school studying sciences, followed by four years at university. Sideswipe #1.
Travelling is quite a different proposition for two people living in London on one salary who are restricted to term-time breaks. We were determined to see the world, though our timeframe, budget and list of destinations all felt the squeeze. Our new itinerary was Uganda and Kenya. The thing we had most looked forward to was safari in the Maasai Mara and I’d rather prematurely invested in the latest Panasonic Lumix with 16x optical zoom (I had no idea).
Off we went and, with the exception of a senile safari guide who almost fed us to wild lions, and a bout of what can only be described as free-flowing food poisoning inspired by Nile-washed salad leaves (it’s not the white water that will get you!), we were having a fantastic time.
But first rewind a few weeks. Shortly before setting off we mentioned to a friend that we were heading to Kenya for safari and then on to the idyllic hideaway, Sand Island, in Mombasa. As it turned out, he had lived in Kenya and suggested that we spent a couple of days with a friend of his called George. The cost of our guest lodging? One box of shortbread biscuits and a local football tournament. Again, check your blind spots. This was an unusual proposition and we should have looked further into the suggested transaction.
Having narrowly avoided becoming steak tartare, it was time to meet George. We followed our friend’s directions and were surprised to find our safari-beach retreat had a rather unexpected intruder: a slum. We stepped out of our taxi and into more Nile food poisoning. Sideswipe #2. What were we doing in a slum? It was one of the few occasions I have felt entirely lost.
George, a towering Kenyan pastor, showed us to his house, which was one of the better ones; it had concrete walls and a drop toilet. He and his wife, Jackie, shared their home with 13 once-homeless children who they had adopted and now loved as their own. We presented our biscuits, which not only felt like, but actually were, the most ridiculous gift in the history of passing things from one person to another. Never has there been a less likely setting for tea and Scottish shortbread. But there, in the middle of a corrugated iron maze, with 13 orphans, George the giant and Jackie, we drank Kenyan tea (one part tea, two parts milk, five parts sugar) and nibbled our butter fingers.
The next day I woke with a stiff neck and, after a church service, we headed to a clearing where preparations had been made for the football tournament. En route, I was assaulted by a smell that burned my nostrils and made my eyes water.
“What is that?” I spluttered.
George turned to me with a confused look on his face. “What’s what?”
He continued to look blank. He was like a Londoner so familiar with their city they no longer heard the buses and the sirens. He inhaled deeply, letting the smell swirl around as though he were tasting a new wine. “Ah,” he said with the disapproving look of a parent who had found a stray coat on the floor. “They smash a sewage pipe and use it to fertilise crops.”
First shortbread in a slum and now goalposts beside people growing their food in raw sewage. You’re right, there are no words. Take a break and come back.
Where was I?
World’s worst footballer
The clearing was packed with 300 boys and girls. I was told that they had been practising every day since the tournament was announced. One of the teams tentatively approached the only white(ish) guy and who they mistook as probably a semi-pro. They pushed forward one of their players who could speak English. “Do you juggle?” he asked as he began bouncing the ball off his various appendages. He completed a textbook Baggio seven and then flicked the ball to me. I instinctively went for a cushioned header but my neck seized, and rather than gently controlling the ball, it slapped me in the face and dropped to the ground. Never have you seen disappointment like it. I was ashamed. They were sideswiped.
The tournament lasted into the evening and it was explained to me that the children have no earthly positions. And by that, I mean 80% played barefoot, the others played with a single flip-flop or trainer; half had a right, a teammate the matching left. George told me that during the holidays the children sat around and were drawn into gangs who gave them a taste of alcohol or drugs. Without money to pay back their older peers or to get the next hit, they turned to petty crime. But football gave them a focus. They practised all day and went to bed exhausted. Parents and teachers reported that the children were happier and more engaged and it provided a platform to talk to them about issues like sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.
We left with our senses ringing, like in the movies when the protagonist escapes an exploding car bomb. All background noise had gone and we floated our way home, disorientated by tinnitus. A few days later I found myself in a café thinking about the polarity and absurdity of our globe that can accommodate such vastly different worlds. Whilst I sat sipping coffee in a chair designed to keep me comfortable for the duration of my drink, surrounded by rustic pictures of coffee growers picking, roasting and grinding beans adding to my authentic experience, I couldn’t help but think about the community I had visited in Kenya growing their crops in the worst kind of waste. How could these two experiences coexist? And what could I do about it?
After many sleepless nights, I had the answer. Nothing. There was nothing that I could do. The issues were simply too numerous, too big and too complexly interlinked. I had to somehow absorb what I had witnessed and move on. And that is what I set about doing. Only I couldn’t shift the tinnitus.
I had spoken with George at length about some of the issues he was working to combat. There were no jobs, there was poor sanitation and a lack of access to clean water. None of the children could afford secondary school, which meant few bothered with free primary education. There was a lack of basic healthcare and nutritional knowledge. Anaemic pregnant women dug stones from the dirt and ground them with their teeth, their iron deficiency temporarily satisfied by the metallic taste.
What can anyone do about all that? Where do you begin? What can make it better? Education doesn’t mean jobs; it would mean frustration. Clean water and an understanding of its importance doesn’t mean better health if you’re growing your food in sewage.
But one day, whilst delivering a presentation, I realised something. I know some smart people – people who know about water. I know lots of teachers who know about education. I know doctors and entrepreneurs. I looked around and in that one room, there must have been all the skills and resources required to work alongside and completely transform entire communities. And so there it was, sideswipe #3.
It is only through working together that we can do what we must. It requires us to make our unique contribution, whether our resource be a skill, material or finance. And that is why I founded People. I was sideswiped. It has changed my world view, caused me to change the way I work, put my wallet on a diet and given me a new perspective of what success looks like.
I think that combating dehumanising poverty is the most important and profound test that faces us today and People aims to do that though pooling the skills and resources of individuals and organisations. We now work in Kenya and Liberia alongside remarkable people. Together we identify and respond to the challenges to, and opportunities for, development and change. In the community I visited six years ago we now have a scholarship programme that supports young people through secondary school and into further study or full-time employment.
But there is so much more that must and can be done. We need to work with IT companies to develop computer training centres and coding schools, we need to develop roads and infrastructure that will improve trade and we need businesses to use their might to empower. We need entrepreneurs to support start-ups, farmers to provide agricultural training and we need more generous people to help expand our scholarship programme. With the right people using what they have at their disposal, this can all be done.
So, to sideswipe you, what is it that only you can do? What is it that you can help make happen?
We are a global community, that’s what makes us People.
Check out people.org.uk and help us support a young person through school and into employment.