Jerry and Liz, a father and daughter team, went on a VMM Short Term Volunteer placment in July 2017 for 4 weeks. They volunteered in teaching and organic farming with VMM partner organisation Justice and Mercy, a community based organisation working to support the vulnerable people in Homa Bay country, Kenya.
I first became aware of Justice and Mercy (JAM) through VMM International. My father Jerry and I had expressed our desire to undertake an international development short term volunteer placement in Africa. Our primary motivation being to share our knowledge and experience in agriculture and education, to contribute in any small way we could. Furthermore, we had a desire to experience and learn from others by participating in ways of living that were potentially quite different from our own. We were aware that such programmes have mutual benefits for both the volunteer and the host project and this was an exciting prospect.
The Perfect Volunteer Placement:
Following a thorough vetting and assessment process in line with the Comhlámh code of good practice, VMM International informed us that they had found a suitable project. We were embarking on a month long adventure in Kenya. JAM, a community integrated project located in the western region, supports the community, in particular families affected by HIV and AIDS, through the provision of health services and the facilitation of agriculture and education projects.
On our arrival to Kisimu airport we were collected by the director, Kennedy Okoth, becoming instantly engrossed in the project as he narrated stories about JAM’s successes and challenges. The compound is a constant flurry of activity with locals availing of the clinic’s expertise and facilities and farm labourers tending to crops and livestock. Our transition from visitor to volunteer was a smooth one and largely attributed to the overwhelming welcome we received from every member of the JAM family.
Education Coordinator Assistant:
As an Education Coordinator Assistant I worked closely with two education experts in providing health and life skills talks in schools, assisting the identification of eligible orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) and providing them with the required support, such as, payment of school fees and/or the provision of clothing and supplies.
Despite my varied teaching experience throughout the Gulf region, it was necessary to take the time to learn about the education system in Kenya. In order to do this, I immersed myself in the heart of education – the schools. By engaging in conversations with senior leaders and teachers; examining schemes of work; reading text books; and, most importantly, teaching in the classroom, I gained deeper awareness and a unique perspective on education in Kenya.
Challenges and Commitment, Holistic Development and Life Skills:
At each school I visited I was consistently impressed with the commitment of the staff; the diligence and work ethic of the students, and the overall positive ethos that radiated throughout, despite the often limited resources and unique challenges faced.
However, it was through the life talks with students that I became more exposed to the obstacles and difficulties faced by the youth. Students wrote anonymous replies to questions painfully revealing their most intimate worries and fears. This included crippling poverty; difficult family circumstances; unwanted relationships and pregnancy; and alcohol and drug addiction. Reading and reflecting on these questions was instrumental in my overall understanding of the complicated lives that some of Kenya’s youth lead.
Furthermore, it highlighted the grave need for a project such as JAM to work closely with the youth to support not just their financial needs, but to assist with their holistic development. Presently, the team are working on the production of a life skills manual. Through a series of teaching methodologies, the youth will explore issues around personal development, dealing with others, making effective decisions and being a good leader.
Food Security and Livelihood Assistant:
My dad’s involvement in the agricultural programme similarly mirrored the positive changes that JAM are making in the community. His role as a Food Security and Livelihood Assistant involved maintaining the demonstration plot on site; providing guidance to farm assistants and visiting community farmers.
Empowering Resilience Building Through Organic, Community Farming:
JAM promotes organic farming and encourages communities to become self-reliant. JAM have empowered community farmers, teaching them the correct and most efficient way to sow their crops and providing seeds for the first harvest. This will enable the community to become self-sufficient in the long term.
Dad was also inspired by the work ethic, diligence and dedication shown by both the farm assistants at JAM and the farmers in the wider area. He was most impressed by the sense of community and togetherness. Families work together, sharing ideas, knowledge and labour tasks, for the overall benefit of the community. In the future, JAM aim to purchase a tractor. This will allow them to plough the farms of multiple community members (often widows), making it less labour-intensive and increasing productivity. In return, the farms will provide JAM with a proportion of the produce, thus enabling JAM to provide food and nourishment for more members of the community.
Living in the Shelter of One Another:
Approaching the end of our placement and preparing to depart, we were filled with admiration for the resilience, devout nature and overwhelming positive outlook of the Kenyan people. The sense of collaboration that exists here is a reminder of what can be achieved when people make time to help not just themselves, but their neighbour.
By Liz Kinane