Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives
Karam woke up when the earth started to shake. Marianna fled a war. Susan skips workdays to fetch water. These FCA workers now tell us what it’s like to live in the middle of a catastrophe.
DID YOU KNOW that Finn Church Aid employs over 3 000 people? Or that 95 % of them are locally hired experts? Our local workers are the most crucial part of our relief work. For many people, catastrophes are a remote affair – for them, they’re a part of everyday life.
In this article we meet some FCA experts who have lived through the war in Ukraine, the drought in East Africa and a devastating earthquake in Syria. They don’t see their work as just a job. What is at stake for them is the future – for their families and for their countries.
Karam Sharouf from Syria has lived through a variety of catastrophes for his entire adult life. Still, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“It started with a bomb-like sound, just like what we have been hearing throughout the war. I thought we were under attack again. Eventually, I realized that the earth was shaking.
It was the morning of February 6, 2023. I was asleep in our home, on the fourth floor of a building, in the Syrian capital Damascus. In a state of shock, I grabbed my wife and child. Things were falling and breaking apart around us, but fortunately there were no injuries.
I am Syrian. I am 33 years old. I have lived my entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, then the pandemic, now a devastating earthquake. Our country is going from a crisis to crisis, and many Syrians are just waiting for a chance to get out.
I have been working with FCA since 2019, when I became FCA’s first local worker in Syria. Even before that, however, I had ten years of experience in the organization. The earthquake has kept us extremely busy. In Syria, we have not had the opportunity to prepare for catastrophes like the earthquake and the pandemic, since we have dealing with bombs and attacks for the last decade. How to deal with something like an earthquake? We have had no idea.
Just before the quake, Finn Church Aid had expanded its reach to Aleppo, as well as Raqqa, often remembered as the capital of ISIS. People in these cities have been living under enormous pressure and, after all the bad things that have happened, all they have wanted is a moment of calm. What they did not need was another catastrophe, like this earthquake – causing many to lose their homes or families.
So, all things considered, it’s all very difficult, but I still see light at the end of the tunnel for us Syrians. That’s what keeps me going. After all, our mission is making people feel empowered.
The future of Syria depends first on us, the locals, even if the international community’s help is also necessary. When people work hard for their country, this creates a sense of togetherness and unity. What annoys me is how white people treat us Middle-Easterners. I’ve seen none of that while at FCA, even though we are in constant contact with Finland and our other countries of operation. Almost all of the staff at FCA’s Syria office are Syrian. That is quite exceptional and gets us a lot of positive feedback.
Marianna Zhurbenko, who has fled the war in Ukraine, would not hesitate to open her home to other refugees.
“I remember staring incredulously at the sky from the window of my home in Gostomel, west of Kiev. It was 24 February 2022, helicopters were flying overhead, and my phone kept ringing incessantly as my friends called in distress, telling me and my family to flee. All the sudden the war had started, and the front line was only 500 metres from our home. It felt like they were playing a movie just outside our window.
The artillery fire started in the evening. That’s when my husband and I decided to flee. We packed our 9-year-old son, our six-month-old baby, and our dog into the car. We fled first to Kyiv and then to western Ukraine.
I and my sons lived there for the next few months. I stayed awake, listened to my 9-year-old crying. Fortunately, the baby didn’t understand anything about the situation.
Unknown families took us in to live with them. We tried to offer them payment for water and electricity, and they refused to accept it. The war has united us Ukrainians like never before. I, too, would open the door to other families if they were facing such a situation.
My own values have also been changed by the war. Material goods no longer matter to me, while life, health, family, and love are vastly more important than before.
We were able to return home in May 2022. Kyiv was empty and our yard was full of mines and ammo fragments. The mines were cleared, and now our children can play there safely again.
Before the war, I was a supervisor in a sewing company. After we returned home, it soon became clear that this couldn’t continue. Although my workplace had not been destroyed in the fighting, all the workers had fled elsewhere and had no intention of returning.
I started in June as a planning coordinator at the Finn Church Aid. I’m in charge of obtaining aid and making sure that all aid going to FCA’s schools, for example, finds its way there.
I was an internally displaced person and I know how that makes people feel. It’s great to be able to help children, and I like what I’m doing here.”
Susan Abuba Jackson, living in a Kenyan refugee camp, is a teacher. Sometimes, however, she must spend a whole working day just fetching water.
“I am a teacher. The ongoing drought makes life hard for my students, but also for me. I have five children at home. Some days, instead of going to work, I must fetch water to keep my children from suffering. If I can’t feed myself, I don’t have the energy to teach. There are four of us teachers in the school. The class sizes are so huge that teaching while hungry and thirsty becomes impossible.
I came to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017, fleeing the war. I remember seeing one person shot I fled with my children here to Kenya while my husband stayed in South Sudan as a soldier.
I worked as a teacher in South Sudan for 12 years. Upon arrival here, I started as a primary school teacher. For the last two years, I have been working as a kindergarten teacher in a school run by Finn Church Aid in the Kalobeyei refugee camp.
I like working with children. They are flexible, they learn quickly and are very outspoken. Early education is also especially important for children. It is foundational to all sorts of learning.
The drought is currently our biggest problem. Normally we have 500 pupils, but many are dropping out of school because there is no water in the school, either. We can’t even offer them food if there is no water.
The children here have a lot of special needs. Many have seen war, have been traumatized. Their parents may have died, and they may be living alone with older siblings. It is up to us to look after these children and make sure they get a good education, but in a situation like this, that is very difficult.”
At the Kakuma-Kalobeyei refugee camp in northern Kenya, mental health services are in short supply. The residents of the camp have fled murder and rape only to find that the daily life of the camp poses its own challenges. Working as a psychologist among people whose acute need of help is overwhelming takes its toll. What are some good ways to maintain resilience in the face of such challenges?
“REMEMBER: it’s important to have a life goal,” the teacher says, speaking to approximately forty students. The students listen intently, even though the classroom is over 30 degrees hot.
“What would be an example of a good life goal?”
“A nice house,” says one student.
“Eating sweets,” says another. “A good wife,” third one exclaims, and everyone bursts out laughing.
IN KENYA, SCHOOLS were closed for two weeks in May. Nevertheless, at the Kalobeyei refugee camp, kids were learning skills like self-esteem, setting goals for oneself, and conflict resolution at a life-skills camp.
The refugee camp is one of the largest in the world, housing around 300 000 refugees, mostly children and youth. Many live alone or with their siblings, as their parents have disappeared or died.
200 youth who have regularly attended school during the last term have been invited to participate. The invitation not only serves as a reward – the camp offers the kids meals, like in school – but also helps pass the message onwards. The youth attending the camp are likely to teach their skills to their friends in future.
“During the holidays, youth often get into trouble. Some join gangs, others get pregnant. That’s why we decided to organise a camp for teaching life skills,” says Maureen Achieng, 25.
Kakuma Kalobeyei refugee camp in Kenya is one of the largest in the world, housing around 300 000 refugees, mostly children and youth. Many live alone or with their siblings, as their parents have disappeared or died. Every week, there are new people arriving to the camp from neighbouring countries.
Maureen Achieng is a psychologist at the Finn Church Aid field office in Kakuma-Kalobeyei, Kenya. Her role is supporting the psychosocial well-being of children and youth and offering counselling for difficult situations.
EVERY WEEK, there are new people arriving to the camp from neighbouring countries. Currently, the biggest source of refugees is violence in Burundi. Some are fleeing for the second time. At the same time, the camp is waiting to see the effects of the conflict in Sudan for Kenya.
“Children here have all sorts of problems: serious trauma in their home country or from being on the run, abuse at home, teenage pregnancies. On top of that come the normal young people problems, such as school or heartbreaks,” Achieng says.
Dealing with these problems happens step by step. Achieng recommends young people set themselves goals and celebrate small achievements. Stressing the benefits of education is particularly important to girls, who are usually pressured into an early marriage. Nelly Havyarimana, 15, from Burundi, knows this very well personally.
“My mother and sisters and I came to Kenya in 2017. We had to leave home when my father died. As I had no brothers, our relatives wanted to marry us girls off. My mother thought that we should complete our studies, however, so we fled here.”
Havyarimana has learned about the importance of goals at the life skills camp.
“When I grow up, I want to be a surgeon. This can only happen through hard work – making decisions for the future and setting goals along the way. But I’m hopeful.”
Another useful skill that Havyarimana has learned in the camp: conflict resolution. The camp hosts people from many different nationalities, often without a common language. Conflicts are often inevitable.
“I’ve learned that I need to seek support from other communities. If, for example, Burundians and Sudanese are squabbling, I should at least get one person from the Sudanese side to support me, maybe some others, too. The parties to the conflict generally calm down when they realise that everyone wants them to stop.”
PSYCHOLOGIST Maureen Achieng also has other responsibilities at the camp, as she offers psychosocial support to students. In practice, this means problem-solving, therapy, academic counselling and much more. All of this is mentally taxing, even for a professional.
“I have often put myself in the shoes of a child who has had their parents murdered or a loved one raped in front of their eyes. They have had to walk to safety for days on end – without sleep, food or water.”
Achieng is also involved in an inter-organisational suicide prevention group. Both drug use and suicide attempts have recently increased alarmingly at the camp.
Maureen Achieng and other members of the staff live in relatively modest conditions and with little personal space in Kalobeyei refugee camp.
“Even if one tries to take time off, conversations with colleagues always circle back to work,” Achieng says. PHOTO: BJÖRN UDD / FCA
“The main reason is definitely the oppressive living conditions. Up to 70% of suicidal people give the living conditions as the reason of their suicidal tendencies. The same goes for drug use. It’s a way of escaping reality and hopelessness.”
The team searches for people at risk and harnesses the whole community to recognise the surrounding warning signs.
“For example, we made an agreement with the camp’s traders: if someone wants to buy a rope, a few follow-up questions are needed. What is the purpose of their purchase? All right, they want to tie up an animal. What kind of an animal? And so on. Many people give up their intentions after this sort of a thing, at least for a time.”
It is still difficult, coming to grips with things like suicide each and every day. Achieng considers it important to be able to get away from work in her free time. It’s never easy, though. There are many needing help and never enough time to help them all. On top of that, the staff live in relatively modest conditions and with little personal space.
“Even if one tries to take time off, conversations with colleagues always circle back to work. And it’s hard to avoid your colleagues if they live next door!”
IT THUS BECOMES necessary to working through the issues causing distress in others. Achieng is lucky, as she has an older colleague outside the camp for discussing ideas and getting good advice on how to solve difficult cases.
For Achieng, who is originally from Nairobi, moving to the small-scale environment of the refugee camp was also a challenge. A key part of addressing this was making their home more homelike.
“Personally, my most important household item is the video gaming console, which I take with me everywhere I go,” laughs Achieng. She admits to being a big racing game fan, but also plays other games. In addition to the console, Achieng has brought home her favourite treats, and has also taken up painting.
“Sometimes we organise art workshops for the children. Art therapy works – I have first-hand experience!” she says, smiling.
Achieng is working on a rotating schedule. In addition to the normal holidays, she has a week off after seven working weeks.
“Write this one in your story in capital letters: THE ROTATING LEAVE IS A MUST!”, Achieng urges.
“It is easy to notice that five weeks is all it takes for my colleagues to exhausted, as they start becoming very irritable easily. Especially those who have families miss their loved ones, because you can’t bring husbands, wives, or children here. A week off helps a lot.”
PSYCHOLOGISTS ARE NOT the only ones who have to think about how to deal with the stories students tell. Teachers hear them regularly too, and it’s possible for traumas to trigger for teachers, especially those with a refugee background. This is why peer support circles are organised for teachers to talk through their experiences.
This monthly ritual is particularly important for teachers. In an empty classroom, about ten people sit in a circle. Taking turns, they tell each other what’s on the top of their minds.
“This is an opportunity for us to talk openly about our problems and discuss how best to manage our classes,” says Edward Festo, who teaches English and Social Studies.
And a necessary opportunity it is. Class sizes can easily be around 200 pupils, making the teacher’s job difficult.
“Every day, I come home with a hoarse voice. Usually, I’m also mentally dead tired.”
Festo, from South Sudan, decided to flee the civil war in 2016 at the age of 19, after some of his siblings were killed.
“I lived in the north of the country, so making my escape through a country fighting a civil war was difficult. Many lives were lost on the way,” Festo says.
Many schoolchildren have similar backgrounds, so their stories can bring old feelings to the surface.
“We have received a lot of support in dealing with our traumas. It is our responsibility to be the professionals and adults, always and in every situation. Therapy and comprehensive training make it easier to keep it cool when things become heated,” says Festo.
He also understands the younger generation’s situation.
“Everything is more difficult nowadays. When we arrived, we were given schoolbooks, school uniforms and free education. Now the kids have to pay for books and uniforms themselves.”
Therapy has helped Festo to work through other issues.
“Living during a civil war is terrible. One must do bad things and link up with bad groups to survive. Therapy has been a life changer for me.”
TEACHERS are not the only ones getting help from therapy. Sixth grader Rashidi Shabani, 16, says he used to be very short-tempered.
“I got angry very easily. When I was out with my friends, I would get upset and start intense arguments with them. Therapy has helped me process these feelings. We’ve gone through what makes me get upset and evaluated my feelings generally. “
“Nowadays, if I find myself in a difficult situation, I take a deep breath or talk to others about my feelings. My anger dissipates and I feel free of stress.”
Shabani fled the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his mother and siblings in 2016. In the future, he wants to also be able to help his friends manage their emotions. He hopes to turn helping others into a career.
“When I grow up, I would like to be a psychologist. I’ve had a lot of help from psychologists, they do so much good. I would like to be like them as an adult.”
Text and photos by Björn Udd
Nelly Havyarimana (middle) is happy to ask her friends for help in case of any conflict or crisis in her life. PHOTO: Björn Udd / FCA
“Finns should just stay out of Kenya’s conflicts” – is that so, Alexon Mwasi?
Alexon Mwasi, the Programme Manager of Finn Church Aid’s Kenya Country Office, is a huge fan of kotikalja, a home-brewed non-alcoholic beer popular in Finland. It is also his opinion that Western media presents an incomplete picture of Africa. In our hot seat feature, it is our turn to ask him some tough questions about foreign aid and local work.
The European stereotype is that Africans grow up surrounded by nature and wildlife. Did elephants roam in your backyard when you were a child, Alexon Mwasi?
Applies to me, at least! My family lives next to the Tsavo National Park, so wild animals showing up in our backyard was a common thing. You better believe it was at times terrifying to walk several kilometers to school and back! When we grew up and started hunting antelope, however, this fear quickly turned into rousing fun.
After studying international development cooperation, you have worked in this field since 2004. But has the world become a better place during your career?
A tricky question. It is true that it is not easy for Kenyans to influence climate change and the related challenges, but there are things are better now than back then. The wells we drill are a lifesaver for countless people, for instance, and will be for a long time to come.
Kenya has been in turmoil lately. There are the cattle rustling issues and the related conflicts, as well as protests and political instability. Would you agree with the following statement? “It would be better if Finns did not get involved in Kenyan conflicts at all.”
Partly true. Some local conflicts are so complex that it is hard for outsiders to understand them, let alone find a resolution. On the other hand, outsiders can often help us greatly and offer fresh ideas for solving our problems.
What about these statements? “It is true that foreign aid workers just do a better job than locals.”
Absolutely untrue. Cooperation is the key. Local people and institutions know what is wrong and sometimes have the solutions, but experts from outside bring in a lot of new knowledge. In farming, for example, the locals are usually the best experts on which crop variants grow the best and sell the most. However, external help can still help improve their methods of farming and increase their water-use efficiency.
“It is time for Africans to help each other.”
True enough, but as I said, some problems, like climate change, are plain difficult for Africans to influence. There is no-one less responsible for climate emissions than Africans, but they are still very vulnerable to droughts, for example. There are issues where we need to help ourselves, but also issues where humanity needs to stand together.
“The Western media presents a balanced picture of Africa.”
The ongoing drought is something the Western media has mostly ignored, for example, though this might be because of the war in Ukraine and other major recent events. When it came to the recent protests in Kenya, though, the media was there, portraying them as enormous and violent. One might have been left with the impression that the whole country was burning, though the protests were, in the end, a minor affair.
“The war in Ukraine does not affect lives in East Africa.”
Completely untrue. We are very dependent on Ukraine. The crucial grain and cooking oil imports stopped completely when the war started, accelerating the food crisis and the inflation. Thankfully – and surprisingly – Ukraine managed to negotiate a deal that allowed them to start exporting grain to East Africa again, but the imports are still scarce. As a result, we are suffering.
You recently visited Finland and fell in love with the taste of kotikalja. Is it true that you are now making your own batches in the cleaning closet of FCA’s Nairobi office?
Ha ha! That sure is an interesting idea. I loved the taste of kotikalja! If I had the chance to brew more myself, one or two batches would not be enough.
Up to one million Kenyan girls miss days of school each month due to menstruation
What would you do if you had to replace your menstrual hygiene products with rags made from old clothes, or if you simply did not own anything that would stop others from noticing the bleeding or odors?
AKIMANA, 18,knows what life is like when menstruation interferes with going to school.
”It’s really stressful to go to school without menstrual hygiene products. I feel so bad, especially when I’m standing in front of the class, if I’ve stained my skirt by accident and my classmates laugh at me,” she says.
Sometimes Akimana skips school because she has no menstrual hygiene products and she feels ashamed to stand out. There are few teenage girls in the world who would not mind going to school while wearing clothes with period blood stains on them.
”Sometimes, when I have no menstrual hygiene products and my classmates find out, they laugh at me and call me dirty. It feels so bad that some girls don’t come to school anymore,” says Mikamsoni, 17.
The classmates’ laughter might seem cruel, but deep down, the problem is actually a lack of education. Roughly every other human being in the world menstruates at some point in their life. At the same time, the topic might be so taboo in the community that periods or the hygiene issues related to them are not talked about, even among mothers and daughters.
”Understanding the menstrual cycle is among the basics of reproductive health, and this information is necessary for both girls and boys. Being open helps combat assumptions such as that periods make girls dirty or weak, or that while menstruating you should refrain from everyday life or even isolate yourself from the rest of the community,” says advocacy expert Merja Färm from Finn Church Aid.
A WHOLE OTHER aspect of periods is the financial side. Disposable menstrual hygiene products may be so expensive that families living in extreme poverty – or about less than 2 euros per day – cannot afford them. In the case of reusable menstrual pads, the problem is that washing the pads is difficult without a proper water supply point.
”If there are no hygiene products available, girls and women use unsuitable and unhygienic rags that are uncomfortable, smelly, and leaky, and at worst may even cause infections,” says Färm.
In a worst-case scenario, girls and women might even resort to using grass, leaves from trees, or sand. Those in a particularly vulnerable position include girls like Latifa and Violeta who live in rural Kenya and in refugee camps.
Finn Church Aid’s fight for girls’ education opportunities includes promoting menstrual hygiene. In our countries of operation, we provide girls with hygiene packages that include menstrual hygiene products, soap, and underpants. Another key part of this work is education regarding good menstrual hygiene that we provide while distributing the hygiene packages. Schools play an important role in this work as well.
”We educate students, teachers, and even the students’ parents on how important it is to enable girls to go to school even during their period,” says Färm.
Being left outside education increases the risk of early marriage and pregnancy, as well as unreasonable amounts of housework. Girls in a particularly difficult position include those who have undergone female genital mutilation and those with a heavy period, Färm emphasises.
After receiving menstrual hygiene packages from her school through the Finn Church Aid project, 16-year-old Micheline from Kenya is happy that she no longer needs to cut up her old clothes to be used as menstrual pads.
”Getting menstrual hygiene products from school has really changed my life. Back when we didn’t get them from school, I had to stay at home during my period, because I was afraid of the shame of getting stains on my school uniform. Now I can go to school regularly, and I feel confident,” says Micheline.
IN KENYA, FCA has distributed menstrual hygiene products to over 5,000 girls through the schools in the Kalobeyei refugee settlement.
In addition, Finn Church Aid has supported schools in its development cooperation projects and during crises by building toilets and water supply points in the school premises. A bathroom door with a lock helps secure privacy, but just building a toilet in the school premises creates security for girls in particular, since they no longer need to look for a place to be away from view. When there are enough water supply points, they can even be used to wash menstrual pads without others watching.
As previously mentioned, about half of the world’s population deals with having a period at some point in their life. It is important not to let something as normal as menstruation stand in the way of girls and women going to school, finding an occupation, earning their own livelihood, and reaching for their dreams.
”Menstruation awareness and hygiene are cost-effective ways to increase girls’ well-being and school enrolment rate, as well as women’s employment and participation in society. In order to rise from poverty, girls and women need to be included as well,” says Merja Färm.
Violence left the heart – Kenyan Festus Kipkorir found peace through education
A vicious circle of violence on top of well as climate change threaten the future of young people living in Kerio Valley, Kenya. This is a story about a young man who swapped cattle rustling for peace work.
A HERD OF brown and mottled cows bring traffic to a halt on a narrow unpaved road. The thorny bushes, large rocks, and deep pits in the reddish-brown sand leave no room for a 4×4 to get through.
In front of the car, sleepy cows are eyeing the vehicle, but they’re in no rush. Sweat drenches underarm, as the wait gets longer and longer under the morning sun. Even so, the driver waits patiently for one cow after another to move out of the way of the crawling vehicle.
It’s a view worth rejoicing at. In the Kerio Valley in western Kenya, all is well if the cattle can graze freely. Cows are considered valuable property, much like camels, which are less common in this part of the region. The communities in the valley steal cattle from each other, and the violence unfortunately often escalates into a conflict that spares no lives.
“Thieves killed my father in 2002. I was pretty small, and I also lost my aunt around that time. Two people at once”, says Festus Kipkorir, 24, and looks around.
In the bush between the road and the Kerio River his father was tending the family cattle, and this is where his body was found. The cattle probably continued the journey, herded by thieves, to the other side of the river. To the Kipkorir family, losing a father and husband and their most valuable property simultaneously led to hard times.
Cattle are the most important asset of the nomadic people in Kenya’s Kerio Valley. When the cattle graze freely, peace prevails in the valley. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / FCA
Although the family’s financial situation deteriorated rapidly, Kipkorir was still able to go to school until the 8th grade. However, his father’s fate continued to bother him.
“Violence stays in the heart,” describes Kipkorir of the feeling that leads to a circle of revenge – one even children and young people can’t avoid.
Stealing cattle is part of a cycle of revenge
“I was 13 when I first held a gun.”
Kipkorir says that boys as young as 10 become part of violence when a conflict flares between cattle thieves. The youngest are left behind to keep guard over the village, and the older boys go with the men to the neighbouring regions in the darkness of night. Stealing cattle from the other side of the river is a rite that turns boys into men.
Thieves can form a group of up to a hundred young men in order to go and steal cattle. A large group insures the success of the plundering foray, and the simple number of people can also scare their opponents.
“We might take two thousand animals at once,” Kipkorir reveals.
Kipkorir built his tin-roofed two-room house himself. The temperature outdoors has climbed past 30 degrees, and Kipkorir has invited us into the shade of his home. Hot milk tea, called Chiya, is steaming in mugs.
We talk about the environmental reasons that sustain the conflict between the communities in the Kerio Valley. Traditionally, the tribes of the valley have supported themselves as nomads. Cattle, particularly cows and camels, represent for people cash, credit and an investment fund for their families. By selling cattle, the families can pay bills, send children to school, and invest in business activities.
Cattle need a lot to eat and must be tended in large areas. In recent years, the situation in the Kerio Valley has become increasingly tense due to the lack of pasture during dry seasons. Climate change has made the annual cycle more unpredictable.
In Kenya, rain has been delayed particularly in the east and north of the country in the Garissa and Marsabiti regions, but here in the west in the Kerio Valley, autumn 2022 was dry.
“The other side of the Kerio River is very different to this side. It’s very dry, no trees, just thorny bushes and sand,” Kipkorir says. “That’s why our neighbours from the other side bring their cattle to this side of the river to graze more often. That leads to arguments, because then there’s not much to eat for our cattle.”
Due to the impact of climate change, life in the Kerio Valley in Kenya has become increasingly challenging for those who still support themselves as nomads. Due to drought, livestock grazing lands are shrinnking, especially in the central parts of the valley, which increases conflict and violence between different tribes. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / FCA
Kipkorir lives on the west side of the Kerio River, and here life isn’t as dependent on cattle as it is on the drier side of the river. The hills surrounding the valley rise as high as 2.5 kilometres above sea level. On the hillsides, there’s plenty of water for irrigation, which makes it easier to grow vegetables. Below the slopes, corn, tomatoes, beans, and papayas are grown.
Kipkorir guides us to sit down under a mango tree. This is his new life, a reason to give up cattle theft: mangoes, a patch of vegetables, and a dairy cow that produces, even on a meagre diet, enough milk to be sold. The cow is flicking flies with her tail and calmly chewing on her food.
“The biggest reason for the reduction of cattle theft is that people have been trained to farm and they’re no longer dependent on pastureland,” Kipkorir notes.
It’s hard to let go of violence
It was difficult for Kipkorir to leave the community of cattle thieves, even if it was a source of sadness and fear to loved ones.
“When my mother found out about my participation in cattle theft, she didn’t see me for a while,” Kirpkorir tells.
She couldn’t accept her son’s criminal and dangerous lifestyle.
“I tried to explain to her that this is about me, not her. In that situation, you just think you’re right. You’re not interested in anyone else’s opinion,” Kipkorir says.
“In reality, my opinions were dictated by a group I felt I was part of. I also felt the need to revenge my father’s death.”
Mother Salome Kiptoo says she feared her son wouldn’t come back from the night-time raids. Some of the young men never return, some come back disabled.
“I feared and prayed every time he left. I still remember what a good and hard-working student he was at school,” mother tells.
Climate change creates the threat of violence, which causes children to drop out of school
The cycle of violence and the sudden impoverishment of families in the Kerio Valley is also a threat to the education of children and adolescents. The obstacles are financial as well as security related. In recent years, cattle thieves have struck schools and even a bus that was taking students on a trip.
Festus Kipkoriri’s wife Francisca Kiptoo hangs laundry in the yard belonging to the small family. They have a home they built themselves and plot of land in Kenya’s Kerio Valley where they grow mangoes, vegetables and corn. The family also has a dairy cow with enough milk to sell. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / FCA
Festus Kipkorir hopes that the peace of the Kerio Valley will last and that it will be possible for him to send his own son to school. As a father, he wants his child to get a good education so that he can choose a more reliable livelihood than cattle rearing when he grows up. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / KUA
“Some of the schools in the Kerio Valley have lost a lot of their students. Those with money have transferred their children to other schools, and some simply don’t let their children go to school,” tells Finn Church Aid (FCA) programme director Alexon Mwasi.
The capricious nature of climate change adds to poverty. Based on an estimate by UNESCO, approximately two million children between the ages of 6 and 17 don’t go to school in Kenya. Most of them are from families that live a nomadic lifestyle in areas like the Kerio Valley.
“FCA supports the poorest families in the Kerio Valley as well as a few other areas that have suffered from drought, so that the children can return to school. The aim is to reach about 41 500 school dropouts,” says Mwasi.
Education secures the future
Kipkorir knows he’s lucky; in the end, he was able to finish school despite the family facing poverty after the death of his father. He believes that education helped him give up cattle theft. Based on his experiences, he’s tried to convince his former friends to leave behind a violent life.
“I’ve reminded them that just like me, they’ve also gone to school. At school, we’ve been taught community spirit and brotherhood. It’s not right to kill and steal.”
Kipkorir says that some of the former cattle thieves are now, like him, on the side of peace. They play in the same football team with some younger men.
“Football gives us an opportunity to get to know our neighbours on the other side of the river. Playing is a much fairer way to measure our strength,” Kipkorir points out.
“We are peace ambassadors on this side, and our neighbours in the other team are peace ambassadors on their own side. Together, we can stop the violence.”
Salome Kiptoo’s big eyes are shining when she talks about how her son has changed.
“Initially I didn’t even believe him when he told me he’s giving up cattle theft and starting to farm land. At last I started to believe, and I helped him buy seeds to grow green lentils and beans.”
Now her son has his own little farm and a family, a wife and son. Just like his mother wanted.
“I believe that a lasting peace with come with many blessings. There’ll be no need to fear that the children won’t come back at night. Good things will happen in the community when there’s peace. Everyone wins,” says Salome Kiptoo.
Kipkorir’s son is still tiny. What does the young father wish for his son?
“I want him to finish school.”
Right now, there is peace. Children in school uniforms are walking on the side of the road, people of different ages are sat in the shade of large trees, and the doors and windows of low, tin-roofed kiosks are open. Trucks are bouncing and swaying on the bouncy road, and men are picking up sack of mangoes piled on the side of the road.
Text: Elisa Rimaila Photos: Antti Yrjönen
FINN CHURCH AID (FCA) supports the education of children and young people in Kenya through the Common Responsibility Campaign in areas where climate change has increased poverty and insecurity. In many places, young people become involved in local conflicts between different communities. The project supports the return of young people to school, who have previously dropped out. In addition to material and educational support, young people in a particularly vulnerable position receive psychosocial support. The project will also build and renovate toilets and handwashing stations in schools. The Common Responsibility Campaign builds up FCA’s disaster fund, which can be used to help where the need is greatest.
Nairobian Christine Murugi loves cartoons, and soon they might be her job
Finn Church Aid believes that vocational training for young people is crucial to access the job market. Hairdressers, chefs, and mechanics are examples of traditional professions, but the transformation of the labour market also changes educational needs. Now, FCA is training digital professionals in Kenya.
IN THE Kenyan capital Nairobi, 18 young people are typing on their computers in a small classroom. One of the students, Christine Murugi, is working on a 3D model known from the film Minions, mulling over the best way to animate the character’s hand.
Christine, 20, studies animation in Finn Church Aid’s Creative Industries programme. In her studies, she practises creating three-dimensional characters and making them move.
“I’m a huge fan of cartoons. They’re so funny, and I love the stories. I’d find it interesting to take part in creating them,” she tells.
Currently, Christine is inspired by Bold, a Disney animation that depicts a dog’s life as a TV star. She also finds ideas in “DC League of Super-Pets”, an animation series about the pets of superheroes.
Graphic design, digital market and animators
FCA’s Creative Industries programme is free of charge and aimed at low-income youth. The students train to become graphic designers, digital marketing professionals, or animators. Christine is happy about the opportunity, because without it and as the only child of a single-parent family, she wouldn’t have had a chance to study.
“When Covid hit, my mum’s financial situation got even worse. I had to drop out of school.”
Without anything to do, Christine moved out to live with her uncle, so that her mother was able to work more. At her uncle’s, she had more company, and she was able to help her uncle with household chores.
“Fortunately, I heard about this programme, so I was able to continue studying.”
In the beginning she was nervous. Animation is a male-dominated field, both in Kenya and around the world. Christine is the only woman in the class.
“When I joined, I was the only girl amongst 18 students. Initially it was unsettling, but now I’ve made friends with my classmates, so I can be more relaxed.”
After the initial tension, classmates have become one of the best things about studying. Christine likes her new friends; she particularly enjoys brainstorming ideas and exchanging thoughts with her classmates.
Smartphones more common than computers in Kenya
Although smartphones are common in Kenya, some students are completely unfamiliar with them. All students in the programme go through an elementary IT course.
Christine already knew how to use a computer, as she had taken computer classes in upper secondary school. Her studies have progressed as planned.
“I might be the best in class,” she says laughingly, “or at least I’m doing well.”
Despite her success in the classroom, the future concerns Murugi. In Kenya, the digital industry is on the rise, but competition is fierce and global. Finding a permanent job might be difficult, and many work as freelancers.
“It’s a little discouraging sometimes, but I remain optimistic. I know I’m a really good animator, so I’m certain I’ll be able to sell my skills.”
Christine is determined. There’s no doubt about what she would like to do in the future.
“Movies, absolutely. I love movies, and that’s what I want to do. With this training, I could make websites, for example, but at least for now my focus is on the movie industry.”
Fighting period poverty leads to a future of confident and educated women
Monthly sanitary pad distributions at school prevent girls from missing classes or dropping out completely. Education about menstruation increases self-esteem.
When her monthly period comes, 16-year-old Michelina tears a pillow and picks out pieces of its worn stuffing – an old cloth rug that she uses in place of the sanitary pad she cannot afford. That is just the tip of the iceberg. The worst part is that Michelina, who lives in Kalobeyei refugee settlement, cannot talk to anyone about her periods.
Despite being a normal biological process, menstruation remains taboo. Many girls stay home from school during their periods, leaving them behind in their education. In class, girls say that their concern about leakages makes it harder for them to concentrate in class or dissuade them from participating in the first place. Even with sanitary pads or towels, Michelina says that finding a bathroom is an issue.
“Without safe, private places for cleaning and changing during our periods, we continue to struggle despite the supplies”, she says.
Working against period poverty is an integral part of Finn Church Aid’s (FCA) education support in the refugee settlements Kakuma and Kalobeyei. Distributions of sanitary pads have reached 5,000 adolescent girls since last year. Project officer Catherine Angwenyi says the program has supported girls in several other ways too.
FCA’s sanitary pads distribution couples with sexual and reproductive health education, and the program has reduced school absenteeism among the girls.
“When parents do not take the time to talk to their girls on menstrual hygiene, the only way girls get information and support is through education programs that distribute pads,” Angweny explains.
Monthly sanitary pad distributions prevent girls from dropping out and keep them from asking for pads from men that can take advantage of them. When girls go to school, they are less likely to become pregnant or, for instance, get an HIV infection.
Angwenyi believes that by doing everything for girls to stay in school, we are heading to a future of fewer teenage pregnancies and more educated and confident women.
“When you educate a girl, you change the world,” she says.
Nkurunziza, 16, says that learning about menstruation and hygiene practices has changed her attitude: she no longer stays home from school during her periods.
“Having pads increases my confidence and helps me focus on my studies, and I can even excel in exams”, she says.
The Northern Kenya Integrated Development project trains women in peacebuilding. Milka Rutonye explains how the women brought two conflicting communities together.
Three years ago, Milka Rutonye had had enough. The mother of seven children grew up in Kenya’s Pokot area but married a man from the neighbouring Marakwet. Milka could no longer bear with the impact of conflicts between the two communities.
Political incitement, livestock theft and a scramble for water between the Pokot and Marakwet led to shootings, violence against women and disruptions in the children’s education. Milka was determined to leave her husband’s home, leaving her children behind, and return to her family in Pokot just to run away from the gunshots.
“I always felt terrible when the Pokot – my people – came to Marakwet and caused chaos,” she says. “They forget that their children, sisters and nieces are married to the Marakwet.”
In 2018, Milka spoke with bitterness and complained of the area’s insecurity and its impact on her life. She began taking part in talking circles for women from both of the conflicting communities. Through the platform created by Finn Church Aid (FCA), the 57 women found a common cause and took it upon themselves to change the narrative of insecurity in the Kerio Valley.
The talking circles connect women from the neighbouring communities of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot. Issues, such as water scarcity and cattle theft, have sparked violence in this area of Kenya.
Training gave birth to peacebuilding initiatives
Milka Rutonye has participated in women’s talking circles since 2018.
The group calls itself Endo Chamkalya. It encourages women to be resilient in all aspects of life and actively create a just, peaceful, and equal society through formal and informal structures. Ahead of the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, Milka speaks from inspiration.
“I was touched to see that FCA, coming from outside our communities, was concerned about our well-being. The talking circles have opened our eyes to the causes of our conflict”, she says.
“Water scarcity contributed to the fighting because we wanted to ensure that our livestock gets food. The training has built our capacity to hear and understand each other.”
The Northern Kenya Integrated Development project arranges training in peacebuilding. The training gave birth to various initiatives that the women undertook to restore peace.
Milka recalls a significant event in 2018; a protest against violence. During a border conflict between Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot, the Endo women crossed over to the Pokot side when the conflict had practically restricted all movement across the border. They prayed for peace.
“We had mobilized the Pokot women that are married to Marakwet and decided that we will seek peace by all means. Our only way was to seek an audience with the Pokot,” she says.
The women of Marakwet and Pokot gathering in prayers for peace.
Women from the Pokot community met the women that Milka’s group had gathered. The women from the talking circle ended up meeting with 35 village elders of West Pokot. In two mediation meetings, the women spoke out about how they wanted their children to go to school without interruption, their animals to graze freely, and enjoy peace like any other part of Kenya.
Peacebuilding may start with as simple things as learning to express oneself to the other person. Milka says that the Pokot elders did not know that they were attacking their blood relatives, those that were married to the Marakwet. They regretted it, and some of them even cried.
More importantly, according to Milka, the story shows that anyone can find a moment like this and connect to it – and eventually, become a peacebuilder.
“We were able to influence the village elders of both Pokot and Marakwet to come together and discuss.”
Clearing the road improved livelihood opportunities
Since the peace negotiation led by the FCA talking circle, the situation between the two communities and the entire Kerio Valley has improved.
Benedicta, a moderator in Milka’s women’s talking circle, says that youth from both Pokot and Marakwet joined in clearing the nine-kilometre-long road connecting the two communities. The thick bush had provided hideouts for armed robbers, and there were also other physical obstacles that restricted movement. In the past, Benedicta witnessed two pregnant women die due to the impassable road.
“They were on their way to the district hospital, which is two hours away in normal conditions. The peace engagements have kept the road safe. Now, no one will die because of the road,” she says
Marakwet and Pokot youth clearing the bush along the road connecting the two communities in Northern Kenya.
This road led to the opening of the Lodio market, an important centre for the communities’ livelihoods, and eased access to the health centre. According to Benedicta, it paved the way for people to trade and improve their living standard.
When Covid-19 restricted gatherings in the Kerio Valley, the women groups found creative ways to arrange peace meetings. Peace talks continued during the lockdown on radio channels, such as North Rift FM and Upendo FM Eldoret, with a substantial contribution from the women.
“The talking circles have empowered us women, and we are now committed to advocating for human rights and lead herders and the entire community to disarmament, development, livelihood and gender equality,” Milka adds.
Teacher training in collaboration with UNICEF Kenya is an immense support to teachers of children in Kakuma refugee camp. Quality education with psychosocial support ensures that no one is left behind.
Teacher Hellen Okang supports small groups of learners with home learning during school closures. Photo: FCA
Young children can only thrive when learning in a conducive environment that prepares them to unleash their potential at an early age. Thus, their teachers require specialised training.
In collaboration with UNICEF Kenya, Finn Church Aid (FCA) put together a practical Early Childhood training that serves both young children and their families in Kalobeyei settlement in Kakuma refugee camp. The training was developed with Finnish teachers through the volunteer network Teachers without Borders.
The training focused on Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE) pedagogy and didactics for pre-school teachers, targeting 25 teachers across five ECDE centres in the settlement and improving the quality of education for 3,555 learners enrolled in the ECDE centres.
Teacher Hellen Okang, 29, from South Sudan taught 125 learners at Joy Primary school in Kalobeyei before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted learning in schools. Hellen participated in the training conducted in August and September 2020 and says it benefitted her immensely by improving her teaching skills.
Teachers developing teaching materials for the ECDE centres in Kakuma. Photo: FCA
The training provided teachers with practical skills suited for crisis contexts and covered positive ways of disciplining children, curriculum and lesson planning, children’s rights, supporting numeracy and literacy skills, communication between teachers and caregivers and embracing a multicultural classroom.
“I began teaching in 2018 as a volunteer teacher. This training has gone a long way in helping me understand my learners and what it means to teach children in pre-school”, Hellen says.
The teacher training opened eyes for psychosocial support
The children that Hellen teaches have continued learning from home during school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 8-year-old James has tuned into radio lessons together with Hellen, who also is his neighbour. Teachers in the settlement complement the radio lessons by visualising the content on blackboards, helping learners to understand the lessons with recaps and following up on their homework.
“I would like to be a doctor to treat the sick when I grow up,” James says when asked about his dreams.
8-year-old James learns by playing and says he thinks his teacher Hellen is very welcoming and approachable. Photo: FCA
James’ mother Rose Aiira, describes her son as a soft-spoken boy who is quick and eager to learn new skills. When he enrolled in school in 2018, James only spoke his native South Sudanese language. Now thanks to teachers who speak his language as well as Arabic and English, he has drastically improved his language skills, particularly in Arabic. He also has friends of different nationalities, which supports his learning.
Teachers also use visual aids to help the children understand what they teach. The ECDE training emphasised the use of play as a method of practical content delivery and creating innovative ideas on developing attractive teaching and learning materials to capture the attention of learners.
“My learners love counting with songs. I cannot teach math without it”, Hellen emphasised.
Hellen says that the training opened her eyes to the importance of nurturing and caring for the children. According to her, she can now identify the psychosocial needs of learners and respond to them.
“I now understand each child uniquely, as individuals, and when they need stronger support I can refer them to the appropriate counselling service”, Hellen says.
Text: Elizabeth Oriedi, Catherine Angwenyi
In Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya, Finn Church Aid together with UNICEF Kenya, supports 3,555 learners in six Early Childhood Development and Education centres and 7,992 learners in five Primary schools with access to education, teacher training and distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.
World Teachers’ Day on October 5 celebrates teachers in crises. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly added to the challenges of teachers to protect people’s right to education but teachers like 27-year-old Obang Omot Oboya ensure no one is left behind during school closures.
Mr Oboya teaches mathematics and science in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Below, he explains how teachers stepped up to the challenge.
“The year 2020 brought along with it perhaps one of the biggest challenges that the world’s teachers have faced. Kenya is not an exception. Even teachers with decades of experience have had to learn something new: how do we support learners when they cannot come to school?
Finn Church Aid distributing solar-powered radios in Kakuma refugee camp.
Following the school closures, teaching in Kenya moved to radio broadcasts and virtual platforms. The first step for us was ensuring that learners in Kakuma refugee camp had access to the national broadcasts. FCA distributed radios to the families, and we worked together with agencies in finding new solutions to complement the radio lessons with recaps and homework.
Schools have assigned each teacher in Kakuma a cluster of groups with six learners per group. Six learners share one radio. The arrangement adheres to the social distancing guidelines of Kenya’s Ministry of Health as the FCA supported teachers accompany each group separately.
At the end of every lesson, the radio teacher usually gives assignments. We mark their homework, and this makes radio lessons more authentic.
As long as learners cannot come to school, we have to go to them.
Mathematical formulas need to be visualised
Mr Oboya visualises radio lessons on a blackboard.
The first days were challenging for both teachers and learners. As teachers, we are in the habit of being personally in touch with learners in the classroom, be it just going around and seeing what they are doing. This is not possible for the radio teacher. And for my part, my current role does not include, for instance, planning lessons. We rely on what the radio teacher prepares.
In the beginning, it was difficult to catch the interest of learners through the radio and get them into a radio class routine. We also had to help learners with tuning in to the right frequency.
To enable learners to be attentive during the radio lesson, I usually come with a blackboard and chalk for the purpose of demonstration. The learners have to see the mathematical formulas while they follow the radio lessons on math. This helps learners to be attentive.
I also break down lessons into segments and achievable goals, and I attend to each student individually to ensure that they grasp the concepts. By now, everyone has got the hang of it.
A fruitful collaboration between teachers and parents
The new ways of learning have also provided relief to both teachers and learners, compared to our usual setting. I can now attend to each learner’s needs differently compared to a classroom. It is easier to listen to a group of six learners at the time than to the 80 learners I used to teach in a classroom. Teachers can quickly identify and support, for instance, slow learners.
I now teach 48 learners per day, divided into eight groups. There are eight radio lesson per day, 35 minutes each, which means I give one lecture per group. The remaining 32 learners from my class are taught by parents who volunteer as teachers after training with FCA.
What has been most important is that the parents are also involved in their children’s learning process. We collaborate more with parents since they join us in accompanying the pupils during the radio lessons and ensure that their children do their assignments. Parents and teachers collaborate in motivating the children and monitoring that they do their homework.
We also collaborate more with the parents on WhatsApp for the children’s learning, for instance, by recording learning materials on our phones and sharing them with parents in WhatsApp groups that we have established. The learners have to use their parents’ devices.
Girls at risk during distance learning
There is, unfortunately, one function that the distance learning arrangements cannot fully address: schools typically constitute a safe space for children and youth, particularly girls.
When girls are in school, they are less likely to become victims of sexual abuse or be forced into marriage. During this pandemic, the school buildings cannot protect the girls.
Some of the learners I used to teach have become pregnant during the time schools have been closed. We conclude that our homes and camps are not safe when the children are idle.
The affected girls need psychosocial support and assistance in continuing with their education.
Teaching is a call and a passion. The best World Teachers’ Day gift I can give my learners in this year of the pandemic is my time and spirit of adapting to the distance learning.
I hope that my pupils will not let this episode blindly, that they will be more resilient and take the new norms as a way of life and achieve their goals.”
Teacher Obang Omot Oboya was interviewed by FCA Kenya’s Communications Intern Elizabeth Oriedi. FCA works with education in Kakuma refugee camp together with Unicef and UNHCR.