By Chris Mallaband, Unilever
Every year, 2 million children don’t live to celebrate their 5th birthday. You can help change that by donating today. Better yet, Unilever will match your donation so it will go twice as far. Go here to donate today and read on to learn more.
If you happen to have the dubious pleasure of knowing me in person, you will know there aren’t too many occasions which render me speechless.
Today was one of those rare occasions. And then it happened twice.
After a quick bowl of wimby porridge (a brown-coloured Kenyan specialty made from sorghum), it was time to leave the Voyager Hotel and head inland to the Changamwe region of Mombasa.
We had the opportunity today to make two more visits to local primary schools. At just after 9am we pulled into the entrance leading to St. Irene Primary School in Mikindani. Before we could even see them, we could hear the children, singing joyously in Swahili. As we turned the corner, we could see two lines of multi-coloured shirts, hands clapping in time to the beat, which turned to wild cheering as we got out of the cars.
I can kind of imagine now what it’s like for One Direction when they rock up outside a venue. We walked into the school with the children offering us high-fives from their receiving lines. Just incredible.
Within the school, headteacher Sister Masha gave us a gracious and grateful welcome. We signed the visitor’s book, and were invited to come and formally meet the children in the assembly hall. They sat obediently on the floor; at the back it was standing room only.
Anthony Okoth, Deputy Country Representative from PSI and I both addressed the children, talking to them about the ‘School of Five’ program which they were mid-way through. We tested their knowledge of the five occasions and the characters who represented them. Tens of hands flew into the air within milliseconds of me asking each question. And each one was answered correctly.
After our remarks, we were treated to a song the school wrote about the handwashing program. Eight children stepped forward to the front of the room to sing it directly to us. The joy on their faces from such close range was something which I think I will never forget. Huge smiles and eyes wide with joyful emotion as they sang each verse at the tops of their voices.
Kenya’s Got Talent. And no shortage of spirit.
We then went to see one of the handwashing lessons taking place. The year six pupils watched the ‘glow germ’ demonstration created by Lifebuoy to show the impact of not washing hands with soap. This entails four children having a white powder applied to their hands. Two then rinse their hands with water and two wash them with water and soap.
Upon inspection under a special torch, it is apparent that the hands rinsed with water still have various germs, invisible to the naked eye. The hands washed with soap though, have none.
The children were suitably impressed by the clever technology. As was I! I am learning myself too on this trip that a quick rinse under a cold tap is never good enough….
We said fond farewells, and shared a few more high-fives with the ever-smiling pupils. Next stop was a state school close by. It soon was clear to us that Kipmevu Primary School is a special place.
First, they stayed open today – risking animosity from their fellow striking teachers – to ensure that they could honor our visit. Second, we received another speech-defying welcome. Two lines of pupils greeted us, this time with more of a Swahili chant than a song. Even the teachers joined in!
Andrea Edwards, Manager of Corporate Marketing, from PSI broke into a short dance with one of them as we made our way through the receiving lines. A special bridge-building moment.
Third, there are more than 900 pupils here, ranging from ages 3 to 14. The school is located next to Kalahari, a well-known slum area within the region, where standards of living are at their lowest. Mr. Kombo, the headteacher, told us that 85% of his pupils are from families who live in Kalahari. Some get home after school to find that their parents are absent through arrest. Older ones often become the ‘parents’ to their younger siblings. Mr. Kombo explained that children often miss school or arrive tired because they have been up late selling alcohol for their parents the night before.
An assembly was organized outside on the barren land in the middle of the school buildings. There were a few parents, many carrying babes in arms, in the audience too. Once more, we were treated to a short performance from some of the pupils, enacting a play where the characters who feature in the Lifebuoy ‘School of Five’ comic book are depicted.
The play was performed with gusto. One child gave a particularly convincing imitation of vomiting (the risk if you do not wash your hands with soap), which amused both her fellow pupils and us.
The Lifebuoy ‘School of Five’ pencil cases which we handed out to those who performed in the play were very gratefully received. Despite the circumstances in which these children live, it was clear to see that their enthusiasm was abundant.
I had the chance to chat to Enoch and Jackie, co-incidentally a local health worker, who were two parents of children at the school, to get their perspective. Both were very positive and believed that what their children learned will remain lessons for life.
Even in her profession, Jackie admitted that prior to the Lifebuoy handwashing program coming to the school, she did not use soap on the five occasions that it teaches, and sometimes didn’t even use water.
We said goodbye, and headed to Mombasa Airport, for a quick team lunch. Our friends and colleagues from PSI and the Kenya Ministry of Health were leaving us at this point. A few short speeches were made, and then it was hugs and handshakes all round amid commitments to various streams of follow-up in the coming weeks and months.
We took a group photo, and then Mallika, Stacie, from the Lifebuoy Social Mission team, and I headed into the terminal to fly to Kisumu, and start the next leg of our Kenyan adventure.
The main reason why I wanted to be a Global Foundation Ambassador was to see the work being done on the ground in places like Changamwe and Likoni. My experiences over the past two days have made a deep impact on me. I feel inspired by advocacy on handwashing such as the Help a Child Reach 5 campaign.
The realities of life in these areas have been very apparent, but so has the enthusiasm and energy of those who live here. I am convinced the handwashing program has scalability, and that the behavior change we are trying to drive can be sustained in the regions in which we drive it.
There is hope in my heart that the humble bar of soap, where Unilever first began its journey in 1888 in my own place of work of Port Sunlight, can genuinely be a lifesaver for many years to come. In the first year alone the partnership has reached more than 1 million people. It will continue to be expanded globally to help achieve Lifebuoy’s mission of improving the handwashing behavior by reaching 1 billion people by 2015. But we all need to play our part to make it happen.
Tomorrow the Kericho tea plantations beckon, as the trip takes a turn back towards my day job as it nears its conclusion.