By Jackie N. Presutti, Assistant, Corporate Marketing, Communications & Advocacy, PSI
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.
“Mzungu! Mzungu!” The school children come running from all directions, smiling, laughing, pointing.
“What are they saying?” I turn to ask Bihawa Swaleh, MCH Marketing Assistant, from PSI’s Nairobi office.
She chuckles a little, “Mzungu means ‘whitey’.”
“Well said.” I thought, as I burst out laughing.
Here I am, this short little blonde girl from the States, carrying a backpack full of camera gear and hand sanitizer, standing amid a sea of Mombassa’s school children. My first trip to Africa, my first trip to see PSI’s work in the field, and I kind of feel like a celebrity.
The children of St. Irene’s private primary school in Changamwe line up in front of us, stretching out their hands for high-fives. That’s why I’m here after all. To see these clean hands, the fruits of a growing partnership with the Unilever Foundation, Lifebuoy, the Government of Kenya and PSI, implementing the ‘School of Five’ handwashing with soap program in coastal schools.
Working with outstanding members of PSI Kenya’s team- Bihawa, Aloise Gikunda, Maternal Child Health Officer, and Wandera, I’m on day one of the advance trip, preparing for a visit from Unilever’s Foundation Ambassador Chris Mallaband, as well as our partner leads Mallika and Stacie, who arrive in two days time to Mombassa.
With the Ministry of Health, we’ve outlined four schools to conduct the program visit- two public and two private, split between the Changamwe and Likoni regions. It’s an opportunity to showcase the successes and challenges in the Likoni schools which completed the ‘School of Five’ program, and the Chagamwe schools that are just beginning.
I clutch our itinerary tightly in hand, with instruction that I need to update it with details such as traffic time, time spent at each activity, and driving routes.
Whenever I inquire with the coast team on timing of events, details, personnel, they shake their heads at me, “No problem, just chill”.
We’re on coastal time, Bihawa reminds me, so things will happen as they happen. This advice would turn out to be a serendipitous pep talk. It’s as if she foresaw that the evening news would announce a nationwide teachers’ strike, and we would throw our itinerary out the window.
The next morning, day two of our advance, we all pile into the Tunza truck with team members of the local Ministry of Health, and set out for the Likoni ferry, making a few attempts to stop at schools along the way to deliver Lifebuoy ‘School of Five’ materials. We find most schools deserted or locked due to the strike.
After 45 minutes crossing the ferry, we plan to spend the afternoon visiting unsuspecting private schools, meeting with head teachers, and inquiring if there is any way they could show off their School of Five activities- tomorrow.
At Bethania Academy, our first stop, I was shocked at Head Teacher Peter’s response to our request. “Yes, of course, welcome. Tomorrow is good. We will show you now as well”.
Peter escorts us to classroom full of eager students, excited by the group of visitors. A young girl, Christine (who we would get to know more during our official visit), walks to the front the classroom and begins her ‘little doctor’ duties. The class immediately stands at her instruction and recite the handwashing pledge.
Students bring a jug of fresh, clean water, and a basin to the front of the room. The teacher lays a bar of Lifebuoy soap on the desk. One by one, they come forward and take turns proudly showing off the handwashing method taught by the School of Five program, and talk about how their families now all wash their hands. We are healthier and safer, they tell me.
I stand in the corner amazed, realizing that there was no rehearsal or preparation to what we are seeing and hearing. This is how the Lifebuoy ‘School of Five’ program is helping these beautiful kids remain in school longer and create healthier lives in their communities. I raise my camera to eye in an attempt to hide my ear-to-ear grin – and maybe a tear.
Feeling great about our visit, we head to a well deserved break with an incredible ocean view. Our lunch, while delicious, takes about two hours. It makes me think that the wait staff was actually on a fishing expedition to catch what we had ordered.
I anxiously glance at my watch, remembering again the time table in the car, and imagining the growing traffic lines to board the ferry back to the hotel. Fully satisfied from our meal, I begin my usual tense DC jaunt back to the Tunza truck.
We’re now an hour behind schedule and the team is slated to arrive with more PSI staff in a few hours time.
Aloise laughs in my direction. “Polepole,” he says, resting his hand on my shoulder.
He reminds me again, “On the coast, we walk polepole- it means slowly. Slow down, no rush here. We’ll get there. Everything will be ok”.
Polepole, I repeat to myself. After all, this team somehow managed to even get two proud public schools to agree to stay open during the strike. I breathe deep and think, “Yes, they do this all the time; they save lives and host important guests and sweat nothing. Yes, this is the coast, just roll with it.”
I stifle the urge to start belting “Hakuna Matata”, and get ready for our next few days of adventure.