Chaffinch was founded by me, Sarah, after spending just two months as a volunteer in Kibera.
This is my story and the story of Chaffinch:
Why did I travel to Kenya?
July 2013. I was unhappy. Dissatisfied with my life and struggling to know exactly where I was heading. I knew I needed to make a massive change of direction, and my instinct was to remove myself completely from the life I was living and do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Africa. I can go to Africa. Don’t ask me why the idea suddenly came to me because I don’t know. But it immediately seemed like a fantastic plan. Thousands of miles from home in an environment I was completely unfamiliar with and also with the prospect of being vaguely useful? What didn’t sound perfect?
By the end of that day, I had tracked down a company that placed volunteers and didn’t charge fees so impossible it would have required a bank loan. Kenya was my choice almost at random. I submitted my application and, by the end of the week, had paid my fees, booked my flights, talked to the nurse about vaccinations, and negotiated the complicated world of travel insurance.
A complete change
On September 13th 2013, I waved goodbye to my family as I headed through security at Manchester Airport. The nerves kicked in at that moment as I realised I was saying goodbye to the familiarity and heading into a situation that I knew next to nothing about. It would be my first long-haul flight, the first time I’d had to negotiate a layover, and the first time I’d had to tackle a visa application.
Landing in Nairobi was overwhelming and I emerged from the airport with absolutely no doubt that I was no longer in England. It’s hard to describe how Kenya hits you. To this day, I only have to step off the plane to ‘feel’ Kenya.
Those first days were mind-blowing…and exhausting. Getting to grips with a new routine, weather that was just a few degrees hotter than home (!), and the lack of so many things I used to take for granted (a washing machine, hot water, tarmac roads, reliable electricity to name a few) required a lot of adaptation. This was what I had signed up for though, and I was loving it.
Right from the start I was determined never to turn down an opportunity. I’d flown 4500 miles for this and there was no way I wasn’t going to make the most of it. From being someone who questioned everything and found her comfort zone comfortable, I started to say ‘yes’ and to get involved in things I had no knowledge or experience of.
I worked pharmacy at a medical camp, travelled with other volunteers to Uganda to go white water rafting on the Nile, cycled amongst the zebra and buffalo in the very place that inspired ‘The Lion King’. I tried foods I’d never seen before, drank warm beer with new friends, and became an honorary Masai drinking fresh goat’s blood and receiving a Masai tattoo/burn. I threw myself 100% into this new life and it was quickly apparent that I would be returning to England as a very different person to the one who left.
My work was initially at a Special Needs school within the Kibera slum.
Whilst I loved the time I spent there and the fantastic young people I met, the hours were short. School ended at lunchtime, leaving me with much of the day remaining. There was no way I was going to return to the volunteer house and curl up with a book, or head to the mall to sit in a coffee shop and browse Facebook. So I looked for more.
I was introduced to the staff of a centre that taught dressmaking and business skills to women living with HIV/AIDS. From there, I began running an exercise class at lunchtime in an attempt to build the strength of women who had been bedbound with the illness until receiving medication at the centre. Using plastic drinks bottles filled with dirt to make hand weights, we quickly developed a routine that did indeed show benefits. But still, my afternoons were vacant.
With my new determination to say ‘yes’, I didn’t hesitate when asked if I would like to visit a rescue centre and deliver some supplies. So, one afternoon, after finishing exercises, I was led across open sewers, through mountains of rubbish, across stepping stones in the river, and up the steep rocky slope to Future Stars. And that was the start. That was the day from which I have never looked back. The day that started it all.
What was the situation at Future Stars?
I arrived at Future Stars to find a place full of love and dedication but without the resources to provide what was needed. I found eight children sleeping in one bed, a shortage of food that left children going to bed hungry, and a school with barely enough materials to function.
I found something else too. I found children who laughed and smiled and played – children who were happy being children despite the limitations of their environment. I found staff who had so much love and devotion for those children. I found teachers volunteering their time for these kids and then working a second job after hours to earn enough money to survive. And, of course, I met Mama Aggy.
Mama Aggy had founded the centre herself with a true passion for the work and a heart so full of love for the children. As I learned of her story, and the story of Future Stars, I realised that here was something special. Here was a place that was run for the children and not for the gain of anyone else. It was a sanctuary for children who had already seen some of the worst of what life has to offer. It was a place of love and safety and acceptance, and the vision of Mama Aggy and her staff was something that spoke so strongly to my own heart.
So what happened next? I quickly came to love my time spent at Future Stars. After the exercise class each lunchtime, I would walk to the centre and spend the afternoon teaching in the school. I have my doubts about whether that was the right thing to do (see this post I wrote in my blog a few years later) but I hope I did no terrible harm. Teaching opened my eyes to yet more difficulties. Each class had only one textbook to share and there weren’t even enough pencils for every child to have one of their own. I spent most afternoons teaching classes in a room that could barely be called a cupboard (it is now, in fact, used as a food store). And I found children so enthusiastic to learn.
When the time came for me to return to England (and believe me I considered staying) it was an extremely emotional parting. I had quickly grown to love the staff and children of Future Stars as well as the volunteers I had spent the past months living with, and the many people I had come to know from my daily walks through Kibera. As the plane took off from Nairobi airport I knew, with complete certainty, that it wasn’t really goodbye. I left a huge piece of my heart in Kibera and it was inevitable that I would return.
So, Chaffinch. How and why?
I knew I would never forget the children of Future Stars. And I knew I would never be able to walk away from their lives. I could never be the mzungu (white person) who had briefly stepped out of her privileged life to spend a few months adding an experience to her CV. No, I loved those children and my life could never be the same as it was before I knew them. I wouldn’t want it to be.
Basically, I knew that I would have to do something permanent to help. With a bit of research, I realised that founding a charity was the only way to do what needed doing. With no experience of anything on this scale, I roped in friends and family to form a board of trustees. And so Chaffinch was born in February of 2014. None of us knew if Chaffinch would ever do anything significant or even if it would be sustainable. We bought server space for our website for a two-year period, citing that date as the time we would assess if the charity was truly viable.
It’s been a steep learning curve for everyone involved. But we passed that two-year mark and renewed our web hosting account. Chaffinch is not just surviving, it’s growing.
And what of me?
July 2013 seems like a lifetime ago. In fact, in many ways, it seems like a totally different life. It’s nothing like how I expected things to turn out when I stepped on that first plane and waved goodbye to my family.
I have now returned to Kenya many times. I’ve got to know the children of Future Stars – their personalities, their hopes and dreams, and their stories. There are over 70 children who call me Mama and that is the most incredible feeling in the world.
Now, when I am in Kenya, I live with Mama Aggy and her wonderful family. I have a second mother and father, and four sisters, a brother, and a nephew. In fact, I have a second home. I mentioned that there is a ‘feeling’ when I step off that plane in Nairobi. Every time I land in Kenya my heart skips a beat knowing I’m back. My family in England mean the world to me, but so do my family in Kenya.
Chaffinch is a charity intended to ensure that the vulnerable children of Kibera can know safety and love, receive an education that improves their future, and go to bed with full stomachs. But Chaffinch does so much more than that. We have built a connection across our planet and shown those children that there is love in the world – that there are people who care.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s a little selfish, simply because I have gained so much from my involvement. Yet I only have to spend an hour with the children to know that we are doing the right thing. I only hope that Chaffinch continues to grow and shows that children are the same all over the world, and so is love.