This week a woman called Margaret taught me about the difference between brothers and sisters. Margaret is from a small village outside Malindi in Kenya. She is struggling. Struggling with the burden of living with tuberculosis, of raising 6 children alone since her husband died, of exclusion because she never learned English. She is also struggling with the burden of being a woman, which denied her other rights early on in her life. Growing up, the boys in the family got to go to school, but Margaret didn’t. It wasn’t such a priority for the girls to go. Today the difference between Margaret and her brother, a local medic, is all too apparent. He himself acknowledges it.
Margaret just didn’t get the same chances.
I had the great fortune to spend two days living with her family near Malindi in rural Kenya. This is part of an ActionAid scheme called an ‘immersion’ to help people – mostly our supporters and staff – to understand the reality of poverty, the reality for people that ActionAid is working with. The experience was a proper reality check.
I learned and was reminded of three main things: the problem of patriarchy, the slowness of change and the similarities between Kenyans and Irish people.
When I asked Margaret about her dreams, she said that she wanted all of her children to complete school. After that, it would be a street lamp for the village.
Margaret is now in touch with ActionAid. Soon she will join something called a Reflect Circle group, or a group of women facilitated by a local community worker to learn to read, write and start tackling the common challenges in the village.
Margaret’s brother Emmanuel is a friendly, big hearted man with a passion for change: change for his sister, for his community, for Kenya. He got a lift on the back of a motorbike 35km down a very bumpy road to come for a chat when he heard I was visiting his sister. Emmanuel told me that life is not all bad. There have been changes to their village since they were children. There is a running water pipe now, something they never would have dreamed of. There is a school in the area. The kids go to school. Margaret’s eldest child is finishing school now.
But there problem, he said:
The change is coming, but it’s not coming fast enough.
That is why he is getting more involved in the community, to push for that change, and he wants others to join him.
What did I learn about Kenyan people? They are so friendly. They love an old song and a dance much like my own people. The children of the village sang lots of songs. I didn’t understand a word. But it didn’t really matter.
On the way out of Malindi, the security guard took a look at my passport and said "Thanks now Laura, have a great flight." I could have sworn I was in Dublin.