I spent 2 weeks in Uganda getting back into the swing of life in east Africa before I headed across the Malaba border crossing point which was bustling and took the requisite hour to get across and I was back in Kenya. A couple of matatu (small overcrowded minibus converted to take 14 passengers but normally carries more than 20!) rides later and I arrived in Kitale in the middle of the main outdoor market in Kitale. I was due to be met by Josphat the school director and had texted him that I would be arriving by matatu. It was about 4pm and it was absolute bedlam, motorcycle and bicycle boda taxis flying down the road and people milling around buying their fish, meat and vegetables. It was a good job that I had my phone as I had no idea what he looked like or where he was, it still took 15 minutes but once I had found him we headed straight for a bar for a long awaited cold beer after the 9 hour journey I had suffered.
Kitale has turned out to be a really nice town. It is a very agricultural town and no bigger than a large market town in the UK. The school was right on the edge of town in a village called Kipomet and I could walk 5 minutes down the road and be in the country side which was really nice. The people in town I came to know were all incredibly friendly. Being a small town I soon met people whose children were pupils at Aquinoe.
The SchoolI went into the school on my first day in Kitale, which was a Sunday. That meant only the boarders were in the compound. There was still a nice sound of kids playing and an atmosphere to the place. I was immediately struck by the size of the place. It was much much bigger than I had imagined it would be. You could clearly see which ones were the newer buildings which were all brightly coloured and solid looking. The whole compound was surrounded by either walls or fences and seemed very secure. There were ample spaces for the kids to play in and a rudimentary netball court for the school team to practise in. The dormitories were new buildings and very good although the girls did seem to manage to keep their dormitory cleaner than the boys did!
There was an electric pump in the well in the main courtyard which was linked up to the other rain water tanks so they could be filled from the pump. The pump was a godsend when it was working, though it seemed to breakdown a lot which did cause some problems. There was only one trip to the river for water during my 6 weeks at the school. Though we did come close a couple of times!
The Teachers & StaffI cannot praise the teachers and staff enough. Right from the headmaster down to the girls who helped out with the special needs children. They all put their heart and soul into their work and looked after the children to the best of their abilities. It was astounding the number of staff in total there were at the school. All of them had work to do keeping a semblance of order out of what seemed chaos to my untrained eye.
The teachers and ancillary staff were all very welcoming to me for which I was most grateful. Special mention must go to Rachel who used to be the school director’s housekeeper but is now basically doing all of the school admin. She is one of the nicest, happiest and kindest people I have met and does a very good job at what she does. She lived in the house I stayed in and was always one of the first members of staff to arrive in the morning and was normally the last to leave and quite often had to be dragged home for dinner. But all of them were very hard working and looked after the children very well.
I worked with Nicholas, the school physiotherapist, and Sara, the special needs teacher most of the time when I was at the school. Both of them were doing outstanding work in very challenging conditions, but both were able to do it with a smile on their faces. I must say that this was quite infectious for both me and the kids they looked after.
The KidsI was blown away by the children from the first day I arrived at school to the quite tearful final day when I left the school. They all smiled more than I thought possible. They accepted my appearance in the school and we were soon playing football and netball during break and lunch time. The smaller kids from the pre-unit and baby classes seemed to be more interested in games of chase and being thrown in the air. As long as they were caught again before hitting the ground!
They all seemed as though they wanted to be in school which was a nice surprise to me as I imagine the same couldn’t be said about some of the school kids in the UK. We even had children being taken ill during the day and not wanting to go home when their parents were called to take them home.
To put it into context, it was even the passing of the 5th anniversary of the death of my mother while I was at the school, a day of the year that I had so far, normally spent in solitude. It was only once the final school bell of the day had rung and I went to the house that it finally came to the front of my mind. The kids had totally taken my mind off that with a mixture of their smiling happy nature and keeping me busy running around playing games at break time.
My experienceOutside of my time at the school I had a really good time in east Africa, both in Uganda and Kenya. I managed to white water raft on the Nile, fish on Lake Victoria, trek the gorillas in South west Uganda and reacquaint myself with the Masai Mara. It is a beautiful part of the world that I could visit again and again!
Overall my time at the school was a magical experience, one that I would definitely like to repeat. To see the way the kids go about their school life with energy and a smile was something I am glad I was able to experience and hope that I have been able to help out in some way. I would certainly like to go back sometime soon and try to help some more. It is easy to see from the difference between the new buildings and old that a great difference has been made to the school for the better. The funding the school has received has helped to provide new solid classrooms and other buildings that do not leak and allow the pupils to concentrate on their learning and the furthering of their lives. There is still more to do though!
My girlfriend Alex also came out for my last week at the school which was her first trip to Africa. She spent one night in Nairobi having got off her plane and arrived in Kitale the next morning. She was totally bowled over by Africa and particularly by the school and kids. The pupils took to her just as they had with me. She had heard a lot from me about the school but was still amazed by the place!
Aquinoe has benefited greatly from the work done by the charity back in the UK and of course those who donate to the charity. Long may it continue to help the local children it serves and make their lives a little better.
Alex, Simon’s girlfriend writes:
Having heard a great deal about Aquinoe from Simon during his time there I couldn’t wait to get out to Kitale and see it all for myself, and I wasn’t disappointed! From the moment I walked through the gates I was made to feel incredibly welcome. All of the staff at the school were friendly and very committed to helping the children to learn and do the very best that they could. The kids themselves were truly wonderful! I have never seen such happy, interested and delightful children. Even the cheeky ones! Every one wanted to hear all about me and where I come from. They were keen to show me everything they could about their lives and even tried to teach me Kiswahili, though embarrassingly their ability to learn English was far superior to my ability to pick up their language!
The work that is done at Aquinoe is all fantastic, but it was particularly touching to see the commitment to working with the disabled and SEN kids. In a society where having a child with a disability is often seen as shameful or even a curse or punishment from God, it was truly inspirational to see the time and care that is put into giving these kids a safe and loving environment to grow up in. Those that are able are taught to read and write, along with life skills such as cleaning and personal care. There are also tailoring lessons and IT classes – both hopefully giving the kids a chance in the future to earn a living for themselves. All this was wonderful, but the thing that struck me most was the way that the other children looked after and played happily with the disabled and SEN kids. Coming from a culture where disabled and SEN kids are commonly bullied and the butt of jokes with their classmates in mainstream education, it was hugely encouraging to see the attitude of the kids at Aquinoe. The work that is being done there will hopefully help to raise a generation that accept disabled people and see them as human beings worthy of love and respect.
Overall my experience of Aquinoe was one of an overwhelmingly happy place. I was made to feel very much at home and was really sad to leave after a too short 5-day visit. I very much hope to go back soon and see what developments have been made in the new buildings and how the kids are getting on, and feel very lucky to have experienced such wonderful people and such a fantastic place!