When I set out to cycle 100,000 kilometres around the world I decided quite early on that I wanted to use the opportunity to fundraise for a charity, as I wanted something good to come of my ride beyond simple adventure. I spent months researching charities before approaching Build Africa as I wanted to make sure that I was aligning myself with a charity that I could really get behind. Now more than two years later, I'm proud to still be working with Build Africa and to have so far raised over £2000 towards their projects. It's still a long way off my fundraising goal of £10000, but we're getting there.
A big change in 2019 is that Build Africa have now become part of Street Child, a larger charity working in Africa and South Asia. This is great news as it will substantially extend Build Africa's influence on the African continent, as well as make the money I raise go as far as possible. It's a great step for Build Africa and I'm very happy to now be fundraising for Street Child as well!
During my ride south through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town I was fortunate to have the opportunity in Kenya and Uganda to visit about a dozen schools with which Build Africa are working. Some were very early in the relationship, with a lot of work still to be done, whilst others were established projects where Build Africa had already been operating for a number of years.
Having just ridden through Ethiopia I was honestly a little nervous about what I might find. Throughout Africa I was to see the effects of charitable efforts done wrong, but nowhere was this more apparent than in Ethiopia. Well meaning though they are, many charities create as many problems as they solve. By throwing money at a problem, by coming in and trying to fix everything themselves, charities are prone to creating a culture of dependence, leading to major issues in the long run.
I can't claim to have an answer to the incredibly complicated issue of foreign aid, but my experiences in cycling through Africa have at least given me some understanding of the various challenges and risks charities and NGOs face. Ethiopia was by far the worst example of this I saw in Africa, and having just come through from that country into Kenya I was more than a little apprehensive to see how Build Africa went about its business.
Thankfully though, I am very happy to say that my worries were quickly put to rest. Because its approach is focused on education, both in terms of the children as well as the communities at large, Build Africa’s model is all about empowering people to better themselves and those around them, focusing not on quick fixes but on solutions that will hold out in the long term. I truly have only good things to say about how Build Africa operates.
Schools are different in Africa to much of the rest of the world. Whereas in the West a school is generally used simply as a school, in Africa schools also act as centres for their communities. They are used for events, cooking, social gatherings, and even sometimes accommodation. Facilities such as boreholes can be used by entire communities. Furthermore, because most people in rural areas do have children, schools are an excellent way to make contact with parents in the wider community who would otherwise be difficult to reach. Having spent a lot of time cycling through rural parts of the developing world, it's my firm belief that education is the only way to genuinely solve the enormous problem of poverty in a way that is sustainable in the long term. Educating communities and encouraging them to work together ensures that improvements will continue to be made even after charities have moved on. Not that Build Africa is abandoning anyone; one teacher said to me, “Lots of groups come in and make promises, but they always leave. But after all these years, Build Africa is still here”. CHALLENGES
Fundamentally, Build Africa’s mission is simple: to ensure that every child has access to education. A good education gives children the best chance they have of leading healthy, happy lives. They face a multitude of challenges however; barriers which must be overcome in order for this to happen. Some are physical, but many are cultural. Only by simultaneously addressing all of these challenges can they truly be overcome. Physical challenges are more obvious and in some ways easier to address. Access to clean water, food, classrooms, toilets, textbooks and qualified teachers are all essentials that we take for granted in the West but which are lacking in much of rural Africa. School fees are very low in Kenya and Uganda, but some parents nevertheless struggle to pay them. Poverty is a constant battle.
Even more difficult to combat are the cultural challenges. Most people in these areas are farmers, and some of them see little point in sending their children to school, preferring instead to keep them home to help work. Gender inequality is also a huge problem and particularly in cultures such as the Maasai, girls are often not expected to attend school. It is incredibly difficult to change customs that have been in effect for generations, but only by educating parents and communities together can poverty truly be fought. It is not enough to simply educate the kids; it must extend to the community as a whole.
Spending time in Kenya and Uganda, I was soon struck by the incredible importance of access to water in the rural areas in which Build Africa work, and it quickly became obvious why water is generally one of the first of Build Africa’s priorities when working with new schools. It might be easy to dismiss the importance of something as simple as a borehole or water tank, but the truth is that this alone makes an enormous difference. Without it, children often have to walk miles every day just to fetch water, and this creates a host of subsequent issues. For girls in particular it is a major problem as without access to clean water and sanitary towels they can miss up to a week of school every month when they are on their periods, making them fall gradually further and further behind until they are forced to drop out of school. At a number of schools I was told about incidents where young girls were raped on their way to collect water. In times of drought (which due to global warming seems to be happening more and more frequently) many children and even teachers were missing school altogether for weeks as there was simply no water at all available. Providing convenient access to water at school not only solves these problems, but also ensures children are able to wash themselves after using the toilet, which in itself significantly helps prevent sickness and disease. Access to water is something we would take completely for granted in the western world, but in reality it is far from a given in rural East Africa. COMMUNITY
Aside from speaking to teachers and children, I was able to speak to a number parents and local farmers about the role Build Africa has had on their lives. One particular interaction that will stay with me was with a man from a small village near Eburru in Kenya. Owning two dairy cows, he told me how he had attended a short community course organised by Build Africa which educated people on how to best care for and milk their cows.
I had always assumed that if you were a farmer, you probably knew how to farm, but there is a difference between being able to farm and being able to farm well. After attending the course and modifying his method, he was able to almost triple the amount of milk produced per cow per day. The difference something like that can make cannot be understated, it is a life changing increase yet requires no further intervention than simply educating people. It was a striking example of the power of education and how it alone can make people’s lives better. Not merely an abstract concept, education is absolutely vital to addressing poverty. CULTURE
It is incredibly difficult to change traditions that have been around for generations, but it is something that needs to happen for Build Africa to succeed in providing education for all. One thing I found was that many parents do not at all see the point of sending their kids to school at all when they are expected to become farmers, and could already be at home helping rather than studying in school. It’s therefore important to make parents understand that education is always beneficial no matter what field the children go into. These kids don’t have to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or businessmen. Some will, but many others will still become farmers and work their family lands. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and regardless of the work they go on to do their lives will only be improved and enriched by education. A farmer with an education will almost always have a better life than a farmer without one. It is crucial to make parents understand this, as without support from home a child is vastly less likely to complete their education.
With parents on board it is a very different picture however. At some of the more developed schools I visited I was able to speak to a number of parents, and found them passionately supportive - not just in encouraging their kids but also in helping with the development and running of the schools, for example by helping plant crops on school land which can then be used to provide school lunches for the kids, something which the vast majority of schools in rural areas are unable to provide. Without school lunches, many kids get absolutely nothing to eat between morning and night, which further impedes their ability to learn. Involving the parents brings the whole community together and ensures that the schools are well looked after – they are viewed as belonging to the entire community rather than just being the property of some foreign charity. This bringing-together of the community is another huge advantage of Build Africa's approach.
Of course, I’ve only begun to touch on the many cultural challenges which Build Africa is addressing. Gender inequalities and expectations are often huge, to say nothing of practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) which are still commonplace. Suffice to say that physical needs are only a small part of the bigger picture, and it is therefore essential for charities to have a community based approach which takes these cultural considerations into account. REAL CHANGE
When people talk about supporting charities, it’s easy to get stuck thinking about it as an abstract concept. You give some money to a charity and somewhere, somehow, presumably, some people are helped. That’s the general idea. And if you choose not to help, not to donate, well, life goes on. But these are real people, real lives affected, real change being brought about. I've met some of them, and I’ve seen it. I visited schools that didn’t exist ten years ago, but that are now thriving. I saw communities which have been utterly transformed thanks to the work of Build Africa and the people supporting it. I am still truly amazed at the effect that Build Africa have had. The atmosphere of positivity and hope that I found from communities at their projects was incredibly inspiring.
There is still so much to do. I visited a school in which a lightning strike left 19 children dead and dozens more injured. Proper structures with any kind of weathervane would have saved them, but instead those children died. How much we take for granted in the West. In Uganda I visited a school where they had no permanent structures at all, only the skeleton of a classroom out of which the children had to be rushed into a nearby church whenever it rained. Uganda is a VERY wet country. The teachers at that school were some of the most impassioned and dedicated I have met anywhere in the world. Despite everything, despite their lack of resources, they are succeeding. But the difference a proper learning environment makes is enormous. Through Build Africa, we can provide that.
I saw firsthand the real change that Build Africa is bringing about, and I know just how much it matters. Speaking to teachers, children and the Build Africa staff on the ground, I’m more proud and determined than ever to continue fundraising for Build Africa during my long journey to cycle 100,000 kilometres around the world. Donating to Build Africa in support of my ride isn’t just a nice gesture. It has real consequences for real people. It helps change lives. It also means a tremendous amount to me on a personal level to know that my ride is also helping to make a real difference. The encouragement and motivation which I draw from each and every donation is huge. It really does keep me going.
Covid-19 is making life a struggle for everyone these days, but the virus is disproportionately hitting the world's most vulnerable and marginalised people. For those living in extreme poverty the challenge to survive is now harder than ever, with people forced to battle not just Covid-19 and loss of income, but starvation as well. Street Child has been operating an emergency appeal for Covid-19 since the end of March, aimed at providing information and services to millions of people around the world. That appeal continues today, and the funds I am currently raising will go directly towards that purpose.
So, if you’re reading this, I’m asking for your help. Please, support my ride and donate to Build Africa and Street Child. Even the price of a cup of coffee makes a difference. Every little helps, and it really adds up. Something to consider: if every single person who reads this donates just £10, we would be talking about literally thousands of pounds in donations. A truly life changing sum of money.
Donating takes only a few minutes, click the button below and it will take you to my fundraising page. Please join me and become a part of the Build Africa/Street Child family. Please, become a part of my ride.