My cousin, Becky, has lived in Africa for over 3 years doing development work with a variety of NGOs and is the country director at Mary's Meals for Kenya, among other countries in Africa. Every year her dad, my uncle, goes out to visit her and has always extended the invitation to me. This year I decided to take him up on it.
It was a whirlwind trip and I was able to see Nairobi, Diani, the Masai Mara National Reserve, Eldoret, and Lodwar in the space of 9 days.
The part I was most looking forward to was our visit to Turkana. The plan was to help Mary's Meals fill in some gaps on their map of "Early Childhood Development" sites in the area. These are nurseries, preschools or kindergartens. Knowing where sites exist already, and what state they're in, helps Mary's Meals direct their resources to help as many people as they can.
I did have an idea of what to expect. I have seen footage of African villages, read reports of nutrition and the undernourishment of children, which can be classified as moderate or severe acute malnutrition in some of the remote parts of Kenya. But to witness this first hand and experience the lifestyle is more difficult to digest.
Despite the above, actually witnessing it first-hand is difficult to digest. Turkana contains miles and miles and miles of arid land: desert, rocks, no rain for 9 months and temperatures about 40 degrees celsius. We spent over 6 hours driving through what felt like endless deserted land. At one point our jeep got stuck in the sand and we spent around 2 hours in midday heat trying to get un-stuck. During this time, the glue in my uncle's sandals melted from the heat in the sand, and the sandals fell apart. This is no joke. The tribal people walk up to 15 km each day to get to school in these conditions, and they do it barefoot.
While driving from ECD to ECD, I got the opportunity to ask my cousin questions about what Mary's Meals do and the challenges they face.
The main goal of Mary's Meals isn't to feed children, but educate them. The way that they achieve this is by providing schools with the food to give their students at least one nutritional meal every day, thus incentivising school attendance. In Kenya, the food is bought from local farms to help get more money flowing through the Kenyan economy.
Mary's Meals feed over 1 million children worldwide, and it costs only £12.20 to feed a child for one entire school year.
For every £1 donated, Mary's Meals use 93p on their charitable activities. For comparison, Charity Navigator gives their top rating to charities that manage to get to 85% of donations going to charitable activities.
I asked Becky what the bottleneck is, what gets in the way of them feeding more kids than they already do. The answer was, without any hesitation, money. More money would mean more children get fed and educated, and fewer people die of starvation. Ultimately, education will provide children, families, and communities with choices, and the ability to lift themselves out of long term and repeat poverty cycles.
From their 2015 annual report, Mary's Meals had an income of £15,496,217, of which 87% came from individual donations. This means there's potential for your ordinary, every-day person to have a real impact on the lives of those less fortunate.
I've often found myself feeling a bit empty after donating to a charity. How do I know where my money goes? How do I know I'm helping? How do I know I'm not part the problem?
The main takeaway from this trip wasn't that I got to see lions on safari, but to see the work a charity does in a receiving country first-hand, and see that giving will genuinely make a difference.