Kesheni Kenya Immersion Program 2018

The 2018 Kesheni Kenya Immersion program saw staff from the Catholic Schools Office head off on a two-week trip to Nairobi in Kenya.

The travellers visited a number of Catholic agencies including the Ruben School, Ruben Medical Centre, Kurt Fearnley Centre, Mary Rice Centre for handicapped children, Women for Women Centre, an Advocacy Centre, St Joseph’s Home for the Destitute, Br Beausang School Embulbul and Youth and Health Clinic programs.

Our Fruit Salad: Michael Slattery (Director of Schools), Debra Hawthorne, Leigh Peacock, Veronica McLoughlin, Joanne Trotter (Principals), Melissa Hollands (Social Worker), Barbara Myors (Assistant Director of Schools), Alison Slattery (Midwife), Brid Corrigan (CSO Strategic Project Officer), Jenny Howard (Assistant Principal), Morgan Matthews (Occupational Therapist), Gregory Barker (Priest).

This is what they had to say about the immersion experience:

“The immersion is a significant personal and professional opportunity which further develops a sense of personal spirituality, leadership, interpersonal skills, inspiration, and engagement with those impoverished and disempowered. Our hope is that each participant will become an agent for change in their own community and motivate others to support those less fortunate in Australia and overseas. Michael and I enjoyed observing the growth of participant’s every time and it is a joy for us to share the experience with those seeking some answers to questions in life, its meaning, and our place in the world.” – Alison Slattery, Immersion Leader

“The immersion experience is an event that changes one’s worldview forever. We can never see the world the same way again. It allows participants to begin a process of critical questioning and analysis that leads us to a reappraisal of the systems and structures that create or perpetrate global injustices; and we begin to realise that we are connected to the suffering of others.” – Dr Michael Slattery, Immersion Coordinator and Director of Schools, Catholic Schools Office

“Being part of the Kesheni experience was enriching beyond belief and something I will carry with me always. The highlights for me were the Kenyan people, their smiles, their faith, and their positive and hopeful attitude to life. The many things we take for granted in our lives: bright, dry homes and classrooms, school and medical resources, water and electricity, paths and spaces to play, were in short supply for many of the Kenyan students and families we encountered. Despite this, the families we visited in the Kibera and Mukuru slums took great pride in their homes, with family photos and prayers on display and houses scrupulously clean. They also expressed great faith in God and in meeting their daily challenges with optimism.

“The sense of community and faith in action was strongly evident and this was particularly highlighted in my visit with Leigh Peacock and two members of the Karibu Youth Group, Victor and Laura, to Fairview Primary School within the Kibera Slum.

“The school was started by Mabel, a teacher who herself lived within Kibera Slum and recognised the need for the school to provide food, clothing and sometimes the opportunity for sleep in order to meet the needs of students within her community. The school opened in 2004 with seven students and has since grown to 276 students with 12 trained teachers.

“School results in national exams continue to improve, however what most impressed me was the happy and supportive environment and the teachers’ passion to provide students with a better life and with the opportunity to dream and achieve. Many teachers spend long hours after school to tutor and play games with the students and there is a genuine care in their interactions with students. In the words of Martin Luther King, ‘the hope of a secure and liveable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood,’ and Mabel and her staff are great exemplars of justice in action, as were the many Kenyan’s we met.” – Brid Corrigan, Strategic Programs Advisor, Catholic Schools Office

“As we set off for Africa none of us really could articulate what was awaiting us at the end of our 32-hour journey. The sights, sounds and smells that met us in Nairobi provided a stark realisation that we weren’t in Oz anymore. 

“As with any trip it was the people who shaped my experience, with both my fellow pilgrims and the people we met enlivening my time in beautiful Africa. Unlike many trips though, the people I met on this journey are imprinted on my heart and spirit, each of us knowing that we shared something very special that will connect us for life. 

“In preparing for Kesheni my musings were focused on what the time and people would do to and with me, rather than what I would be doing for them. I committed to my family and community that I would open my heart to each experience and let the spirit move in me as needed. I was not however prepared for the deep-reaching shift I would feel while in Africa. 

“I often doubt that I am doing any good that will be sustainable beyond the present. What footprint am I leaving in my family, my community, my school? With so many resources afforded me in such a prosperous and abundant country, state, Diocese, school, am I making positive impacts and change in my very small world?

“Seeing the work of the people we met was humbling, inspiring and daunting all at once. For me it was truly seeing Jesus in 2018, walking the streets of Kibera or Mukuru slum, connecting with people through compassion, empathy, hope and love. From the young people who run a youth group, to the fathers who man the gates of schools and the teachers and principals, all of whom felt moved to respond to a need within their community. 

“Kesheni shifted something in me. Everything we saw and experienced is still percolating and I imagine will do so for some time. But I know and feel that something key has changed and I am sitting with this for now, knowing that the spirit took me to Africa for a reason. Prayer, reflection, discernment and the connectedness I felt with my group will all play a part in my continuing Kesheni journey. 

“We need not look far to see amazing deeds and faith in action. Kenya is one example of people committed to making their world a little safer and kinder but we see this much closer to home. I see it every day in the work we do at St Dominic’s and in the families with whom we work. I saw it in Michael and Alison who have committed ten years of their lives, giving to and loving the people of Kenya. 

“I am so grateful and blessed to have shared this time in Kenya. It was an awakening of my heart, eyes and mind and is something that will shape my spirit for many years to come.” – Veronica McLoughlin, Principal of St Dominic’s Centre, Mayfield

“I went into Kesheni 2018 with a completely open mind – being open to whatever experiences and situations were to be put before us and willing to participate however I could was my attitude. I knew there would be a wide range of emotions experienced and this definitely proved to be the case. To say it was confronting would not really be strong enough at times but the joy and friendliness of the Kenyan people and the opportunity we had to provide even a little support was absolutely a more significant factor in why this immersion trip was so special. 

“The difficult moments arose out of seeing the situations these wonderful people, especially small children, are expected to live with every day, conditions that are almost impossible to imagine in our comfortable Australian lives. 

“The joy and love of the immersion experience comes from the happiness, resilience, determination and welcome of the people. “Karibu”, welcome in Swahili, was probably the most common word we heard, closely followed by “Assante” which was thank you. Their faith, love of life, resilience, care for each other and the empowerment that is coming from the young people of Kenya made it a tough place to leave and I will continue to draw on this experience. I will be forever grateful to Michael and Alison Slattery and to Karanje for the privileged opportunity to have these experiences and for their care and guidance along the way.

“I wouldn’t like to select my favourite part but rather moments that were of particular significance for me:

  • The visit to the Ruben Childcare Centre where the darkness and smell were overwhelming but the welcome and joy of the staff and children were irresistible and the opportunity to stay on to make some changes for the children at the centre.
  • The walk through the slums to visit families cannot be described apart from to say it was sensory and emotional overload.
  • The opportunity to hear from and meet so many people who are working to empower the powerless and to bring about positive change.
  • The joy of the children.” – Jenny Howard, Assistant Principal of St Columba’s Primary School, Adamstown

“Kesheni 2018 was an amazing, inspiring and life-giving journey for me and I would think the whole group. Yes, confronting but also sobering to see the smiles and happiness of these wonderful Kenyan people who make the most of their daily lives with what they have, not with what they want.

“Our group bonded well and looked after each other day by day. I found it enriching to get to know colleagues and new people on another level. The opportunity to see firsthand, in the first two weeks, the varied and numerous ministries catering for the local people was extraordinary. The sense of welcome and appreciation for our efforts and donations was even more extraordinary!

“Our third week was very fulfilling with great satisfaction and a sense of achievement with the Early Learning Centre renovation project, where two rooms were cleaned, repainted and lino flooring laid, a sandpit cleaned and refilled along with new toys and outdoor furniture.  The reaction of the children along with Br Frank O’Shea and staff was a sight to behold!

“A life experience that will stay with me forever. Asante sana!” – Leigh Peacock, Principal of St Joseph’s Primary School Kilaben Bay

“Michael Slattery sold me on the program from the very beginning with his tales of visiting learning centres, medical centres and youth programs, not to mention some safaris thrown in for good measure. I knew that I wanted to be a part of this experience.

“The word ‘Kesheni’ in Swahili means ‘stay awake’ and though I felt I was very much awake and ready for this experience, I did not realise how wrong I was. My first ‘awakening’ came when Michael sent all participants a book titled ‘I Am Because We Are.’ This is a collection of true stories written by Anna Cerreto about the lives of young people who had come from the slums of Karibu and Miruku.

“I could not believe the suffering and personal heartache these young adults had gone through to simply stay alive. Reading this at home in my comfortable bed made me feel that I was ready to confront this tough experience.

“After much fundraising and collecting of underwear (for ‘Undies Down Under’), with my visa, Yellow Fever card and itinerary in hand, I was ready – off to Kenya to work and save the poor people of the third world. I could not have been more mistaken and less awakened in my life.

“My awakening started on my first night in Nairobi where, after a very meaningful prayer, I met two of the young people who had featured in Anna Cerranto’s book. They were incredible. They were so positive, happy and so excited to meet us. I sat with the girls and discussed how to braid hair, colourful jewellery and our favourite foods. We took selfies and laughed a lot. My eyes started to open to the positiveness of these people and how similar we really were.

“The next day Michael told us to look for the face of God as we visited the Ruben Centre. That was easily spotted on the back of a sarong that one of the mothers at the health clinic was wearing. This clinic is also a clean, modern birthing centre where women come from as far as 300 kilometres to give birth. Here they feel safe and secure. The face of God, while being worn on that sarong, was also evident in every aspect of the Ruben Centre from the school, the clinic and the Kurt Fearnley Special Needs Centre, to the radio station, the weaving centre and the Crisis Centre. God was busy and he was everywhere! How these people care for each other with an eternal smile on their faces awakened my sense of wonder.

“The next quest Michael gave us was to seek enlightenment. Again it grabbed me by surprise from a little girl called Joy. One Saturday a month the Edmund Rice Youth run a sporting day where all the children from the slum areas come and play. This is huge for them and they spent the day playing games, singing and just having fun. We were divided into groups and I was on team Brown. I must have looked a bit lost while trying to dance, sing and play like a Kenyan because this little hand wrapped around my leg and this little voice said, ’Hello my name is Joy and I’m a girl’. Joy then proceeded to stay with me for the length of the day and show me how well she could skip, hula hoop and run.

“As the day wore to an end we fed the children some rice, meat and vegetables. They then proceeded to walk the ten kilometres back to their homes or orphanages and I was told that would probably be the only meal they received for the weekend until school started on Monday. Joy, the clever, smiling, talented orphan showed me enlightenment.

“Stories of struggle, abandonment, hunger and poverty were everywhere but never without a sense of hope and optimism. Joy, love, laughter and care for each other was evident on a daily basis. The face of God was everywhere. These people shone out of the dust, grime and greyness of their struggles as positive, happy and caring people. They awakened me to the human condition but also to a level of spirituality that goes beyond anything I have ever experienced. They use the word ‘Karibu’ which means welcome and it is a welcome that is sincere and goes beyond words.

“Did I stay awake? Most certainly. I started on a well-meaning mission and ended with a forever connection.

“Was I glad to get home to my family, of course! Was I sad to leave? Absolutely! Words cannot describe Kenya, its people, its beauty and the whole Kesheni experience. Thank you Alison, Michael and Karanja - thank you for my awakening.” – Joanne Trotter, Principal of St Joseph’s Primary School, Bulahdelah

“Kesheni means ‘stay awake’ in Swahili.  As I reflect on my three weeks in Nairobi, the question begs, to stay awake assumes that you are already awake and in the present. Are you really awake? For me, Kesheni awakened me to a far greater appreciation of love and life, the importance of welcome and the development of a far deeper spirituality and the power of faith.

“It’s not possible to describe in words the experiences we shared. Photos tell half the story but to visit and interact with the poorest of the poor involves a full sensory experience.

“The sight of small children whose eyes light up your world, regardless of the hunger their bodies reveal. The sounds of rhythmic and spontaneous singing and music at a Catholic Sunday Mass, a morning prayer or the welcome you receive upon entering a school. The taste of Ugali flavoured with a simple fish broth. The smell of human life, in all its forms, as you wander the streets of the slums. The power and touch of a handshake, embrace and welcome from every person you encounter, regardless of their poverty or position in society.

“The first two weeks involved encounters. Watching, speaking and interacting with amazing youth, and men and women who have dedicated their lives to empowering a change in mindset, so that through education, lives are transformed, developed and sustained. The ripple effect of this changing culture is immense, due in no small part to the great works of some truly amazing people with whom we met and journeyed.  At the end of the initial two weeks, half the group, with heavy hearts and teary farewells, returned home. The remaining six chose to work on a project in the Ruben Centre, in particular, the Early Learning Centre.  

“The Early Learning Centre tugged at the heart strings of the whole group during our initial two weeks. The main room where the children learned and played was constantly flooded from the slum drain which ran alongside the building. Through funds raised from donations and school events, the ‘makeover team’ were able to pay for the blocked drain to be cleared. Additionally, rooms were painted and decorated, lino was laid on the floors and mattresses, toys, teaching resources and cleaning and baby care products were provided. This project, although small in size, was a significant contribution to the Ruben Centre and sent a positive vibe amongst the community and neighbouring slum.

“After returning home and a leisurely sleep in, I wandered up to the nearby beach for a casual coffee with my eldest son. As tears welled in my eyes, I watched for whales (no more zebra, hippos or giraffes) and yearned for Kenya, wondering how I would readjust to first world living and how my immersion and encounter would evolve. Kesheni – I have been awakened. My challenge, to stay awake!

“Special thanks to Samuel Karanja for his ongoing work, input, organisation and care of our group whilst in Nairobi. We are eternally indebted to you, Michael and Alison for this awakening experience.” – Debra Hawthorne, Principal of Holy Cross Primary School, Glendale

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