Maria and the charity have helped many people in Kenya.

Charity to help 2 million people

By Geraldine Fitzgerald

“Everybody wants the same thing no matter where they are on the globe. To be able to live, feed and educate their kids, and be self-reliant. The difference is opportunity.”

Those were the words of Cobh woman Maria Kidney, co-founder of a small Irish charity which is on track to help 2 million people, as she spoke to the Cork Independent about the charity’s work, which was recently recognised for making a ‘big impact’.

Brighter Communities Worldwide, an Irish NGO has directly benefited almost 2 million people in Kericho County, Kenya. The charity’s work was recognised recently when Brighter Communities Worldwide (BCW) won the Small Charity; Big Impact prize at the Charity Excellence Awards.

The genesis of the charity was the consequence of what had promised to be an adventure for Cork woman Maria Kidney. A keen climber, she took time off her job in Musgrave to scale Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in 2000 with two friends.

A mugging in Nairobi left them shaken and a bit lost, so they contacted the headquarters of the local Kenyan Girl Guides, who were very involved in practical development work in the local community.

“It was the fortunate result of an unfortunate circumstance”, laughed Maria, “and we were welcomed into everyone’s home for cups of tea and chats.”

It soon became evident that HIV had taken a huge toll on the area, leaving many orphaned children, as well as major issues with everything from basic needs, clean water, sanitation and access to healthcare.

In 2002, 20 adult Girl Guide leaders travelled to Londiani, initiating a community service project in a children’s home and with local women as the charity Friends of Londiani (the name of the local village).

Maria came home but she told the newspaper that her heart was still in Kenya. So, when she got married, she returned with her new husband Martin Ballantyne (now CEO of BCW) for their honeymoon in 2003 planning to do just a little more of what they could, wherever they could. Friends of Londiani became Brighter Communities Worldwide, and they partnered up with Irish Aide in 2005.

Maria recalled how the need for help was most evident in the rural mountain area of Kericho County, where 95% of the population lived without much at all.

Maria and Martin ended up building a clinic to serve as an outreach centre, initiating programmes to help ensure people could access the care and information they needed for community health, maternal and neonatal health, vaccinations and more.

In a region where girls and women undertake the bulk of unpaid work like gathering wood and water, lack of access to healthcare meant many deaths in childbirth.

Maria said that to lose a mother was to lose a whole support system.

She said girls didn’t have supplies for menstrual health and were likely to experience unwilling prostitution, early marriage and female genital mutilation.

Having to miss out on education and opportunity kept the status quo low, until BCW began to work in partnership to deliver on practical, self-sustaining programmes, she said.

After 22 years Brighter Communities Worldwide has a staff of 43 locals, more than over 4,500 volunteers on the ground and have directly helped almost 2 million people. And there hasn’t been a single mother or infant lost in childbirth since, she said.

She added: “Everybody wants the same thing no matter where they are on the globe. To be able to live; feed and educate their kids, and be self-reliant. The difference is opportunity.”

Climate change has had a very real and visible effect in Kenya, with alternating droughts and flooding making life very challenging. One of the current projects is building simple smokeless stoves, which use two- thirds less wood and make the hitherto eye-watering discomfort of indoor cooking much better.

A supply of clean, safe water and good sanitation is a core goal, with an effect of more than just quenching thirst.

“When water is such a precious commodity woman won’t use it to bathe; and like any woman if they feel unclean, they will not attend the doctor”, explained Maria.

The charity’s mission is to support education, equipping people with knowledge and confidence, allowing skills and ability to generate an income.

Last June however, an accident underscored the lack of basic medical knowledge when an out-of-control cement truck crashed into a busy trading crossroads and wiped out 52 people, the youngest of whom was only 11.

She recalled how families in the community were severely traumatised, having lost breadwinners and caregivers. There are no facilities for emergency medicine, so the immediate goal now is to build a well-equipped trauma centre and teach people how to triage and perform lifesaving medical intervention.

The local language is Swahili although there are many distinct dialects, but communication has never been an issue for Maria.

“Come in for a cuppa is kind of the same idea all over the world”, she said, “and once the grandparents, many of whom were trying to mind orphaned kids, saw what we were trying to do; they totally got on board.”

She also said the elders had spoken and the willingness to engage increased, making it easier to navigate communities and cultural taboos.

Brighter Communities Worldwide has a 20-year history of successful volunteering, with everyone from medics to students travelling to Kenya to take part Harambee, a Swahili word meaning ‘working together’, is the name of the volunteer project and you’ll need to be quick to get in – June’s volunteering opportunities are already full but November is open for those who want to get involved.

The BCW Office in Cobh is staffed with volunteers who will ensure training and workshops are complete before travelling to Kenya.

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