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TRUE LIFE: The Zurich worker taking education to the children of the Masaai Mara

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WHEN two school girls learnt about the plight of needy children in Kenya’s Masaai Mara eight years ago, they and their fellow pupils put together shoeboxes of supplies to send out to them.

This act of childhood kindness was just the beginning. A few years later, Amie Engstrom, now 25 and living in Swindon, and her friend Olivia Parson, travelled out to Kenya and volunteered to teach in Enkerende village. They learnt about the lives of local people and launched a plan to raise enough money to build the children a new school building.

The children were being taught in a church, a building in a state of disrepair and totally inadequate for the ne of the pupils, so the ambitious young women set up a charity called Educate Enkerende and raised £12,000 to create something better.

“The first time I went to Enkerende was in May 2014,” Amie said. “I went for three weeks and worked as a volunteer at the school.

“It was amazing to see how the kids loved to learn, how important the school was to their lives.”

With the help of Ngerende Island Lodge, Olivia had stayed in the village as a volunteer the previous year and taught in the school for two weeks. On her return, she had told her friend about her experiences, which inspired Amie to see for herself.

“When I came back, I told Olivia that not a lot had changed at the school since her visit. On my first day teaching the blackboard had fallen off the wall. We thought, why don’t we do something about it?”

They were both students at university: Amie was in her final year at Warwick and Olivia was in her second year at Edinburgh, and at a time of life when many young people are focussed on studying and socialising, they decided they wanted to make a difference. They began fundraising with the aim of transforming the educational opportunities for the village’s youngsters and offering them the chance of a better life.

Olivia started fundraising in Edinburgh and Amie did the same in Worcester. Oliva embarked on an ambitious sponsored cycle ride from Vancouver to San Francisco, and together they collected donations and raised the £12,000 they needed to get the school building done.

“The owners of the lodge had funded the exterior walls of the school in 2012, but since then they had run out of money and had done nothing more with it,” Amie explained.

In November building work started. Olivia visited again in March, and Amie returned in May, to see how work was progressing. They made sure local craftsmen and the community were involved at every stage.

“We assumed it would be finished but the rainy season in Kenya is in April. It should be ready by September for the new school year,” Amie said.

It is an arduous journey, reaching Enkerende. The village is situated on the Olchoro – Oirogua Conservation Ranch, bordering the Maasai Mara game reserve, some120 km from the town of Narok. It is a landscape populated with leopards, lions and cheetahs, with herds of zebra and giraffe, while hippos swim in the Mara river.

After a flight to Nairobi, it is a five-hour drive to the village and only usually visited by tourists going on safari to see wild animals. The houses in the village are made of mud, sand, cow dung and water, reinforced by sticks and roofed with plastic bags to make them waterproof. The Masaai people raise cattle, and the richer the village the more cattle they have. The villagers get their water from the river, a 20-minute walk away, and it has to be boiled before it is potable.

Amie explained that sometimes the safari tourists visited the village, for which they were charged a fee, and the residents sold handmade jewellery to help boost their income.

She was made very welcome by the villagers: “When I went the first time, as a thank you they killed a cow to eat and had a celebration,” she said. “They share and help each other a lot. The school teacher is happy to volunteer at the school because the village support him.”

The children, aged from three to 12 years, learn English, maths, geography, history, religious studies and Swahili. They also have a Sunday School with a focus on learning how to be a good person, and to respect their elders.

“In 2012 there were 120 children at the school, but when I went there were about 60. When the school building is finished they may come back, or come in from elsewhere,” Amie said.

“The children are so well behaved – all in one room with one teacher, they have to be very patient. The teacher would teach children on one side of the room, then the other side.”

Once the school building is complete, Amie and Olivia plan to continue fundraising to pay for books, equipment and teachers’ salaries. They are also hoping to set up a volunteer programme, so others can go and help in the school.

“The children are taught in English and Swahili, so it would be good experience for them to speak English and a good way for us to find out what the community ne.”

Amie now has a full-time job in human resources at Zurich in Swindon – but still fits in time to run the charity she helped set up.

“It has changed me a bit, as a person,” she said. I appreciate more what I have, and my family, and I made a real commitment that I wanted to make this happen.

“At first people told me the idea was crazy, and that is would never happen. At that time I was 23, I had uni then a career, and people asked how do you have the time to do this? But both Olivia and I are quite dedicated and wanted to show people we could do it.”

She said: “It’s not really much work, a few hours per week, but this small effort makes such a difference to the children‘s lives.”

For more information on Educate Enkerende and its mission to empower the Masaai people through education, visit educate-enkerende.com.

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