As we made arrangements for this interview, I expected Kirsty McLullich aka Njeri to be driving so I was busy explaining to her how she will drive to our offices when she hastily stopped me and asked where she could pick the right matatu.
I thought she was one of those muzungus who, once in a while, enjoyed a matatu ride. I was wrong. She does not own a car and uses public transport.
She works for long hours and it is not for pay. She is a volunteer for Vision Africa, a charity that has no cars or posh offices.
The NGO operates on a very small budget and has projects in Kisii, Kitui, Murang’a, Embu and Nairobi, where they are giving destitute and orphaned children and youth a future.
This Accounts and Economics graduate from UK shed off a lucrative job back home to come to Kenya to work with destitute children and youth, a decision she remains proud of, especially when she looks at the difference her work has made to the communities where her NGO operates. For that we celebrate her as our hero this month.
Down memory lane…
“I still vividly recall the traumatising images on TV in our sitting room in Scotland of children and adults dying of hunger in Ethiopia. I was only eight years old and my young mind could not comprehend how someone could die of hunger when I had never been in want or gone hungry. The reports were followed by appeals for food donations worldwide and I saw musicians combining efforts to sing and raise funds to help the famine victims. My mother had to pull me away from the screen to save me from those images, but they would not leave my mind. That was a turning point in my life. Those pictures of starving children touched a part of my heart that made me want to do something, even at that young age. I was especially inspired by the efforts of that group of world famous musicians who came together to raise funds. I can’t remember what I told my mother at the discussion that followed, but I remember her commenting that I should do something for the needy when I grow up,” recalls Kirsty as we start this interview.
The memory of the starving children and desire to help remained so fresh in her mind that when she graduated from university and started working as an accountant, she embarked on fundraising for charity organisations.
The first was a UK charity called Comic Relief that organised fundraisers and money raised was used for projects in Kenya and other parts of Africa, as well as the UK.
She organised big events at her workplace, raising thousands of pounds and at the same time getting people involved in charity work. It was then she learnt that even though you may not have your own money, you could still raise funds to help those in need. Her passion remained to work with the needy in Africa and when the opportunity arose, she chose Kenya.
In 2006, Kirsty took a one-year career break from her accountant job, where she had worked for nine years, to volunteer for Vision Africa, a UK-based charity, which had projects in Kenya.
She first visited Kenya in April 2006 for a ten-day stint to test the waters. She met and interacted with needy children at Kandara Children’s Home near Thika town, which had 80 children in primary and secondary schools.
She also visited Kibera Mpira Mtaani, a project that promotes education for needy children in the slums. She appreciated the work that was being done in these two institutions and had no doubt in her mind that she had a role to play. She returned home in UK, packed her bags and was back in Kenya in September 2006.
“When I told my mother I was coming to Kenya to work for a charity and for no pay, her words were: ‘I knew this was going to happen at some point.’ She gave me her blessings and today she contributes a lot of money to the projects I work on,” says Kirsty.
Her first home in Kenya was rural Kandara. Living and working with destitute and orphaned children at Kandara Children’s Home was extremely fulfilling for her.
She was inspired by the children, some of whom were extremely bright, and worked hard to overcome their disadvantages. Coming from a country with free education for all citizens, she was disturbed that lack of money could lock out bright children from school, but was determined to make a difference in the young children’s lives.
Apart from helping them with their homework, especially mathematics and English, she generally tried to bring some happiness into their lives. The children loved her so much they nicknamed her Njeri – a name that has stuck.
Kirsty’s family back home in England has been quite supportive of her work. For example, when his cousin got married, he asked family and friends to donate to Kandara Children’s Home instead of giving them gifts.
Her cousin wanted her to stay on at the home and help the children get good grades so they could secure places in high schools or vocational training centres using the donation, which was substantial. Kirsty requested for an extension of her work break in order to complete her mission.
When her extended leave came to an end, she could not bring herself to leave the children whom she had become so attached to, and she made the difficult choice of resigning from her job in UK to continue working in Kenya.
She enjoyed working and living with the rural community in Kandara, a major contrast to the affluence of her society back home in England. This experience made her appreciate the struggles rural communities go through each day in order to survive.
It impacted positively on her and she was able to adapt easily to the simple life in a rural setting. The changes she was helping bring in this community, as well as her own personal fulfilment meant more than her accounting job. Almost five years later, she has no regrets.
Her greatest fulfilment comes not just from everyday experiences that she encounters, but also from miraculous events such as when the home rescued abandoned twin girls who were so undeveloped they could not talk or walk. Nobody expected them to perform any of these, but today the two girls are in class one – normal active and confident children, who are growing up healthily.
Another joy-bringer is St. Andrews abandoned baby unit, which is within the home. She loves cuddling and taking care of these vulnerable children. When Kirsty is not playing mother to these children, she will be on a matatu headed to Embu to see children at Riandu, another home in her project.
Pictures of her hugging and dancing with these children tell the whole story. It’s the life she has chosen for herself and she is finding great joy in it. Kirsty not only gives love and care to these children, she is also their teacher and they love and adore her.
These children have become her family and she delights in the fact that her parents are so appreciative of her work that they come often to Kenya to visit the children. The children never stop asking when ‘Cucu’ and ‘Guka’ (grandmother and grandfather) from England will be visiting.
Kirtsy is a woman with a heart of gold. She criss-crosses the country using public transport to ensure all Vision Africa projects in Kenya are living to their mission and fulfilling their objectives.
Another project she is extremely proud of is Kibera Mpira Mtaani, which reaches out to the youth in Kibera slums through football. The programme emphasises not only formal education, but also helps the children grow up as morally upright and well-rounded children, considering the environment they grow in.
They are given HIV/AIDS education and also helped to appreciate the value of education, as well as keeping out of crime, alcohol and drugs and are encouraged to participate in community programmes.
About 2500 children are in the programme and most of them actively participate in football games and tournaments. Vision Africa provides funding for tournaments, rents an office and finances workshops and seminars.
The programme also helps school-going children with after-school tuition to help improve their grades, using with volunteer teachers. Kirsty brings together mentors to help the children develop self-confidence, exploit their potential as well as guide them on career choices. The top candidate from this programme scored 398 marks in last year’s KCSE.
Vision Africa also has residential vocational training centres known as Seed Of Hope that help teenage girls in Nairobi’s Dagoretti Corner, Nyamache in Kisii, Kitui and Kariti in Murang’a.
The girls are equipped with life-skills and are armed with vocational skills such as dressmaking, tailoring, carpentry, plumbing, gardening, business management – all aimed at making them self-reliant through employment or starting their own businesses.
The girls consider Kirtsy as their ‘big’ Mzungu sister whom they turn to for counselling and advice. She encourages them to remain positive and focussed and not to let their previous circumstances dictate their present lives.
“Majority of these girls require in-depth and long-term counselling and constant encouragement,” says Kirsty.
She has witnessed many success stories of girls who have graduated from the two-year programme and gone on to start their own successful businesses through assistance from Vision Africa.
“Girls deprived so much in the past and who only saw a bleak, poverty-stricken future, happily embrace opportunities offered to them by Vision Africa, whose aim is to prepare their hearts so that a seed of hope may grow and flourish there. We give them the tools and the character so that they may face challenges positively and fight their own way out of poverty,” explains Kirsty.
Vision Africa also sponsors orphaned and disadvantaged children in several primary schools, providing them with school fees, uniforms, shoes, learning materials and a feeding programme. Examples include Kibera’s Lutheran school, St. John’s Riruta, Busire and Nyamwanga primary schools in Western province, and Orogare Primary in Nyanza province.
Her organisation has also put up better facilities including classrooms and nursery units in some of these schools. Vision Africa also supports two schools for children with special needs in Kirunguru near Kandara and Percy Davies in Kambiti in Embu. Each has about sixty children and offers both day and boarding facilities.
In addition to working with the children, Kirtsy also coordinates fundraising activities for Vision Africa both in Kenya and the UK through individuals, churches and corporate organisations.
She organises many fundraising activities including morning coffees, dinners, cake selling or sponsored activities such as mountain climbing. Every so often, Vision Africa organises a major event to raise funds. For instance, to celebrate it’s tenth anniversary this year, a group of people will in August trek eighty kilometres of Maasai Mara game reserve to raise funds.
Kirsty says she finds her work extremely rewarding and an excellent learning experience. She has seen how a small amount of money can make a real difference in a needy person’s life.
To know more about Kirsty’s work you can contact her at:
Published in June 2011