Cork charity worker in Kenya: 'I’m seeing girls 9-10 pregnant'

Cork charity worker in Kenya: 'I’m seeing girls 9-10 pregnant'

Charity worker Maria Kidney.

COBH native Maria Kidney, co-founder of Brighter Communities Worldwide, a charity that works in partnership with communities to create enabling environments in Kenya and other East African countries, has had a very different Christmas this year

Brighter Communities Worldwide works with communities in Kenya in three core areas: Health, Education and Economic Empowerment.

Maria and her husband Martin Ballantyne, who is the CEO of the charity and originally from Sligo, made the decision to remain in rural Kenya to volunteer over Christmas with the Kericho County Emergency Preparedness and Response Team.

“We decided to remain on as feel it is the right thing to do — it is not safe to travel either to Nairobi or to Ireland and feel we would be better here as there is a lot to do,” Maria said.

“It was a very tough decision considering everything but we feel for us now it is the right one.”

Usually, Christmas is spent in Cobh.

“There is seven in the family and we usually all get together in my mother’s house in Cobh. My parents have passed and we bring the extended family. I have 13 nieces and nephews. We have a meal and exchange presents.”

Maria said it was very sad not to be home for Christmas, especially as her birthday is also the week before Christmas.

“Christmas is about the banter,” she said. “We have the craic and it could be about silly things.

“Thank god technology had improved, when we first came out here, you couldn’t even get a phone working. That has made things a little easier.”

Marking Christmas in an alternative manner, Maria and Martin set off to climb Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya and the second-highest in Africa after Kilimanjaro on December 4, reaching the summit on Tuesday, December 8. They battled freezing temperatures and lack of sleep and raised more than €6,000 for Brighter Communities Worldwide in the process.

Maria said that they have spent the last 18 years strengthening the local health service in Kericho but the ongoing pandemic is causing regression of all that progress.

“The level of poverty at the moment is upsetting to see. People are really struggling to survive and there is no end in sight. The vaccine will come out and we won’t get it in the first batch.

Charity worker Maria Kidney with husband Martin Ballantyne.
Charity worker Maria Kidney with husband Martin Ballantyne.

“The inequality is what has struck me now, I dunno if I’m just getting old but I have thought about inequality and why is it if I am a nurse here and I go to work, I may not get PPE, and I’m supposed to treat people who are Covid positive. Think about the risk to the medical staff and their family and the mental risk.”

The charity worker said she was wary of the third wave after Christmas and said poverty was a real issue.

“A lot of these families have no savings as such,” she said. “If you were told in Ireland you couldn’t go to work or the shop you would go to the cupboard and you would eat something, rice or beans, but here there is no cupboard.

“If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no comparison.”

This Christmas, Brighter Communities Worldwide’s campaign is to help 1,000 babies reach their fifth birthday, supporting women to give birth safely and have access to essential services ensuring their baby will survive and thrive.

“You have the other secondary pandemic/silent pandemic, with the violence and the treatment of women. Women are afraid to go to the health centre to deliver their babies or attend their antenatal check-up and we are losing babies.

“In Ireland, babies have a 1-303 chance of surviving to their fifth birthday, here it is one-in-20. That’s the difference, because of all the other factors to consider, the poverty, the level of education, nutrition, and everything else.”

Maria said a big concern in the community is definitely the children being out of school and the level of abuse.

“Many girls will never return to school because they will be mothers by the time school reopens,” Maria said.

“The poverty drives girls to have transactional sex.”

Maria explained that young girls learn about their menstrual cycle in school and without school they don’t know what is happening to their bodies.

“God love them, they are lost really,” Maria said. “There is a multitude of layers and challenges to the problem and I am seeing 9/10/11-year-old girls pregnant.”

Maria said there are a few common fates for these young girls.

“There are a number of choices, they are married off, kept at home and their mothers will mind the babies but they won’t be allowed back to school. For many of them, the vicious cycle continues.”

Maria highlighted the programmes that their charity runs in the local community with ambassadors chatting to them about their bodies and sexual reproductive health.

Since March, Brighter Communities Worldwide has undertaken a number of projects to help the local community — including training 500 workers, building two isolation units in two different hospitals and supporting 10,000 girls with sanitary kits.

“We have worked here so long and built up relationships with people, who are good people and who want to help. You know, you do what you can.” Check out their Facebook or Instagram @brightercommunitiesworldwide and Twitter @4abrighterworld.

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