I first learned about Lifestraw through my friend and fellow trailrunner, Aran. His company, Eartheasy, happens to be the North American distributor of their water filtration products. He introduced me to the Lifestraw filter, which has since become a favourite companion of mine while training and trail running in remote backcountry areas.
Last year, I remember when Aran went to Kenya as part of some project with Lifestraw. I trolled his photos when he came back (I swear I’m not a stalker though, sorry Aran!), and was amazed by the experience he had. Fast forward to this year, and never in a million years could I have dreamed that I would be hopping on a plane to Kenya as part of the team, heading there to work on a project that I was only vaguely familiar with.
So how exactly did I end up on a plane to Africa with less than a month’s notice, you might ask?
Well, good question. Lifestraw (owned by parent company Vestergaard), ran a contest on social media as part of their Follow The Liters campaign, asking users to submit a photo featuring a Lifestraw product with a little blurb about why they liked Lifestraw and what a trip to Africa might mean to them. I’ll admit that I really didn’t pay much attention at the time to the contest and was only vaguely aware of what the prize was, but I managed to get my act together and submit an entry at the eleventh hour. When Lifestraw contacted me to let me know that I was a finalist, I had to do some quick research on what that meant exactly. Even then, the tantalizing thought of a trip to Africa seemed so laughably beyond reach that I didn’t consider it much of a possibility. Plus, the other finalists were all strong contenders, and my track record with winning contests is historically underwhelming.
To make a very long week of frantic voting short, my friends and family rallied around me and voted like crazy, and to my absolute shock I found myself one of the winning finalists and heading to Western Kenya in less than a month. Even then it seemed implausible, with many hurdles to be overcome – time off at work, visas, vaccinations… everything had to line up very quickly or this trip was a no go.
I know you are waiting in suspense to hear how that all turned out, so I’ll let you off the hook and tell you that it did in fact all come together (spoiler, I know). I found myself hopping a flight to Nairobi on October 29 with fellow contest winners (and, coincidentally, Vancouverites) Brice, Solana and Adam – and Aran, in a sort of full-circle twist of fate.
I’ve never been to Africa before, so as soon as we left Paris via Kenya Airways I was in uncharted territory. We landed late at night in Nairobi after two very long flights and 20 hours of travel time (apparently Kenya is really, really far away from Vancouver!), and our first introduction to the country upon leaving the terminal was a total airport lockdown. Turns out the president was passing through, and his security detail shut the entire airport and surrounding roads down for around 45 minutes as a security precaution.
As we sat in the car moving precisely 0km/hour listening to a cheerful local radio station, I noticed that everyone seemed so relaxed, despite the fact that we were stuck in a sea of parked cars. Prior to our flight, Aran had told me that the best expression he could think of to describe the African mentality is “TIA” – it stands for “this is Africa”. In other words, just relax and go with the flow, because nothing in Africa goes quite according to plan anyways. This seemed like a pretty good introduction to it.
Mr. President safely removed from the area, we finally made it to our airport hotel in time for a late, bleary-eyed dinner and a few hours of sleep before we flew out again early the next morning on a domestic flight to Kisumu, in the western province of Kenya. Our final destination from there was the town of Kakamega, which would be our home base for the next few whirlwind days. Most of the Vestergaard team and partners, who are based all over the world, converged on the Nairobi domestic airport to catch the short flight to Kisumu. As I looked around the dingy room, listening to a myriad of accents and languages and watching people greet their colleagues and friends, the enormity of the project hit me. Here were several dozen people all about to hop on a plane to go to a remote corner of Kenya, and I got to be part of this! How did that even happen?!
I think that’s the first time I was actually struck by what an incredible opportunity this trip was. It was so much more than just going to Africa – because really, anyone can book a ticket (seriously, what’s stopping you? Do it now! 😉 ). To work on a project with an impact like this, however, and to travel to remote areas that are far removed from the usual tourist experience, is quite another thing altogether.
We arrived in Kisumu without incident, and a fleet (literally, probably 20 cars and drivers) arrived to transport us to the Golf Hotel in Kakamega, an hour’s drive away. As we settled into a long conga line of SUV’s and snaked our way along the occasionally paved “highway”, I got my first real look at the local culture. To state the obvious, the contrast was evident immediately. The main road, generously littered with potholes and lacking any apparent road markings, was lined with ramshackle shops and houses. Their rusted tin roofs matched the reddish hue of the dirt walls and ground around them, and this was punctuated only by the vibrant colours of incongruous advertisements for Coca-Cola, nestled among clothes drying in the humid sunshine. The air was pungent with the smell of animal shit, dust and food, and it hung sticky in the air. Definitely not in Kansas anymore.
We arrived at the Golf Hotel, a fairly clean and reasonably modern building which had been essentially taken over for the campaign, and were warmly greeted by the Vestergaard team, led by tour de force leader and managing director Alison Hill. The entire team put an incredible amount of energy into preparing for this campaign, and their hard work was clearly evident all week as the campaign (not to mention the daunting task of coordinating and deploying over 100 people) unfolded without any apparent hitches.
As we checked in, we were each given a personalized itinerary that laid out our very jam-packed schedule for the next 7 days, and my head started spinning with how much we were going to cram into each day. My priority number one, being slightly sensitive of stomach and prone to these sorts of things at the best of times: please, please, please, don’t get the dreaded “runs”. Seriously, that would be a real bummer.
Our first night in Kakamega happened to be Halloween, and we had been given strict instructions prior to the trip that packing a costume was a must. By this point we were all running on almost no sleep and I could feel the jet lag setting in, but how often do you get the chance to have a costumed dance party in rural Kenya with a bunch of grim reapers and superheroes?? I’m not sure how I could possibly top a Halloween party like this in the future, but it was certainly a surreal experience and a great start to a week packed with adventure.
The following morning, we were scheduled to head out on an early morning hike to the summit of the Kakamega rainforest before spending the day getting trained on how to assemble and install the Lifestraw community filters. I didn’t expect many people to show up after the Halloween merriment of the night before, but an impressive group managed to rally – and it was totally worth the lack of sleep.
The Kakamega Forest is Kenya’s only tropical rainforest, and I couldn’t believe how GREEN everything was… not quite what I expected from a sub-Saharan African country. This country seemed to be defying my expectations at every turn, and I found myself blown away by the raw, unspoiled beauty of the landscape, and the warm welcome from the locals we’d met so far.
Part One: Follow the Liters
The next morning was the official launch of the 2015 Follow the Liters program, and we had been warned to expect much fanfare from both local officials eager to make speeches, and the school’s drama classes, who were delighted to have a captive audience to entertain.
I can’t really put into words exactly how special this day was to me, but I can say that it stands out as one of the best and most memorable days of my life so far. From the minute we got to the school and got swarmed by 1100+ excited kids eager to touch the “Mzungus” (white people/ all foreigners in general), my heart responded to these precocious kids, with their barefeet, toothy grins, and guileless happiness. We danced until I thought I was going to pass out in the heat, trying to mimic unsuccessfully the natural rhythm that they seemed to instinctively groove to, and ran and played with reckless abandon, caught up in the kids’ infectious enthusiasm and joy.
I visited a total of 10 schools and 7,500 kids with my team over the next several days, and it was a whirlwind of emotion and energy, punctuated by tiny, precious moments. Overall, during the seven day campaign, we reached an astonishing 203,000 kids in 330 schools with clean and safe water.
This accomplishment is even more staggering, given that the main challenge with many of these schools is that they are very remote. And by remote, I mean the middle of freaking-nowhere. There are barely roads, if you can even call them that, and good luck finding them if you don’t know where you are going. The Lifestraw team worked tirelessly for months leading up to the one week campaign to identify the schools that most urgently need clean water, and to arrange for logistics such as getting schools on board with the program and making sure that they understand what is expected of them as far as the maintenance and care of the filters is concerned. The sheer task of getting 2,500 filters delivered to these rural areas is a herculean feat, in and of itself. As I mentioned before, it takes an exceptional team to pull something like this off, and I was so impressed by everyone involved with the project. They truly managed to make the impossible possible with their hard work and dedication.
My team consisted of five of the local Kenyan team members, all of whom immediately made me feel like family, as well as two Lifestraw employees from India and Myanmar… and then there was whitey mcwhitey me (seriously, freckles are the closest I ever get to a tan). When our small team showed up at the first school on the second day, I jumped out of the car, expecting the same exuberant greeting that we had received at the launch school the day before. It didn’t happen, and I noticed that the kids were simply staring at me wide-eyed with much pointing, screaming, and nervous laughter. The headmaster rushed over to greet us, explaining that the children had never seen “Mzungus” before – hence the hesitant reaction. He suggested that I go stand in the middle of the school field so that the kids could come say hi. I did, and the bravest of the kids started to approach me, clearly itching to reach out and touch me, but too shy to do so.
I made eye contact with one and reached out to shake his hand. “Jambo”, I offered, recalling the only word of Swahili that came to mind at the moment. He looked at my outstretched hand and very tentatively stretched his fingers out, meeting mine in a limp, furtive handshake before quickly pulling his hand back. A big grin spread across his face and he started giggling, clearly delighted that he had survived the encounter. Amidst the admiration of his peers for his feat of bravery, a few of the other kids jostled in front of me to shake my hand, and suddenly it felt like a switch was flipped. In the span of two seconds, I went from having to encourage one little boy to shake my hand, to dealing with 800 screaming, enthusiastic children, all of whom were reaching out to grab my hands, arms, hair – whatever was within reach. It was the strangest feeling to be the centre of that sort of smothering attention, but I tried my best to let as many kids as I could possibly reach touch me – and they loved it. The smiles got bigger as I started teaching them to high-five and give me a thumbs up, and by the time I pulled out my camera to take a few photos with them, they were totally enthralled.
Enthralled is perhaps too calm a word, however. Exuberant might be slightly more accurate, but even that doesn’t capture the palpable, electric energy that I felt standing in the middle of this sea of kids. Eventually I felt the need to come up for fresh air, and decided to take off running across the field. I waded through kids and broke away without explanation, waiting to see what they would do. There was a split second pause while they tried to figure out what the hell the crazy Mzungu was doing, and then chaos broke out as they all ran after me, shrieking with delight.
This became my signature move at each subsequent school we visited, where very similar scenarios played out each time, and my teammates got a total kick out of watching me running away from/with the kids when I needed a break from the overwhelming attention. I discovered pretty quickly once I started running that our cotton campaign t-shirts and the impressive humidity that built before the monsoon rains hit each afternoon were a pretty potent combination. After a few hours I was usually soaked with sweat and the combined germs of a few thousand runny nosed kids, and I didn’t even care. It was an exhilarating experience to have and to be part of, and I wanted to soak up every second of it, even if that meant literally.
Our routine at each school was to arrive, spend a few minutes saying hi to the kids and letting them go crazy, and then meet with the Headmaster briefly before gathering all of the children for a classroom session on how the filters worked. During this training it worked best for me to make myself scarce so that the kids wouldn’t spend the whole time rubber necking to stare at me. These brief moments of quiet gave me a chance to look around the schools, and I was struck each time by just how little these kids and families have. Their uniforms, so bright and cheerful upon first glance, were painstakingly mended and patched. For every smiling, healthy looking child, there was one with scarring, burns or other health issues, and I highly doubt that they have ready access to a doctor or treatment. Simple injuries in our antibiotic, antiseptic world are life-threatening ones there – a sobering thought that brought tears to my eyes more than once. Water, which is probably the most basic necessity of life, carries very different connotations in these small villages. Disease laden and often hard to access, it reminded me of how much we have and take for granted, and how much of an impact these filters will make in their lives.
Despite all of this – and this is what hit me like a ton of bricks over and over again– they were truly happy. Happy in a way that our materialistic, privileged world couldn’t begin to grasp. Happy because they had that day and that moment and they were thankful for it and content to simply enjoy it, and they in turn share that joy with those around them. The sense of community that we experienced was genuine, and their lives are rich because of it. Our first-world sensibilities have long been bombarded by picture after picture of sad, hungry children, because that is what seems to inspire our pity and charity. I realized in those moments that these pictures and that overall portrait of what poverty looks like, at least in the areas that I visited, are false advertising. These families are poor, yes, but they don’t need a bunch of crusading missionaries to swoop in and “save” them – they need enabling and support so that they have the tools to build a better life and break the cycle of sickness and poverty.
Enter Vestergaard. This family-owned company has been in the business of improving health and quality of life for people around the globe since 1957, with their biggest ventures being the development of insecticidal bed nets that have dramatically helped in the fight against malaria, and, more recently, their foray into water filtration technology, which began in 2005 because they saw such a blatant need for something as simple as clean, uncontaminated water.
The problem is massive. Globally, 1.8 billion people have to use a source of drinking water that is faecally contaminated. At schools, 2.5 million kids miss class each day due to a water-related illness, and 3.4 million people die each year from water related diseases. If we can address this issue and break the cycle, it will have a truly profound impact on developing countries. The beauty of Lifestraw’s program Follow the Liters is that it is funded entirely by each purchase of a Lifestraw product – talk about a sustainable business model with a philosophy that consumers can get behind. (Don’t have a Lifestraw yet? Here you go, go get one). 😉
As the program has expanded over the past two years in western Kenya, they have worked to establish a team of locals to support and follow up with the schools and families that now have these filters. To me, this philosophy is so refreshing. They are supporting local economic growth in areas with high unemployment rates and creating sustainable changes that will have a long-reaching ripple effect. They’ve done this by engaging with governments, donors, and ultimately individual consumers, educating them to understand the problem and become part of the solution.
Our time in the schools flew by far too quickly, and before I knew it we were heading to a farewell dinner before we embarked on the second, more touristy part of our trip. The highlight of this evening was definitely a slideshow that had been thoughtfully and hilariously put together to thank all of the contest winners for our contributions to the campaign. We were awarded mock awards, mostly based on ridiculous stories from our individual experiences at the schools. I was deemed “Most likely to start a Kenyan schoolchild cult”, which seemed pretty fair, if the number of kids hanging off of my legs and arms at any given time were any indication.
Leaving Kakamega and the entire Lifestraw team was incredibly tough. It’s amazing how quickly bonds form, and I truly didn’t want to say goodbye to the amazing people I was fortunate to have met and worked with. We all left as slightly different people than we were when we arrived a few short days earlier, each of us impacted in some way by our interactions with the kids. I’m pretty convinced they gave me much more than I gave them, and I am eternally grateful for it.
Part 2: The Safari Experience
The next few days of our trip were designed to give us more of the typical tourist experience, which was certainly a contrast to the first half of the trip. Instead of flying back to Nairobi, the plan was for all of the contest winners, several of the photographers from the trip, and a few of the Lifestraw team to drive the approximately 12 hour trek back to the city in order to get a better sense of what the rest of the country looked like. I really enjoyed the roadtrip style journey, and as we bumped and jostled along the roads in our safari van, we passed tea plantations, herds of zebras grazing peacefully, and Kenyan athletes training at speeds that didn’t even look human. We bought roadside sugar cane, three different types of passion fruit, and honey that was probably harvested 100 feet from the road, and happily munched on our treats as the geography rapidly changed from rainforest to the dry, dusty plains of the famous Rift Valley.
Our destination on the first night was the Lake Nakuru lodge, which was perched in the middle of one of Kenya’s famous national parks. As we drove through the park, we were treated to our first safari experience – lions, giraffes and rhinos, oh my! I’ve never seen most of those animals in a zoo, let alone in a wild environment like this, and it was pretty incredible. We watched zebras graze, a pride of lions on the hunt about five feet away from our vans, giraffes stretched their legs leisurely as we gawked, and impalas and water buffalos coexisted peacefully while we tried to soak it all in.
As I mentioned earlier, there was an entire contingent of Vancouverites that ended up winning this contest (it truly wasn’t planned, I swear!), and it was fun being able to travel and share these memories with such a great crew. One of these amazing people is my good friend Brice Ferré – who, aside from being a badass trail runner, is an incredible professional photographer with a knack for capturing the perfect moment on camera. His photos from our safari do it justice in a way that my pitiful iPhone couldn’t hope to compete with. Enjoy!
The staff at the lodge were very attentive and welcoming, but I soon noticed that the place seemed very quiet – a crying shame, for a place that beautiful, perched in the middle of so much amazing wildlife. I asked our driver, Eric, about it, and he mentioned that the tourism industry has been suffering recently, as people are afraid to travel to Kenya in light of several well publicized terrorist incidents over the past few years. I can understand why this reaction occurs, and media sensationalism of the attacks doesn’t help assuage fears, but I also find it to be quite tragic – tourism is clearly a massive part of the economy in much of Kenya, and terrorism happens all over the world whether or not we try to hide from it or not. If I could bring back one message from Kenya for anyone thinking about visiting, my answer would be to go for it! We never had any issues, and in fact we felt that everyone we met went out of their way to make us feel welcome and safe. I’ve been in many developed countries in the world where I felt considerably less welcome and decidedly less safe.
From Nakuru, we continued to meander towards our final destination. The plan for our last complete day in Kenya was to hike up to the top of Mt. Longonot, a volcanic crater that held court over the otherwise flat bottom of the Rift Valley. Our group, which was primarily made up of trail runners and athletes, was clearly excited by the prospect of some proper exercise, and we power hiked up to the ridge of the crater with enthusiasm that was only slightly tempered by the altitude (the summit of the crater was almost 2800 meters above sea level), and the heat. Because we were faster than anticipated (ha!), our guide suggested that we run/hike around the rim of the crater as well, a suggestion that most of the group eagerly accepted. I’m so glad we did, because this ended up being an unexpected highlight of the trip for me. The trail around the crater was a single-track rollercoaster of dusty, eroded volcanic rock, and it was crazy fun barrelling up and down the trail with abandon. A little bit of African trail therapy before the long trip home!
Our last night of the trip was spent at the Sopa Lodge at Lake Naivasha, and it was about as opposite an experience from the beginning of our trip as you could find. Our rooms were actually a series of cottages (I called them Hobbit homes) nestled among towering acacia trees, overlooking a pool and large grassy field where zebras and water buffalo grazed while monkeys swung through the trees. Seriously, I’m not making this up – it was that picturesque. I don’t know that I’ve ever stayed at a nicer place in my life, and the deluxe buffet meals were topped only by the presence of giraffes strolling by the windows while we sipped cocktails after dinner. You even needed a security detail at night to go outside, because the hippos came up from the lake and hung out on the lawns after dark. After one look at the hippos (ugly bastards, they are), I happily agreed to the escort. Getting eaten by a hippo is not really on my bucket list right now.
I could have spent two weeks at Lake Naivasha happily, although I’m not sure that my bank account would have agreed with me. We all certainly appreciated the effort that Vestergaard put into ensuring that we had a wonderful time during the entire trip, and we really did have the time of our lives. Every detail was seamlessly planned and executed, and we just had to show up and go along for the ride. I can’t say thank you enough to the entire company for providing us with the trip. I love contests! 😉
I made a point of getting up early enough on our last morning to watch the sun rise. We had been going nonstop since our arrival in Kenya, and I really enjoyed the peacefulness of watching the sun slowly paint the trees in hues of pink and gold, listening to the chatter of monkeys and the chirping of birds. Little moments like this one formed some of my very favourite memories from the entire trip – funny how that works.
Our final excursion before heading to the airport was a morning boat ride around the lake, which is renowned for its hippos and the wide variety of birdlife that hang out in the swampy trees bordering the lake. As we putt-putted around the lake in search of hippos, warm sun on our faces and wind in our hair, I never wanted the moment to end.
As we drove into Nairobi, willing the time to slow down so that we could stay just a little bit longer, I was struck by the contrast of the city versus the rural countryside that we spent most of our time in. Everywhere you turned there were walls, gated compounds with armed guards staring vigilantly at all passerby, and security cameras lining the roads, looking for signs of trouble. Because of the conflict with Somalia and the resulting terrorist activities in Nairobi itself, the city was clearly on high alert. To get into any building required going through metal detectors, all bags were scanned as a matter of routine, and the vehicles were checked thoroughly for possible bombs. It made me sad that they were forced to employ all of these measures because of a few hateful men, and also grateful that I don’t live in a country where we need to take these precautions. This realization was only a few days before the bombings in Paris occurred, but even then I recognized that the world was changing and would continue to change in response to threats like this. We can’t live in fear, but at the same time it was pretty obvious that this city has lost its naiveté altogether.
Several equally long flights later, we arrived home safe and sound – a little sleep deprived, but having lived a lifetime of experiences and adventure in 10 short days. As luck would have it, I finally got the gastrointestinal hell that I had feared would derail my packed itinerary, and I spent the next week enjoying the effects of that. A shitty end, pardon the pun, to an incredible trip, but as they say – timing is everything.
If you want to see more of what we were up to, check out this great slideshow that Lifestraw put together after the campaign!