Mucking in at Murindati
Sophie Evan's first impressions of Murindati are stark:
"Nothing but dust and houses and the odd emaciated cattle," she says.
Sophie, 17, had just returned from a 10-day trip to Kenya. Murindati - less a village than a collection of dwellings and parched farmland - is a bumpy three-hour drive north-west of Nairobi. For the past five years, history teacher Ian Clark has been taking students from Oundle School to renovate the primary school that is the only community building.
For these teenagers from the private boarding school near Peterborough, it is an eye-opening introduction to poverty, Aids, the generosity of even the poorest Africans - and some back-breaking physical labour. The 21, mostly sixth-formers, on this trip paid around pound;900 each for the experience.
The area is a dustbowl because almost every tree has been cut down. Some buildings in the village have a mains connection, but many still get their water from a fetid, low-flowing stream. What agriculture there is, is largely subsistence, and the average wage is pound;1 a day, but not all work.
Giving students the chance to have this kind of experience has been a mission for Ian. "I wouldn't feel comfortable working in a school where they didn't have the opportunity to do something like this," he says.
He was on holiday in Kenya in 2000 when he heard of Murindati and was put in contact with its headteacher, Peter Muya.
It's a link that has so far been more about the physical fabric of the school than the teaching that goes on inside. The school was built around 10 years ago by villagers, but it's little more than a shell - students sit on boulders, if they sit on anything, there are few desks and class sizes of up to 80. Oundle students have laid floors, built a toilet block, fitted doors and windows, and painted walls.
When they are there, they become the tools of the school. "There's a definite sense of partnership. They (the teachers) provide the direction for where the project goes and pretty much set the agenda for what we do,"
A rainwater tank has been built on the roof so, when it does rain, children have fresh water to drink, rather than taking water from the fetid stream nearby.
Goats and zebras eat most attempts at growing vegetation, so students have built a fence around the school. Now they are taking wildlife classes and plan to plant trees and sow seeds to grow food. First, though, they will need to connect to the local water mains - that's next year's project.
Concreting is exhausting work. There is no electricity supply (students previously built a wind turbine, but it broke down), so it has to be mixed by hand. There's now talk of a link with Nottingham University to design and build a bicycle-powered concrete-mixer.
If it seems a bit like the white man riding to the rescue, Ian is aware of the risk. "We could very easily go out there, turn up in the morning, dish out some cash, have lunch, entertain the kids and go back to a hotel. The most important thing about the way we do things is that the work we do is directed by them.
"We stay in the village and camp, buy our food from local farmers, eat with local farmers. The way we get under the skin of the community is crucial.
That's the biggest benefit to the students. We try not to lord it over them in a colonial fashion. We live as they do."
Students are encouraged to visit families in their homes, and are humbled by their generosity. Philip Meatyard, 17, describes visiting a family's house: "They felt they should give us a gift. This lady gave us her last five eggs. It's an overwhelming feeling. I think it's changed the way I look on things."
Ian says many evenings are spent having long talks about fair trade, debt, ecology and other issues - "good PHSE work".
Discussing these issues with Kenyans is a good way of revealing their complexity. Students may worry about the environmental damage of importing broad beans from Africa, but local farmers give a very different message.
Years of anti-smoking lessons come up against the reality of Kenyan families dependent on the cash-crop to survive.
"The political discussions are pretty strong as well," Ian says. Students from England are used to people being apathetic about politics, but they find people in Kenya have very strong opinions and hold them from an early age. They're desperate to vote."
Students already do some informal classroom work with teachers and Ian hopes the link will develop a more educational dimension. "We will get to a point where we've met their most essential physical needs and we'll either start on a more grand project like installing computers; or we start funding teacher training or education and take students out for more hands-on educational work."
Oundle already sponsors a Murindati student each year to go on to a local secondary school. The first scholarship student is about to leave school and has ambitions to become a doctor. Oundle is looking at ways of supporting her through university.
Meanwhile, another more pressing issue is rising up the agenda - the number of children orphaned by Aids. Students say they found the prevalence and impact of the disease a shock. Last year, there were perhaps six Aids orphans in the village; this year there were 20.
Although there are several groups working locally to raise awareness of HIV and promote self-help, some orphans live in appalling conditions. "We have to consider how we can help feeding and clothing them - that's a very different project from the one we started with," Ian explains.
Back at Oundle, the link is very much extra-curricular, but students work to raise funds throughout the year. There is regular email contact with Murindati, and villagers carry on with the construction work.
Ian says the experience is about building character and helping students put their life choices in perspective. "The kids have grown in stature," he says. "Parents and housemasters say there's something different about them."