Vital energy lessons on African adventure

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Pupils from a groupof Gloucestershire schools joined forces with their Kenyan counterparts for a life-changing experience. Ian Baird reports

Madness was the general staffroom diagnosis when I first suggested that we take students to Kenya for a school trip. But in July, I safely returned with my party of 21 students, intact after a life-changing experience.

The trip was the culmination of a school-linking project that began in 1999 when I first travelled to Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to visit our twin school in Kenya. Dene Magna School, Gloucestershire, had been twinned with Dago Kokore School as part of an environmental project run by the Wilderness Environmental Centre, Forest of Dean, an outdoor activities project run by Gloucestershire county council. After the success of that project, two other local secondaries - Newent School and Lakers School - were also twinned with schools in Kisumu, Kenya.

Members of staff from the three Gloucestershire schools and the Wilderness Centre met in the autumn of 2002 to lay the foundations of the curriculum project and the student exchange that would support it.

Some families could afford to pay the estimated pound;1,000 per pupil, but we did not want any pupils to be excluded for financial reasons. It was understood, too, that we would probably have to pay for most of the Kenyans' costs, leaving us with the prospect of having to raise a massive pound;36,000 in less than two years. But in the summer of 2002, we received a Curriculum Project Grant that gave us pound;13,000 and a big boost in confidence.

Through local sponsorship and fundraising, we reached our target in the summer of 2004. The Kenyan teachers and pupils came to visit us in March 2004. They spent a week joining a few lessons at their link schools before they met as a group at the Wilderness Centre, where they were joined by their UK partners to take part in an environmental youth conference for two days.

At the conference, Kenyan students gave short lectures about charcoal-burning and energy-saving stoves that were first designed in Kenya, followed by a series of workshops. But the highlight of the visit was a musical event in which students from all six schools performed dances and songs.

In June, the UK group went to Kenya for its part of the exchange visit. We spent a couple of days travelling by coach from Nairobi to Kisumu. Later, from a hostel base in Kisumu, we travelled to our link schools each day.

We, too, held a two-day conference in which students tested solar ovens and travelled to a neighbouring district to see the effects of soil erosion.

This gully erosion, we learned, was the consequence of tree-felling to provide fuel for the region's growing population.

But our main project while in Kenya was a competition between the linked schools to build a solar oven using recycled materials. Students worked together on its design and construction before they tested the ovens as part of the conference.

Students also tested the energy efficiency of various types of charcoal stove (jiko), used by many Kenyan families. The results were compared with the traditional three-stone fire, which is still used in many rural areas.

Students measured how much fuel was needed to heat a pan of water using each of the stoves.

Later, the students visited tea plantations and learned about the daily life of a tea-picker. After that, they went to a flower farm on the shores of Lake Naivasha that supplies tens of thousands of rose blooms every week for British supermarkets. Concern from supermarket customers in recent years, the farm manager explained, had forced farmers to introduce much more sustainable production methods.

After a night in the home of Joy and George Adamson (of Born Free fame) at Lake Naivasha, we said our farewells to our Kenyan hosts, in particular Edwin Ochieng, the British Council schools linking officer in Kenya, without whose assistance the trip would not have been possible.

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