Feature image for the article 'Rebecca’s Mission to Help Africa'

My whirlwind African building experience began with another Adelaide architect and friend asking me to help out a volunteer company with some drafting work. This involved drafting up girls and boys dormitories for Sirua Aulo Academy, a primary school in the district of Transmara. Then through February and the beginning of March, with the help of Hames Sharley, I embarked on a volunteering experience through Western Kenya with Village Volunteers.

My time in Kenya was divided between two projects. The first being a Water Filter Factory at Pathfinder Academy Primary school, that my Architect friend Brad had been asked to consult on. The school was in Kiminini, about 30kms out of Kitale towards the Uganda border, and I lived with the school owners Joshua and Mama Sandra in a hut at the school. The water factory is used to produce Terracotta water filters for the local community while providing an income for the school so children can be sponsored to go to school. It included a workshop, drying room, kiln and material storage shed.

Soon after we got to site and shooed the cows off, we discovered that the site measurements were wrong. Our first job then was to re-measure the site and to re-organise the buildings since the factory was still in its design stage and it was going to be too early to do start any building work for this project. As disappointed as I was that I wasn’t going to get my hands dirty, I realized that this project was going to benefit immensely from having volunteers with building skills and knowledge on site at this early stage. We spent most of our time in Kiminini talking to local builders, looking up hardware stores and discovering what kind of building materials were available in neighbouring towns and then we altered the design to suit. It was just like at home in the office.

With the rainy season approaching and no building work on the factory, I decided to put together a project to build mosquito screens for the classrooms and dorm rooms to protect the kids from malaria. I had sketched, 130m of timber, 240 screws 60 hinges and a team of carpenters (Juma and Moses) and a hand drill. I’m not going to say it was hard work, but Kenyan building materials make the work trying. Concrete render fails and chips away from the wall and clay bricks crumble in our hands. However, by the time I left Kiminini, we had built and put up 2 screens.

My second two weeks were spent in a Masai village in the South of the country, about an hour away from Masai Mara National Park. This was a much more remote community but the view over the Masai plains was beautiful. Sirua Aulo Academy was a great place, the primary school was already under construction and there was a lot of work to be done. Due to the remote location, days on site were not as frequent however, I was happy to get some construction done. Brad and I set out the girls and boys dorms with a string line and stakes, and year 8 Pythagoras came in handy to set the right angles. We put conduits into the walls for the power points, painted the trusses with a turpentine mix to protect it from white ants, and put doors in by concreting the hinges into the walls. The builders on site were so happy to have us, they couldn’t quite understand why all the light switches should be at the same height, but they were always happy to learn, and us from them as well.

Emanuel and his wife Lillian were great hosts, they had no power and no running water and they cooked chapatti for dinner by candlelight. On the last day on site, Emanuel took me and two other volunteers on Safari through Masai Mara. Masai Mara is named Spotted Park in Masai after the Acacia trees scattered across the plains. It was the most incredible day watching Lion cubs, herds of elephants, and giraffes less than 5m away. I think I took over 300 photos on this day. After this visit I returned to Nairobi And after 20 hours on a plane, I am now back at work in Adelaide.

Many of the schools in Kenya are great projects to get involved in. I picked up another design project over there, with Sister Freda’s nursery school, which is to be based on a Singapore model of early childhood learning. While Kenyan and Australian construction are vastly different it will be great to use the wealth of knowledge that we have around the office and be able to offer this on education buildings during the design stage to those who would greatly benefit.

None of these projects I was involved in or the many others through Africa would be possible without the help of the volunteers who give their time and skills to the struggling and developing communities. Their smiles and laughs, soccer skills and brick making efforts will never be forgotten. But there is much more work that needs to be done. Neither Brad nor my work has finished with the projects in Kenya. Drawings need to be updated, money needs to be raised and, I’m looking to get a structural engineer involved for the water filter factory. I would like to thank Hames Sharley for not only their donation towards this project, but for believing that it was a worthy of their support, and for giving me the time to take on this amazing experience.

By Rebecca Walsh