‘I will only come home when I feel my work is complete’
TRAVELLING by van through the dusty roads into the rural village of Runnyenjes, two hours from Nairobi, Christine Gibbard could see first-hand the cruel sights of poverty surrounding her.
She saw a community riddled with health problems who lived in clay and wooden huts, locals who lacked basic skills and education and a village who were deprived of the basic essentials that we take for granted.
An inspiring story: Christine Gibbard, pictured in Kenya with Sharon, a little girl who needed an operation before getting prosthetic legs. Sharon has done well and can now walk.
Yet despite the poverty and low quality of life the villagers faced there was a certain beauty and charm that the former head-teacher fell in love with.
After her first visit in 1990 with her church she spent the next 20 years spending her school holidays travelling to the region, and not only helped to provide aid, but also taught villagers how to become self-sufficient and be not as reliant on the western world.
“I was struck by how poor the area was and felt I wanted to make a difference to help improve their lives,” says Christine, who was brought up in Swansea’s Manselton area.
“Until you see how much they need your help, it is difficult to understand how moved you feel.
“The Kenyans are so lively and joyous and they are such friendly people. Seeing how much our work was paying off and watching the locals learn new skills was so rewarding I felt compelled to keep returning to the country and continuing to progress with the work.”
Three years ago, Christine took early retirement after 34 years of teaching to pursue her Christian work in Kenya.
“The time was right for me to leave,” she says.
“I loved my job and my school, but I had to fulfil my promise to get a community centre up and running in Kenya.
“My heart was in Africa and it was hard to leave my family and friends, but it was something I had to do.”
Christine has been based between the market village of Kigumo and the main road shops at Kathageri for more than two years.
“If I buy clothes they are usually off a trader on the street and are clothes people donate to charity shops,” she says.
“They try to sell it to me more than double the price of what it is worth!”
Christine has had to adapt to their culture and it’s a far cry from her lifestyle in Britain.
“As you would expect, it is such a simple way of life,” she says.
“I eat a healthy diet which usually consists of food off the land and maize.
“I do miss ice cream and cheese! But you can get almost anything from Nairobi. Sometimes sticking with the same meal you feel like pulling your hair out, but we are thankful to have food.
“I miss British culture and everything associated with it. I miss going to the theatre or a concert, listening to the radio and going to a nice restaurant with friends and family.
“But I do have some good friends in Nairobi who let me go to them for Christmas and so on.” Christine is the only British woman permanently living on the site, although she gets visits from other peacekeepers and volunteers.
Some of her past pupils have visited her while on gap year opportunities, as well as some of the teachers from her school.
“They have offered their time at local orphanages, hospitals and schools,” she says.
“We are teaching people to become self-sufficient and set up a few projects to support them to become sustainable. They have got things to eat, fruit is dripping from the trees and they have maize, but after eating they have no money to do anything. It is a case of giving them training.
“There are many teenagers and young adults who are unskilled and need employment. Drug misuse is very high and we offer rehabilitative counselling and accommodation to addicts as well as teaching about HIV/Aids-related risks.
“One of the biggest problems we have is watching people die because we can’t get the simple medicines. People have funerals in their gardens and it is so sad seeing how many people die needlessly.”
Christine spent two years building a community house which was hit by fire last September.
“We were at the funeral of our foreman in western Kenya when the fire broke out,” she says.
“It was quite a life-changing day. Hundreds of people turned up to try to put the fire out and save some items. The Kenyans don’t know how to handle a fire. They smashed all the windows thinking they were helping, but it made it worse. But they did their best.
“The community rallied around and now they have said they want more involvement in the rebuilding of a new house. It will not be seen as the White’s House, but the Kenyan’s own centre.”
Christine’s sister, Margaret Jones, of Ael Y Bryn Road, Fforestfach, says she and her other three sisters worry about her safety.
“She is out there on her own and lost everything in the fire,” she says.
“We have very little contact with her as getting a telephone connection to Kenya is very difficult. Her laptop was lost in the fire and we were out of touch with her for a while.
“We haven’t seen her for two years. She has given up her life to do this and it is incredible the amount of work she does.”
Christine has had malaria three times and has had jiggers in her feet — a parasitic flea living in the soil and sand — which had to be cut out.
“It is very unusual to get and probably came from the dust of the fire,” she says.
“It was the embarrassment of having to have them cut out of my feet all the time.
“But you can’t fear anything. This is such a beautiful country and the positives outweigh the negatives. I have my faith and want to keep my promise to offer the Kenyan’s a better life.”
Christine has a night watchman who only has a bow and arrow to protect her and she roughs it by sleeping on the floor.
“We lost everything in the fire,” she says.
“Many of the community resources, such as water pumps, sports equipment and office paperwork, were lost so we have to start again from scratch.
“One day I will come home, but only when I feel my work out in Kenya is complete.”
Link to original aricle: South Wales Evening Post