Local woman assists Kenyans
A woman living in the Cayman Islands is making a huge impact on the world around her by empowering others with the simple act of providing shoes for them.
Renata Kecskes’ journey started after leaving her home country of Hungary to travel the world, while working and focusing on humanitarian and environmental issues. As fate would have it, in September 2009, she signed up for a volunteer programme in North East Kenya. It was on that trip that her life would change profoundly and a commitment to help others in her own way would end up changing the lives of many.
She kept a journal while on her journey.
In this excerpt from July 8, “a little bit after 12pm” she penned:
“I’ve been awake since 2am. I was too excited to sleep; however, knowing it was going to be a long day instead of reading or doing something useful I remained in bed to play the ‘twist and turn game’ hoping that would help. It did not! Finally at 5am the super chilly morning city air – spiced up with a great amount of smoke – welcomed my unrested mind and body to the day I was preparing for the last month. By 6am sandwiches for the road were in the cooler, the tank of the bus was filled and 1,000 pairs of little shoes were uploaded. Thomas – my driver – and I were ready to leave crowded Nairobi behind to head up to the North to join to the UN convoy headed up to Dadaab.
“According to the media Dadaab (only 50 miles away from the Somali boarder) is one of the most dangerous places these days because of the possible attacks from the members of Al-Shabaab, which is a group of militants fighting to overthrow the internationally recognised but feeble government of Somalia. Much of southern Somalia is under their control. AS members, alleging ulterior motives on the part of foreign organisations, have also reportedly intimidated, kidnapped and killed aid workers, leading to a suspension of humanitarian operations and an exodus of relief agents. The group has banned food aid in most of southern Somalia since 2009, branding Western aid agencies anti-muslim. The World Food Program, the biggest provider of food aid, has had 14 staff killed there since 2008.
Because of safety issues most of the agencies, such as Thousand pairs of Little Shoes, delivers goods for the Somali refugees in need across Kenya to the refugee camp instead of delivering aid in the southern provinces of Somalia where malnutrition rates exceed 50 per cent.
“My contact from the UN has forwarded our names and the license plate of our bus ahead of time so by the time we reached the first military check point, which was also the official but unpublicised meeting point for trucks carrying aid to the displaced,we were expected. Our little ‘matatu’ was not designed for these kinds of adventures at all but still provided a good service without the 4WD. We were one of the first to arrive, which is good firstly because it means we were right behind the UN trucks escorted by armed police secondly because we had to swallow the dust after only three cars but not the whole convoy. It is a little bit after 12am and we just reached the fifth and final military checkpoint in Garissa where we are stopping for a ‘Kenyan hour’ (who knows how long it is going to take?) before we shoot out for the last 80 kms towards Dadaab.
“This stop is a must! All the poles and the holes on my face are covered by dust! The sun in alliance with the dry air has burnt the top layer of my skin off! I want to wash my face and I WANT a white wine spritzer! Ahhh it is just not going to happen … WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
“As I lifted up my water bottle hoping the water in it will taste like a nice vintage from Argentina I saw a dirty little boy! He was so tiny but his eyes were the biggest I have ever seen! Big, deep and curious … As he was taking unsure steps towards me I noticed the cuts on his feet and I didn’t want that white wine spritzer anymore. Right there I remembered the reason again why was I there and realised I didn’t want to be anywhere else…
“I have given the first pair of shoes to Amin in Garissa.
Shortly after we left for Dadaab not exactly knowing what was waiting for us but suspecting something unreal, unfair and unacceptable that would change our view to life forever.”
July 8, 2011
“A little bit after 8pm – when we finally arrived last night to the UN compound in Dadaab town the sun was just about to go to sleep so we spent the night at the base to prepare our mind for next day. Once again we realised what is maybe even more important than the shoes that we had to distribute is our presence here. Our smile, our touch, our voice with a message that the world cares. With a message that there are people out there who contribute to the protection of life and alleviation of those suffering out of respect and human dignity.
“It was a bit of blood pressure shocker to get up this morning in hot climate where the air is so dry makes your skin feel like a crocodile. After a quick breakfast we made our way first to Dagahaley Refugee Camp to visit the new arrivals and to drop 500 pairs of shoes off, after to IFO Camp to leave there another 500 pairs. Our guide was my friend from the UN, Jamal.
“As of 3 August, more than 860.000 refugees from Somalia have fled to neighbouring countries, in particular Kenya and Ethiopia. The United Nation High Commissioner of Refugees base in Dadaab, Kenya, currently hosts at least 440,000 in three camps. The maximum capacity of the Dadaab camps is 90,000. More than 1,500 refugees continue to arrive every day from Somalia, 80 per cent of them women and children. The number of those who have died en route is unknown.
“Within the camps the mortality rate is 7.4 out of 10,000/day which is more than seven times higher than the emergency rate of 1 out of 10,000/day.
“Due to lack of space rival tribes are forced to live next door to one another that have brought in the need for armed police patrol.
“Poor sanitary conditions have initiated measles and cholera outbreak that the Doctors Without Boarders is trying to keep under control while treating more than 10,000 severely malnourished children in its feeding centres and clinics. The World Health Organization stated that 8.8 million people are at risk of malaria and 5 million of cholera.
“I told to myself: I’m a strong woman! The strongest one ever! Renata come on don’t cry! After I allowed myself to drop the nectar that keeps me human … I hold it together almost to the end of our visit without tears but when I stepped close to the fence to take a picture of all those people who have been living in the refugee camp for a while and have been waiting all day long for a ‘food pass’ a young boy threw his desperate stare at me: ‘I have been here since I have been nine months old! What life I have? What future I have?’ I lost the battle against of tears … maybe I’m not that strong after all …
“Through the overwhelming sorrow and heartache there I see hope and beauty. And perhaps the story of mine and the story of Dadaab will touch your heart.
Life in Dadaab is coloured by poverty, suffering, but the dominating colour is most certainly faith in the promise of a better future. When you talk to someone who was born and raised in the refugee camp you look into a weary face. But it is a face that smiles and loves as well. When they laugh it is a laugh of joy and gratitude for the simple pleasures in life: Family, friendship and safety. When they talk they often tell a tale of tradition, loss and pride in their tribe. And when they cry the tears of exhaust consume them, tearing at their soul and bringing them to their knees. There are a lot of tears in Dadaab …
“For so many in the West the conflict in Somalia appears complicated and overwhelming, even unsolvable. So they walk away, unable to face the reality. But if you pause for a moment and look a little closer you will find that behind the horror and the conflict there are people not so different to you and me. Their story, like ours, is closely entwined with their past. Each day they put one foot – either with shoes on or without – in front of another as they try to survive in Somalia, Dadaab to break out and to be free.”
She explained the epiphany she had on that trip and how it affected her personally, saying, “In my opinion everything starts with decisions, so as soon as I came home I made one. I decided to start the Thousand Pairs of Little Shoes volunteer programme. My mission is to deliver shoes for kids in need, in slums and rural areas. Furthermore, to introduce Kenya to the world. With my initiative, I would like to provide an opportunity to anyone who wants to reach out, but doesn’t know how and who wants to discover the magic of Kenya, but has nobody to travel with.”
Thousand Pairs of Little Shoes is a nonprofit organisation. It was established to support the children of the rural areas of Kenya.
Ms Kecskes explained why she decided on shoes, saying, “there is much evidence that a foot covering was one of the first things made by our primitive ancestors. Necessity compelled them to invent some method of protecting their feet from the jagged rocks, burning sand and rugged terrain over which they ranged in pursuit of food and shelter. The history of human development shows that the importance of protecting the foot was early recognised. Records of the Egyptians, the Chinese and other early civilisations all contain references to shoes.”
She said on her first volunteer experience in Kenya she spent one month in the Northeast part of the country, looking after children from the ages of 3 to 5 in the nursery run by the foundation she was volunteering for. “As sad as it sounds, seems like nobody cared about all those little feet that had to walk as far as 5 kilometres through bushes and mud in the rainy season to reach the nursery. So one day, I decided to buy shoes for all the kids from the closest village.”
The person who organised her ride at that time asked if she thought she could change their lives with a pair of shoes. “I said, because I believe: Yes! I believe that the limitless power of pure, undeterred faith can indeed work to create miracles,” she said.
Since 2009, she has been delivering a thousand pairs of shoes each year.
The leading cause of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted parasites, which penetrate the skin through open sores. Wearing shoes can prevent cuts and sores on unsafe roads.
Ms Kecskes sources 1,000 pair of shoes for a dollar each in China, where they are made, complete with her logo. She said people don’t have to be rich to give back in a meaningful way.
Thousand Pairs of Little Shoes most recently returned from a trip to Kenya in which nine volunteers joined Ms Kesckes. She said they purchase their tickets and in return for their work and help during the journey, the volunteers are taken on a safari and on tours through the Kenyan countryside.
For more information about Thousand Pairs of Little Shoes and how you can get involved contact Renata Kesckes at 928-7971.