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"We simply couldn’t leave" - An Irish couple on weathering the pandemic in Kenya

By Sarah Finnan

May 7, 2020 at 4:14pm

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Founding members of the charity Brighter Communities Worldwide, Maria Kidney and her husband Martin Ballantyne have decided to forgo repatriation home to Ireland - opting to stay in Kenya where their services are needed most.

Life has been tough the past few weeks, for everyone, but if there's one thing I can take solace in it's the fact that I've gotten to weather out the storm at home amongst family. There's no place like home they say, but what happens when you have more than one home and you have to choose between the two?

Few people know this about me, but I was actually born in Zambia. My parents worked in Africa for the guts of 10 years, bouncing between Zambia and Ghana, before we eventually moved back to Ireland when I was almost five years old. You could say I relate pretty strongly to Mean Girls' Cady Heron and I've gotten the iconic "If you're from Africa, why are you white?" line on more than one occasion.

But while my birth cert is Zambian, I've spent the large majority of my life in Ireland and so home for me is lovely landlocked Longford. Which means when news of lockdown came, I ultimately decided to leave Dublin for a while and take shelter down the country as the Dubs would say. Of course, being able to do so puts me in quite a privileged position, one that not everyone finds themselves in.

Take Maria Kidney and her husband Martin Ballantyne for example. Originally from Ireland, Cork and Sligo respectively, the duo has been riding out the 'coronavirus wave' in Kenya - deciding to forgo repatriation and stay put instead, offering up their services where they're needed most. Founding members of the charity Brighter Communities Worldwide, they've remained in rural Kenya to volunteer with the Kericho County Emergency Preparedness and Response Team.

Maria and Martin

Working to sensitise communities to provide PPE to the area and to convert buildings into isolation wards, according to Maria, people generally have one question for them - and that is why they decided to stay in Kenya and not return home during the Covid-19 pandemic?

"I guess for us Kenya is like our second home," Maria tells me. "We've been travelling here now since the year 2000. Martin is the CEO of Brighter Communities Worldwide and I'm one of the volunteer directors. We have a team of 37 local staff. I suppose for us our priority is our team members and their families and the communities we work with."

"We knew that we were in a unique position to assist the community and the health system across this region because over the years we've built up a network of volunteers across Kericho county. People like community health volunteers, facilitators, who help us run all our programmes - and they all wanted to help with Covid-19 emergency response."

"We knew that we could leverage this experience as an organisation and this network and we could contribute to the emergency effort and to be honest, we felt like it was the right thing to do and so we stayed... We have been here over 18 years, we simply couldn’t leave now when the need is so great."

Maria and Martin

With only one ventilator per one million people in Kericho County, it's clear that, as expected, developing countries are being disproportionately affected due to their lack of strong health care systems and limited clean running water. The charity is in dire need of support, relying on the continued generosity of the Irish public and though "when in crisis, it's not easy to think of others" as Maria puts it, people are encouraged to donate what they can - if and when they can.

“We understand that the world is in crisis, but for the developing world, basic needs aren’t being met even on a normal day, and now those basic needs are the difference between this crisis becoming a long-embedded battle and flattening the curve. We need to eradicate this crisis across the world, and that includes developing countries. As WHO says: ‘We are only as strong as our weakest link. None of us are safe until all of us are safe’.”

All monies raised will go to attaining supplies for the local communities to protect them from Covid-19, including soap and water containers, training for health workers, communication materials, PPE and the preparation of health facilities and equipment.

One final word from Maria and Martin? Asante Sana, or "thanks a lot" in Swahili.

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