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Far From The Celeb Spotlight, Free The Children's WE Villages Is Changing Lives

"Now, for both girls and boys, instead of going to the bush to take care of animals, we are going to school."

"We're not future leaders. We are current leaders."

Rebecca Sanaipei Shunkur, a tall 16-year-old student in a school uniform and a shaved head like all her Kenyan classmates, is explaining the "leadership pillar" of Kisaruni, her all-girls high school, to our group of voluntourists.

It’s one of several concepts forming the academic foundation of Kisaruni, and it is Rebecca's favourite.

The six-year-old secondary boarding school is in Enelerai, a rural community in Kenya's Narok South District on the outskirts of the country's famed Maasai Mara game reserve. It's a region where reportedly one in 10 children die before their fifth birthday.

"Back in our communities they thought that girls can't lead anybody. But we at Kisaruni school disagree,” Rebecca elaborates later over sweet chai and a snack in the cafeteria. "They think that a girl can just be married, have children and cook for somebody else. But here in school they taught us how to be leaders and when you go back to our communities, nowadays girls are the leaders more than boys."

This, she adds, is because the educated boys tend to leave for the city while the girls are more likely to stay and support their villages.

Kisaruni is run by WE Charity, a Canadian non-profit group known as Free the Children until it was rebranded this summer. It was founded in 1995 by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger back when they were kids themselves.

The school was built by ME To WE, a for-profit “social enterprise” which also donates half of its profits to its charitable sister organization. Both roll up under the umbrella of what the Kielburgers have dubbed the WE Movement.

ME to WE flies in "voluntourists" who pay to stay at the nearby Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp. Among other activities, they're bussed into work sites to dig trenches, mix concrete, pour foundation and lay bricks with local foremen directing the effort. It is not the most efficient construction method, but over 200 buildings have been erected this way in Kenya alone.

They’ve established another 800 buildings in India, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Sierra Leone, and rural China. According to Charity Intelligence, Free the Children was supporting 66 communities as of 2014, resulting in an 85 per cent increase in female primary school graduates.

Kisaruni opened in 2011 and was immediately filled with dedicated scholarship students from across the region, selected based on academics, need and motivation. (In 2013, a second Kisaruni school openedin a neighbouring community called Oleleshwa, so the original is now known as the Milimani campus.)

Most of these girls left behind family subsistence farms to learn how to perform lab experiments, study literature (Rebecca's favourite book is The River and the Source) and even program Lego robots.

Last year, the school's first graduating class aced their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams, earning Kisaruni a number one ranking out of 112 secondary schools in Narok.

"If I did not have this opportunity to come to Kisaruni, I would be married and now having kids."

This feat is even more impressive given that only elementary school in Kenya is free, and most paid secondary schooling goes to sons, not daughters. That's why Free the Children provides full scholarships to its Kisaruni students.

"If I were not going to this school, it would really affect my future," Rebecca said. "My dream is that I'd be a journalist. I like the way that if you want to go collect the news, you can go travel everywhere [and] I can contribute to my society, my community and the country at large.

"If I did not have this opportunity to come to Kisaruni, I would be married and now having kids," the teen says matter-of-factly, and indeed 25 per cent of all Kenyan girls under 15 are married, a percentage that soars higher in rural areas where the majority of the population lives.

"My life would have just been terrible."


The Kielburgers have built their WE movement on a foundation of celebrity.

Even googling "Kisaruni" will surface photos of the young Kenyan women standing beside Free the Children "ambassadors" like actress Natalie Portman or Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

Canadian singer Nelly Furtado — who donated her $1-million payday from an ill-advised 2007 concert for family of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to Kisaruni — made a whole documentary about the school.

Free the Children is best known for annually gathering nearly 200,000 tweens and teens into arenas across Canada, the U.S. and United Kingdom for its WE Day youth rallies.

Students who help out in their local communities and fundraise for the charity's international development efforts are rewarded with an opportunity to hoot, holler and hear inspiring words from pop stars and politicians, actors and activists.

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We Day Photos

Canadian WE Days have boasted the likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, actor Martin Sheen, NBA legend Magic Johnson, former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev, and author Joseph Boyden alongside singers like Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato, Carly Rae Jepsen and Selena Gomez.

Expanding into London and L.A. ramped up the star power even further, attracting the likes of Prince Harry, and actors Clive Owen, Charlize Theron, Zooey Deschanel, Hannah Simone and Seth Rogen.

Kielburger deploys these bold-face names to inspire and empower children to believe that they can change the world, just as 12-year-old Craig believed back in 1995 when his discovery of international child labour abuses led to Free the Children's founding.

But ultimately these are privileged Western kids listening to speeches that will hopefully plant seeds for the future. In a 20th-anniversary interview with The Globe and Mail, Kielburger described his domestic efforts though WE Day and the WE Schools classroom activism programs operating in 5,000 Canadian schools as "a giant experiment in civic engagement at a country level."

This leveraging of celebrity to grab the spotlight and raise funds makes sense since he became famous himself as a tween activist — earning international news coverage when the precocious kid confronted then-prime minister Jean Chretien in India over child labour abuses — and his personal celebrity has ensured continued media and money to support his causes.

But while WE Day provides the attention-grabbing theoretical style, the life-changing practical substance of Free the Children's work happens far away from hockey and basketball arenas in places like The Strip, the nickname for the single dirt road passing through the community of Enelerai.


Located in the southwestern Kenyan section of the Great Rift Valley, a 10,000-kilometre crack in the earth's crust that stretches across much of Africa, Enelerai is home to 240 or so families, or about 2,000 people.

The land here, at least in June at the end of the rainy season, is green and verdant, stretching off into a seemingly endless stretch of savanna grasslands. The lone red dirt road is largely used by livestock being herded this way or that.

The surrounding landscape on either side is marked by crops separated by cactus fences, occasional acacia trees and wandering dazzles of zebra. (Yes, that is the amazing name for a group of zebras.)

Most of the people living along the Mara river are Kipsigis, a pastoralist tribe that mostly grows maize, beans, millet and sweet potatoes as well as raising goats, cows and sheep.

On the other side of the nearby Ngulot mountain ridge live the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people that primarily graze cattle and have become the face of Kenyan culture to the outside world because they have so fiercely held onto their traditions. (Or mostly, anyway. Prospective Maasai warriors no longer hunt lions as a coming-of-age ritual but instead attend school.)

This rural region in southwestern Kenya is rich in culture and in nature but financially, the average daily income is about 50 cents.

Free the Children first came to Kenya in 1999 and six years later arrived in Enelerai as part of their Adopt-a-Village development program, since renamed to the less paternalistic WE Villages.

Today, over 11,500 children attend their Kenyan schools in 19 communities across the Maasai Mara region, serving a population of 50,000. (Their first all-boys high school, Ngulot Mountain View Secondary School, is currently being built by voluntourists. Our group literally laid the foundation, and is expected to open for classes in January.)

Previously, primary schools around here were few and far between and, as one grinning Kisaruni girl told me earlier, "we could be eaten by wild animals along the way." She may have been messing with me, but we did see children in school uniforms walking through zebra-filled fields on their way to class.

Free the Children has also built two large-scale farms with modern irrigation and greenhouses to feed the children and workers at their schools, providing what is often their biggest and most nutritious meal of the day.

Another need for the Enelerai community was health care — though Free the Children was operating a mobile clinic, the closest permanent medical care was hours away. So in 2010, they began work on Baraka, which was just upgraded from a clinic to a hospital with this summer's completion of the new surgical wing.

"We have never lost a mother, we have never lost a child," boasts Baraka nurse Samuel Gachau, who has worked here for three years now, about the maternity ward.

"Many lives have been saved. I can't quantify but the clients who have come to our facility are more than 40,000 which is bigger than our catchment population. Many lives have been touched, maternity mothers, children, men, youth."

Government health care is "very limited and irregular," he adds. "Maybe this quarter you get, next quarter you do not. The government has resources but they can not be able to reach everybody. That's where organizations like Free the Children come in, they are able to do what the government is not able to do."

"We've seen a lot of change in our community."

WE Villages funding has eliminated that uncertainty, allowing the outpatient clinic to treat everything from eczema to HIV while also providing immunizations, nutritional supplements, X-rays, lab testing and counselling.

"Free the Children should remain here forever," Gachau laughs. "I don't have the exact words to say but the members of the community are very very much appreciative because in terms of distance, in terms of money saved, in terms of the health care they get, the schools, the water.

"The feeling is that Free The Children should be here for many, many years to come."


Women in Kenya are usually referred to as mamas, and Mama Nancy takes her title seriously. She has 10 kids, and lives across from Enelerai primary school and just down the Strip from the Baraka hospital and Kisaruni girls school.

"We've seen a lot of change in our community," says Mama Nancy, who has lived on this land for 17 years. She used to have to walk two hours for medical help, and when her first children attended Enelerai school, the building was a single room constructed of mud, cow dung and logs with a thatch roof and dirt floor, just like most of the homes in the area, including her first.

That structure was actually the first school built in the region back in 1973 and is now surrounded by stone buildings with metal roofs and wooden floors. (When Free the Children discovered that the Kenyan government will only fund one teacher per structure, they began constructing multiple one-room schoolhouses rather than single large buildings.)

When I ask Nancy if she likes the new school better, she lets out a booming laugh and gives me a thumbs up.

The skeletal remains of the original schoolhouse remains standing as a reminder of the community's dedication to education and how far they've progressed since Free the Children broke ground on the new classrooms in 2006. The place is now filled with kids learning math, English, Swahili, science, social studies, geography, history and civics, as well as agricultural skills, hygiene and health.

Initially, it was mostly boys who were sent to school because the girls had to help their mothers fetch water from the Mara river because there is no plumbing and they still need water for cooking, cleaning, bathing, drinking and livestock.

(According to Free the Children, a "water poverty" study in sub-Saharan Africa found women and girls spend a large part of their day collecting drinking water. As well, WaterAid reports that almost 40 per cent of Kenyans lack access to safe water and 66 per cent lack access to proper sanitation, resulting in 10,000 childhood deaths annually.)

So in 2008, Free the Children began digging boreholes and rainwater catchments so that the girls could bring home clean water after school. Female enrollment tripled, creating a gender balance that remains rare in many rural schools. (It also increased crop yields and diversity, improving nutrition.)

This past spring, they followed up an earlier "natural spring harvesting system" with a pipeline from the borehole in Oleleshwa into the neighbouring community of Rongena, which brought more clean water access to all 2,600 people, including the 700 or so little kids attending the Rongena primary school that Free the Children helped expand and upgrade over the last two years, nearly doubling enrollment.

(Free the Children says that prior to the new systems, 90 per cent of Rongena households could not access safe drinking water and 80 per cent lacked proper sanitation.)

"There was a drought in the area, there was no rain almost all the year round and the food was not enough. But then we came together."

"Our children are very much happy because they can take water easily and even also in classes they can read easily without any problems now," the head of the school told us during our visit.

"There was a drought in the area, there was no rain almost all the year round and the food was not enough. But then we came together, worked together, you as a family have been assisting us to get meals. That is good. In fact, most of the children in the community would come to school so they could gets something for their stomach and we thought that was very good."

When we visited the school, the kids proudly showed off their new water system and latrines before taking me into their classroom so I could draw a map of Canada to show them where I live. (I also showed them video of my six-year-old son breakdancing and taught them Tic-Tac-Toe.)

This water access has also greatly improved health, along with the implementation of latrines as locals traditionally used the bushes, which would then be washed into the river during rains, resulting in cholera and typhoid outbreaks because the river also provided their drinking water.

These are usual international development upgrades, but Free the Children has also introduced a "merry-go-round" microfinancing system (officially known as "rotating savings and credit associations"). Now 10 to 15 mamas join to pool their money together and give it all to one woman at a time so that they can buy a big-ticket item like livestock.

"I'm lucky, everything in my farm is going well so I'd already bought a dairy cow," Mama Nancy says, glancing around at her plot of land. The cow is grazing elsewhere but small goats lazily munch on the grass nearby. Instead, she used the money to buy a solar panel for her hut.

Light at night is a huge deal in an area where electricity only arrived last year and remains unaffordable for most local residents — and where the sun sets around 6 p.m. all year due to being so close to the equator. Suddenly Nancy and her family could read at night.

These merry-go-rounds are part of We Villages’ alternative income pillar, alongside education, clean water and sanitation, health care and food security. (While the organization began by literally freeing children from child labour, it soon evolved into building schools and then supporting sustainable communities through a multi-pronged approach intended to break the cycle of poverty.) The goal is to create some economic stability in a region where drought can wipe a family out, and much of this is done through what they call women empowerment centres.

In the Enelerai workshop, which opened in 2014, Maasai and Kipsigi mamas are paid to bead bracelets and necklaces that ME to WW then sell in North America and Europe. Over 100 women work in the centre while hundreds more bead from their homes while tending to children and livestock.

"When Free the Children came here they said don't send your kids to take care of the animals, send them to school. But we didn't have a school, so they built us one. Now we are so much happier."

Elsewhere, Maasai men and women form a quasi-assembly line to carve, sand and polish rongus, the traditional wooden weapon that they once used to kill lions. "Now we make them to sell and we make money and send our children to school," explains the head of the work site, which is a rather lovely piece of grass under the shade of a green Arak tree, through a translator.

"When Free the Children came here they said 'don't send your kids to take care of the animals, send them to school.' But we didn't have a school, so they built us one. Now we are so much happier."

(WE is split into two groups: Free the Children is a registered charity while ME to WE is a private, for-profit business that sells these alternative income products, voluntourism trips and speaking engagements. Under Canadian, American and British rules, charities can’t bring in more than 15 per cent of their revenue from goods and services because they aren’t taxed.)

ME to WE was launched as a “social enterprise” that gives half of its profits to the charitable side while reinvesting the rest in the business. The goal was to create a separate organization that could help fund their overseas projects without being vulnerable to reduced donations during economic downturns.)

The combination of all these pillars also has very welcome side effect — conflict resolution.

The local Kipsigis and Maasai used to fight with each other. Still do sometimes, just elsewhere. Last December, clashes broke out between the two groups in the community of Olposimoru, resulting in two deaths and 200 torched homes. The conflict arose due to livestock theft — Maasai tradition teaches that all cattle belong to them so they don't consider it theft — and used to be a problem in Enelerai as well.

"Before Free the Children came here, these two communities could not be together."

"My husband used to sleep by the door with weapons, a machete and spear to protect cows from Maasai raiding parties. But now because our children go to school together and even we intermarry together we have no such problems," Nancy says.

Rebecca also discussed how the arrival of schools like Kisaruni, medical centres like Baraka and other development efforts helped everyone get along better.

"Before Free the Children came here, these two communities could not be together," she says. "Maasais kill Kipsigis, Kispigis kill Maasai. It was never safe. When Free the Children came to this region they had a hard time bringing us to this school. Maassai parents would say 'I will not take my child there because there are Kipsigis,' and Kipsigi parents would say 'I'm not taking my child there, there are Maasai.'

"But Free the Children went to the parents, took them to a certain place and told them to build a community. When they come here now, even though my parents are Maasai and my friends are Kipsigis, maybe I like to introduce my parents to the parents of my friends, so in the process of doing that our parents become friends."


Jackson Ntirkama is a baby-faced, 30-year-old Maasai warrior — old enough to have killed a lion with a rongu club in his youth before the practice was outlawed. He's adorned in traditional beads, rubber sandals made from busted car tire and a red shuka blanket. A rongu and machete are attached to his belt.

He wears more modern clothing when not on the clock, but right now Jackson's working for ME to WE. He's had this job for the past seven years, teaching tourists about his culture and traditions, taking them on morning hikes through the grasslands, guiding them on safari and helping them better understand what locals here are like.

"Before, when you go to school, the first priority was given for a boy because our girls, when they get married, the family will get a lot of cows because we have dowries. Then the cows will be sold for the boy to be able to go to school," recalls Jackson about what life was like here when he was younger.

"So when Free the Children came here — both communities, the Maasai and Kipsigis — we feel so lucky because they [brought] change. Now, for both girls and boys, instead of going to the bush to take care of animals, we are going to school."

"We have already learned so much from Free the Children. So when they leave we will just continue doing what we are doing."

"For the change to come, it was not easy," he admits. "But we became role models in the community so now the elders see what we are doing and come to accept the change."

Another change is coming soon, though.

Free the Children's development strategy is based on achieving sustainability. At a to-be-determined point in the future, they will depart The Strip and set up in a new community in need of support, leaving behind a legacy of education, employment, clean water and health care (though they'll continue funding the medical clinic and secondary schools).

There's a mural inside Kisaruni, near the entrance to the school, that's a map of all the sites Free the Children has developed for the Kipsigis and Maasai. At the top of the drawing it reads: "Though We Come From All These Communities, We Are One" and that achievement is how Enelerai will continue moving forward on its own.

"We have already learned so much from Free the Children," Jackson says. "So when they leave we will just continue doing what we are doing."

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