Laila took some time to tell us about this extraordinary experience:
AB: A group of girls from Nairobi, Kenya—who had never seen the sea, much less a kayak—ended up at your boathouse in western Norway. How did this happen?
LAILA: Every year the local people in the Sotra area west of Bergen, Norway, start raising money for plane tickets for girls from the Mathare Slum in Nairobi, Kenya. That results in that every second or third year, around 20 girls of age 14 from the slum come and stay here for one week. They live together with local families that have same-age daughters playing soccer.
During this week the Kenyan girls get to do a lot of stuff: try Norwegian food, hike, climb, play soccer with the girls they stay with, meet Bergen’s soccer team, sponsors and so on.
After the week here they join the local girls’ team to Oslo, the capital of Norway. In Oslo they participate with their own team, Mathare United, in the Girls 14 series at Norway Cup. This is reckoned as one of the world’s largest soccer tournaments with 6,000 matches played during one week.
I know some of the people raising money, and offered for the girls to come and kayak. And so they did! They arrived at my boathouse in the morning after arriving to Norway, totally keen on kayaking!
They had never been by the sea before, never seen a kayak, never tried to taste salty water and could not swim. It took 20 minutes, they then raised up to stand in the kayaks, sing to us and dance! The four of us helping out hummed along on African songs. What a day!
It is clear these are the lucky girls of the slum. They play soccer under the Mathare United team, and have been chosen to go to Norway from there. Several girls who have been here earlier, have been back now as assistants.
AB: What feedback did you get from them? What was their favorite part of this adventure?
LAILA: You could see that just entering the boathouse with kayaks hanging from both the ceiling and along both walls, made them excited. We talked together for 5-10 minutes and they could almost not stand still listening—they had to touch the kayaks, whisper to each other, laugh and look at all the kayak trip photos hanging on the wall.
There were almost 20 girls, plus two adults and a photographer from Kenyan TV, so we had to split the group in two. The girls not paddling the first round would hike 200 meters to a pier where we would paddle, so we could have some fun altogether. But they hardly would leave the boathouse due to the excitement.
We kayaked to meet up on the pier, had some games between us on the water and half of the girls on land. We then swapped and went kayaking with the last half of them.
They loved getting the paddling vests on, and they loved sitting down in the kayak. But their favourite part was clearly when they discovered that they, themselves, could make the kayak move on the sea. They were floating, yes, but they also moved forward with their own arms and power!
As they had never seen the sea before nor kayaks, and could not swim, they used stable tandem kayaks.
AB: Do you often guide brand-new kayakers? How was this the same or different as other trips?
LAILA: I run beginner courses in ocean kayaking all year around—in summer 2-3 times a week, and in winter around twice a month. Many people who have never sat in a kayak before enter my boathouse are slightly nervous, thinking, “What did I sign up for?!”
But having the 14-years old girls from the slum visiting was a totally different experience. They were so interested, so joyful and so “high” on standing in the boat house surrounded by kayaks, paddles, vests and other equipment.
There were a lot of cheerful sounds in the boathouse and on the pier next to it! I think I have never seen SO MANY smiles from the heart on a beginner’s course.
AB: This wasn't an everyday experience for you. Did it change you? How?
LAILA: This was such a special day. Nothing like it! We were three friends of mine and me helping out with the kayaking.
We had looked at a lot of photos and films from the Mathare slum in Nairobi beforehand. And…OH MY! Knowing where these girls come from, the conditions they grow up in. Their environment has sewage filling the streets when it rains, plastic waste all over, public toilets overflowing by the rivers, youths sorting waste to find plastic that can be sold, the daily search for drinking water.
And all of a sudden they were here in the insanely rich and clean Norway!
It really meant a lot having them here. You feel that you could help a little, make someone’s life a little better, share good spirits, share warm laughter, provide some light and bright thoughts and share an ice cream or two!
When they had left the boathouse four hours later, it was so quiet. I missed them—and still do! (Here's a Facebook video that shows the joy!)
The photographer from Kenyan TV will make a 45-minute program for national Kenyan TV, and told us we will soon be kayak stars in Kenya. Life has many facets!
(All photos by Anders Mongstad, the prime motor for raising money and planning the day-to-day program for the Mathare girls.)
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