A love that's straight out of Africa

Maria Kidney and Martin Ballantyne devote their lives to Kenyan charities, which can mean long spells apart

Martin Ballantyne and Maria Kidney help communities in Kenya. Photo: David Conachy

Andrea Smith

Maria Kidney and her husband Martin Ballantyne had not one, but two wedding ceremonies on different sides of the world in 2003. The first took place in Gougane Barra in Cork as Maria's late dad Bill loved it there. The second occurred while they were on honeymoon in Kenya, and the locals surprised them by dressing them in traditional clothes and hosting a fabulous community ceremony.

Maria fell in love with Kenya when she went with friends to Tanzania and Kenya to climb Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in 2000.

Two weeks before the end of the trip, she was mugged on the streets of Nairobi, which unnerved her. She sought refuge in the Kenyan Girl Guides' headquarters, and while staying there, she met many people who were involved in community development projects.

Maria was inspired by their stories, and decided she wanted to work with impoverished communities in Kenya.

In August 2002, she travelled with 20 Guide leaders to Londiani to run a project, and then seven of them established a charity called the Friends of Londiani. It focused on a few key projects and when requests came asking for help in other communities, it changed its name to Brighter Communities Worldwide.

Martin visited Kenya for the first time when he and Maria were on honeymoon there, and he also became entranced by the country. "I fell in love with the people, and saw the difference that was being made through the projects," he says.

Martin and Maria are now CEO and director, respectively, of Brighter Communities Worldwide, which works across Kenya's Kericho County. It delivers programmes on health, education, water and economic empowerment and is particularly strong on working with young girls and women. It is also expanding into other African countries with a pilot currently running in Uganda. "We have worked with 250,000 people and want to reach a million," says Martin, adding that like all charities, the challenge is funding their programmes and growing to reach more communities.

One amazing project is the Girls for Girls programme, which strives to stop girls missing school because of a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. There are many taboos around menstruation in the region, and women use leaves, rags and even cow dung during their periods, which can lead to infection.

The education programme provides sustainable hygiene products and works with communities to promote female empowerment and gender equality. It provides education on menstrual hygiene management, income generation, economic skills and better sanitation facilities in schools.

The charity also strives to eradicate the problem of female genital mutilation, by encouraging communities to implement alternative rites of passage that don't involve girls being cut. "You can see the difference it has made in the girls' confidence," says Maria, adding that volunteers are always welcomed by the charity.

She and Martin have spent long periods apart as the work in Kenya took precedence, but their strong relationship saw them through. Maria (47) has now relocated to Kenya and is a fulltime volunteer. She also does consultancy work across Africa with Out Of The Box and reckons that she inherited her sense of community from her late parents. When she and her six siblings were growing up in Cobh, her dad Bill was mayor and was involved in scouting. Her mum Phyllis was a coach at Ballymore Cobh Athletic Club, where one of her charges was a young Sonia O'Sullivan.

Martin (52) grew up in Keash, Sligo, where his parents, Tom and Kathleen still live. The eldest of five, he did business studies at Sligo RTC and went down the finance route. Maria did commerce at UCD, followed by accountancy, and holds a master's in public health.

She met Martin in 1994 when she and her pals were invited to a house party by her colleague Ciaran. As soon as she saw Martin, his housemate, she told her friend Ollie that he was the guy for her. "I knew straight away," she says. "Martin was probably quieter than the other guys, and he was tall and fit-looking and had a lovely way about him."

"And I had a bit more hair then," Martin chimes in. "Maria was the life and soul of the party and I thought she was a beautiful-looking girl with an infectious smile. She was very bubbly and outgoing and seemed like a fun person."

The pair began dating and Martin loved that Maria introduced him to the joys of outdoor life, as she was so fond of hillwalking and camping. Maria is also passionate about travel and, rather fittingly, Martin proposed to her while they were climbing Mount Elbrus in Russia.

They lived in Sydney, Australia, for a while but returned when Maria's dad developed brain cancer. Maria says Martin took great care of her family during her dad's illness and subsequent death, and she views him as her rock, true soulmate and best friend.

"Martin is the kindest person I've ever met in my life," she says. "He's so considerate of other people, sometimes even to his own detriment."

To donate to Brighter Communities Worldwide or learn about its annual volunteer programmes, please visit www.brightercommunities.org