Last Friday we had the privilege of joining our friend Lori, who left on Monday to return home to Winnepeg, Canada, on a trip to Turbo, where AMPATH has one of its 50 outreach clinics for HIV/AIDS patients. Lori has been working for a year with her Kenyan counterparts, on an electronic record project through a grant that AMPATH received and the Turbo Clinic was one of the pilot clinics. Although the work is not complete and there have been some bumps along the way, she is going to continue working on it remotely, and hopefully they will be able to actually get some of their findings into the system before the first of the year. As one of the folks who go out to Turbo on an almost weekly basis due to her work, Lori made quite good friends with a lot of the doctors, nurses, lab techs and data folks, working at the clinic. There is also a Kenyan Health Ministry clinic attached to it which benefits from AMPATHS’ presence. Lori also got involved in supporting this little primary school that has been started by the parents of one of her colleagues. This is the school that I mentioned our possibly helping to support in my last post.
The visit out to the school was an unbelievable experience and not at all what we were expecting. We were going mostly just to see the school and hear more about the project, because, as I mentioned in my last blog, we are looking for ways to help, and maybe get some folks from home involved. Lori has taken it upon herself (with her husband Jim’s help) to do the fundraising for the school in Canada so that they can work on getting desks, uniforms, and more materials for the children. Also, they want to build a new building starting sometime next year, and they have put together a whole pro forma for this project. So, a bunch of the clinic folks and Michael, Lori, and I crammed into the AMPATH vehicle and headed for the hills, where this little community is located.
The school was started by a retired teacher and her husband on their farm, in the region of Turbo. It is a lovely area, at the foothills of the Elgon Mountains in western Kenya. One of the reasons that the project appeals to Lori is that it is a community initiated and supported project and they are committed not only to the kids but to bettering the community in general. Currently, there is a public elementary in the region, but it is an almost 8 km walk for most of the children and some of the classes have 70 kids in them (to one teacher!). So, these folks started the school in 2008 hoping to give more of the children the opportunity for an education. They are very motivated to get an education because they know that it will better their lives and the lives of their families. The school at this point is a series of mud buildings, very rudimentary materials (handmade desks that sit 4-5 students at once, a piece of chalkboard and that’s about it!), and very young but dedicated and much underpaid teachers (a teacher here gets paid about $150/month!). They do not have water on the property nor proper toilets or electricity. So, there are many challenges, but based on the presentations we heard today, there is a lot of energy and support for the school, the community, and these young people. It was very inspiring to hear these folks, who are simple country folks, talk about how important it is for their children to get an education here at home and then hopefully one day get a chance to go to university.
The Welcome (Karibu) we received at the school was beyond my wildest expectations (I had none really except I knew Lori was expected to present). As we got out of our vehicles, we were sung to by the students, parents , and teachers and warmly welcomed with a handshake and a hug. After our initial greetings, we were invited to tour the school, where each class of students stood up and chanted something like “welcome to our school” and clapped as we smiled and said “Asante Sana” to each group of children. The sight of these darling smiling faces in these barebones classrooms with little to nothing in them and these earnest young teachers brought tears to my eyes. After visiting each classroom (they even have little preschoolers!), a total of 7, we were then escorted to the makeshift tent at the top of the field and asked to be seated. The children followed and were all seated (135 kids) off to the side in anticipation of the program. And what a program it was! We listened to everyone speak, from the headmistress to the village elders, to board members, to an aspiring MP, to parents, and then finally Lori who was the “Chief Guest”. We also heard poetry from the children, songs sung by students and teachers together (all with the theme of the importance of education ), a small drama put on by the teachers, and awards to the children for their most recent monthly tests ( you think we are into tests! They even test the preschoolers!).
After several hours, the speakers were finished. The fellow who was translating must have been completely worn out (he had been translating from Nande to English and English to Nande, and also Swahili to English and back again because of the diverse crowd), and the kids had gone to eat their ugali in the meantime, then the village women all gathered round to sing to us and we were invited (gently pushed) into the circle to go around and greet each and every one of them with a handshake and a hug and a “Habari Gani” or “asante Sana!” At first, I was confused as to whether I was supposed to clap and dance and sing with them or follow Michael, who was already in the center of the circle. I ended up following his lead around and I was startled to find that all of the women were laughing as I approached them. I figured it was me, but then I realized it was because Michael had touched them with his wild white man beard! It was very funny, their reaction. There are maybe no Kenyans with beards and at least in this area they appear to have little facial hair at all. So having a Mazungu rub your face with his big grey beard must have seemed too whacky! They were singing and clapping and hooting and hollering the whole time and then at the end, when all three of us had completed our rounds of this wide circle of women, we were given a gift. We were then asked to say something. Talk about a warm welcome! So, that is what we said. We each spoke and basically said how grateful we were for the welcome and how lovely it was to see such commitment and how much we hoped to be able to help them move their project forward. We then were invited to plant a tree with them before we went to eat lunch in the headmistress’ home( a large spread, also unexpected!). Gotta love these grass roots efforts for improvement!
The highlight for me, besides the joy and laughter and dancing and singing of the adults and kids, was that there were actually some very progressive things said. For one, many of the “firsts and seconds” of the various classes, who were given a notebook or a pencil for their efforts, were girls. This did not go unnoticed, because in the first 4 classes it was consistent. So, there were several speakers who noted this and paid homage to the importance of educating women . Also, the aspiring MP who was there was a woman and she made note of it as well and also that in the new Kenyan Constitution it calls for some percentage of the leaders (MPs) to be women (this actually being debated currently if I'm understanding the paper correctly!). Pretty interesting. And of course, the fact that we planted trees at the end warmed the cockles of our hearts because we are big fans of the Green Belt Movement and the work of Wangari Mathaai, who was a leader in the efforts to reforest Kenya (it has been badly deforested due to the need for burning wood). Any efforts at conservation are of course pleasing to us! Kwa Heri, Siku Jema!
|AMPATH food distribution center|
|Kenyan Health Ministries clinic|
|Lori with clinical health workers|
|Lab at Kenyan clinic|
|welcome to school|
|welcoming us with a song to school|
|Children watching program|
|welcome dance for "special guest"|
|women singing welcome song|
|lunch is cooking!|
|cutie pies waiting patiently|