(Rather than sending out many short blogs, I am going to have to send out occasional, lengthy ones until I find a more efficient method of Email.)
So far each day in Kenya has been a bit unstable. Due to the fact that I am trying to play the role of host, showing volunteers and directors of the Carr Educational Project around this remarkable land and our campus loved ones back home is tough. To put it mildly it is very hard living on the other side of the world from my wife. This is exacerbated by the fact that she is also my partner and cofounder of Daraja Academy. She has worked just as hard as I have making this dream of equal access to education for girls possible. Now she hears updates concerning the state of Daraja, learns about our roadblocks and successes during short, 3-minute cell phone calls in the dark of the night.
Carr Educational Foundation director Bob Bessin arrived at 8pm Thursday night. Our crew – Mark Lukach, Grey Brooks, Peter Wathitu and I picked him up at the airport and quickly bounced him over dark Nairobi roads, man-hole sized pot holes, and all to the place where Stanford HumBi Professor Bob Siegel and his graduate student Dashka were recouping from their descent of Mt. Kenya. Dinner was incredible. Dashka and a group of former Stanford classmates are starting a girl’s secondary school that sounds very similar to Daraja Academy in Iringa, Tanzania. Ironically, Iringa is very close, by Africa’s standards, to Makambako, where I lived in 1999. Finding like-minded Americans always fills my tanks, and a full tank shouldn’t be a suggestion, it’s got to be a requisite when visiting Kibera – tomorrow’s destination.
Friday morning 8 a.m.
As a junior at the University of San Diego I took a class that was taught by an incredibly wise philosophy professor. Early on he warned us to be cautious passing on things we’d learned in class to our peers. He explained to all of us wide eyed, impressionable 20-somethings that attempting to explain to our peers concepts, which had shaken us to our foundations, was similar to explaining what “sweet taste like” to a person who’d never tasted anything sweet in their lives. Words just simply could not convey the tangible sensations, feelings, and emotional connections we’d felt during the moments of realization. Describing a visit to the Nairobi slum of Kibera where one of Daraja Academies’ feeder schools operates is much, much harder.
I have now traversed the slippery slope that draws us into Kibera’s poorest village of Mashimoni three times… it never gets less shocking. The poverty never gets easier to experience and the dignity of its inhabitants never ceases to amaze me. Shortly after World War II, people looking to find better jobs in the city began settle in Kibera. This migration continues to this day and its effects are certainly life changing. Some find jobs, most do not. Unfortunately, the feelings that generally go with unemployment – hopelessness, lack of purpose and depression are exacerbated because they are disconnected from their families and friends back home who would normally be looking out for their well being.
Very simply, after parking our car in the muddy, fenced compound that surrounds Kibera’s international medical clinic we head down hill into the squalor. Since the There are grades of poor in Kibera and the percentage of the 500,000 to 1.5 million (nobody is really sure of the slums population) with the most money live at the top of the slope near the parking lot. This is partly because they have easier access to busses, matatus (vans packed full of commuters and their cargo) and electricity, but there is also a much simpler reason: gravity. When it rains everything washes down hill. Everything including mud, garbage and sewage.
Mud and cement block buildings house pharmacies, butcher shops with dusty, hanging pieces of meat, restaurants selling boiled kale, maize and ugali (a popular lump of maize flour, salt and water – basically it’s a carbohydrate paste that fills the plate and the stomach.) People eat and children play with out any protection from the dust and sewage stink that continually wafts along all of Kibera’s thoroughfares.
After walking for 15 minutes down hill over the puddles of grey water, across the railroad tracks and past the choruses of, “how are you? How are you?” that echo out of every primary school playground we pass, we approach the Turning Point Trust compound. Turning Point is Daraja’s first sister school. This is also the compound where the dream germinated and grew.
The founders of Turning Point, Jon and Jo Parson, literally began serving porridge to the children of Mashimoni for whom food was an unreliable luxury at best. It has since grown into an incredibly successful, bustling experiment in social assistance. Children from several tribes, including Kenya’s two largest and most adversarial, the Kikuyu and Luo, attend class together, eat at least two solid meals each day together, and perhaps most importantly get to play together. I am not sure if I can stress just how important play is for the children of Kibera. Life can get so desperate in the slums that many of Kibera’s youth never get to experience what it is like being children, at least by western standards.
Mark, Bob, Peter and I were lead through the compound by Jon and Kerioki, one of the wisest, most gentle men I have ever met. I think what strikes me the hardest each time I visit the school is just how similar its students are to any you would find in the U.S. They are so full of joy, happiness and hope. Mugging for the camera, they laugh and strike poses. Some proudly show off their work while others demonstrate their English reading skills and paper back versions of the Kenyan equivalent to “Dick and Jane.” Excited today, they have no idea how bleak their future could be tomorrow.
I think that the situation would emotionally knock me flat if, I wasn’t personally part of a team that was putting a plan together to make a difference. We are offering access to a way out and a way up. As I type the campus that is now Daraja Academy is getting scrubbed from top to bottom. Cracks are being patched, gutters are being hung and furniture is getting fixed. The former Baraka School is waking up Daraja Academy. In the up coming moths, teachers will be hired and trained, students will be chosen from Kibera, Kurialand, the northern tribes and areas surround the campus. The school is coming back to life, and perhaps the scope will seem small at first, 25 girls the first year as we get our funding in place, but it won’t seem small to those girls in attendance. Perhaps this all sounds grandiose, but sometimes grandiose language is needed to keep us moving forward.
If you can, please make a difference. We all can play different roles in this project while still making a significant difference. If you can make a monthly donation, if you can’t advocate for the program and pass on the word to your friends, volunteer. The point is to do something, because sometimes something is all it takes to make a huge impact.