In 2011 I met Meshack Andiwo who lived in a small Kenyan village near the Luanda K’Otieno ferry that takes passengers and cars across Homa Bay to Mbita Point. He told me that small children in his community were struggling when they went to Primary School because they didn’t have the basics of English and arithmetic. They were too young to walk the distance to the nearest Primary School. Once the were old enough to walk the distance to school they were behind many of their peers and they became discouraged and lagged behind. He wanted them to have some early childhood education so they would not struggle or be discouraged and quit when they were old enough to walk to school.
I told my late Dad who was about 92 at the time,about this challenge and he offered some financial support through the CanAssist African Relied Trust to start to build a school for the community and it began with one small tin classroom and a latrine. And so it began.
NOTE Some of the images in this post are videos. If you are reading this in an an email you can tap on the title of the post to be taken to the WordPress site to stream the video files
I visited the school today. There are several buildings now, a kitchen, clean new latrine, a fenced playground and a small office. There are currently about 50 kids at the school from preschool age to grade 4. They are learning the basics and being fed a breakfast of porridge and a lunch of beans or rice and vegetables, sometimes their only nutrition in a community that struggles with food security.
When we formed the CanAssist African Relief Trust in 2008, we determined that it’s mandate would be to provide sustainable tangible infrastructure and not programming or management costs (like teachers’ salaries or feeding programmes. This is for two reasons. One is that it would commit for a longer term and limit the number of communities that CanAssist donors could help. It also would foster reliance on outside help and May might foster dependency rather than encourage financial planning and self sufficiency. The latrines, classrooms, water catchment, text books, solar panels, fencing etc are tangible gifts to give the building blocks for running a school or clinic or community sanitation programme. Responsibility for managing and funding the programming is up to the recipient.
.Food supplies for the fifty kids at SP Geddes school cost about $15-$20 per day. Parents pay a small fee to cover the cost of the food but by the end of the week, they sometimes run out and Meshack and Caroline have to dip into their own means to support this. I plan to send a bit of money every so often to help them with this expense. If you want to help a bit with this, let me know as even a couple of dollars a week would be of great value to sustain these beautiful kids.
Caroline and Meshack’s grandson was named “SP” in recognition of my Dad’s generosity and the school was named the SP Geddes School. I met SP as an infant several years ago and what a treat it was to see him again today. He is now 9 years old.
Meshack and Caroline take good care of the children at SPGeddes School
This morning, Dan and I dropped in to the Ramula Primary School, a rural public school that has about 700 pupils from grade 1 to 8. Although I am no longer a Trustee with the CanAssist African Relief Trust, the CanAssist board asked me to look in on a few project partners while I am here in Kenya.
The purpose of Dan’s visit to the school this morning was to sign an MOU with the head teacher of the school to confirm the building of an 8 stall pit latrine for the boys. Last year CanAssist built a girls latrine at the school and also supplied some much needed desks.
You would not believe the state of the current boys latrines. They are old and in very poor condition (I won’t disgust you with photos.) I watched as three or four boys opened doors looking for a stall that was useable. Toilets that are collapsing and I’m poor repair are not uncommon in Kenyan elementary schools. Although these schools are publicly run, there seems to be no money for many basic needs, like text books and sanitation. CanAssist has helped several schools in East Africa over the years to help with water collection, sanitation and other infrastructure.
CanAssist does not work on a cookie-cutter mold. Every project is different and tailored to the needs expressed by the school or hospital or community. This morning a young woman in grade 8 asked if they could have a couple of cupboards for books – essentially asking for book shelves. I told her that I would pass on this request to the CanAssist trustees. And one of the teachers who teaches language and English asked if they could get some storybooks in English and Swahili to help with reading and literacy.
For the past few years the Ontario Teacher’s federation has generously funded purchase of requested books for two or three schools annually through CanAssist. Dan usually asks the teachers what they need and the books specific to their needs are purchased from local booksellers. I am sure that when this funding comes through later this year he will be asking this teacher for his recommendations. (Thanks OTF for your ongoing support.)
We were received warmly. The students, the teaching staff, the Chairman of the school’s Board, and the head of the Parent-Teachers Association all expressed appreciation for the gifts that Canadian donors make to the school through CanAssist.
This morning I wandered down the road with Dan and Mercy and Heather Maddie to go to St Ann’s Catholic Church, a small tin-roofed church at the top of a hill by the main road. I am not a church-goer in Canada but have always felt uplifted after going to Church in Africa. This morning was no exception.
There were no empty spaces on the wooden bench pews that were packed tightly with people of all ages and I was the only “muzungu” in the congregation of about 250. Although the church was Catholic there was minimal ritual and formality. Down the road there was another evangelical church with a preacher blaring into a microphone.
I ended up sitting with Dan in the choir section right in the midst of the music. How delightful was that? The choir director played on a digital keyboard that was hooked up to a car battery.
I found myself swaying and humming along not understanding many words as it was mostly Luo language but the energy and joy needed no translation. Everyone was singing and dancing. What a treat! A dramatic contrast to church services in Canada!
After Church I met outside with a Youth Group that Dan mentors and there was also folks from the nearby community hospital giving COVID vaccines under a tree in the yard. I will write more about COVID in an upcoming post.
After a long day of travel (my Kenya Airways Flight from JFK in New York direct to Nairobi was almost 14 hours!) I am now comfortably ensconced at Dan Otieno’s place near Ramula, Kenya. We are quite literally on the Equator. I can cross the equator, changing hemispheres back and forth within an half hour’s walk along the road. I haven’t (yet) done the test to see if water drains in a different circular direction in the North than in the South.
I have known Dan since 2004 and have see him one place or another in East Africa almost annually up until the COVID pandemic shut down international travel. We are like family. I am not sure who adopted whom. I have been to this homestead three times previously. The last time was to attend his marriage to Mercy, who is a Clinical Officer at a clinic about three hours away. His 4-year-old daughter is named Heather Maddie. We have quickly become fast friends, bonding over Paw Patrol. She speaks pretty fluent English with a Kenyan accent and will soon learn both Luo and Swahili as well. She looks at books, turning the pages and taking in the photos and when she closes the book she says “and they all lived happily ever after.”
Like my family at home, they all call me Dedo here. I took on that name when first granddaughter, Maddy, was born 21 years ago. I was working in Bosnia at the time and wasn’t quite ready to be “Grandpa” so I took on the Bosnian name for Grandfather, Dedo. It stuck. Now adults and children alike here in this household call me Dedo.
Dan has hired a young fellow from Kisumu named Evans to help make food when I am around so he and Mercy won’t be preoccupied with meal preparation . He is working in a little kitchen area that is just outside the house. It is quite common for Kenyan homes, in addition to an indoor kitchen, to have an separate building with a wood-burning stove that they use for cooking. It is a bit of a throwback to the traditional ways of preparing food.
I was amazed to hear that this building was actually made out of mud. To build it, a frame was made out of wood and mud from the yard was packed into the frame and allowed to harden for two to three months during the dry season. Another layer was later applied and smoothed and than the outside was painted. It looks like stucco and feels firm. The paint protects against rain damage and termites. It is not expensive and reasonably durable. Rainwater from the roof of the main hose supplies all the water.
The finished mud house kitchen
Tomorrow I am going to show Evansf how to make focaccia! He works as a cook in Kisumu so he can return with a recipe for Focaccia to impress his friends. We are having lots of fresh fruits including pineapple that we picked up at a street market on our way here. It was picked yesterday and is ripe and sweet and totally unlike the pineapple we get from Costa Rica in Food Basics.
There are chickens in the yard that produce a few fresh eggs. There are also a few goats, a couple of geese, a stray cat and some vervet monkeys in the trees.
Network coverage in this very rural setting is a big hit and miss so posting might be more of a challenge than I anticipated. Hang in.
My first trip to East Africa was in 2003. It was all new and kind of scary to be in a world that seemed quite different from what I was accustomed to. Little did I know as I set out on that trip with a friend that I would return multiple times over the next few years and develop friendships and associations that have enriched my life incredibly. My travel with McGill students into rural East Africa took me to small villages and rural campsites as well as larger cities like Nairobi and Kampala and Dar es Salam. I have snorkeled in the Indian Ocean, wakened to the sound of lions grunting just outside my tent in the Maasai Mara, met folks in the Kibera slum, flown as “copilot” in a small plane over large herds of elephants, lived like one of the family in homes in Kenya and Uganda and learned so much about life and culture and society in East Africa from the many Africans I have met. I have lived in small communities without seeing another muzungu for a week. Tomorrow I am finally heading to Kenya to visit with friends who are like family to me and whom I have not seen in over four years.
In April 2008, along with Canadian friends, Judith and Alex Adam, Marie Richardson and Mark Waldron, I started a small charity – CanAssist African Relief Trust – to help provide sustainable infrastructure to schools and hospitals and villages in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania. We had no idea that this small charity would still be working in 2022 and will have sent over $1,500,000 to help multiple East African communities.
Tomorrow, after a hiatus prolonged by the COVID epidemic, I am finally heading to Kenya to visit with friends who are like family to me and whom I have not seen in over four years.
This week I have reread my pencil-scrawled journals from my earliest trips. So much will have changed from those earlier safaris, and likely much will have remained the same. As I travel over the next three weeks, I will reflect on those changes, and also on things that don’t change. My tip this time is mainly to visit people I have come to love and respect in small Kenyan communities. I will share some of those experiences here as they unfold.
And, of course there will be pictures.
So join me, if you like as I rediscover Kenya. I will try to post something every couple of days. If you want to flow along you can enter your email address and click Follow in the column on the right and you will be notified when I publish a post.