This story really begins last June in Cannes France where I met a young man named Craig Keilburger. Craig is the founder of a nonprofit organization called Free the Children. Craig started Free the Children when he was 12 years old to fight child labor. Free the Children’s scope has since grown to include freeing children from poverty and exploitation as well as empowering young people with the confidence to create positive change in the world. As part of this scope, Free the Children has built 500 schools around the world, with over 65% of the funding coming from children. I was so inspired by what Craig and Free the Children was doing, I wanted to get our kids involved in some way, I just didn’t know how given our already-committed travel schedule. While we were in Tibet, Carol and I discussed taking the kids to Kenya to help build a school. We thought it would be a fantastic experience. We could easily carve out a week as a side trip during our Ghana visit. With that decision, we made arrangements for our family and Anna, Carol’s sister Anna, to spend a week in Kenya.
We landed at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport at 5:30am, blearily making our way through immigration, customs and baggage claim. We were met by two beaming faces from Free the Children. Brooke and Jon were there with bells on, bubbling with much more energy than we had, having slept rather poorly on our flight. We stepped outside and made our way to the van. It was cool. Uh oh. We didn’t dress for cool. I mean, Nairobi is on the equator, isn’t it. It was completely lost on us that Nairobi is at an elevation of 5,500 feet and it doesn’t matter if you’re on the equator. Whoops. Filo, our driver, whisked us to the Karen Blixen Coffee Plantation through the early morning traffic of Nairobi. While I distantly listened to Jon and Brooke talking with everyone in the back seats, I recognized Jon’s voice. I was so tired, I never put it together. Jon had been the person in Toronto that had put our entire trip together. I re-introduced myself with a bit more vigor.
We freshened up in our rooms at the Karen Blixen, and met Jon and Brooke again for a trip to a Giraffe Sanctuary and a bead factory. The Giraffe Sanctuary was really interesting. We were taught about giraffes, where they live, the three sub species that live in Kenya, and we were able to get up close and personal which these pictures show. Yes, their tongues are disgusting, but they actually carry a natural antibiotic, so after licking our faces, we were actually healthier than before (real or imagined). We visited the bead factory that employs mostly single moms and saw them working the process of painting and firing beads. We also went to the Karen Blixen Museum. Karen Blixen wrote the novel “Out of Africa”. We saw her original house, plus many artifacts from the movie with Robert Reford as well. It was Valentine's day which was kind of lost on all of us, until we tried to get a table for dinner. No chance. Anna, Carol, me and the kids ate in the bar amongst the decorations and fawning sweethearts.
The next morning we prepared for a short charter flight headed to Kenya’s Masai Mara, about 200km from Nairobi. This is where Free the Children and its sister organization “Leaders Today” have developed a site for Kenyan volunteers. The “School of the Savannah” not only houses volunteers, it also acts as a leadership development campus of sorts, provides a place to gather and reflect on the day’s activities, and acts as a hub between school building projects. It also provides jobs for local people. With the worldwide news about political unrest and tribal fighting in Kenya, very few people were traveling and we were the only volunteers staying at the facility. At the plane, we were met by some of the leaders of Free the Children, that were having an offsite at the facility. We met Mark, (Craig’s brother), Roxanne, (Marks wife), David Baum, (an organizational consultant), Peter Rihuhu, (who runs Kenyan operations), his wife Michelle who provides medical services to many of the villages, and their baby son Kananja (aka Andrew). We flew out of the charter airport directly over Kibera, where most of the televised violence had taken place. Kibera is the 2nd largest slum in Africa (Soweto is the first) and it is pretty amazing to view from the air. People buy a piece of corrugated metal lean it up against another, and call it home, until they can afford or acquire another piece of metal to make a wall and roof. Once they have a roof and walls, maybe they’ll even fashion a door, and once they have that, they can hang a curtain and perhaps rent the half of their “home”. Almost hard to believe. After we passed over Kibera, we passed over large estates and homes that rival the stateliness of southern plantations and these soon gave way to farms and rolling hills. We approached the great rift valley, and the Mara. We were all surprised by how much agriculture there was. I don’t know what we expected, but farms, for as far as we could see, wasn’t it. The only animals we saw as we landed were Cows.
We were met on the landing strip by a Masai Warrior and guide named Nabaala (the Masai name for Greedy or Hungry). Nabaala wore traditional Masai clothing and carried a Machete and a Konga (a Massai club). It was love at first site for the boys. We were also met by Robin, an American from Chicago who has lived in Kenya for 5 years, and speaks the local languages with ease. We walked to the facility and Nabaala speaking great English described plants to us, using english and latin names as he pointed out the plants. Is this guy for real? The answer is yes, but more on that later. We arrived at the facility and found a very stout electric fence surrounding it. It turns out that there is a salt marsh right next door that elephants really love, and they tended to walk through the center of the camp so the fence made a great defensive line. We thought we’d be in tents and bunks, and were surprised (actually blown away) that the facility had built family housing that was beautiful and comfortable: Two bedroom homes with lofts and two bathrooms that could sleep all 5 of us.
After lunch we drove out to two schools that Free the Children had built in communities that were a few kilometers away from the facility. As we slowly traversed the well torn and bumpy road, all the locals we passed were waving to us in our trucks. Young children would stream across farms toward the road, not with a hand out, but rather, a huge smile and two arms outstretched, waving and yelling “Jambo!” which means welcome or hello! We pulled into the entrance of the Emorijoi primary school and we were greeted by a throng of sweater clad children lining the fence, singing a greeting song and welcoming us into their school. The music was beautiful and the children’s faces were lit up with excitement. We stepped out of the cars, and the kids flocked to touch us, hold our hands, say their names and ask ours. It was overwhelming and Carol’s eyes were tearing. They kids were so appreciative of our visit and so interested in Parker and Griffin. We met Paul the headmaster, a strong, quiet, and gracious man, who walked us about the school buildings that free the children had built. He also walked us to where the old buildings stood, to show us the improvement, and then showed us a water station where children wash their hands after using one of the new toilets. He was very proud that kids were finally washing their hands after going to the bathroom. Hygienic consciousness is no small accomplishment here. It is a very big deal and can improve community health almost instantly. We talked with Paul about the impact and the growth the school had seen since the new classrooms had been built. A new school is a self fulfilling prophecy of success. More new buildings can decrease class sizes, which interest more parents, which brings in new students, which brings in new teaches, which improves student/teacher ratios, which improves quality of teaching and learning. Paul talked about a future phase which would provide teacher housing on campus, so teachers wouldn’t have to walk or drive from villages far away. It seems only a few weeks earlier during a rain, high water over one road prevented teachers from getting to school. Not at all uncommon. As we walked to the cars, some little kids were playing tag and chase with Griffin and Parker and we all joined in. One child in particular, who looked to be about 4 years old and full of diabolic energy, taunted me by rolling his eyes, swiveling his hips, and with arms outstretched motioning with his fingers to “come get me”. My heart melted a thousand times right there. We played like this for a while, before heading to the school where we would spend our days working.
Enelerai school is a few Kilometers from Emorijoi and services a different community. The kids knew we were coming and welcomed us similarly, following us up the hill to the school as we entered. Bright new classrooms had been built for the elementary school, and the old classrooms still stood. It began to rain and we made our way under shelter in the old classrooms. Kids flooded into the room from behind, beside, and they even seemed to ooze through cracks in the walls, like the water that was pouring outside. We were packed in and they were singing and asked if we would sing. I got volunteered since Carol and kids were too shy, and I completely blanked. The only song I could think of was “On Broadway” from George Benson, thanks to some bad Karaoke memories. I belted it out and surprised the kids… and myself because I actually remembered the words. We then ALL sang songs that Brooke led and that was a blast. The rain stopped. The kids went back to class. We walked into classrooms and each of us introduced ourselves, while some of the kids did the same. Parker noted that the 8th grade class was actually doing 9th grade math from California. 8th Grade is the last year in elementary school before you move on to secondary school and only the best make it to 9th grade. The 8th grade class is small, composed of only the best, most serious and most fortunate students. These students didn’t have to stay home or drop out to help with the farm or the chores. Many do. It takes great parental commitment and a breaking with historical norms to take a child through secondary school. We saw a great deal of that Enelerai. This village dreams of great things and education is the way to get there.
The Building Experience
The differences between old and new classrooms at Enelarai is stark. The older classrooms consist of mud and stick walls, small openings for windows, a tattered tin roof, uneven mud floors, a black board, and desks. It is hard to see the black board or for that matter the students. The new classrooms in sharp contrast have thick cement foundations, brick walls, skylights in the roof for light, and glass windows. They are clean and they stand proud. We were here at Enelerai to help with the secondary school and were in fact going to start digging the foundation of the kitchen the next day. The next day, we began working on digging the footers for the foundation. We spent four days working alongside Kenyan construction workers, some of which live in the area, and some of which come a long way to work on the project (referred to as Fundi’s) . Truth be told, we only put in a half day on each of these four days, and even with that, it was hard work. Picks, Shovels, biceps and backs are the tools of creating footers in rural Africa, not backhoes. Carol and I wanted the boys experience to be one of blisters. That would prove true. Our job was to dig the footers around the perimeter of the kitchen to a depth of about four feet. The first day the ground was very wet and the clay chunks that lay just under the grass stuck in thick chunks to our shovel blades and Picks. This was slow going. We learned from Wilson, a Fundi, who was there with us every day, how best to do this. The clay chunks were so large that Anna started a trend by not even using the shovel and just heaving them out. Over the next three days, the earth dried and we got more productive. We couldn’t help but notice that the ditches seemed deeper than when we left. We were grateful the Fundi’s were helping us make our way through the muck and we were more grateful that they put us with our ineptness as I’m sure we were to a large degree just getting in their way. In any event the kids put in some good hard work and we all got blisters. Working alongside the local men was extraordinary and taught us how to pace ourselves, and also taught us how tough these men are for putting 10 or so hours of grueling physical effort into the same trench each day. We finished our work by creating rebar structures for the cement pour. We cut the rebar with a hack saw, cut wire with a hammer and rocks, and tied the rebar sections together. It seems amazing how things are done here when you consider the expensive power tools that are available in the world. People, not power, nor money are available more broadly here, and that’s what deployed.
We were working on Sunday morning when we heard some African music from beyond a tree line. I could swear it was live. And we argued about Radio vs: Live. During a quick break we peaked between the trees to see a church service taking place inside a small and austere building. A quasi-tuned synthesizer and drum machine belted out music that went on for what seemed like hours. Folks inside could be seen dancing and heard singing. What did we do? We danced our way back to the digging site, playing with a little girl who lived nearby as she danced as well. I wish I could describe the dance. It was beautiful, rhythmic, proud, and distinctly Kenyan. I’ve seen this dance before, but never in states.
We had a morning and an evening with Nabaala, the Masai Warrior who patiently spent time with us educating us about the Masai. One morning he took us to an open field to teach us some of the Masai’s weapons. He taught us how to throw a club called a konga and how to shoot his bow and arrow. It was amazing to watch the command that Nabaala had over these tools. Nabaala could hit a bird in flight with his Konga, and easily hit an animal in the eye with his bow from over 100 meters. The bow and the conga were wooden and handmade. We all took turns trying them both with differing degrees of success. Nabaala was a great teacher, praising every attempt with “Wow!” that was great! The kids are hooked. In the evening, we sat around a table on a hillside sipping tea as the sun went down, as Nabaala told us about the process to become a Masai Warrior in the first person. Now, I know I’m going to get some of this wrong, but it’s largely right. (Chime in Nabaala if I got something wrong). He was named when he was 5 years old, not when he was born, based on his characteristics or nature. At 12, he was circumcised quite publicly and if he flinched during the operation, he was basically cast out of his village as a “flincher” shamed by his entire family. Nabaala is not a flincher. Nabaala was prepared for his circumcision by burning, cutting, etc… to get him ready for the pain. After a successful circumcision, Nabaala entered a hut for 6 months to heal his wounds. He couldn’t bathe nor cut his hair. At the end of that healing period, he bathed, cut his hair, and then went to a camp where he ate meat, trained on his weapons, and saw his body change to prepare for the ultimate ritual: kill a lion. Masai men must kill a male lion and come back with it’s mane as a headdress to become a warrior. Nabaala described his time in cave on the Mara where he prepared for his lion kill. He described how he killed the lion and lost two friends in the process. He described how urgently he needed to kill the lion, because he had an exam to ensure he get into secondary school, and he couldn’t afford to miss it. Nabaala did actually kill a lion and make it back in time for his exam. Nabaala went on to attend a 4 year university in Nairobi to study botany, biology and the environment, and he now enriches people’s lives by keeping the Masai culture alive and educating us on all that surrounds us on the Mara. This is a truly amazing guy who lives every day like it is his last.
The Village Walk
We spent an afternoon on a community walk near Enelerai where we were able to visit with some of the local people in their homes. We were taken by the pride the village women had in showing us their homes and walking us through the neighborhood. The proudly showed us their school and the new water collection system, and a few different homes where we met some wonderful people. The homes were round, one or two room bungalows, and the cooking was done inside over an open fire, in some homes in the same room as the bed. Smoke fills the hut and everything smells of it. Most young children have runny noses because of all the smoke, that and a relatively low functioning immune system. If you imagine a young child clinging to his mom while she is cooking , it all makes sense. The houses were clean and well cared for. We were educated on how daily tasks are done and who is responsible for what. It seems that the women do all the work. I know that’s a bit blunt, but it’s true. They fetch the water. They fetch the firewood. They cook the dinner. They keep the house. They manage the kids. These women are studs. The men take the herds in and out every day. That’s it. You do find men like those working along side us at the school, but apparently this isn’t the norm. We had a chance to fetch water, just like an 8 year old girl would do in her village. We all tried it. Imagine carrying a 50lb container of water on your heard for two kilometers. Now imagine doing that twice or three times a day. You do this just so you can cook, or wash, or drink. And this water comes from the Mara river, which is not a clean river. We all took turns carrying the water on our heads with a rope strap. It was very hard and completely impossible to imagine an 8 year old girl doing this two times a day, school or not.
We were lucky to have tea with three of the women with whom we walked the village earlier that day. We sat around a table and spoke frankly of the way things were long ago, and the way they are now. We spoke about men and their roles and women and their roles. We spoke of wife beatings which are common, about wives having wives if they are unable to have children, about men having multiple wives which is also quite common, and about the very little that men actually do on a daily basis. It is hard to grock why this is a male dominated society, given that women do all the work. Female circumcision is still practiced, (illegal but practiced), men beat their wives, take loans and then disappear, etc… Carol told them that I actually do the laundry and they giggled, seeming a little uncomfortable with the concept, while still wanting the village men to do more. One of the women there manufactured and sold charcoal, (which is an insanely tough and labor intensive job) to bring in the family’s money, and she still held down all the other responsibilities in her household. She was 60. With all of the responsibility and pain these women shoulder, they still find the time to organize as a group to work on projects with the intent of moving their community forward. These women, and women like them, are the strongest force of change for rural Kenya. We include Robin among them.
The closing “ceremony”
Our last day at the Enelerai school ended in a thank you ceremony in which we were thanked by teachers, parents and students alike for coming to their village and their school, and for contributing what we had in our short stay, and for spending time with them. We each spoke in front of the students and parents, and thanked them in turn for educating us and welcoming us into their community. We had learned so much and were so grateful for all they had given us: warmth, welcome, kindness, laughter, and an overwhelming sense that at its core, humanity is good regardless of circumstance. We finished the day playing a game of soccer with some of the students and it was astonishing to see them run across a field full of rocks in their bare feet, showing off skills. We wished that we had been here much longer and had accomplished much more. We hope to come back to this wonderful place and help in any way we can.
We came to Kenya and the School of the Savannah to show our children firsthand what can happen when a small group of likeminded people are inspired to do something for others. We came to show them that a small act can blossom past impossibilities into something that can affect millions of lives. We came to show them that inspiration and perspiration when combined could achieve the impossible, and we hoped that we would find people that exemplified all of that. We did.
Robin: Thank you for educating and inspiring us with your story and for helping these people so passionately. We honestly don’t believe that people would be waving feverishly at every car as it drives by if it wasn’t for the genuine care you have shown to these people and the frank and open dialog that you have had with them that has made so much of this possible.
Jon and Brooke: Thanks for helping us understand things on our own when you thought we should and explaining things when you thought we needed it. Also, thanks for being our friends and cohorts. Your sense of humor and skills as facilitators helped us enjoy our trip more than we ever could have on our own. We are still laughing at the answer to Parker’s question: “Hey Brooke, If we combined the USA with Canada, what do you think we should call it?” Your immediate dead pan response: “Canada.” Brilliant. Jon, we’re now hooked on Arrested Development. Thanks. You were both awesome and insightful from pick up to drop off and felt like part of the family. You know where we live. :-)
Nabaala: Thanks for everything. Parker wants only to be a Masai warrior now. Do you have room in your next camp? :-)
Roxanne, Michelle, Mark, Peter, and David: We consider ourselves very lucky to have had a couple of nights with you over the dinner table. You are all living proof of what my sister Lori believed, and what Margaret Mead said was 100% right: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Thanks for everything.