This is the third and final post about my trip to Kenya in July. To get the rest of the story, go here:
On Becoming a Kenyan Lobbyist
Liz was full of surprises, offering and using us immeasurably more than we had expected. One afternoon after our key teacher trainings came to a close, she announced that the next day we would be driving to Nairobi and visiting an official from the leading political party of Kenya. He was a friend of hers and because of her advocacy, he was interested in learning about the work we had been doing with parents and teachers in Kikuyu.
He shared with us about President Kenyatta’s party’s commitment to education and their desire to lift up those with barriers to their education – people groups such as the Maasai, poor families who cannot afford early childhood or secondary education, and children with special needs. He listened to our summary of the previous days’ trainings, the positive response of teachers, administrators, and caregivers, and their hunger for more information and training.
He caught the momentum of what we had started and began making plans and avenues for Elizabeth to meet further with government leaders in the Parliamentary Education Committee, and even the First Lady of Kenya. He suggested a path forward that was exactly in line with our own private hopes – sending Elizabeth and a small team to the United States to observe and learn how government policy shapes and impacts the education and outcomes of children with disabilities in the classroom. (He also suggested a path forward along the lines of introducing me to his single brother, but Elizabeth kindly explained that my husband back at home would not appreciate that so well.)
We shook hands, took photos, accepted parting gifts of hats and T-shirts, and were on our way. How that Friday morning meeting in Nairobi will continue to unfold is exciting to me. To imagine that our little team could have planted a seed that could flower into the first legislation of its kind in Kenya for children with disabilities and special learning needs…immeasurably more than we ever expected.
Meeting the Maasai
The Maasai are well known in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are a semi-nomadic people group, and from what I understand, are the last remaining tribe in Kenya who proudly continue to practice their traditional culture. Life centers around cattle and other livestock, and a Maasai man’s chief occupation is herding and grazing his cattle, and protecting his family and livestock from harm (usually from wild animals).
Due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle, there has understandably been conflict between the Maasai culture and the modern influences that have swept over the rest of Kenya, such as formal education, legal land boundaries, and western medicine and health practices. However, most Maasai welcome education for their children and have found ways to maintain traditional practices while interacting with the rest of the population.
And here is where our story intersects with the Maasai.
Elizabeth’s middle name, Nyokabi, is from her grandmother. It means “of the Maasai people”, or “taken from the Maasai”. Liz’s grandmother was a Maasai girl, living close to the boundary between the Maasai lands and the neighboring Kikuyu tribe. Maasai and Kikuyus both herded goats and cattle, and would often raid one another’s lands, stealing animals. A group of Maasai warriors might raid Kikuyu lands and steal a herd of goats. The Kikuyus would retaliate by raiding the Maasai, and steal not only goats, but a few girls as well. These girls would be given to Kikuyu warriors.
Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother was one of these girls, who at 14 was stolen from the Maasai and lived among the Kikuyu the rest of her life. Hence, Elizabeth is 3/4 Kikuyu, 1/4 Maasai in ethnicity. Her grandmother, Nyokabi, became a teacher and an influential woman, well known for advocating and working on behalf of oppressed women and increasing educational opportunities in her community.
Those who know Elizabeth see her as carrying on her grandmother’s legacy. One of her connections to the Maasai people is a pastor named Joseph, who lives on Maasai land near Suswa, about an hour’s drive from Limuru. She told Joseph about her American visitors and our purpose in coming to Kenya, and Joseph invited us to visit his home and meet some of his neighbors.
Joseph’s neighbors walked an hour or more to gather at his homestead for our visit. Elizabeth used this opportunity to talk to the parents and assess the educational needs in their community. To get to school, children walk two or three hours each way. The very young ones, therefore, do not attend, and the rest may attend only a couple days per week. Because of these challenges, many of the children are years behind their peers and repeat the same grade over and over.
The primary school may have a teacher with only an 8th grade education, who has neither the training or resources to differentiate for special learning needs, or for a child who is cognitively capable but has not had opportunity to adequately access school, or for the children who may be present, but physically tired and hungry from the exertion of travel. Some of the children had special health or learning needs which are not being addressed.
Joseph told us that his community is raising funds to build a church near his home (the church body currently meets outdoors under an acacia tree). It would be a simple iron-sheet structure, probably costing about $5000 US dollars. We explored the idea of using the completed church building as a school as well. It seemed like a feasible solution that would bring a school closer to home for many children, or serve as an early childhood school to give young children a strong start and increase their opportunity for academic success in primary school.
We were completely honored by the hospitality and welcome from Joseph and his friends and family. I do not know how our short visit will bear fruit, but I look forward to seeing how Elizabeth and Joseph’s community continue to collaborate and improve the educational outcomes for their children.
Tourism is the largest industry in Kenya, due to its diverse geography and wildlife. On our last day, we joined the rest of Kenya’s visitors and became tourists. We took a morning game-drive through Nairobi National Park, and visited the Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Center. For the first time since our arrival, we were surrounded by pale mzungus, finally blending in (as much as a 6-foot tall woman and her five-foot tall identical twin companions can).
“Nelson Mandela” was our driver for the day and he expertly drove us around the park, helping us spot antelope, baboons, hippos, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, and lions, even lions feeding, in their natural habitat.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi is an orphan elephant and rhino rescue and rehabilitation program and conservation organization for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa. Africa’s elephant and rhino populations are threatened due to poaching for their ivory and horn, and loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation, and drought. The trust rescues orphaned animals and rehabilitates them over a period of several years and successfully reintegrates them into the wild. We enjoyed meeting dozens of baby elephants and seeing the attentive care they receive from their keepers.
It was thrilling to see the landscape and wildlife I had only glimpsed in books and documentaries. Amazing Africa.
Beyond the beautiful landscape and wildlife abundant here, Kenya’s people have within them stores of wisdom and wealth that is not necessarily measured or highly valued in our culture. Americans often view Africa as a poor, corrupt, disease-ridden, famine-stricken, developing continent in constant need of our help (money) and expertise. But when you actually walk around in Africa, meet the people, hear their stories, see their industry, a different picture emerges.
You meet resourceful people who creatively do much with little. In smaller towns, there are few vehicles, but there are dozens of donkeys pulling carts of produce and animal feed. For those who don’t own a donkey, they pull the cart themselves, sometimes partnering up with a buddy who pushes from the back, while another pulls. And for those who don’t have a donkey cart, well, they have their own strong backs.
Every available patch of good earth is planted with corn or other vegetables along the sides of roads and between structures. A family that has more space than it needs to grow food for itself, rents out its acreage to others to grow and then sell produce in the market. Empty water bottles are transformed into creative irrigation for foliage at a park. Building materials are used and recycled again and again into all manner of construction.
Mini-busses called matatus are the chief source of public transportation and pack an impossibly large amount of humans into a small space. Even better, if you know someone who knows someone who has a car and they are traveling where you need to go, you are virtually guaranteed a seat, avoiding the longer wait and crowd of the matatu.
You also notice the force of the social fabric that binds Kenyan people together, making them strong. Time and again, I heard stories of families who worked as a unit to send all the siblings to secondary school or university. When the oldest family member graduated and got a job, his wages were not his own. He was not forced to pay his siblings’ way through school, it was his privilege and responsibility.
We learned that families within individual schools or communities often pool resources to supply uniforms, meals, or fees for children in the neighborhood whose parents could not provide. Every morning and afternoon, we watched dozens of children walking to school (nary a sidewalk or parent in sight), stronger together, small ones holding the hands or riding on the backs of the older ones.
Family and social relationships are valued higher than individual achievement. For Elizabeth, to flourish as a person means going back to her Maasai roots, doing what she can to learn from the culture of her grandmother, and using her resources and skills to create opportunity for them.
In Kenya, it is customary to think of we and ours before me and mine.
Amazingly, children in Kenya (and adults who went to school) speak two or three languages. In their homes, they hear and speak their mother tongue, or the tribal language of their parents (and every Kenyan knows his or her ethnic tribe). The official languages of Kenya are Kiswahili and English. Kiswahili is the common language spoken between people, and English is taught in school. Most families don’t own a single book (and bookstores and libraries are rare outside of Nairobi), but the richness of their oral language puts us Americans and our sound-bite, directive way of communicating to shame.
Karen, Sharon, and I sat down to our evening meal on one of our last nights in Kenya. The enormity of joy and gratitude for all we had experienced weighed so heavily we could hardly speak. We received our food and couldn’t even string words together in prayer as was our daily custom. One of us just whispered, “Thank you.” Tears dripped onto the tablecloth as we looked at each others’ faces and laughed at all God had done.
The next day we enjoyed a celebratory lunch with Elizabeth and her children (at KFC, of course) and were forced to admit that it was time to part. The four of us hugged and cried, and Liz reminded us that we were sisters and would see each other again; we would not say “Good-bye”.
“Go well,” she called out instead. Which only made me cry all the more.
This story isn’t complete without a shoutout to my amazing husband and kids. I was a bit anxious about our separation, as you may recall. My days were so full in Kenya, I hardly had a moment to worry, but sometimes in bed at night, or while waiting for Karen and Sharon to tease and curl their hair in the mornings, I wondered how Ellie was doing at camp, or if John was tucking Jack into bed with extra time and care to make up for my absence. Were they eating enough vegetables? Was John extraordinarily lonely?
The report upon my return was that everything went better than expected at home. The children were happy and well behaved. Everyone stayed healthy. Camp was “awesome!” John and the kids picked over a hundred pounds of blueberries and blackberries, stuffed the freezer with their goodness, and made three batches of jam. The only time Jack cried was when he banged up his knee at the park one day. The house was cleaner than it has ever been. I think John is secretly scheming for a change of regime here – swapping the full-time working and mostly-stay-at-home parenting roles.
My gratitude for how God provided for all four of us swelled. I looked at my dear mzungus and imagined the four of us in Kenya, perhaps for a visit in the big blue house surrounded by goats, chickens, and fruit trees, ready to plant more seeds, prune some branches, and strengthen our ties to our Kenyan brothers and sisters.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…