Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Your Help Needed!

Patrick and I have set up an email account for our good friend Ben Asembo, who takes us all around on walks. He is a 53 year old electrician and is new to computers and the Internet. If you've been following this blog, the chances are, you've already heard about him and seen many pictures of him.

Patrick and I have now been giving him daily email lessons, so that he'll be able to do it on his own by the time we leave Kenya in six more weeks. But email's not as much fun if you don't have very many people to exchange emails with!

We need your help! Will you please send Ben an email, just to say hello, and to welcome him to the Internet? It would be really cool if he suddenly opens up his email and has 10 messages to read. Tell him your name and where you're from, and feel free to ask him questions like, "What is Kenya like?" "How's the weather?" "How did your crops do this season?" etc....

His email is: benasembo  @

(Obviously, there are no spaces in it, but I don't want him to get random spam messages from me posting his address here).

Please give it a shot....have fun with it!

Ben's waiting for your emails....

Monday, June 28, 2010


Welliminah's mother passed away over the weekend. On Saturday, she got the call and hurried up to Kakamega (about an hour away) to go to the hospital. We found out later that she had passed.

Welliminah got back yesterday afternoon (Sunday), and Patrick and I were advised to clear the house for a few hours to allow for the "wailing process". So Ben took us on a long walk. Ben is an amazing family friend of the Kutai's, and this pretty much illustrates why.

My curiosity would have liked to see/hear the wailing process, but apparently it's a traditional way of notifying the neighborhood of the loss, and inviting them into your home to grieve with you. It's really a beautiful concept - that's real social capital and community, if you ask me.

The funeral is upcoming. I haven't heard of a date yet.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Life is Good.

Inspired by my "Life is Good," water bottle that I drink out of, here are some pictures of the good life from the last four weeks here in Es'saba Village.

Crossing a stream on a walk with Ben

Patrick and Ben crossing the bridge

This was on the first day of the World Cup, June 11th. We went on a walk with Ben just before the first game between South Africa and Mexico, and brought a soccer ball along with us. As we were walking, these kids saw our soccer ball and came out of nowhere, sprinting towards us. So we stopped and played with them for about 30 minutes. They were reluctant to see us finally move on.

A scene of the Kenyan countryside while walking with Ben.

At home with Moraa, little Vincent, Divo, and neighbor Musa.

Divo now knows that "it's great to be a Florida Gator"

And he looks cool with it backwards too. (Also notice the mis-spellings on his shirt)

In the car with Okwemba. Patrick in the front seat.

That jerry can sitting on top of the chair is full of rain water. It's the water Patrick and I use to wash our hands, brush our teeth, and do other things of the sort.

Welliminah's beautiful home at sunset.

A freshly filled can of rainwater.

Neighborhood friends in the back of the house.

Peter (prounounced "Pita"), Divo, Boga.

Big little men at dusk.

Apparently the Terrible Turkey likes to hang out on top of the water tank sometimes. Little Vincent below.

Sitting in the front yard about to begin reading the final chapter of Three Cups of Tea. What an amazing book. So inspiring. One of the best written books I've ever read, as well.

Kitties in the house at the end of the day. Kenyans don't name their cats, so Patrick has named them "Lucky" (on the left, because she looks like his childhood cat, also named Lucky), and "Monkey" (on the right, for the annoying, monkey-like meow she makes). Lucky is Monkey's mother.

Hard at work late in the evening.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

My first chicken!

I wrote in a previous blog post that I gave a recent high school graduate named Franklin the equivalent of $7 to settle his balance at his secondary school, and in so doing, receive his diploma certifying that he had passed secondary school.

Franklin has returned the favor by giving me the gift of a live chicken!

I felt incredibly honored to receive such a well-intentioned and meaningful gift. The chicken now roams around the compound along with Welliminah's other chickens. I imagine that eventually I will be eating it. :)

Thank you, Franklin.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Project update

Tomorrow will mark the four-week point of my project in Kenya. It's incredible how fast time has moved. But I've made good use of it so far - over the past four weeks, I've been hard at work developing the Global Student Summit program for Kijana. The concept of the program is to engage Kenyan and American youth in cross-cultural interaction and solutions-based dialogue on the world's most pressing issues. Each year, from September-May (following the US academic calendar), participants will collaborate and deliberate a new and different topic that has global relevance.

Kijana's director, Jim Cummings, who is a committed environmentalist, suggested that the focus of the first "campaign" (which is the term I have developed for it in my planning materials) be on global fresh water scarcity, with the goal of promoting solutions for sustainable water management. It is certainly a relevant topic here in Kenya, and whether students in Florida realize it or not, it's important there too.

The past four weeks has involved a lot of learning and research for me. I have become an amateur expert on water issues - or at least as knowledgeable as each of the secondary students who participate in the program should be when they're done with it. And being here in a rural village in Kenya has also given me a first-hand education of the water challenges that are faced in developing regions throughout the world (which Patrick has excellently documented in one of his blog posts).

Aside from the learning and research, my task over the past month has been to figure out how to make this a meaningful program that will broaden students' horizons and understanding of the world, and also make them feel empowered as global citizens and change-makers. Jim's vision for the program was to have a series of videoconferences which would culminate with the students writing and submitting policy proposals for sustainable water management to their national and international leaders - the President and members of Congress in the United States, Kenya's President and relevant Members of Parliament, and the United Nations Environmental Program.

That alone would be a great program, but I knew I could make it even more meaningful. Since I am a student at the Clinton School - a school of Public Service, rather than a school of Public Policy or Public Administration - I know that change cannot be affected through top-down policy decisions alone. The role of change-agent or advocate also calls for creating civic engagement within his or her communities. It means educating and changing hearts, minds, and behaviors. It means getting down on your hands and knees sometimes and getting dirty. It means being on the ground level, communicating with people eye-to-eye rather than staring at a computer screen all day on the 15th floor of a skyscraper. These are the lessons I took away from my first year at the Clinton School, and I am now ready to put them into action.

So in addition to the policy proposals, the students will also get a little dirty themselves. In addition to learning and talking about water, they will experience it, and serve it. In October, I am having the students visit their local bodies of water - Lake Victoria in Kenya and Lake Okeechobee in Florida - in what I am calling a "Local Immersion Mission." They will learn about their local water - its history, the life it supports, the challenges it faces - and then they will contribute to the sustained health of the water, even if it is as simple as picking up trash along the banks. The idea is that there is great importance in actually making that physical connection with water in their region, to help them understand what they are fighting and advocating for.

This idea was inspired by my reading of David Orr's book Earth in Mind, which I think is the most brilliant thing I have ever read. He says, "Water should be a part of every school curriculum....Water as part of our mythology, history, politics, culture, and society, should be woven throughout curriculum, K through PhD...I propose that (water) restoration be made part of the educational agenda. Every public school, college, and university is within easy reach of streams, rivers, and lakes that are in need of restoration. The act of restoration is an opportunity to move education beyond the classroom and laboratory to the outdoors, from theory to application, and from indifference to healing. My proposal is for institutions to adopt streams or entire watersheds and make their full health an educational objective as important as say, capital funds campaigns to build new administration buildings or athletic facilities." While this program won't fully realize Orr's vision, it is a start.

The other major component I have decided to add to the program is to have the students host an education and advocacy event (or series of events) at their schools to mark World Water Day, which is held every year on March 22 (which ironically enough, is also my birthday - perfect considering my last name!). It fits perfectly within the program calendar and will be a great way for the students to put the knowledge they gain to action, by giving them the opportunity to practice their advocacy, leadership, and communication skills within their school communities. It also broadens the impact of the program - I believe their presentations on World Water Day will make a legitimate difference at their schools, and will inspire their peers and even their teachers to make personal commitments to reducing their water consumption. The program will also request that students hold a fundraising drive as part of their World Water Day efforts for Kijana. The idea is for Kijana to take the money raised and pay to have water systems such as gutters and tanks installed at schools in Kenya. And yes, I'm even going to request that the Kenyan students raise money too. Despite the impoverished area they live in, I believe that with enough creativity, they can raise money from their community. This realization will help empower them to believe in their ability to contribute to change. Lastly, I'm going to see if my high school, The Benjamin School will match money raised by their students.

All in all, I want the program to be a holistic learning experience for the students. I've embedded my draft of the Participant Guide (below) that each student will receive and follow along with throughout the program. It's chock full of articles and information about the global water crisis, which will help prepare them for the videoconference discussions and in forming solutions to promote in their policy proposals. But I didn't want the Participant Guide to be an information dump. I wanted to engage them in a broad discussion of the supreme importance and significance of water. David Orr says, "What is the meaning of water? One might as well ask 'What does it mean to be human?' The answer may be found in our relation to water, the mother of human life. When the waters again run clear and their life is restored we might see ourselves reflected whole." Inspired by this, I have aimed to include a broad spectrum of selections in the Participant Guide, readings that will acknowledge the fullness of the students' human spirits and their wide range of interests and abilities. It includes poetry about water, stories about our physical and spiritual connection to water, scientific overviews of our global water resources, and the larger social impact that water scarcity has on the quality of our lives and our development as societies. As I learned in my Education Policy seminar with Don Ernst this past semester (which is where I was exposed to Orr's Earth in Mind), we can be doing a lot better at reaching each of our students on a holistic, human level. This project is my experiment, my effort, to try to do that.

The picture to the right is of students at Ebusiloli Secondary who will participate in the program starting this September.

Below is my draft copy of the Participant Guide. Feel free to browse through it to get a better idea of my project and this program. I would warmly welcome any thoughts or suggestions on the draft. More updates on my project to come. 

 DRAFT - Water Sustainability: Finding Solutions to Fresh Water Scarcity - Global Student Summit - Participa...                                                              

The Real Reason President Clinton Came to Africa

Earlier this week, President Clinton arrived in Africa to tour the work his Foundation has been doing here. Or at least so he says....

Isn't it a coincidence that his 11th trip to the continent coincides with Africa's very first World Cup?? Suurrrree, Billy boy, you're here to do public service, just like your dedicated, hard-working students.

But I guess it doesn't hurt to take in an exciting USA game while you're in town.

Let me know when you make your way through western Kenya. I'll be waiting for you. Bring your sax. :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

There's a Terrible Turkey at the Door

The other day Welliminah's Terrible Turkey was pissed. I have no idea why, but he just was. Patrick had been outside when all of the sudden the Terrible Turkey started to terrify. He trotted towards him and forced him back in the front door. And then he stood there.

So I got up in its face and started taking pictures of it. What a terrible thing!

He didn't appreciate me, so he started pecking at the glass.

But then, the Terrible Turkey was joined by the Devilish Duck, who doggedly waddled up, hissing like someone who hisses. What did we do to deserve this?

The Terrible Turkey felt emboldened, but he didn't realize that Patrick and I have a deal with the Devilish Duck, who promptly took care of our problem.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Patrick Banks...

watches Japanese cartoons with English subtitles on his laptop for fun.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Field Trip!

On Friday, Patrick and I were invited to go on a field trip all around Western Kenya with 30 students from Es'saba Secondary school. We left the school at 7am and got back home at 9pm. The whole way, Patrick and I sat in the front of the bus (which was a truck cab) with the driver. A little crowded and uncomfortable, but we got some good views along the way.

Here's a picture of the bus:

First, we stopped along the side of the road at this huge monolith called the "Crying Rock," which is apparently a popular attraction for Kenyans. It has a long black water stain running down it that makes it look like it's crying. A side view:

Then we made it to Kitale, where we went to the Museum of Western Kenya. It had a zoo-area as well with live animals, including a gigantic crocodile!

I was a big fan of this sign, cautioning people against getting too close to the crocodiles.

Perhaps they meant "predators," but "pretenders" works just as well. Those crocodiles like to trick you into thinking they're just chillin'. Then when you think it's cool to just join them and hang out, they'll chomp the heck out of you! So, really....quite profound.

Inside the museum now, here's a picture of our friend Duncan, a teacher at the school:

The students loved asking me to take their picture in front of the exhibits...

I'll have to print these out and give them their pictures.

Next we went to the base of Mt. Elgon. We would have gone higher, but it started raining, and the driver determined it to be too dangerous to keep climbing the steep hills. Mt. Elgon is right on the border of Uganda. Here's a shot of our bus driver making the judgment call. Nonetheless, it was a BEAUTIFUL area, and I think the rain only made it more breathtaking.

Lastly, we drove to Webuye to see these huge waterfalls that they have there. Here are a few shots....they too were beautiful and amazing:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Coolest Holiday Ever

I enjoyed reading my classmate Kim's recent blog entry about South Africa's annual national holiday called Youth Day, a day that is "spent by youths having conversations about social issues and their role in addressing them." WOW! Although the holiday has a special historical significance to South Africa, it definitely needs to be exported internationally (although I worry about what Hallmark would do to such a day in the USA, especially on the cusp of the cheapened holiday of Father's Day).

As I wrote in a previous post, the world needs more of this thing called Youth, and I can't think of a better way to promote it than by meaningfully celebrating and cultivating the power and energy that the world's young people have the way that South Africa does every year according to Kim's description.

Wes Moore, the author of the terrific new book, The Other Wes Moore, wrote in a Father's Day column that was published today on the Huffington Post that, "Young kids look for engagement and belonging; they need above all to feel that their existence matters." I couldn't agree more, and I think the mission of Youth Day completely gets at that.

Basically, I'm inspired. Thanks Kim! To read more of Kim's experiences working for a Community Foundation in South Africa, check out her blog, KC in the Western Cape.

Another day in Es'saba Village.

At around 11:30am this morning, I was sitting in Welliminah's front yard, reading Three Cups of Tea, when I heard some loud, excited noise coming from a few compounds over. It was the sound of women's voices, and I couldn't tell if the sound was one of joy or one of distress - the sound of laughing and celebration is not too different than the sound of crying and sorrow.

After about a minute of intrigued confusion, I saw Moraa, the third grader who lives with us, sprint from behind the house to the front of the compound, pause for a minute as she determined where the sound was coming from, and then continue running towards it. I was still uncertain what her reaction to the sound revealed. Perhaps she was going to join the celebration or perhaps she was going to answer the distress.

About another minute later, another woman who works in the back of the house cleaning clothes and dishes, also sprinted to the front yard and out of the compound towards the sound coming from nearby. As she ran, she also exclaimed something out loud, which I figured was a prayer. At this point, it became clear to me that something bad was happening.

I continued to sit in my chair reading, and heard the sound eventually reside. Minutes later, I looked up from my book and saw Moraa and the woman walking silently back to the rear of the house.

After some time passed, I asked what the commotion was, and I was told that a young girl had passed away after falling ill with malaria. She was in second grade at Es'saba Primary, the same school Moraa attends, and a school that Kijana assists. Sadly, when Moraa and her classmates return to school on Monday morning, there will be one less student among them.

I don't really have any commentary on this story, but I felt that it should be shared here for its contribution to a larger portrait of Kenyan village life that I hope this blog is offering.

However, if you are so moved, I would suggest that one way you could help is by learning more about this preventable and treatable disease, and investigating ways you can contribute to solving this public health crisis.

From the World Health Organization: "In 2008, there were 247 million cases of malaria and nearly one million deaths – mostly among children living in Africa. In Africa a child dies every 45 seconds of Malaria, and the disease accounts for 20% of all childhood deaths."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Welcome to Small America

The first time Jim Cummings told me that there were students in Kenya that have to walk four hours round-trip to attend school everyday, I lacked the life experience required to fully understand what he meant. I couldn't understand what would possess any kid my age to want to wake up every morning at 5am, head out the door by 6am, and walk for two hours to go to school, the twelve-year prison sentence slowly robbing me and my friends of our youth. "So why don't they build a school closer to where they live?", I asked incredulously. "Because they don't have enough money," Mr. Cummings, my high school social studies teacher replied tolerantly.

I was a scrawny fourteen year old freshman at The Benjamin School, an expensive private school located in one of the wealthiest areas of the United States - northern Palm Beach County, Florida. Instead of a four hour round-trip walk, I was dropped off and picked up from school everyday by my mom or dad in their leather-seated, air-conditioned luxury cars.

Ten years later, I stand in the middle of Mwituha Secondary School (right), the newest secondary school in western Kenya's Emuhaya Division. Opened in 2006, it will graduate its second Form IV (12th grade) class this November, and has quickly established itself as one of the area's top schools. Growing from zero to two hundred students in five years, it currently ranks third out of sixteen in Emuhaya Division based on students' scores on Kenya's national standardized test, the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). But despite all its accomplishments, the school is best known throughout the area by its interesting nickname: "Small America".

The school's opening and growth has been an ongoing project of Kijana Educational Empowerment Initiative, my partner organization this summer. The organization was founded and is directed by Mr. Cummings, the former high school social studies teacher who I now simply refer to as Jim. In the late 1980s, when Jim was roughly my age, he worked as a World Teach volunteer, teaching English for two years at a nearby secondary school called Ebusiloli, another school that Kijana now assists. As he got to learn more about his students, he found out that many of them were walking long distances to and from school everyday - some as long as four hours round-trip. Their routinely strong attendance in class despite the arduous daily journey along hilly dirt paths and dilapidated tarmac roads made a lasting impression on Jim. Even if those students overcrowded his classrooms well past capacity, he appreciated the value that Kenyan youth placed on education.

A lot of those students would have gone to Mwituha Secondary if it existed. For a long time, the Secondary school sat next to its companion Primary school, educating students from its nearby villages, miles away from Ebusiloli. But in the mid-1980s, the Secondary school shut down, struggling with poor performance and lack of funds. For twenty years, the plot of land laid vacant, with brush growing up around it, no one caring enough to clear it. The effect the school's absence had on the community lays largely untold, but could not have been good. Jim's students that endured the long four hour journey to and from Ebusiloli everyday were actually the privileged few whose families both understood the importance of education and had the luxury to forfeit some of the valuable time their child would normally be spending doing important daily chores around the home.

When Jim launched Kijana in 2002, reopening Mwituha was high on his list of priorities. Once enough funding was in place, Kijana began by revitalizing the only structure still standing on the school's campus, two small classrooms that now hold the school's Form I and II students. Kijana continued by building two additional classrooms for Form III and IV students, a science laboratory (left), and an administration block for the school's faculty and staff. Meanwhile, Jim worked with Emuhaya's District Education Office to keep them in the loop with the school's progress, and when they saw how well the school was taking off, they contributed two classrooms of their own through a government agency, the Constituent Development Fund (CDF).

Receiving a tour from Susan Jactone Okola, a former student of Jim's from Ebusiloli who now serves as Kijana's Program Officer, I am amazed by the beauty of the school. A staple of every school Kijana has assisted is its impeccable lush landscaping, with grass on the ground, trees providing students with shade on their breaks, and a wide variety of plant life surrounding the classrooms and walkways. As students walk around campus, murals and motivational quotes also greet them and inspire them to strive for their best (right).

Kijana's latest addition to the school is underway - a large library (below) with a giant open reading room, a computer lab, additional classroom, and most interestingly, a large opening from the reading room looking out upon the open campus, where a performance stage and round stadium-style seating will be constructed as an outdoor amphitheater for use by the school and community. The library/theater combination has a unique design that I haven't seen anywhere else in western Kenya. The name of the architect is Jeremiah Awori, a modern day Renaissance Man, who closely oversees the construction of his plans from the classroom across campus where he serves as one of the school's teachers.

Jim has told me that he doesn't just want to build schools in Kenya, he wants to build great schools. Why shouldn't students in Kenya have the same access to opportunities that students in America have? Students at Mwituha will soon have a beautiful, well-equipped school in which they can experiment with science, explore the world through a comprehensive library and computer lab, and express themselves publicly through theater, art, and music. The projects Patrick and I have brought to the area are perfectly timed. Now that Mwituha has the essentials - classrooms with a roof to protect students from the wet season's daily rains, a full staff of teachers and administrators - our projects will go a long way toward making the school truly great. Patrick is helping the school identify a strategy to prepare students for the KCSE science exam, an area that local students have struggled with. My project will engage students in four cross-cultural videoconferences with students from my high school in America, where from my own experience as a naive fourteen year old freshman there, I believe students will benefit just as much from the interaction as the Kenyan students.

Small America is flourishing. The nickname, which is reported to me with great pride by Mwituha's principal and teachers, is amusingly inspiring (I have told them that while we have many Little Italy's and Chinatowns in America, we do not yet have a Small Kenya). Small America, like it's larger counterpart across the Atlantic, is a land of opportunity. For the students, who have been given a great school. For the teachers and faculty, who now have meaningful and reliable employment. For the community, whose skills have been put to work to revive and construct this beautiful campus. And for teachers at Ebusiloli, who have seen their classroom sizes return to a more manageable level.

I find Mwituha's story to be incredibly inspiring. I consider myself an idealist, but as I think is common for anyone, it is sometimes easy to feel a sense of futility. ("There's so much need in the could I possibly be making a difference?") Admittedly, I was recently feeling this way about Kijana. But when I took the tour of Mwituha and met all the students and faculty there, each one so enthusiastic and full of optimism, I quickly realized my foolishness for doubting the impact Kijana was making. This is an organization that in just eight years has made a considerable difference in the lives of hundreds of children, and has promoted healthy economic growth for communities here, hiring skilled workers to construct buildings, install electricity, dig wells, plant trees, and paint wall murals and maps. Experiencing Mwituha's success has reminded me of Margaret Mead's advice, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." The truth is, the only way Kijana can fail is if I (and others) lose our faith in it. The kids and teachers at Small America certainly haven't lost their faith. So I'm asking you, too, to put your faith in Kijana. I'm asking you to learn more about Kijana and to consider making a donation, by visiting their website at Thank you for joining me, and thank you to everyone who has put their faith in me. 

Students at Ebusiloli Primary School pose with Flat Stanley next to Kijana's logo

UPDATE: To see videos from Mwituha, including an interview with the Deputy Principal about the development of the school, and a tour of the library under construction with teacher/architect Jeremiah Awori, please go to

Friday, June 11, 2010

Word Gets Around

The other day Welliminah's son, Vincent, was driving Patrick and me in his car. As we were driving out of Es'saba village, we passed a group of little kids hanging out on the side of the path we were driving on. I heard them shout out something I have become used to: "Mzungu!", which means "white person" (some of my travel guides for Kenya try to be polite and translate it as "Westerner", which is not quite true). But I also heard them put another word on the end of it that I wasn't familiar with. "Wetu", as in "Mzungu wetu!" When Vincent heard this, he cracked up and said, "Do you know what they just said? They said, 'Our Mzungu'". Our white person.

Strangely, I have to admit that it feels good to be referred to as "our white person". I'm not just any white person - I belong to somebody. I'm Es'saba village's white person. I'll take it.

Patrick has a better shot of blending in here due to his skin color (he's been told that he looks like a Nairobian visiting the countryside to passing strangers here), but when he's with me, that shot goes out the window. We (mostly I) become a spectacle walking through the villages. Often we'll be walking around in an area where I don't see a single person around us in any direction, but suddenly we'll hear a kid shout at the top of his lungs, "Mzunguuuuuuu!!", as if it were an alarm or alert system for the entire neighborhood. Soon after hearing this 'alarm', streams of kids will run out of houses or shrubbery to simply stop and stare. I try to do my best to put a smile on my face and wave at them, because I know they are curious about what white people are like. So if they get any impression from me, I hope it's that I seem like a friendly guy, even if my mannerisms and Swahili accent come off a little odd to them.

And it's hard to hide in white skin even when I'm at Welliminah's house. Patrick and I have gotten into the habit of working during the day in her living room, typing at our computers, doing stuff for our projects. At some point in the afternoon, around 3 or 4, we'll often get a little stir crazy and decide to head out to the front yard and toss the frisbee around or even kick the soccer ball. Every time, without fail, the kids start trickling in to Welliminah's front yard to play with us. They come out of the woodwork. I have no idea how they find out so quickly that we're outside playing. Yesterday was an all-time high for us. Check out the picture below - at one point there was a whopping fourteen kids hanging out, including little babies who had been brought along by their older brother or sister.

It's cool with me. It makes it more fun for us to hang out and show these kids how to play frisbee, and to learn how to play soccer from them (even if I sometimes may get a little too peacocky for my own good).

But word gets around to older kids and adults too. I guess the buzz around town is that two Americans from Kijana are staying at Welliminah's house, so we'll sometimes get people popping in to say hello. Yesterday, a teenager popped in. I initially just said hello to him and continued working on my laptop, since it appeared like he was just there to visit Welliminah, with whom he struck up a conversation in Swahili. But eventually, Welliminah told me that he had come seeking assistance from Kijana. His name was Franklin, and he had passed Form IV (12th grade, making him a high school graduate) back in November 2009. But he was also an orphan with very little money. His problem was that despite passing Form IV, his school wouldn't give him his certificate (or diploma), because he still had a balance of 600Ksh on his tuition. He was wondering if he could get a donation.

600Ksh is roughly $7. Considering that this was now June 2010, and he had graduated in November 2009, it means that for seven whole months he was unable to accumulate the 600Ksh necessary to settle his balance and gain something that I assume is important to anyone - a high school diploma acknowledging four years of  hard work. More importantly, if he wanted to take the next step in his education and head to college, he would have to display proof that he had graduated high school, further emphasizing the significance of that piece of paper. So I gave him the money and wished him good luck. Really, the money came from the stipend that the Clinton School gave me for the summer. While most of that money has been spent on plane tickets, vaccinations, travel insurance, and even three days in Egypt hanging out and visiting the pyramids, I decided $7 to pay for a young man's high school diploma was a reasonable expense as well. So Clinton School, you should know that some of your money is going to micro-philanthropy in a rural village in Kenya.

Although it's hard for me to imagine Franklin being able to afford college tuition without a significant scholarship or other aid, I asked him what his aspirations for college would be. He said he would like to go to an agricultural college located in Nakuru. In any case, I asked him to write down his name and contact information for Kijana. Maybe we can figure out a way to help. In the meantime, I think Franklin is happy enough to have his high school diploma.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Okwemba, Obama, Biden, and the Proposed Constitution

The picture to your right is of Okwemba, a local driver who Patrick and I use to take us around from school to school. He looks pretty young, but he has six children. I was a bit surprised when he told us the oldest one, a daughter, is seventeen years old (at that point, I felt uncomfortable asking him how old he was, but I would imagine he is at least 35).

He continued telling us about his family, and unprompted by us, he told us that two years ago, when his oldest daughter was fifteen, she was kidnapped by a boy three separate times. He said she lost her virginity (based on context clues, I interpreted this as a euphemism for a much more uncomfortable fact – she was raped). He was outraged by this, and he and his wife pressed charges and the boy was sent to jail. Without explanation, a week later, he was let free again. Clearly, the insinuation is that the boy’s family bribed the judge.

Before reading Half the Sky, I might have been somewhat skeptical of this story, or taken it with a grain of salt, but there are literally two or three stories in the book that read almost verbatim to Okwemba’s. Hearing Okwemba's story really made the book feel closer for me. Now just imagine the stories I would be in the midst of if instead of Kenya, I were moved 400 miles west to the Congo, a place the book calls the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, a place where female flesh is used as a psychological weapon of war to tear apart families and break down their courage.

I’ve known Okwemba since 2007, when I first visited Kenya. He’s a very friendly, happy guy who is also one of the rare people of Muslim faith around these parts of Kenya. But as he told this story, for obvious reasons, a different passion emerged from him. Clearly, this tragedy has been tough for his family to endure, but as he told us about his pain after realizing the judge had been bribed, he quickly began to tie it into a larger frustration with the culture of corruption present throughout Kenya. Infinitely curious about the United States, Okwemba asked us if these types of things happen in our home country, and when we told him that it doesn’t really happen on the level he had illustrated for us (save for some highly publicized misdeeds by public officials that come up every once in a while) you could see a light come alive in his eyes, as his suspicions had been confirmed. “That’s because America actually cares about its citizens,” he said.

This is a phrase I have heard him repeat in some variation several times in just the week and a half that we have been here so far. As we have driven along Emuhaya Division’s poorly paved roads (where driving consists of driving on whatever side of the road has less potholes, until a car approaches from the opposite direction, in which case you move to the left side of the road), he has asked us if such terrible roads exist in America. “Not really. We pay taxes and the government keeps the roads in good condition,” we replied. “Here in Kenya, the politicians just pocket the money for themselves. That would never happen in America!”

The attitude Okwemba displays towards America in not uncommon amongst Kenyans. In fact, Kenyans perceive America more favorably than any other foreign country. This was true even before the election of November 2008, but of course, Obama’s presidency has only helped that. If John McCain and Sarah Palin think Obama is a celebrity in the U.S., they should come to Kenya. Obama is EVERYWHERE –on t-shirts, posters, calendars, you name it.

Okwemba’s even got a sticker of him on his car:

Ben proudly displays his Obama t-shirt and inauguration hat, Welliminah has Obama on a light switch, and Obama calendars are a common sight in Kenyan homes:

But most of all, Obama and America can be found on people’s minds and hearts and lips. The optimism and faith I have seen and heard expressed in America is incredibly inspiring and makes me awfully proud of my country. I finally understand America’s potential as a “beacon of light” throughout the world. We’re not perfect, but we try to be. We even acknowledge as much in our founding document.

As for Kenya’s corruption, there still may be some hope. On August 4th, the whole country will vote in a referendum on a new proposed constitution. The government seems to be doing a good job of publicizing it and getting awareness out about it. They have widely distributed copies of the proposed constitution, where it sits in families' living rooms, even here in rural Es’saba village at Welliminah’s house (right), where I have perused it periodically. I have not read the current constitution, so it is hard for me to compare, but from what I have read from it, the proposed constitution seems very strong, identifying clear procedures for election disputes, providing a comprehensive Bill of Rights (it’s actually called that in the text, reeking of American influence), and clearly outlining structure and role of government.

According to a recent poll, 57% of registered voters say they will vote “Yes” for the proposed constitution, 20% will vote “No”, and 19% is still undecided (4% said they won’t vote). This figure, combined with the enthusiasm for the proposed constitution I have seen expressed by people I have interacted with, is encouraging. Okwemba has his doubts though. “The government will find a way to stop this. President Kibaki is against it.” He said that he has heard stories of people being bribed with 5,000Ksh (roughly $60) to vote No. With all that Okwemba has experienced, it’s hard not to share in his skepticism.

Meanwhile, the major Kenyan newspaper, The Daily Nation, seems to be strongly pushing for the adoption of the new constitution. Over the weekend I picked up a paper, and hardly a surprise, whose face is on the cover? Barack Obama, with the headline “MY HOPE FOR KENYA” in bold above his picture. A Kenyan journalist had interviewed him in the White House last week and the focus was largely on the proposed constitution. Obama encouraged the constitutional referendum process, urging Kenyans to seize this moment as a “singular opportunity to put Kenyan governance on a more solid footing that can move beyond ethnic violence, can move beyond corruption, and can move the country towards a path of economic prosperity.” Although Obama was careful not to actually endorse the proposed constitution, his words seem to imply approval, and I think there is no question that his opinion resonates with Kenyans.

And although Kenyans would love to host President Obama (or even adopt him as their own President), this week, they got the next closest thing, Joe Biden, who stopped through Nairobi en route to the World Cup in South Africa (picture at left from the Daily Nation). Earlier today, I heard Biden’s speech on Okwemba’s car radio, and his powerful message gave me goosebumps. The section of the speech they played on the radio reads as follows (it’s a little long, but stick with it):

“Kenya feels the effects of these problems and should, because of your wealth of human capital, be a part of a global solution -- a strong African voice on the international stage. But that voice has been muted by internal problems -- problems that have held you back from making an even greater contribution.

“Too many of your resources have been lost to corruption, and not a single high-level official has ever been held accountable for these crimes. Too many of your institutions have lost the people’s confidence. And too many times, Kenya has been divided against itself, torn apart by ethnic tensions, manipulated by leaders who place their own interests above the interests of their country. Too many young people have found nothing but dead ends as they seek opportunity and the path to a better future.

“The crisis that gripped Kenya in the wake of the 2007 elections revealed just how dangerous these forces can be. They are dangerous, but they are not immovable. Change is within your grasp. And that change will be realized when government is transparent, accountable, and participatory; when corrupt officials are called to account in a court of law, instead of meeting only the indifferent shrug of impunity; when political power changes hands peacefully, but the will of the voters, and those who did not prevail decide -- and decide that their efforts should be moved to constructive opposition; when Kenyans have confidence that the courts and the police are honest, and are committed solely to the pursuit of justice; when the members of the political leadership represent a range, a wide range, of viewpoints reflecting and responding to the needs of Kenyans everywhere.

“Your coalition government has agreed to a reform agenda that would bring about the fundamental change that Kenyans are seeking. If implemented fully, corrupt officials will be finally held accountable. The judiciary and the police force will place the pursuit of justice above the pursuit of personal gain. Land rights and ownership will be governed by the rule of law, not by the whims of the powerful. Kenyan women and girls -- the most untapped resource of this nation and almost every nation in the world -- will be ever better positioned to contribute to their communities and their country at every level. And a new constitution will put in place a framework to accelerate those reforms, including reducing executive power by building up the checks and balances of your parliament and your judiciary.”

This speech resembles exactly what America’s role has and must continue to be. We have clear values – participatory government, equal opportunity, justice, freedom of association and expression – and we will never stop promoting them throughout the world, because we believe that these should not just be American rights, but universal human rights. Even if we sometimes fail to hold true to these values, even if we get overzealous in forcing them upon cultures that are not willing to adopt them, we will continue to let our light shine outward and be a voice for the values we were founded on 230 years ago.

This is an exciting time to be an American (Guy) in Kenya. And it's an exciting time for Okwemba and his fellow Kenyans as they hope to take control of their future. The weeks leading up to August 4th will be fascinating. I'll keep you updated.