Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Kakamega Township Primary School International Library

Before leaving the U.S., I sent letters out requesting donations from friends in Vermont that I could use with some discretion to carry out a project here. The response was amazing and touching, and I am happy to say that I think that I have found a suitable project to help that generosity reach the people of Kakamega.
As I have written previously, I have been appalled at the state of the educational system here, and at the lack of opportunity available to children. At Township Primary, there isn’t even a single storybook for the students to read outside of class, so I’m undertaking the renovation of an abandoned classroom and the creation of a library.
Already, I’ve received more support from some of the same people, as well as other friends in Vermont and books will shortly be on their way. Here on the ground I have cleaned and repainted the room with the help of some dedicated students, and the Care Centre has generously donated books from its collection. Two teams of carpenters are building tables, chairs and shelves, and one of the teachers has volunteered her expertise in creating a card catalog.
It’s truly amazing to watch two communities a world away from each other coming together to make this happen, and the appreciation is very clear. After considerable disenchantment with international development and our ability to have a positive impact, this project is proving very cathartic. I have come to the conclusion that for the most part, Kenyans must help themselves and determine their own futures, but there are times when outside assistance truly is needed.
I have a very bright student in my sixth grade math class named Florence. In class she begs me to let her do examples on the board and flies through introductory algebra while her classmates struggle to keep up. At 8 am on Saturdays when I arrive to teach my seventh grade science class (yes, there is class on weekends here), Florence is alone in the classroom, already seated at her desk, waiting for the teacher who will arrive at some unspecified time in the following six hours. The burning desire to learn and the frustration with the slowness of school are obvious in her eyes (and the way she covers them when a classmate incorrectly answers a question), and it was the proudest and most gratifying moment of my stay here when she asked me for storybooks to read, and I was able to assure her that they were on their way.
In a school system that is broke, and in a community that is remote enough that you have to travel two hours to find a shop selling novels, there is a clear place for help from abroad. Florence’s future is for her to decide, and in the future, Kenya’s problems will rest on her shoulders, but the head start we can give with a few generous donations and a little trans-Atlantic cooperation means the world to her

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Price of Opportunity (aka The Post that Never Ends)

Coming to Kenya, after experience in developing countries on four different continents, I felt confident that I had already shed my naivete about poverty and would take this time to share the life of the poor and work to improve it. I thought that having spent time in poor countries, some for extended periods, I understood what poverty meant, but in the last two weeks, I have lost any such pretension.

When I first arrived at the Care Centre, I resolved to do my best to live the way the children do so that I can better understand their experience. I went to bed at 10pm and woke up with them at 5:30am (okay, I was up by 6:30). I shared their ugali (boiled corn flour) and cabbage, or boiled corn kernels and beans at each meal, and washed it down with water from the tap. On weekdays, I joined them for homework time from 7-9pm, and on Sundays attended church. Without internet here I made an exception for trips to town to check email, and indulged in the occasional coke with the staff, but it was by far the most simply I have ever lived.

Two weeks later, I've given up. I still share much of their schedule and many of their meals, but when I left a four-hour staff meeting at school today, I bypassed the corn and beans and headed for a nearby restaurant for "meat and chips". In some ways, this was a concession of my inability to cope with the quasi-monastic lifestyle at the Care Centre, but it was also an acknowledgment of a deeper meaning of poverty.

Growing up in the cultural relativist, politically correct environment of liberal America, I had always understood poverty as a lack of money whose true hardship lay in the accompanying poor health, gruelling work, and lack of access to education, rather than in the geographic location of the poor. I therefore dismissed those who extolled the superiority of life in the U.S. as ignorant materialists; but while this may be true, I have come to believe that the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Friends Orphan Care Centre in Kakamega looks great on paper. Children get plenty of food with a balance of carbs and protein, with the ocassional piece of vitamin-rich fruit. They are all enrolled in school and provided the supplies they need to complete their work. Above each bed hangs a mosquito net, and toothbrushes lie hidden somewhere among each child's belongings. But the privilege largely ends there. Although American sponsors have generously donated books, toys and computers to the Care Centre, broken bycicles, ruptured soccer balls, and computers collecting dust lie inaccessible behind padlocked doors. Some of the reasons for their disuse are legitimate. Some are not. But the reality, is that for children who seldom leave the compound, except to go to school, available stimulation is limited to plastic bags tied together to approximate soccer balls, church songs, and the puny textbooks that make up their only schoolwork. And they are not the worst off.

Among the students in my 6th grade math class, more than half had not been provided by the school or their parents with a notebook in which to do their homework (I had to go buy them for a whopping 18 cents a piece). Few if any of these children are going hungry, and all have access to education (in some form). What they are deprived of is opportunity. The liberals are correct that there is nothing so inherently terrible about not having a lot of "things", and there is nothing bad at all about living in Kenya instead of the U.S., but the kernel of truth in the American superiority argument is the importance of having access to the great variety of experiences in life.

During the first few days when I would walk out of the Care Centre and found the entire staff simply sitting in the sun and staring, I was baffled. I couldn't understand why they spent hours on end barely even talking. When I asked, they agreed that is was a boring life, and it took me w while to comprehend that there simply are no other options. When you wait day after day for your savings to accumulate enough to buy a small TV and some rabbit ears, the privation is not the lack of a TV, but the incredible smallness of the world.

As I walked to the restaurant today, I acknoweledged that there is no way for me to truly understand what is like to not have opportunity. With my time here, I am concentrating on expanding the horizons of the children in my classes and at the Care Centre. My big project is to set up a library at the primary school so that children and teachers can read outside of class. I may call on you in the coming weeks not to share your wealth, but to share your opportunity, so that these children can escape a place of poverty, and experience the richness of the world, if only through a book.