I was really looking forward to getting away from January’s cold and snowy weather and arriving in Nairobi’s 32 degree heat. This trip was planned to coincide with the start of the new school year for our children and I couldn’t wait to see them, our new well and the progress that had been made on our new classroom.
Landing at Kisumu, the entourage that usually meets me had been reduced to one person, Pastor Moses, and for that I was very thankful. By now I felt so low and feverish and he had thoughtfully assembled a little shopping bag for me - essential drinking water and an emergency package of Strepsils, extra strength Panadol and even some vapour rub. All I could do was fall into bed.
At Mama Pat’s house, I continued to dose myself with everything including antibiotics but nothing was having an effect on my raging sore throat and soaring temperatures. For the first time in Kenya, I felt very vulnerable – and very far from home. I thought of Millicent our cook and her “episode” with typhoid. More recently I recalled the delivery of new baby Walter Prince in the local hospital. Unbelievably to us in the West, she had delivered on her own and on the floor because there was no-one to attend to her nor a vacant bed to put her in.
Three days later and I too found myself in the hospital waiting room but ever thankful that I could afford a consultation and the prescription for typhoid strength drugs. It took another two days for them to take effect and I remember it vividly: waking and, for the first time, hearing birdsong – I knew I was returning back to the world I knew. Bit by bit I regained my strength.
This trip was largely about networking and I was anxious to start making new contacts. We had Rotary meetings to attend so we could tell them about our program in Namatotoa and hopefully enlist some local support. Crown Paints in Kisumu had recently met with Pastor Moses and been kind enough to repaint the Mount Zion rehabilitation home for him and their Sales Manager, Rajeev, was keen to visit Namatotoa and see the work we are doing. Even the Manager of the Ukwala supermarket chain was impatient to meet us to see how they could help. We were on a roll!
It was all I could do not to jump in the car and continue the journey to Namatotoa but finally, 10 days after leaving home, just as dusk was falling, we bumped along the dusty, rutted track to the village.
The car headlights would have lit up the terrain and told everyone about our imminent approach. As such, all the children were clustered around the well as we pulled up. After exchanging greetings, each took turns to show me how easy it was to pump the handle of the well. I leant over that first bucket of water and, putting in both hands, “blessed” each child with the contents. Screaming and giggling, they ran this way and that to escape the drops of well water before excitedly grabbing my hands and pulling me over the uneven ground to see our new school room waiting in the shadows.
We bumped the car as close as we could and my first reaction in the beam of the headlights was how big it was. To the left of the main classroom and through the opening is the teacher’s office where parents will come to formally register their children. Behind that room is another little room – a training room or a little “infirmerie”.
Back outside now and through the other doorway into the main classroom. The photo does not do it justice. I shone my wind up torch high up into the rafters and the light bounced back off the tin roof; a wonderful airy classroom with space for at least 50 children. How soon could we finish the floors and render it? We don’t need much to finish it now – a floor and after that, in time, a couple of doors and some windows.
Waking the next day, I joined the nursery children for breakfast as they queued up for their mugs of porridge. Pete had taken in a new “baby class”, so many of the youngest children looked a bit unkempt as they hadn’t yet been able to get uniforms. It became obvious that there were quite a few more children than in August and it was only when I sat down to talk to Pete that I realised, with a sinking heart, that we now had a primary class of 10 who had pleaded to stay and not go onto the local “under standard” primary school. Our 34 children had grown to 52!
I gathered all my strength and called an urgent meeting. I knew in my heart that we would have to turn some children away – to continue with the same level of financial support for 52 children, at this point in time, would be too big a risk and I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice losing everything we had gained by getting too big too soon.
The meeting was a hard one – not only because I wanted to say yes when I had to say no but because village mentality differs greatly from how we see things. I reiterated our goals, to build a nursery school but in such a way that it would be sustainable. Back in August, the villagers had contributed a small part of their maize harvest and this was currently saving us 30% of our food costs. I applauded them for that but it still wasn’t enough to support a Primary Class.
“I am here to help in any way I can,” I explained, “but we cannot allocate any more funds nor can we afford to employ a Primary school teacher.”
I looked around the room at the dejected faces. One of the older mums at the back of the church stood up and spoke to me in faltering English.
“We appreciate what you have given our children so far,’ she said, ‘but if they have to go to the local school now, they will lose every advantage you have given them.”
A village elder rose to his feet.
“We don’t want this to stop for our children. Will you help us? Perhaps we can find our own Primary teacher and start the class ourselves?” he pleaded, glancing round in anticipation at all the others present.
That afternoon, we worked and reworked the figures, Julia our nursery teacher writing all the costs on the blackboard. I knew we didn’t have the money to provide for another class but shared their disappointment as it dawned on them how much it would cost to do it themselves: class registration, new curriculum books, desks, pencils, exercise books, school uniform, shoes, a blackboard, the cost of employing a trained teacher and then the cost of breakfast and a lunch for each child.
The equivalent of 90 euros to educate and feed a child for 12 months is completely unattainable for any of the villagers, much less for those children who are orphaned. In despair they looked at the figures. I took the chalk from Julia.
“Of course,” I said, “if this is your school, then you can make decisions …”
Using a dusty rag, I wiped away the cost of school uniforms and shoes by way of suggestion. “Perhaps we can help you with books and find three desks,” I said - removing each item in turn.
With a heavy heart, I finally removed the cost of breakfast and lunch. Given a choice between feeding their children or providing them with an education, those present in the room knew, in reality, they might just be able to afford to pay the teacher’s salary. It was a difficult meeting for everyone concerned. I couldn’t bear the thought of those 10 children the next day hanging around the compound, excluded from school.
I recalled the visit I had made to a small school in the middle of the Nyalenda slums with up to 100 children in multiple classes in one room with smiles as big as the country outside - were we doing this right?
The rest of the trip passed fairly quickly. The afternoon before we left, we prepared goodie bags for everyone – a banana butty, a few sweets and a lolly. Different to the day before, the church was filled once again with smiles and brightly coloured balloons.
As I returned to Kisumu, I heard that within a few days, the newly elected Primary School committee had found and already interviewed a local teacher – primary school would be open for business the following Monday! It is so amazing what people can achieve and it is so right that the community takes responsibility for some parts of the project.
Our main focus however must be to concentrate on the Watoto Wa Namatotoa Nursery School and we cannot and will not lose sight of that. We need our second and then our third room tacked on in modular fashion so we have 3 classes of pre-primary children happy to be learning, receiving basic nourishment to set them up for the day ahead and giving them lifelong habits which they will take with them for their challenges ahead.
Now, more than ever, it is important that we sign up people for regular, committed giving. Just 10 euros each month can make a huge difference to this small community. With your regular commitment, we can then plan to finish what we started. A completed school in 2013!
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