I only spent a few days in Kimilili, but the impressions are like stones thrown into my soul and I watch the ripple expanding across the bay, wondering from which shores they might be reflected. As I am sitting in the bus heading back to Nairobi, I wonder what it was that fascinated me most during my stay. What was it that went under my skin? Will it last?
As I had only limited time due to other commitments, it was a real effort to get there. Astrid, Agnes and I got up before sunrise to beat the notorious Nairobi morning traffic downtown. We arrived at the bus stop and got on a local bus, supported by friends from the Kimilili community that are staying at Nairobi. From Kenya’s capital, the bus heads North, along the edge of the Rift Valley with its majestic views, passing Lake Naivasha, further up North towards the Ugandan boarder. It takes nearly 8 hours to arrive in Bungoma, from where we are picked up by a taxi to get to Kimilili. A full day of travelling.
After being dropped somewhere in town, we branched of the main road by feet onto a muddy side road, and here we are – in rural Kenya. Astrid and Agnes are greeted warmly by many people passing by. They whistle a song and around the corner a bunch of kids come screaming and running into their arms. No doubt, they are well known here. There are small shops and residential houses along the road, but there is nothing like the impressive structure of the school that raises on our right side as the cloud of kids around us gets bigger. This is not just a school. This is a massive construction project in the middle of nowhere. You have to see it in comparison to the other buildings in the vicinity, in the town, maybe in the region, to understand its dimensions. It’s huge, and it’s only 25% done yet.
Norbert and Astrid inspecting the school construction
We drop our bags at the director’s house and head to the school to look at the latest construction work that was done, we drop into ongoing classes to say “Hi”, we walk around the school grounds. The girls explain to me the history of their project by pointing at some mud huts and saying “this was all that existed when we arrived”, or “this part of the area we bought later”, or “here we will collect rain water to irrigate our own garden”. Again, simply impressive.
The counterpart for the girls are Phyllis and her husband, the Reverend. They are the eyes on the ground. While the Reverend is in Nairobi, Phyllis is overlooking the project. She explains the latest personnel changes she had to make: create new positions, promote teachers, change the salary structure. I have been working in Africa for more than 6 years – I know what this means. Hard and difficult work in a poor society where such changes change family lives. And the way she explains her motivation behind the changes could have come from an HR Manager with year of experience. Phyllis was guided by her judgment and her desire to make changes for the better. Again, I am impressed.
Norbert during Assembly in between with 400 kids
My days start with: kids. So many kids. Hundreds of kids. You hear the number and you think impressive; but if you see how many souls found a future at this school, it blows your mind. Agnes and Astrid brought shoes for the kids, and a couple of hours before lunch time we are busy pairing children feet and new shoes. Some have never met before as you can judge as they walk away – it’s like wearing skiing hard boots for the first time, if you know what I mean. I get a tour around the school administration unit and the library. It’s a mud hut, one door left, the other right. The teachers leave the permanent structure to the kids. Teachers pass by in the evening, coming from other schools on their way home, to train the 8th form for their final exams in November. This is their school project too, even if they don’t work here. These exams will determine what ranking the school will get compared to other schools in Kimilili, the county and in Kenya. And they all take it as their personal project, it’s their pride that will raise or fall with the school ranking. Again, put this eagerness into context and you will be ashamed of how we in the West misuse free education.
Norbert trying out different pairs of shoes for needy kids – for some of them their first pair of shoes!
One event stands out in my mind: when we arrived, Agnes and Astrid wanted to tell the 8th form about the secondary school. This is about future and hope. This is about whether you will continue to go to school and get education, knowledge and certificates you can use when applying for a job, or you stay at home, work on a farm, and stay stagnant for the rest of your life. If it would have been me, I would have made a big event out of it, gathering all children, their parents and government officials to announce that there will be a secondary school in the premises of the School4Life project. But the girls had other plans. They walked into an ongoing 8th grade class at 9pm, they said they have something to announce, and here is the “ripple” (or stone) I will not forget. Agnes asked:” You will finish primary school after the exams, but where will you go?” – Silence. “We thought it would be good to give you all a future and use some of the newly built classrooms to turn it into the secondary school.” – First silence, then the information is digested and pure enthusiasm explodes (no, it’s beyond your imagination, don’t even try…). “We will turn one classroom into the secondary school classroom, we will hire teachers and continue your education.” That’s it. No big deal. And then I have to give a lesson in maths. Changing destinies in fast-forward. I think the girls sell their work here under value.
Let me put this clear: what I just saw was amazing and life-changing. But Agnes and Astrid don’t make a big fuzz out of it. And this holds true with their project. And as a consequence, you might understand that what you see and read and hear is the tip of an iceberg. The volunteers at SCHOOL4LIFE change lives and communicate it as “and then we did this”. My deepest respect to such an understatement. Maybe it’s like the bumble-bee which has physically too short wings to fly – but it doesn’t know it and just flies. I think this is it that went under my skin. Pure activism, the willingness to change lives, while accepting the sacrifices of being in Kimilili and using unpaid leave and holidays (no warm water, toilet is a hole in the ground, no meat for weeks, no entertainment, just rural life in Africa.
I worked in many different countries in Africa and I worked in poor conditions such as Kimilili. But to repeatedly come to such places, eager to make a change – I don’t think I would have the fundamental conviction to do this. Again, this went under my skin.
I arrived in Nairobi, took a taxi home for the same price I could feed a child in Kimilili for a week, I took a long warm shower with water pressure, I spent a teacher’s monthly salary on my hotel room for two nights, and I slept in a fluffy clean bed. I hope the impressions will last to keep my alert of the luck that I have. I hope the ripple will continue to be reflected from shores I don’t know to keep me happy, because this is what I should be. I am a very lucky guy (to be with a woman like Astrid).