2015 Eleanor Venture Recipient: Karie Cooper and Hillari Hansen
Destination: Kitengela, Kenya
We are honored to have received the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant for 2015. With such a grant, we were able to travel to Kitengela, Kenya to bridge the gap between two communities of students and teachers, Eagle Crest Elementary and Empakasi Primary. We were able to create a cross-cultural connection between two different, yet not so different, groups of learners. Thank you, Eleanor Flanders, for creating the opportunity for teachers to travel. Thank you, Board of Directors, for choosing our proposal.
Our students have spent the past two years learning about Empakasi School and the students there. We are partnered with Empakasi Primary through the Mwebaza Foundation. As a leadership school, the kids chose to fundraise to create a sustainable lunch program for the students there that do not eat all day, which greatly affects their ability to focus and learn. A greenhouse for vegetables and a chicken coop to produce eggs were built.
The focus of our trip was twofold. One purpose of our visit was to bring further funds for this project, and see how it was progressing to ensure the food made it directly to the children in need. Furthermore, we hoped to create a cross cultural bridge between our students at Eagle Crest and their penpal students/friends at Empakasi. We feel we were extremely successful on both accounts.
Since we were fortunate to be traveling with members of the Mwebaza Foundation , we were greeted in Nairobi by Kevin, who soon became our savior and friend. He was in charge of driving us(in the middle of the night) to a hotel in Kitengela. But wait! What is that crossing the highway at the airport exit? A zebra? Zebras in Nairobi? Yep! Zebras are everywhere! The next morning we went straight to Empakasi School to get started! Just getting to the school three miles away was an incredible adventure on jeep-like, 4-wheel drive roads, with mud holes from recent rain. Yes, we got stuck several times, had to get out to lighten the load and push the van out of the mud pits. Furthermore, we can’t count how many times we screamed “stop the van”, to view zebra, giraffes, wildebeest, and gazelles! Pictures taking was a must! All of these animals were intermingled with the sheep, goat, and cows that graze the Maasai lands with herders along with them.
When we finally arrived at the school, we were introduced to the headmaster and some teachers, and were taken on a tour of the school grounds. As we looked around the compound, we saw two main buildings which housed first through fourth grade in one and fifth through eighth grade in the other. Doors and windows had just been installed the previous week by the government, however electricity is nonexistent, and the only water source was a single pump. The greenhouse was complete and producing upon our arrival. The coop was awaiting our next set of funds for completion and chick purchase. The entire school compound was enclosed by fencing to keep the wild animals out from the Nairobi National Park which surrounds the grounds on three sides. As we looked out from the hillside, we saw the Maasai lands for miles, with specks of manyattas/bomas of the native people scattered around. Most students walk great distances to school through the Maasai lands picking up friends along the way. Kitengela and Nairobi are visible in the far distance.
Next, we enjoyed many hours of interaction with students. We learned about their daily activities, they loved having their pictures taken and seeing them on the iPads right away, they loved being videotaped singing songs and reciting poems they knew. After our tour, we got an update on the progress of our two projects. Such projects must be carefully managed considering the great physical distance, as well as understanding cultural differences around philosophy of business and finances. Luckily, Kevin is on site in Kitengela to manage the local aspects of the projects.
For the next few days, we made great headway on the second purpose of our visit. We truly became part of the school environment. We had the opportunity to close the gap of cultural understanding by showing the “Day in the Life” video of Eagle Crest students, participating in a day in the life of our new Maasai friend Susan and her family, teaching lessons about Colorado, eating traditional food (Ugali and goat) that the teachers prepared for us on multiple occasions, and reading and writing pen pal letters with the kids. The students really opened up to us as we played with the soccer balls and frisbees that were donated by our PTO, and we all laughed together as the students started brushing their teeth right then and there with their new toothbrushes and toothpaste that we brought (donated by two longmont dentists) along with eating the toothpaste. Oops, we forgot to tell them it wasn’t candy to eat! Lastly, we were honored with an assembly of students singing and dancing in their traditional attire.
Through each and every one of these experiences, our relationships grew and trust grew. Every teacher and student was extremely hard working and caring. The love and respect that all of the students, teachers, and families had for one another showed that really all of the other differences don’t matter. What they want and what we want for our children is no different. Their lives in Kitengela are simple, yet difficult in many ways, as is ours are in Longmont. We hope as we share pictures, anecdotes, research, etc. with our families and students, we will all grow from this amazing experience.
We don’t really know how to explain in words the differences we experienced in culture and school environment. Here are some examples we encountered:
*we never saw a parent of any student at the school
*students walked alone to school for miles
*we never saw a car to or from school
*students had little or no lunch for the day
*many students had no shoes
*all students were expected to wear some type of uniform
*teachers spent about 50% of their time out of the classroom while students worked
*teachers graded papers in a separate room while kids worked alone
*we saw no books for enjoyment
*nonfiction books were provided by the government
*no school supplies, kids brought chalk or pencil from home
*students openly shared what very few stubs of pencils they had
*multiple students shared one government supplied book
*there were no teacher supplies(markers, paper, pens)
*students were unsupervised at lunch and recess
*the daily schedule was followed loosely
*the teachers cooked for us on a fire
*no outdoor play equipment
*no behavior problems
*respect was of utmost importance
*teachers very eager to learn and share
While we were engaging with the students and teachers, the Mwebaza Foundation friends were busy handling the finishing touches on the chicken coop and chick purchase. That purpose was fulfilled as well. As we arrived back in the U.S., we received photos of the 500 chicks that our Eagle Crest students had purchased! We have since received photos of the chickens and the hundreds of eggs! Currently the eggs and vegetables are being sold to create the sustainability of the program. When the students return in January, there is a plan for cooking the eggs and vegetables for the students to eat on a daily basis. When we receive photos of students eating, all of us at Eagle Crest will know that our leadership efforts have made a difference in the lives of kids on the other side of the world.
What’s in the future? Eagle Crest students just finished writing letters back to their pen pals, which will be delivered in February. Our next fundraising project will support a more efficient cooking solution, such as biofuel instead of open charcoal fire.
Thank you once again for helping us make this trip a reality. We were the first teachers from Eagle Crest to travel to Empakasi. We hope that other teachers will have this opportunity in the future.
Karie Cooper & Hillari Hansen