Thursday, 15 December 2016

Defiant Hope

Students-Mbeetwani Primary School with Rick Kiilu

I could write about the fact that I was 2hrs early for my journey to Mtito Andei, I’m a time freak and being extremely early for things is kind of in my DNA. I could also tell you about how scared I was while waiting for my ride in Cabanas as darkness eclipsed everything compelling me to make quiet prayers. I could go on and on about my journey, tell you about spicy meat ate. I could write empathetic paragraphs about the guys who sell groceries by the roadside, & how much it's hard to differentiate hardworking Kenyans from those who want a cover story to rob unsuspecting passengers under the gaze of the constellations. I could even write about intriguing discussions I had with one of my travel companions on data or even tell you of how we taught an American to eat ugali. I could write about this, and create 4,000 words maybe even 5,000. But all that would be banal and most importantly it would be an incomplete account of my experience in Mtito Andei. Most of all it would be void of the subtle inspiration the place oozes in. So I won’t dwell on that.


In October 2016, Lumen (an organization with a simple yet profound mantra- Creating opportunity where there's talent) contacted Computers for SchoolsKenya seeking a partnership in an ICT for education project. The project they explained would aim to teach kids in remote areas to use computers. The kids would then use the knowledge and technology to tell their stories; stories that would paint a picture of their view of everyday experiences and dreams for themselves and their homeland. For the pilot study they would head down to a school in Mtito Andei. And they chose it for one simple reason, Rick one of Lumen’s partners is an alumni and understands it best.

Rick’s story from Mtito Andei to Nairobi then to a change trailblazer is typically a grass to grace one. Just like many other young men in Mtito Andei, after completing secondary school curriculum he headed to the city to scrounge for a living; first for his family then for himself. For many young men there, higher education is a luxury due to among other reasons high cost. Some in fact have to assume the role of the bread winner after primary school and the city under the sun is always a preferred destination for job hunting. In a brutally competitive city and with little education, life for Rick slowly turned into a nightmare of sorts. A nightmare that he had to trudge through to continue providing for his family, this anyway was less worse than the destitution he had left back home. After working for years in various informal sectors including a security guard in a car park; his persistence and patience paid off and he ended up working as a receptionist in a flamboyant city hotel. And that's when his journey in social change begun, with supporting book drives in public schools in Kibera. An opportunity to empower his village surfaced when he met Lumen. And this is where the story of defiant hope begins...

When Lumen told us that the project would include encouraging the kids to write their stories, they immediately struck a chord. I know how powerful storytelling can be, both for the writer and reader. You see words are emotions put down on paper. Thoughts transformed into words by emotions can make enormous difference, for the writer and reader. They can cut like a dagger and heal at the same time. They can inspire and rumble up hibernating dreams. Words can have profound impact. I know this because, before I was born, conflict was already brewing among members of my extended family, and I was born at a time when the conflict was at its peak. My family got most blows because it was an us against them kind of situation. As I grew up I experienced and witnessed adult cruelty and meanness, but was oblivious of the damage it caused in my heart. Didn't even notice the chronic emotional wounds and indelible scars the burdens left. But that was until I met words, it was until I picked a pen and put down words on a piece of paper; honest words on how I felt. Words helped me to light and clean corners of my heart that were clogged with low self-esteem and sadness and gradually filled them with hope. Day in day out i wrote down words I could not tell anyone, and there i fell in love with words. Every time I read those old words, I’m reminded of the lessons I learned many years ago; that the right words at the right moment in the right order is all that is needed steer a human being forward. Over the years I have had the incredible opportunity to write my story, this is one the things I'm most appreciative for in my life. Even when the walls of my hopes and dreams threaten to cave in, I find immeasurable solace in the grace to put down words.

So now it shouldn't come as a surprise, when I tell you that when Lumen told us they wanted to teach kids in Mtito Andei to use a computer and in the process encourage them to write their stories; they made an impression. The thought of little men and women using their own words to write about their lives gave me goose bumps and I couldn't wait to see the execution of the program.

Lumen worked endlessly to put a team together, each bringing something peculiar and important to the table; there were the IT guys, the data guys and the photography bigwigs. And after weeks of organisation the classes in Mbeetwani primary school in Mtito Andei began.

There is Mtito Andei that you all see on a road trip to Mombasa, and there is the other that is 15 Kilometers from the highway. To get there you have to drive through paths that meander and you end up driving past the same spot twice. It's tempting to think your mind is playing tricks on you but that's just how it is. The SGR cuts through the community, but somehow leaves it unruffled, at least until now.

You drive on past quiet homes, concealed by bushes and vegetation sprouting from the ground. If you look keenly & listen carefully you will see and hear their fear of never growing to maturity due to water insufficiency. If you touch the ground and pick up some soil, you will see dying grass. Grass that has been broken by tough seasons. Season in and out they try and season in & out the rains let them down. The people share in the uncertainty of the plants, but perhaps they have a better understanding of why?

Then there are the students. The ones we met in Mbeetwani primary whose spirit by the way resonates with most if not all children there. Early in the morning as the sun peeps on the horizon, they bustle along beaten paths, paths that somehow tell a subtle tale of the tens of Kilometers they have to walk or cycle to get to school. All these with their dreams tightly clasped on their hands.

The school has few classrooms and only the staff room has the luxury of having a door, the irony that where there should be a window is just a big hollow is not lost on me. The mud walls are decorated with diagrams of; the human digestive system, the solar system and a host of other educative illustrations. The iron sheets have been eaten away by rust leaving  holes that gaze on the occupants of the class.

From a distance the state seems destitute. As a visitor you might think that this is one of the sorry third world stories. You will go there assuming that you will meet people beat down by the stark odds and you will quickly be proved wrong. The children in the school are an embodiment of determination. When you walk into the class they will be in groups mostly discussing home affairs like; what did you eat last night, did you finish the homework, what time did you get home when you left the river, how was the class yesterday…. There is no room for discussion about why Carlos Eduardo refuses to fall in love with Maria Clara. They meet visitors with unforgettable confidence. So they will throw questions at you. If you are lucky you will get an opportunity to ask some. If you ask one of the girl's her dream, she will hesitate a little, then give you a confident stare you will never forget, “I want to be a lawyer” she will tell you. If you ask each of them the same question, then you will understand like I did that their’s is not a sorry third world story. It's is a story of defiant hope, hope that knows no limits. It's a story if beating odds every day. And it's a story of young men and women who don't feel sorry for themselves, all they need is opportunity. And that is what Lumen was there to do: 'create opportunity where there is talent’ and I (representing Computers for Schools Kenya) was so honoured to be part of.
Students- Mbeetwani Primary school with two of their teachers (farthest left and farthest right) and Elizabeth

For children who this was there first time to see and interact with a computer, I will tell you for free that they are incredibly smart students no wonder they have well laid plans to change their lives. The stories they wrote (or should I say typed down), showed me that they know their village still has so much ground to cover. They know they need electricity to help with lighting as they do their homework. They know they need reliable easy to access sources of water. They know where the problem is and they have ideas on how to solve these problems. If you ask me, that is the greatest gift a generation can have- 'an understanding of their story’ and that is how change is ignited. If and when there will be change here, they will be the trailblazers.

One of the greatest feeling in the world for me is when I find inspiration in a place I least expected. And this is what happened to me during my trip. I was inspired in uncountable ways and reminded of the need to be hopeful. I needed that reminder, because now more than ever we need more hope. Hope that even if the darkest night seems longer than ever, the morning will come. We need hope in the world and we need it as a nation.

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