Tim Woodward

Off to Africa: A ‘transforming experience’?

Tim Woodward
Tim Woodward

Twenty-some years ago, at a party in the Owyhee Hotel, a man in a billowing, bright orange mumu approached me and struck up a conversation.

Mumu isn’t the right word, but it’s the closest I can come to describing his attire, which was from his native Kenya. He’d recognized me from the photo that runs with my column and figured it was time we got to know each other. Little did I suspect that one day he’d be leading me on one of the great adventures of my life.

His name was Vincent Kituku. You may know him from the occasional Faith columns he writes for this newspaper, or as a motivational speaker. He’s traveled to towns and cities throughout the state giving motivational lectures. He’s given motivational lectures to, among others, the BSU football team. He’s a motivated fellow.

We’ve stayed in touch ever since that night — emails, coffee, the occasional lunch. I’ve interviewed him for a column or two; he interviewed me for a radio program. In recent years, most of our conversations have had to do with the high school he started in Kenya.

Think about that. Imagine trying to start a school — a high school, no less — in a poor country on the other side of the world, relying mainly on donations. Only someone as motivated — driven might be a better word — as Kituku could have pulled it off.

Caring Hearts High School, in the rural area of Kenya where he was raised — has 120 students, mainly girls. It’s made an enormous difference in their lives.

This is a place so poor that at ages when most American kids are taking junior high for granted, girls can be sold to much older husbands. Here, where that kind of poverty is all but unknown, we’d say that was unthinkable. There, it can mean survival.

Why he does it

Knowing a few of the things that motivated Kituku might help you understand: A promising college student, an orphan, who couldn’t attend college because he couldn’t afford the $200 tuition. A student who had to drop out of high school because he didn’t have $105 to pay for his senior year. A mother of six who hanged herself because she couldn’t afford her daughter’s high school tuition.

Student fees at Caring Hearts High School are paid by donations, mainly from people here in Boise. Saved from lives of drudgery, or worse, most of the students go on to good jobs or to college and even better jobs — teachers, accountants, engineers, doctors. The school has made all the difference for them.

That brings us to my great adventure. A few years ago, my wife and I started sponsoring a girl at the high school. Her name is Elizabeth. Her picture is on our refrigerator; we got a nice letter from her last year. Sponsoring a student there is, by U.S. standards, ridiculously cheap — $500 a year, including room and board.

We thought it would be nice to meet Elizabeth one day but never thought it would happen. Kenya is more than 9,000 miles from Boise. Other “long” trips we’ve taken — Mexico, Hawaii, the eastern U.S. — have been comparative joy rides. And Nairobi, where we’ll be landing, has never been on our bucket list.

But, we’re going. Kituku asked me to teach writing to the kids at Caring Hearts. My wife, who has the benefit of actually having been a teacher, will teach other subjects from an American perspective.

Ready for adventure

I cannot tell you how much this at once excites and intimidates me. Yes, it could be the trip of a lifetime. But what do I know about teaching? Zip, that’s what. And the thought of traveling all that way, especially with my history of travel mishaps, is, frankly, a bit daunting. It wouldn’t be out of character for me to misread or misunderstand something, get on the wrong plane and end up in, say, Dingo, Australia, or Catbrain, England.

You don’t just get up one day and go to Kenya. We started getting ready in March, with vaccinations. The people at St. Luke’s Travel Clinic couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. In addition to inoculating us for typhoid, yellow fever and hepatitis, they gave us prescriptions for malaria pills and antibiotics and sent us off with friendly advice and a sackful of useful travel information.

I won’t bog you down you with all of them, but a few of the things you need to do to go to Kenya are apply for visas, set up international plans for your phones, get adapters and voltage changers to charge your phones, make sure your bank and credit card companies know where and when you’re going, make copies and backup copies of important documents, and — my favorite — spray every garment you’ll be wearing with 3 ounces of insect repellent. Even socks. We went through an ocean of the stuff.

And those are just a few of the things.

Our flight home includes a four-hour layover in Amsterdam that we were able to stretch into a week. Amsterdam is a short train ride from the city where I was stationed in Germany in the Navy, and returning to see old haunts there has been on my bucket list for years. We’ll also spend a couple of days in Prague, also on our bucket list, and a day in Munich before flying home.

You can read all about it starting Aug. 14 and each Sunday thereafter for four weeks: two feature stories about the school and the students in Kenya, and three columns from the rest of the trip.

No one is more curious than I am about what they’re going to say. I’m told that Africa has a way of changing people, and that no one goes there just once. This, in fact, will be the fourth trip for one of the Boiseans who’s going with us.

Kituku calls a first visit to Kenya “a transforming experience.”

I can’t wait to tell you more about that.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on wooddwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.