Tim Woodward

Boisean to Kenyan kids: ‘If you have a dream, you are not poor’

Who doesn’t like new clothes? Students at Kikeneani Primary School wouldn’t have been happier with new uniforms from Boise if they’d been made of gold lame.
Who doesn’t like new clothes? Students at Kikeneani Primary School wouldn’t have been happier with new uniforms from Boise if they’d been made of gold lame. Provided by Tim Woodward

Editor’s Note: Tim Woodward recently returned from Kenya, where he spent time at Caring Hearts High School and several primary schools. Donations from the Boise area support or help support all of the schools. This is the second of two stories from the trip.

Kikeneani Primary School is a series of block buildings with rusting, corrugated metal roofs and dimly lit, overcrowded classrooms. Some of its students are from families so poor they pay their children’s tuition in goats.

The school is one of those that supply students to Caring Hearts High School, where tuition, board and room are paid by donations from the Boise area. Caring Hearts students have adequate living quarters, regular meals, dressy uniforms. Many Kikeneani students don’t have shoes.

The government gives their school $13 per year per student.

“It’s enough for chalk and some repairs,” Principal Joshua Ngumbo said.

The school’s singers and dancers were good enough to qualify for a national competition but couldn’t go because there was no money for matching costumes.

“Parents support us with what little they can,” Ngumbo said. “They don’t have much.”

Parents with enough food provide their children with a modest lunch to take to school. Students whose families don’t have enough food go hungry at school.

Christopher Mumo, who went to school at Yatta and now teaches math and physics at Caring Hearts High School, worries about the overcrowding at Kikeneani Primary.

“It’s difficult for the teachers,” he said. “They are very good, but the classes are so large (11 teachers for 380 students). There is a desperate need for more teachers.”

Yatta is in an arid part of Kenya. During a recent drought, many of the plants and animals died. Boise’s Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope sent the school $2,000, enough to feed the students for three months.

Boisean Vincent Kituku, Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope president and the founder of Caring Hearts High School, has no trouble relating to the Kikeneani students. He grew up not far away, in similar circumstances.

“I was the firstborn of 12 children,” he told the students, their teachers and a small contingent of parents standing or seated on portable chairs outside the school for an assembly. “I grew up in a house of mud. My mother taught me to write with a stick in the dirt. When I was 13, my mother brought me something all wrapped up. Can you guess what it was? It was underwear. I was 13 when I got my first underwear, 17 when I wore my first pair of shoes. I was 9 before I saw a watch. It was noon when I couldn’t see my shadow. It was 3 when I cried for water.”

His point, that he once was as poor as the Kikeneani students but through years of hard study rose above poverty, found its mark. Where music, dancing and cheers had punctuated the hot afternoon moments before, the only sound was the breeze rustling the leaves of the trees.

“As long as you have a dream, you are not poor,” Kituku told his audience. “A little dream can make a big difference in your life and the lives of those you love.”

Dedan Mutua’s dream is to attend Caring Hearts High School when he’s old enough. Seven but small for his age because of malnutrition, he lives near Kikeneani Primary School but isn’t a student there. Dedan is the son of a single mother who died of AIDS. He took her death so hard that for a long time he wouldn’t sleep anywhere but on her grave. His grandmother took him in, and Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope built her a home and pays for him to live at a private boarding school where he has enough to eat. His grandmother walks two kilometers to visit him there.

Kituku delivered 100 new school uniforms to the Kikeneani students on a July day when he visited with a group of Caring Hearts sponsors. The clothes’ recipients immediately ran inside and changed out of the frayed, faded uniforms they’d been wearing. The only things brighter than the vibrant blue of their new sweaters were the smiles on their faces. You’d have thought it was Christmas morning.

The uniforms cost $15 each.

Before they left, Kituku and the sponsors were invited to sit at outdoor tables with lavender tablecloths and treated to a display of the school’s award-winning dancing and singing and a feast of bananas, oranges, chicken livers, bread, bottled water and tea. It was more than the students had to eat all day. Visitors who had grumped about the heat, dust and bumpy roads during the drive to the school were reduced to silence by the realization that their visit was a highlight of the school year.

“We have no words to thank you,” Ngumbo told them. “We hope that you will come to visit us again and that someday one of us can go to America.”

When school ended for the day and it was time for the visitors to leave, every student walking the road that led to their homes waved, smiled and shouted “bye bye.”

Every single one of them.

Another of the schools that Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope helps support is the primary school at Kangundo, Kenya. Families of 300 of its 1,100 students can’t afford the equivalent of $5 a month for school lunch, so the kids go hungry at school. Another 100 are orphans.

The school accepts blind children from several counties. Sixty of its students are blind, virtually all of them penniless. A few have multiple disabilities. One blind boy has a condition that affects his equilibrium. To keep his balance, he constantly has to move his head.

Some of the blindness is caused by malaria, some by a type of cataracts that occur in children. Treatment that would prevent those with cataracts from losing their sight costs $200 per eye. Few families are able to afford it.

Patrick Mbauni lost his sight when he was 10. He dropped out of school because of it but never lost his desire to learn. He is now a 24-year-old fourth grader at Kangundo Primary.

“Normally he would be far too old to be at this grade level,” Principal Bernard Kivava said. “But he works hard and gets along well with the others. He is like an older brother to the younger boys and girls.”

Mbauni’s developmental disabilities are severe enough that he’ll have almost no chance of academically qualifying for high school. Kituku hopes to enroll him in a vocational school where he’ll be trained for a job working with his hands.

The blind students use braille textbooks to pursue their studies. A braille textbook costs 1,200 to 1,500 shillings ($12 to $15), Kivava said, compared with 270 shillings for normal textbooks. Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope does what it can to help. Donations from the Boise area have paid for school supplies, walking canes for the blind, several computers and new mattresses.

“There needs to be uniformity for all of the students,” Kituku said. “Social discrimination, where kids whose families can afford it have expensive mattresses while the poor languish in rags, is not encouraged.”

Nine graduates of the school are now enrolled at Caring Hearts High School, where they are being educated for good jobs. Many of its students will go on to universities, also paid by Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope sponsors.

A jolting, six-hour drive from Kangundo, over roads that make travelers feel as if they’ve spent the day in a blender, is the Masai Mara (Masai Plains) Game Park. Safaris that draw wealthy tourists to Masai Mara cost more than the Masai people who live in a village there will see in their lifetimes.

The village’s 10 families live in dwellings made of cow manure, housing an average of 11 people each. The structures are roughly 130 square feet. There are no windows and one 4-inch hole for ventilation. The heat and smoke from the fires used for cooking, and for warmth in the southern-hemisphere winters, are stifling.

The reality of contemporary life there is nothing like the romanticized version of the Masai seen in “Out of Africa” and other Hollywood films. The days when the tribe was self-reliant and reigned proudly over a harsh environment are, if they ever existed, a fading memory. Today the Masai conduct tours of their village, carry visitors’ bags and sell blankets, jewelry and trinkets.

“A few of them would like to keep their traditional culture, but the Masai see the writing on the wall,” Kituku said. “They are surrounded by so much wealth. There are probably 5,000 people a year from all over the world who come here for safaris. A lot of the tourists would like the Masai to stay traditional, but the Masai can see how the rest of the world is. They are ashamed of their poverty.”

Poor as it is — its students are thrilled with gifts as basic as pencils and pens — the village’s school may be its inhabitants’ best hope for a better future. Entrance requirements at Caring Hearts High School are less stringent for Masai children. Three are now students there.

“They struggled at first,” Kituku said. “They were at the bottom of their class. Now they are catching up and have passed a few of the other students. Being poor doesn’t mean that they are not bright.”

Few of the Idahoans and others who donate to Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope will ever see those students, or those at Yatta or Kangundo or Caring Hearts High School. They’ll never see their radiant smiles or hear their heartfelt expressions of gratitude. If they could, they would know that their generosity is making a difference.

Read the first installment of the series here.

Tim Woodward’s regular columns, beginning with a column on his personal experiences in Kenya, will return next Sunday. His columns are posted on woodwardblog.com on Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

How to help

As little as $500 pays for a full year of education at Caring Hearts High School, including room, board and uniforms. To make a pledge or a donation, click on www.caringheartsandhandsofhope.org/how-to-help.asp. Or send a check to Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope, Inc., P.O. Box 7152, Boise, ID 83707. All donations are tax deductible.

About this trip

Tim Woodward and his wife, Sheila, have sponsored a student at Caring Hearts High School for two years. For teaching at the school during their time there, Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope paid for the Kenyan portion of their trip, which later included time in Europe. Tim taught writing at the school. Sheila, a retired teacher, taught other subjects from an American perspective. Tim is donating his payment for this and last week’s stories to Caring Hearts.

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