As you may know, over the past 5 years I’ve been involved in building schools in communities for traumatically displaced people. Working through the nonprofit organization World Teacher Aid, we’ve completed 7 schools, each serving about 500 kids, and we have more schools on the way. We are building schools and lives at the same time.
Due to the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007, 600,000 people were displaced. Others died. They lost their homes, communities, family members and most of their possessions.
Some were middle class workers while others were poor farmers. In just one night, their lives changed forever.
Our adopted Kenyan daughter, Cynthia, was 10 years old when the violence occurred. Here’s how she describes that traumatic passage.
One day we found a paper saying we would have to leave our homes. That night we woke up, our house was burning. People were running every which way.
We didn’t have time to take anything. We ran and ran. People were being burned to death in their cars. There were dead people lying on the ground being eaten by pigs.
Eventually we got to a police station and finally to a camp of about 16,000 people near Nakuru.
Later we went to a smaller camp where I lived for almost 4 years. It was terrible. We were cold and hungry. We had lost all hope.
Finally we moved to Shalom community and the government gave us a small plot of land and a tin roof to rebuild our home. With no school for 4 years, I thought my future was lost forever.
Cynthia is just one of over 400,000 kids with a similar story to tell. Some of the families are only now being resettled. The last remain in tattered canvas tents, where they are still subjected to rain and cold. They are all known as IDPs – internally displaced people.
The backdrop of our work in Kenya is a grim and tragic history. Yet, today there is hope, love and sharing passing between cultures and people whose life circumstances share nothing in common.
Every time I go to Kenya, I am humbled by how much I learn and how touched and fortunate I feel to be there receiving the love from the kids, moms and communities. It is a story of trauma and recovery, a story of gratitude and willingness to learn from each other. It is deep immersion into a world so different from my own.
This year my daughter, Molly, and I camped in a new community named Molo. We went to help finish building an elementary school and to support this newly resettled community.
It had been two years since my last trip. I was excited to return and also wondered what I would find.
Here’s a peek into some of what I experienced:
- It is tragic that some of the families still are not resettled. They’ve lived for years in tattered canvas tents. I’ve posted some pictures on Faceook.
- Opening the new school in Molo was uplifting and reminded me again how much difference a school makes for rebuilding community and instilling hope! It is amazing to witness its significance in reorganizing trauma.
- American dollars go a long way. Remarkable achievements are possible at relatively small expense.
- People who could easily be angry and resentful and who have lost so much maintain their loving generous spirits and gratitude.
Along the way we visited communities at all stages of development.
- The most primitive stage: groups of refugees still waiting to be resettled after 9 years in temporary camps.
- Forming communities: in our newest community, Molo, we opened their first real school.
- Established communities: we returned to Shalom, where we built our first elementary school and high school five years ago, and were able to learn how education is impacting the kids and the community.
In Shalom we learned:
- It takes the kids about 3 years of being back in school to return to their optimum learning ability.
- Providing lunch of beans or porridge increases attendance in school significantly.
- Schools lack libraries and enough textbooks.
- The schools want to be self-sustaining, and growing beans and raising bees are the two most profitable sources of revenue to support the feeding and textbook programs.
- The local Governor is truly committed to our work and to providing teachers and assistance to our schools.
- 52% of the first high school graduating class went to college.
- There’s an urgent need for more sex education and for mentors who can help girls say no to predatory men.
A special highlight of the trip was our reunion with Cynthia. Over the 5 years our relationship with her has deepened. She’s become a part of our family. Recently, thanks to the wonders of “What’s App” technology, we have been in touch weekly.
In January Cynthia proved we were right to see her potential and support her education, sending her to boarding school. She caught up the 4 years of school she missed and was able to start college in Nairobi this past January.
Molly and I took her traveling with us for 4 days after finishing our construction work on the new school. Beforehand I wondered a lot about how that might be for all of us. I wondered if it might be too intimate or foreign for her or how she would respond to her first airplane flight? Would we feel awkward together or have very little to say?
We laughed together, cried together and faced a challenging issue of her having lost another girl’s computer. It was another step forward in integrating two vastly different worlds with loving acceptance, gratitude, and openness to experiencing the unknown.
Over the past 5 years, some therapists have written to me about being inspired by this work. Others have asked how to get involved.
In the coming years, I hope to involve more people from our therapist community in this inspiring work. If you choose to participate, your life will be richer for it.
Please comment below on if and how this work touches you.
And I’d like to visually share the journey with you. I’ve posted some photos on Facebook so you can see the work and the people.
In a few days I'll also post a fun, very short video of the trek Molly and I did to see Dian Fossey’s gorillas. I'll let you know when it's published.
Please click Kenya Photos and take just a few minutes to allow the folks and experiences of Kenya to brighten your day.