Saturday, June 30, 2007

Starehe Boys Secondary School

The front entrance gate at Starehe Boys

On my last visit to Nairobi, I had the opportunity to visit Sr. Frances, a Sister of Notre Dame, who teaches at Starehe Boys Secondary School. I spent the afternoon with her and she gave me the grand tour.

Starehe (STAR-A-HE) means "tranquility" in Swahili. Starehe Boys is Kenya’s leading boys’ secondary school. It has been a “Top Ten” School since 1975. For the past ten years Starehe has ranked consistently as Kenya’s Best National School and takes more students to local universities than any other school in the country. It’s unfailing record for excellence has attracted the attention of many celebrities from around the world, including Muhammad Ali. Starehe's Music program is the best in the country and it’s marching band is well known in Kenya and has performed before Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

The founders of Starehe Boys L to R, Geoffrey Geturo, Joseph Gikubu, and Dr. Geoffrey Griffin

The original two tin huts built in 1959 still stand on the school grounds

Muhammad Ali's visit to Starehe

The school’s founder, Dr. Geoffrey Griffin, assisted by co-founders Joseph Gikubu and Geoffrey Geturo, had a vision for a school that helped to educate the gifted, but poor boys of Kenya. Dr. Griffin was known for his charismatic personality and his ability to persuade others to donate to his cause. In 1959, with funding granted by Kenya Shell & British Petroleum, Starehe began with only 17 boys, housed in two small tin huts. Since then the school has grown and gained much respect for it's commitment to educating the poor. On the day I had visited, 12,456 boys had come to the school and with land donated by the Government of Kenya, the grounds had expanded to 48 acres.

The office of the President of Starehe is full of awards for excellence in education

The kitchen prepares meals for over 1,000 students daily

Most students receive free healthcare from the Starehe's on-site hospital

Seventy percent of the students, which come from every area of Kenya, are granted a completely free education and healthcare at the schools on-site hospital by private and corporate donation. The other thirty-percent pay school fees which are based on their performance on the examination for the Kenya Certificate of Primary.

The chapel at Starehe

The main area in the chapel is set up for Protestant worship

This area of the chapel is set up for Catholic worship

The founder, Dr. Geoffrey Griffin, is buried in the floor of the chapel

The mosque at Starehe

Starehe accepts boys of any religious beliefs and brings them up in the precepts of those beliefs. At the daily assembly in the Hall, different groups take turns to present a reading, a hymn and a prayer. Sunday worship takes place in the Chapel which originally was used as a lecture hall. The school has Catholic and Protestant Chaplains on Staff, so all needs from baptism to a funeral can be met. Many Old Boys return to marry in the Chapel. Starehe also possesses what is probably the most beautiful small mosque in the country, serving Muslim boys.

The Starehe school badge

The Starehe’s vision and tradition of excellence are embodied in the school badge which is displayed at the entrance to the school’s main Hall. The silver griffin head represents the founding director of Starehe, Dr. Geoffrey Griffin. It’s location at the top signifies vigilance. The silver bugles symbolize the emphasis placed on music at the school. The school colors, blue and red represent truth, loyalty, military strength, and nobility. The red lion stands for courage, bravery, strength, ferocity, and valor. The silver stars are a pun on the school name “Star-ehe” but also reflect it’s motto “Natulenge Juu” which is Swahili for “Let us aim high.”

Starehe is an amazing school with an amazing founder. When I see what has come out of his vision to help the poor through education I am reminded that this was also a vision of St. Julie Billiart, the founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Dr. Griffin’s work has helped many of the poor and his motto “Let us aim high” inspires me in my own work of children with disabilities. His dream continues to grow and in 2005, Starehe Girls School was founded.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Dr. Aggrey Primary School

The children of the class raise their hands eager to learn

While I was in Nairobi back in May, I was able to visit another ministry of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Dr. Aggrey Primary School. I was invited to spend the day with Sr. Beatrice, who teaches class 3. She explained that the school was named after a famous doctor and that they encourage the children to study hard by telling them that they too could be doctors some day.

Sr. Beatrice teaches at the front of the class

On the morning I went to visit the school, there was a steady drizzle of rain. Sr. Beatrice and I had to carefully find our way up the muddy road, trying to avoid many puddles along to way, to the classrooms and office buildings. As the children arrived they removed their muddy shoes at the door and it was obvious that they were poor from the holes in their socks. Sr. Beatrice introduced me to her class and began to teach at the front while I walked around and helped the students with their math and English lessons. It was incredible that nearly all of the students spoke three languages fluently. They spoke Swahili, their own tribal language, and English. These children have so much potentional, but sadly our still disadvantaged.

The children play jump rope at recess despite the rain

Later in the day she was called away for a teacher meeting and for about an hour I was left to teach the class. The kids are smart and always eager to learn, but they are also very energetic and a real handful. I helped to teach English for awhile until their attention was completely lost and then I set them free for a recess break. On the break, the children played games outside in the courtyard although the grounds were still wet and muddy. After the break, the children came back in and I was worried that I would have to teach another subject. At this point, I had run out of lesson plans and the class was still noisy from recess. I tried my best to quiet them down, but they obviously didn’t see me as an authority figure. Just when I was about shout, “Please be quiet and take your seats!,” they suddenly did on their own. The class miraculously took their seats and was immediately silent. I had not said a word, but still had my finger raised with conviction. I was puzzled for a second and then I turned my head and saw Sr. Beatrice walk through the door. The class had seen her coming for a short distance. They knew she meant business. She smiled at me and said, “How was the class?” I pointed to them all sitting quietly in their desks and said, “Oh, fine…they were fine!”

With Sr. Beatrice present, the class quietly does their school work

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Girls at Rescue Dada

A Rescue Dada girl does her English school work

In May, I made another quick trip to Nairobi, this time it was to complete my Kenyan residency at the Immigration Office. While I was there I had the opportunity to spend a few days with the other Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, Arielle and Sandy, at Rescue Dada, a school and orphanage for street girls.

Lunch time at Rescue Dada

The last time I was there was back in January and I spent most of my time in the classrooms helping to teach English, but this time I came to visit during lunch and arts & crafts. On this day, the girls were making bracelets by stringing beads and braiding colored string. The bracelets would eventually be sold to generate funds to help support the program.

Girls make bracelets by stringing beads

Girls make bracelets out of colored string

At the time, the girls had been preparing for a poetry reading competition. It was to be held at one of the animal sanctuaries in Nairobi. The theme was the environment. While the girls were busy rehearsing the poem that they wrote, Arielle and Sandy were busy painting a natural landscape on a sheet that would serve as a backdrop for their presentation.

Sandy and Arielle paint the backdrop for the poetry reading

It's a masterpiece!

It’s truly amazing how the staff and volunteers at Rescue Dada are able to take these girls off the street, who seem to have no where to turn, and give them so much hope!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Today feels like Easter! My new hen has just hatched a litter of babies and I now have nine tiny chicks living in my courtyard. She still sits on one last egg that chirps when I hold it up to my ear. When it hatches there will be ten in all.

Chirp chirp!

Awhile back I had two chickens. Sadly, my hen, Malaika, died and my rooster, Rafiki, got lonely and went to find another mate. I’m not sure where he is right now, but it seems as though he was probably caught by my neighbors and eaten. They were both good chickens while they were mine, but since then I have moved on and now have another pair.

Mama eating rice out of my hand

Jogoo "crowing" loudly in the morning

In March, I was invited to visit Father Josaphat’s family, and after spending the day with them, they presented me with a gift, another hen. I have named her Mama Kidogo, which means "little mother" in Swahili. Mama, like my last hen, is also mostly white and has a faint black collar and a single row of black tailfeathers. I kept her alone in my courtyard and even taught her to eat out of my hand. After a few weeks, I eventually bought another rooster at the market to keep her company. I have named him Jogoo Makelele, which means “noisy rooster.” Jogoo is all white and matches Mama’s colors well. Every morning he wakes me up at 6:30AM with a very loud “crow” and continues making noise all day long.

Mama and Jogoo in the chicken house

They seem like the perfect couple and in the morning they both go out in the field together to find food. In the evening, they come back at the same time and stay the night in the chicken house.

Little by little Mama started to lay eggs and I have been collecting them, one by one, and eating them for breakfast. But it was at one point several weeks ago that she played a trick on me.

It seemed as though she had stopped laying eggs for a short time. I didn’t think much of it at first, but one day I discovered that she had been holding out on me. I finally caught on to what she was doing when she didn’t come home one night. I went searching for her and discovered that she had found a way to climb into an open window of the storage room next to my house and was laying her eggs in a nest-shaped tarp on the floor. She had been hiding her eggs from me in this room for a couple of weeks. By now, she was sitting on fifteen of them!

Jogoo sits in his favorite spot waiting for eggs to hatch

Mama has spent the last three weeks in the storage room and I have been checking on her everyday. Today I peered in through the window to see how she was doing and was surprised when I saw two tiny heads poking up from under her.

Mama and chicks

Nine chicks and one egg

One big happy chicken family!

I immediately went to Father Josaphat and told him what had happened. He looked at me with a questioning expression on his face and said, “Hen, what hen?” I said, “The hen…the hen that your family gave me!” “Oh,” he said, “that hen!” “I thought you slaughtered that hen months ago!”

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Power Outages


Here, in Malava, especially during the rainy season, the power goes out quite frequently. However, seeing that 95% or more of Malava is without power to begin with, a power outage only really effects a small number of people. I am one of those people.

During the early afternoon, when it is not raining, the power can go out for what seems like no reason at all. I was told that on those days the power company has not produced enough power to go around and so they are rationing it. In most cases, this happens while I am busy working at the St. Julie Centre, which doesn’t have power anyway, so I am not usually affected.

The Sisters of Notre Dame, who live in a large compound just up the road, have a fancy-shmancy solar power system with large panels mounted on the roof, so usually they are not affected as well. The obvious disadvantage to having solar power is that when it rains there is not usually enough sun to recharge the system. So it seems that in Malava, no matter what kind of system you are using, power is scarce and everyone is trying to conserve energy.

Just one plug too many

Every time it rains the power is almost certain to go out. Having been through it a few times already, I have developed a system for survival. I start by quickly plugging in everything that uses rechargeable batteries. I plug in my laptop, my mobile phone, and lastly my AA battery charger itself. To keep all of these things near, where I need them, I plug them all into the one single outlet in my bedroom. When I look at all of the plugs protruding from the wall I am reminded of a scene from the holiday movie classic, A Christmas Story. In the movie, the quirky father blows a fuse while trying to light the family Christmas tree from a similar looking overloaded outlet. After I plug in everything I can’t resist a reenactment of the scene. I fiddle with the cords. I point to were each one goes. Then I shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and recite the punch line, “It’s just one too many.” I suppose, in the end, the joke is on me because I know very soon I will be in darkness, and then I won’t be laughing.

At night, when the power finally goes out, as one might expect, it gets very dark in the house. I hope that by this time all of the batteries have been recharged. However, a strange thing about that is that, if they are charged, I am afraid to use any of them. In most cases, the power goes back on within a day or two, but I have been told that it can easily be much longer. And so I try to save all of the power I have by living in darkness.

Candlelight dinner for one

As one might also expect, there is not much to do in the dark when the power is out. Luckily, I have some candles, a kerosene lantern, and a propane gas stove. I light the lantern and make shadow puppets on the wall while I cook rice for dinner. As I move from the house, across the courtyard, to the kitchen and back in the dark, I can’t help but think in back of my mind that if I was attacked by bandits on this night they would really catch me at a disadvantage. I try my best not to spook myself and put it out of my mind. I finish cooking quickly, get into the house, and lock the door behind me. When all is secure I set a small table in the sitting room for a romantic, candlelight, dinner for one.

Last week, after I had eaten, I tried in vain to read by the light of the lantern, but it was hopeless. I finally accepted the inevitable and headed off to bed early with hopes and dreams of having power in the morning. Of course, it was when I had stumbled quite a bit in the pitch blackness to use the bathroom, brush my teeth, get into bed, put on my mosquito net, and put out the lantern that the power finally went on. Suddenly, all at once, all of the lights I had left on during the day, including the one directly over my bed, went on in a blinding flash. Arrgghhh! I asked for it!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Corpus Christi

Then He took the bread,
said the blessing, broke it,
and gave it to them saying,
“This is my body,
which will be given up for you;
do this in memory of me.”
Luke 22:19

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi which is the feast of the Body of Christ or the Eucharist. At St. Teresa Parish we celebrated with a long procession that paraded through the village, stopping at the parish primary school, the local hospital and HIV/AIDS Testing Center, and finally the police station. At each stop the parish members gathered around to pray for the school children, the people of Malava who are sick or dying, and the police who the protect the village. Many from the village, not from our parish, heard and saw the singing and dancing and came out to see what was happening. Father Paul, the pastor, held the Eucharist high so everyone in village could see. Unfortunately, many of the onlookers had no idea what it was Father Paul was holding. Some of the small children that came out to see the parade and saw me and began shouting, “Mzungu, mzungu, how are you!!!?” Mzungu is “white person” in Swahili. When they began shouting, all of the children and some of the adults came out see…me, not the Body of Christ. I started to get concerned stares from those in the procession. I began to walk slightly faster and as I looked down at the ground, feeling very awkward and embarrassed, I said to the children with a forced smile, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Father Paul and altar boys kneel before the blessed sacrament and pray at the parish school

School children lead the procession through the village

Father Paul holds the Eucharist high so everyone can see

Parishioners dance in the procession

All gather around to pray for those sick and dying at the local hospital

Father Paul prays in front of the blessed sacrament

Children come out of the shops to see the parade

Prayer at the Kenyan Police Station

The procession heads back to the church

Benediction at St. Teresa Church

Sunday, June 03, 2007

St. Julie Centre - Week 18

The Volunteer Staff and I at the St. Julie Centre

My role as the Volunteer Supervisor seems to get more familiar everyday. Three volunteers from last year, that took temporary leave, are set to rejoined the group and I will soon have a staff of twelve. Most of my staff are members of a local Christian volunteer group called Huruma. Huruma means "sympathy" in Swahili. I had my second volunteer meeting last week and even felt comfortable addressing them without having a translator present. I’m starting to think that my previous lack of experience in being a supervisor has turned out to help me in this role. It’s strange how the exact opposite of both our fears has actually happened. Before they met me, the volunteer staff, which is nearly all female, was afraid that, as a man, I would be over-bearing not be sensitive to their needs. While I, when I found out I’d be their supervisor, thought that the staff would see that I had no experience in this kind of position and would not take me seriously. But, I am happy to say that I have an excellent relationship with my staff and we are grateful to have each other. Things are well and as they should be.

Jairus uses the parallel bars to help him walk

Play therapy has been challenging, but is also going well. It has taken me some time to realize that many of the children who have severe disabilities are going to take a considerable amount of time to show any sign of improvement. Some of the children have been coming to the St. Julie Centre for years and are only presently showing some progress. Even more so, sadly, there are some cases where the children are not expected to improve at all. These children are brought to the Centre only in order to keep them in their present state and not allow them to get any worst. Before I came to terms with this fact I had a very difficult time with play therapy. In my mind, it was as if I had made it my own responsibility to make sure that each child would recover by the time my volunteer service was over. With this mind set, my first few weeks play therapy seemed like an incredibly daunting task.

Ruth is learning to write letters and numbers

After many weeks of therapy most of the children did not show any signs of improvement. Those that couldn’t stand or walk, still couldn’t. Those couldn’t talk, still couldn’t. Those that couldn’t concentrate on a single activity for more than a few seconds, still couldn’t. This is when I began to ask myself, “Am I really helping these children.?” It seemed as if, we at the Centre, were merely buying time while clinging to the false hope that a child with a severe disability might live a “normal” life one day. But watching these children come week after week without any progress, it was apparent that most of them would never live a “normal” life. It seemed hopeless and in many ways I felt like a failure. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing wrong that this child can’t walk or talk or concentrate?”

Vivian blows bubbles to help strengthen her vocal muscles to help her to speak

Mama Naomy plays with her daughter who is using a sitting device

I spent a lot of time thinking and stressing over it and finally had a conversation with David, one of the occupational therapists. He explained to me that physical therapy, in many cases is a very long process that can take several years. Disabilities in which the brain is effected can take even longer. He went on to tell me that my year of service spent with these children would only be a small fraction of the time it would take for them to recover, but he was reassuring that every stage was very necessary, even if I couldn’t see it. Just then, I pointed out a small boy at the Centre that, at that moment, was walking across the floor to chase a ball. I said, “He still can’t talk. I’ve tried everything. He only wants to play with the ball.” David replied, “You should have seen him when he first came to the Centre almost two years ago. He had to be carried in because he couldn’t walk, but now that he is walking, we are trying to focus on his speech.” This was a complete eye-opener for me. There was so much I hadn’t realized and I began to see my work with these children in a whole new light. I began to appreciate every moment I had with them. And the more I did this I began to notice small improvements with each child that I had previously over-looked. I now notice when a boy takes his first step, even if he falls on his second. I notice when a girl talks in gibberish, even if she can’t say any words. I notice when a child concentrates on an activity, even if it’s only for a few seconds more than from the week before. I began to ask myself, “How many “normal” people will get this opportunity to be here with this child at this moment? What's a "normal” life, but ordinary? I’m so glad that I don’t have a “normal” life!