Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Topophilia: Why “I Love This Place” Matters

April 4th, 2019

Currently, the Kaitany family is surrounded by a chaos of boxes, piles of books, piles of items to be donated or given to friends, etc.  Even though our final departure date is not until July, with a house to sell, pets to resettle in new homes, and six people’s accumulated belongings to organize, it’s quite a process.

Our current home decor.

When the chaos threatens to unnerve me, I find it helpful to visualize the end product, arriving in Kenya and settling into our new home, hiring and training teachers, organizing facilities and finally, welcoming students.

I have also done some reading about the moving process and discovered that feeling love and attachment to a particular place has a scientific name, “topophilia” or the “love of place.”  As a person who has always felt strongly rooted to the natural environment, I am not surprised to learn that tophophilia can ease one’s feeling of confusion or the sense of being “lost” that often goes along with moving.

The farm in Iowa where I grew up, probably about 1980.

I grew up in rural Iowa, a beautiful place where people care for the land and the seasons and weather are fully integrated into the rhythms of daily life. When I visited rural Kenya, I immediately felt a sense of connection and homecoming as well. Farmers and rural folks in Kenya likewise are closely connected to place and the natural environment in a way that must be shared by farmers around the world.

My friend, Ellen, on the edge of the Rift on a misty evening.

Iten, Kenya, where Simbolei Academy is located, sits near the equator at an altitude of 8000 feet, so it has the benefits of equatorial sun, 12 hour days and nights, and a climate with few extremes, while its high altitude mean the warm air is dry and not overly hot. Looking out over the Great Rift Valley into vast, mild blue sky is probably the most restful experience one can have. My topophilia for my new home is strong. I hope you will consider a visit to Iten as we finish and open the school to experience the beauty for yourself.

Looking out over the Rift, a place that inspires topophilia.

As for me, it’s time to get back to the endless to-do list that comes with wrapping up my last semester of teaching in the US and preparing for the relocation.

Sustainability and Mentoring the Community

March 15th, 2019

My husband, Richard, has been a driving force behind Simbolei Academy from the beginning. But, as we transition from construction to curriculum planning and soon, to actual school operations, Richard will have fewer responsibilities at the school and will be able to begin pursuing some of this other interests in community development.

Richard’s background is in agriculture. He grew up on a family farm near Iten and studied plant pathology, the science of diagnosing and treating diseases of crops, at Iowa State University and at Michigan State University. Recently he retired from the Department of Agriculture with the State of Michigan. So, now that the construction is beginning to wind up, Richard is excited to have time to begin working on agricultural projects and mentoring local farmers using the knowledge he has gained over decades of work in agriculture in the lab and the regulatory office.

First on his agenda will be providing food for the school. 320 teenagers will consume a large amount of food every day and the most cost effective and healthy way to provide it will be to raise it ourselves. In addition, Richard and I can implement some of our ideas for sustainable animal husbandry and land stewardship through our projects.

We have already developed a small dairy herd, pictured here hanging out with Richard. Right now they use several small paddocks sandwiched in near the construction site, but we are preparing pastures and dairy facilities so our cows don’t graze on the soccer fields once the students are using them!

Second, we will be growing maize (corn) and vegetables for the school cafeteria on Richard’s family farm a few miles from Simbolei. In order to prepare for this, Richard was able to fulfill a childhood dream of buying a tractor. Most farmers in the area rent a tractor during the growing season, which saves money but also leads to planting delays and a fair amount of frustration and desperation as every farmer in the area competes to get one of the few tractors into their field.  Richard sent me video of his new tractor plowing the field where we will grow food for Simbolei students.

Richard will be back in Michigan in a few days to help me make final preparations for our move. But, I think he is leaving a big part of his heart in Kenya with our cows and his tractor!

We expect to be relocating to Iten in July and will be opening Simbolei Girls’ Academy in January 2020. We always welcome volunteers and other contributions and are always happy to provide more information about Simbolei Academy. Please contact us to find out more.


Building Progress: The Outside Walls are Done

March 9th, 2019

I’ll get back to library organzing and household packing next week, but this week we got a whole crop of new photos from Richard showing the finished exterior walls.

Side Entrance to the library/laboratory section of the building.

Interior courtyard where we will hold morning assembly.

As you can see, the construction scaffolding is still in place or scattered around, but we will soon have that cleared away. I couldn’t wait to show you the beautiful building.

The next step will be building interior partitions which are of cement block rather than stone. Then windows will go in and we will be ready for electrical wiring, tiling and painting. The crew has already started on some of the interior partitions.

Richard standing within the interior walls of my future office!

The main stairwell now has walls too.

Richard will have one more week in Kenya to wrap things up, including arrangements for the arrival of our shipping container of library books, lab equipment and personal effects, ensuring the cottage and building site have good security while he is in the US, arranging medical insurance, transportation etc, etc for our final relocation to Kenya in July. Felix Sirma continues to be our right hand man and amazing family friend. We could not do it without him.

We also could not do this without all of you, our friends, family and supporters. Keep sending your encouragment, keep praying if you do that, and, as always, financial support is always welcome. Your generosity of time, talent and resources is an inspiration to us.

We have some new and exciting volunteer activities coming up in the fall of 2019 and winter of 2020, so if you’ve been contemplating joining us in Kenya for a couple of weeks, a month, or a couple of months, a year, whatever, stay tuned. I will have more information about these activities in the next few weeks.  If you can’t wait that long, send me an email at or on Facebook at Simbolei Academy and I will fill you in. Happy planning!


Our Solid Foundation: The Beginnings of the Simbolei Vision

February 23rd, 2019

Richard is still in Kenya, so absorbed in getting as much done as possible before he comes back to the States in March that he hasn’t sent any pictures lately. Here in Michigan, I’m sorting, packing and cleaning. I had planned to write a post about the bittersweet task of packing up, but haven’t been able to get my thoughts together. So, this week I’m going to take a little stroll down Memory Lane to where Simbolei began, way back in July 1998.

1998, Richard and I had been married 14 years and had three kids, but we had never travelled to Kenya as a family and the trip was overdue. So, when I got offered a reasonably well paying job for the fall semester, we decided it was time to spend a summer in Kenya. We packed up 10 year old Kipchumba, six year old Kibor and almost four year old Jerotich and flew across the world.

The biggest event of the trip was a ceremony at Richard’s family home to welcome the kids and me officially into the family. There was dancing, singing, and food, but the most significant moments were when Richard’s family dressed the kids and me in new clothes they had provided. This act, which is a variation on an ancient marriage ritual, indicates that from now on, we are to find our shelter, our clothing, all of our needs, within the shelter of the family of “Kapsesia,” the official name of Richard’s family lineage. Jerotich didn’t grasp the ritual significance, but she really like the ruffly dress which my sister in law, Magrina, wife of Richard’s oldest brother, is helping her with in this picture. 

We also visited Richard’s primary school, Chelingwa Primary, and donated a small box of books. This box was the first of many, many books that I would present to primary school head teachers in villages around the area over the years. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was a day of great significance. During the conversations and small speeches in the staff room after the book presentation, Kenneth Kipchoge, then headmaster of Chelingwa Primary, noted that the community was eager to have people of our education and experience “come home” to Kenya and that particularly, they hoped we would consider building a high school for girls. To be honest, up until that point, the idea had never entered my head. I had assumed when we eventually relocated to Kenya (I was in love with the place by the second week, so that was already pretty clear) I would teach at a university as I did in the US. But, Mr. Kipchoge’s words first brought the vision of Simbolei Girls’ into being.

Overall, it was a wonderful trip, discovering the beauties of Kenya and meeting and developing relationships with Richard’s family and friends. It would be eight years before we were able to buy land suitable for Simbolei Girls’ and another five after that before we were able to begin construction. But, it was the beginning a lifechanging experience for all of us. As we prepare to finally open Simbolei Girls’ to the first students in January 2020, this story reminds me that sometimes all it takes to start something big is a few words of vision, the planting of a seed.


Another Great Book Set in Sudan

February 16th, 2019

As I’m packing and preparing the Simbolei Community Library for shipment from Michigan to Kenya, one of the greatest challenges for me is the temptation to continue to purchase new books. I am trying to cut back on purchases so that I can get the books we already have ready for shipment and I can turn my attention to other moving related tasks that need to be done.

Having gotten that off my chest, I want to follow up on last week’s post about A Rope from the Sky, a recent history of South Sudan, with another Sudan related book in an entirely different genre. Morning in Serra Mattu : A Nubian Ode is a collection of interrelated verse stories that describe the culture, environment and people of Nubia, an ancient civilization and now a region in the country of Sudan. This is a beautiful and intriguing book, the poetry full of delicate and intimate details while overall the poems weave the story of historical and environmental change. Over 100,000 Nubian people in Egypt and Sudan were displaced upon completion of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in 1960 and this event is one of the tragic themes of the stories. But, the history in this book reaches much farther back into the distant past as well as into the present.

Here is an excerpt from the poem With Alawiyya. 

Alawiyya was your sister

one year older

with whom you loved to set out to explore

and together you knew all the roads

and hidden paths and complex secret passageways

of all those neighborhoods


sometimes climbing on roofs of garages

from which height you reached out with a wire

you bent with a hook to pull

tamarinds down toward you

taking in your hands the fruit


and the British were quite crazy with such sun

to grow every kind of citrus that they could


to water with each moon

they flooded the gardens from the Nile

the orchard then became a lake

from With Alawiyya in Morning in Serra Mattu

With books we can travel the world, finding our common feelings with people from other times and places but also learning to see the world through another person’s experiences.  As we prepare to move the Simbolei Community Library into its new home , I find books to be both soothing and inspiring. I’ll continue to share treasures for adults and children, both books specifically related to Africa and books related to topics such as development and education so that you can share the journey of discovery with us. Happy reading!


Books About Black History for All Ages

February 10th, 2019

February is Black History Month in the US, so I thought it would be a good time to share some books about Africa and Black history that I have found interesting. Today, I’ll cover two very recent books, one for adults and one for younger readers that cover important aspects of Black history.

The first book is A Rope from the Sky : The Making and Umaking of the World’s Newest State by Zach Vertin, which came out in January 2019. South Sudan, Kenya’s neighbor to the north, is one of the world’s newest countries, having separated from Sudan in 2011 and began to disintegrate in civil disputes in 2013. Vertin follows the major figures in the formation and eventual disruption of South Sudan as they achieve the impossible, separating from the country governed from Khartoum created by the British and setting up a new coutnry. But, fighting for independence and governing a modern state are two different tasks requiring different strengths. The picture of South Sudan’s struggles with corruption and the toxic manipulation of ethnic rivalries illustrates the struggles common to many African nations to one degree or another. The book is rather long but quite readable and helped me understand South Sudan and its impact on East Africa much better. Simbolei’s late friend and patron, Lazarus Sumbeiywo makes a brief appearance in the peace negotiation process.


For younger readers, Black History Month is a great time to learn about some stellar figures in science.  One beautiful new picture book tells the story of African American scientist, Ernest Everett Just, a pioneer in the study of cell biology. The pictures in this book are gorgeous and the text describes Just’s life and work in a way that will spark the interest of readers ages 6-11 in cell biology while also discussing the racial discrimination Just faced in his career. The book’s author is Melina Mangal and Luisa Uribe did the beautiful illustrations.

Over the years, many of you have asked me what types of books the Simbolei library will include. Others have asked what books might give good information about East Africa. As I pack up my own library and prepare to ship the books, I will be posting brief descriptions of some favorites here. Happy reading!

Construction News!

January 30th, 2019

The new year begins with Richard Kaitany and the crew finishing the rough construction and beginning interior finishing. Everything is finally coming together for our school opening, January 2020.

In this picture, the workers position the cut stone in preparation for creating the last walls.

This is the wall they can finish in one day. Then , the wall needs to cure overnight before they continue the next day. 

And in this photo you can see the back wall finished. In the days since this photo was taken, all the second floor walls were finished.

So, what’s next?  Here in Michigan, I am clearing out and packing up accumulation from 20 years raising a family in this house. Our house here will go on the market in April. In Kenya, Richard and the crew are ready to begin interior finishing of the first four classrooms, the science laboratory and the library. A huge thank you to the Presbyterian Church of Okemos in Michigan for providing funds for interior finishing and microscopes for the science laboratory!

If you or someone you know would be interested in sponsoring the library or one or more of the classrooms, let us know!

Also, over the next few weeks, I’m going to start posting about how I am preparing for the move, with photos and stories about the new tools and processes I am attempting to master, from efficient ways to do laundry without a washing machine to making cheese and planning coursework.  I will also post reviews of some great books about Kenya and East Africa so you can read up on the context of Simbolei Academy.

We’re moving right along!


The Value of Picture Books

October 22nd, 2018

Every summer during our Literacy Outreach activities, we visit six local elementary schools near Simbolei, sharing stories and donating picture books. While most American children have access to picture books either at home or at school, our donations are often the first picture books that the Kenyan students have encountered. In this video, a local head teacher, Jen Kibii of Yokot Primary School, explains why picture books matter to the pupils at her school.


We hope you will consider joining us for Literacy Outreach 2019. Dates and details are coming soon. If you can’t visit with us in person, remember that we accept donations of gently used children’s books and crayons also.

Boarding Schools and Gender Equity: A Teacher’s View

October 12th, 2018

Video Link: Head Teacher: Jen Kibii

As we plan Simbolei Academy, American supporters sometimes ask “why a boarding school? Shouldn’t girls be living at home?” Kenyan educators, however, fully support boarding schools as the most effective means for girls to obtain a quality education. The headteacher of Yokot Primary school, one of our cooperating elementary schools, explains why girls need the space and quiet that boarding schools provide, allowing them to focus on their studies instead of on their many family obligations.

Our Last Summer Abroad

September 12th, 2018

As the weather turns to fall here in Michigan, we can look back on a busy, productive summer for Simbolei and look forward to our finishing our construction and curriculum planning. By this time next year, Richard and I expect to be on the ground working with staff and faculty to prepare for the opening of Simbolei Academy in January 2020.

In the meantime, the highlight of our summer, as always, was the Literacy Outreach workshops we conducted at six primary schools near Iten. This year, we used a beautiful felt board created by Diane Marable to illustrate the story of Pretty Salma and Mr. Dog. The puppets we have used in previous years are beautiful but they really require a group to use effectively and this year, it was only myself, Felix Sirma and Sister Lucia Treanor, my colleague from Grand Valley State University who conducted the workshops. Felt board figures were much easier to manipulate and move with our limited personnel. The kids loved it and, needless to say, the crayons and coloring were also very popular.

Hard at work with the crayons.

The felt board.

In addition to our literacy programs, Sister Lucia and I also presented a workshop on techniques for teaching academic writing to faculty at Catholic University of East Africa in Eldoret. At the end of all the teaching and learning, I was able to spend a little quality time around Kamariny with our resident cows.

Simbolei Academy cows.

And so, our last summer of long distance commuting between Michigan and Kenya comes to a close and we prepare to make the huge leap from finishing construction to organizing and opening the school. Thanks for traveling with us. We’ll keep you posted.

Nursery classes at Simbolei Junior Academy.





The Great Rift Valley is part of a huge tectonic rift in the earth's crust that also created the Red Sea and the valley of the Jordan River.

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Simbolei Girls Secondary School, Kenya