Simbolei Community Assistance Association

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Our Solid Foundation: The Beginnings of the Simbolei Vision

Saturday, 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.


Boarding Schools and Gender Equity: A Teacher’s View

Friday, 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

Wednesday, 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.





A Few of My Favorite Things

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Everyone has a passion and since I was a kid, mine has been books. I was lucky that as the seventh of eight children in my family, my house was already full of great books by the time I came along. Not only that, but because my community valued books and education, and because of the generosity of some people I never met, our town had a public library.

Carnegie Library, Denison, Iowa

We also had a school library in each of our public school buildings. All of this was overwhelmed, however, by the sheer size of the library I found at Iowa State University when I headed off to college. And, over the past 2o years I have been able to visit the East Lansing Public Library often with my own kids.

All my life, books have been abundantly available to me. When we visit the kids in rural primary schools in Kenya, we find that they also are enchanted and delighted by books. But, sadly, their access is limited. Books are too expensive for most parents to buy. There are no public libraries within the Iten area and school “libraries” usually consist of piles of textbooks in a corridor or storage room.

Imagine what an accessible, well supplied community library would mean to these students and their families.

That is why we have decided that an essential component of Simbolei Academy is a community library that will not only be open to the public but will promote literacy through community outreach such as storytimes and workshops.

Currently, I am in the process of cataloging the books people have donated for the library. We can use more books, especially popular science, fiction, poetry and of course, picture books.  Please contact us if you or someone you know has books to donate.

In addition, we are looking for people with a deep commitment to literacy and libraries to help us fund the completion and furnishing of the Simbolei Community Library. This is a big job and we need your help. If you would like more information about gifts to the library fund, please contact us at

I’ll keep you posted about the cataloging. It goes rather slow when my helpers and I have to stop and read every few books.

Luna helps with cataloging and packing books for the Simbolei Library.

Riffs for the Rift Does It Again!

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Saturday we hosted our annual benefit night, Riffs for the Rift. Deacon Earl and the Congregation, the Lo Fi Steppers, Amanda Smith and Jelimo Kaitany all provided live music that included blues, reggae and classical. We had a huge tableful of delicious Kenyan food. Most importantly, everyone gave generously to support education and we raised over $1000 for Simbolei!

We want to thank everyone who came out and donated to the cause, the musicians who volunteered their time and talents, the cook and the food servers and the East Lansing High School National Honor Society students led by their chapter president, Taylor Murray, who helped with everything from serving food to moving tables. It was a wonderful evening of food and music. Best of all, we met our winter construction budget!  So, Richard will be departing for Kenya soon to finish pouring the second floor concrete.

If you or a group you belong to would be interested in hosting a benefit activity for Simbolei, please let us know. It is a great way to get friends together for a pleasant evening and help Simbolei at the same time.




2016 Teacher Workshop Brings in Some New (Puppet) Faces

Monday, July 25th, 2016
Teachers and volunteers gather for our annual workshop.

Teachers and volunteers gather for our annual workshop.

We are back from Kenya! We have lots of great stories and pictures to share from our time working with students and teachers.  The highlight of our first days in Kenya is always the Teacher Workshop. This year, we had a wonderful set of puppets made by my cousin, Sandy, and we decided to use part of the workshop to introduce the puppets to the teachers.

Teachers examine the puppets that we will use in the literacy workshops.

Teachers examine the puppets that we will use in the literacy workshops.

The teachers admired the clever construction of the puppets but especially the way the puppets were designed to illustrate the text of our theme story “Pretty Salma.”

Teachers with the puppets and the storybook.

Teachers with the puppets and the storybook.

In addition to introducing the puppets, we also gave the teachers books for their own leisure reading and to share with older students. It is a joy to see their enthusiasm for reading.

Teachers with the leisure reading books we brought.

Teachers with the leisure reading books we brought.

Salaries for primary school teachers are too low to allow them to purchase books and the Iten area has no public library. We are honored to help these teachers enjoy the pleasures of reading.

Caroline, English teacher at Kamariny Primary, shares my love of mystery and detective fiction.

Caroline, English teacher at Kamariny Primary, shares my love of mystery and detective fiction.

As we move ahead with construction this fall, I begin to envision the future community library at Simbolei Girls’ Academy. Not only will our students enjoy the books, but book lovers like these teachers throughout the community will be able to enjoy our collection.

New Year, Exam Results: Kenyan Kids Face the Future

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

A standard eight (eighth grade) class at Kamariny Primary.

As the new year begins, many of us make resolutions for new habits and activities. In Kenya, January marks the start of the new school year as well. It is an exciting time for all pupils as they buy new school books and uniforms. For students who finished Standard Eight (eighth grade) in 2015, however, it is a time of both excitement and uncertainty. At the end of Standard Eight, all students take an exam called the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education Exam (KCPE).  The score a student receives on this exam, received in the last week of December, determines whether he/she will be admitted to high school and through a complicated formula also determines which public high school/s the student will be admitted to. Public and private high schools in Kenya compete to recruit the students with the highest exam scores. Students who fail the exam either leave school or, in some cases, may be able to repeat Standard Eight and retake the exam next year.

For many students in Kenya, however, a shortage of high school places means even passing the exam does not guarantee a spot. Nationally, about 30% of students who pass the exam are unable to secure any place at all in a high school. Some of these students will repeat Standard Eight and try for a higher score next year.  Many, however, will seek some kind of employment, usually farm work or casual labor and never return to school. For girls, failure to enter high school increases their risk of early pregnancy and/or marriage.

Students who score well on the exam must then consider the cost of the schools they have been accepted to. Also, parents and students must consider the cost and risk of long distance travel as some students are accepted to schools a hundred miles or more from home. Since most families do not own cars, this requires travel by public transport over dangerous roads. Every year, social media posts document desperate searches for students who have either deliberately or accidentally gone astray on their way to boarding schools in distant cities.

Kamariny Primary, Standard Eight students and teacher.

So, while this is a time of celebration for many students who have done well, it is also a time of anxiety and tension for all families.

At Simbolei Academy, our mission is to improve education for girls in Rift Valley Province. To do that we provide literacy programs for primary school students that increase their exposure to literature and reading, a proven way of increasing academic achievement.  Also, we are building Simbolei Academy so that 320 local young women will have access to a high quality secondary education without traveling far from home.

As the new year begins, we look forward to more progress and more projects. Thank you for working with us and we hope you will continue to support us as we move forward. The girls of Rift Valley Province deserve our help.


Lives Within Lives: The Influence of Reading

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Our latest blog is by Katie Dooley, one of our interns this semester. Katie’s previous blog post was “Education Levels” published last month. In this post,  she shares her personal thoughts about reading. 

Hello! I’m Katie, I’m a senior at Grand Valley State University, and I am an intern at Simbolei this semester. In honor of the book donation that’s happening right now, I wanted to share some of my favorite books from childhood and why reading has always been an important part of my life.

I have always loved books. Before I could read on my own, I loved being read to and picking out a different book every night for my mother to read to me at bedtime. I remember learning to read when I was in first grade and how I quickly passed the advanced reading stage. I don’t know what my life would be like if I had grown up without books. It’s actually a very scary thought.

To this day I still have a lot of the children’s books that I read and that were read to me; I haven’t been able to give them away. I could pick any book out of the plastic bin we keep them in and instantly remember the feeling the book had given me so many years ago. I loved Dr. Seuss books and The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. I think I owned almost every single Berenstain Bears book. I read Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak over and over again. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister was another favorite of mine, mostly because of the shiny scales Rainbow Fish had. Verdi by Janelle Cannon, about a young python who doesn’t want to change colors from yellow to green—indicating that he is growing up—stuck with me for a long time. I can remember the impression Verdi left on me from a young age, probably because I related to him without even realizing it. Stellaluna by the same author had a similar message as Verdi and I remember reading both many times, even after my childhood.

As I got older I predictably became more obsessed with reading. The Junie B. Jones series was one of my first favorite book series, and I think Junie B. Jones was also the first character I really became attached to. Nancy Drew was another series I read quite a lot of as well as The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, which was the first book series I really fell in love with. I read both the Michigan Chillers and American Chillers series by Jonathan Rand. I did eventually stray away from book series and found my way into books like Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, which is a book of rhyming poetry, and Holes by Louis Sachar, to name a few.

The books I’ve named so far are only scratching the surface of the number I’ve read throughout my childhood and adolescent years. Even now, I am still thinking of more I could list. And, as you can probably predict, books and reading are still a huge part of my life today, not only just because I enjoy it, because of the importance reading has in my life. Reading a book and getting to the point where you forget you’re reading is the best part for me; the best reading experiences are when I finish a book in one day on accident. I read a quote once that said something like “Reading gives us the ability to live a thousand lives.” The books I read when I was younger gave me that ability and it continues to be something I am grateful for to this day.

Children who will attend Simbolei in the future should have the same reading experience and be able to talk about their favorite stories when they grow up. Reading is important for everyone. It can give us the opportunity to experience so many different things.


Here is the actual quote I mentioned above!



“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

– George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons


The Magic of the Written Word: A Guest Blog

Monday, February 23rd, 2015
 We are so happy to have a special guest blog today. Our guest blogger is the author of three books we use in our literacy outreach workshops: “My Rows and Piles of Coins”, “Kele’s Secret”, and “The Orphan Boy”. 

Born in Tanzania and now living in Canada, Tololwa M Mollel is author of over seventeen internationally published books for the young, the young at heart, and the not so young. Among them are My Rows and Piles of Coins, which we have at Simbolei, and Big Boy, Subira Subira, The Orphan Boy and the latest From Lands of the Night. He kindly agreed to write for our blog on the value he sees, as a reader and a writer, in the written word for himself and for everyone.

I grew up in Engaruka, a town in Northern Tanzania so small its only school consisted of a single room, and one teacher who happened to be my father. One of my first memories is of peeking through a window, before I started school, to watch my father teach. I saw him write vowels, in giant letters, on the blackboard. The pupils sang out the letters: a e i o u; then the vowels in syllables: ba be bi bo bu, ma me mi mo mu, cha che chi cho chu …… I didn’t have a clue what they were saying. But I remember thinking how magical it was to be able to discern someone else’s thoughts; or to transmit to others your very own as my father did his, not in spoken but in written words and letters!

And I couldn’t wait to start school.

On my first day in Standard One the next year, I got my first reading book. I couldn’t get my eyes and hands off it. I ran fingers across its colorful pages, touched its giant letters. I put the pages to my nose. They smelled of a far off magical place, from whence I came to think, even after primary school, books surely came.

For my middle school education, I went to a boarding school at Longido, a place only half an hour south of the town of Namanga at the Tanzania-Kenya border. Here a further source of inspiration, in the form of my uncle, spurred my love of reading. He happened to be the school head and our English and Kiswahili teacher. He loved books. Whenever he found a new one he liked, he read it to us. Afterward we chuckled over favorite parts and we acted out scenes from the book.

In Azania Secondary School in Dar es Salaam after Longido, the library proved to be my favorite place. I looked forward to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the library’s only opening hours. Since you could borrow only one book at a time, on Tuesdays I borrowed a book, a slim one, which I could finish by Thursday. On Thursdays I borrowed a thick one that lasted through the weekend and Monday. A second-hand bookstore not far from Azania school became my other favorite place. The owner was a stooped old East Indian man forever buried in a book. Whenever I entered the shop, he beckoned me to new treasures he had acquired. With difficulty, I would settle on the one book I could buy with my miserly two or three shillings. A few times, to my delight, he threw in an extra book for free.

My reading at Azania inspired me to do much writing, as it had at Longido. After reading an inspiring story I always tried to write my own. One of my writing projects was a play I wrote which we performed at Azania and other schools. That I had crafted words actors valued enough to memorize and make their own and a dramatic story audiences found worth their time to see, filled me with intense pleasure.

To this day I experience such pleasure whenever I create something I find worth sharing, after a painstaking but gratifying treasure hunt that leads me from an idea to a finished story. Fuel for this kind of pleasure comes as much from the diverse reading I make time for, as well as from writing that I do; for I still do find, as a writer and as a reader, the written word to be magical and inspiring.

Tololwa Mollel leading students in a workshop on writing in Canada.

Construction 2015 Is a Success

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Richard arrived back in Michigan from Kenya last night and we are just beginning the long period of storytelling, questions, and exchange of information that always follows his trip. This year, he is so happy to be able to report the construction season was a great success. The first floor walls of the entire main building were put up in just three weeks. For those of us used to watching stores and homes being constructed in the US with large crews and power equipment, this may not seem so amazing. But consider that Mr. Majani, our site supervisor, usually works with a crew of five or six men and no power equipment at all. The stone blocks weigh between thirty and sixty pounds apiece. All the cement and mortar is mixed on site in small batches, using shovels and wheelbarrows. All the stone, bags of cement and other supplies must be loaded on and off the truck by hand, one piece at a time. Now, you begin to get an idea of the labor of love that these men are carrying out, all to bring a high school for girls to their community.  I hope you enjoy construction photos as much as I do. I can’t stop looking at them.

Mixing cement within the building site.

Masons at work carefully aligning and cementing the stone.”

Handing a bucket of mortar up to one of the masons.

The finished product is a huge step toward completion of the main building. In some ways, it would be wonderful to be able to bring in big equipment and a huge crew and have the building finished next month. Certainly, the girls are waiting and we are eager to put the school to use.  However, the spirit of community and the lessons of patience that have been built along this journey are literally cemented into the walls. So many people will be able to say, “I remember when that wall was completed,” or “I laid this line of stone.”  This school will truly be a product of the hands and sweat and dreams of so many people.

Side view of the finished walls. The circular columns on the far left mark the future entrance area.

A view from the opposite side shows both parts of the building. Richard climbed a tree to get this shot.

The next construction step will be the first floor roof, which is also the second story’s floor.  That next step will cost about $36,000.  While this may seem daunting, I have only to look back at pictures of the empty lot and to remember even further back, to a time not long ago when I couldn’t see how we would even find the money to buy the land, to know that we will find a way. We are so happy to share this journey with all of you and we are glad to share these moments of rest and celebration along the way. Onward to the next stage!



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