Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Archive for the ‘motivation’ Category

Topophilia: Why “I Love This Place” Matters

Thursday, 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

Friday, 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.


The Bottom Line: Why We Care about Girl Children

Monday, April 11th, 2016

I answer lots of questions about Simbolei Academy. Obviously, it’s my favorite topic of conversation, so generally I enjoy explaining what we do and why we do it. But once in a while a question brings me up short. More than once lately, I’ve been asked, “Why do you focus so much on girls?  Don’t you care about boys? ” This question comes in a variety of formulations, sometimes sounding genuinely curious, but more often with at least a hint of criticism. Simbolei’s focus on education and empowerment specifically for girls is the only aspect of our project that ever draws a negative response from members of the local community. So, as our literacy activities grow and construction moves steadily forward toward opening day, it seems like a good time to revisit some old premises and answer the simple question, “Why do you care so much about girls?”

First, as a mom of two wonderful young men and as a teacher of hundreds of intelligent, caring and inspiring young men in my classes over the past 27 years, let me say that I admire and encourage the many gifts young men have to bring to Kenyan society. Our primary school literacy outreach activities are all conducted in co-ed schools and boys and girls participate equally.

Students at Yokot Primary seeing us off at the end of a literacy outreach program.

However, when Richard and I decided to build a secondary school in rural Kenya, we knew our focus needed to be on the empowerment of girls and women. In rural Kenya, women perform 80% of the agricultural labor. In addition to physical labor, women manage 40smallholder farms in Kenya. They have access to only 10% of available agricultural credit. However, what is even more startling, women own 1% of land in Kenya. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s not a misprint. 1%.  Women do the work, but due to cultural and social norms and a legal system that is still skewed in favor of male inheritance and ownership, women do not generally share equally in the proceeds of their work.  But surely, you may say, this system is changing rapidly?  Women are becoming educated and taking on leadership roles in equal numbers now, right?  Today, as I write this 81% of Kenyan national parliamentarians are men. The president and deputy president are also men.  Kenya has a high rate of unemployment over all, but only 29% of formal wages paid in Kenya are paid to women.

In terms of education, Kenya’s relatively new free primary education program has increased primary school enrollment by 46%. Both boys and girls now have a good chance of attending primary school. But girls still attend secondary school in lower percentages than boys and many girls are still unable to attend secondary school due to a lack of available spaces. The Kenyan national government and local leaders strongly encourage investment in private schools to increase access to education.

In short, while Kenyans face many hardships, those hardships fall disproportionately on girls and women. Despite a great deal of international attention to the needs of women and girls in the developing world, much remains to be done to ensure gender equity in Kenya.

I know this post has deviated a bit from my usual cheerful, conversational tone. But, I hope this helps to clarify our firm commitment to the empowerment of women and girls in rural Kenya. As we move into the final phases of construction, as you consider your part in our grand adventure, let’s keep sight of the motivation that brought us this far, a vision of a world class education so that young women in rural Kenya can be empowered to build the world they imagine.

Source of Statistics: USAID


Mr. Majani Inspires Us All as He Overcomes Injury

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Richard hasn’t sent pictures from the construction site yet, but he is on the ground and getting to work. Currently, he and Felix Sirma, John Serem and our construction contractor, Mr. Majani, are preparing the cement forms and collecting construction materials.

You may remember Mr. Majani from an earlier post. He supervises all our construction with advice from Kipsang, our architect. Over the three years we have been slowly constructing Simbolei Academy, Mr. Majani has often mentioned his two young daughters, whom he hopes will attend our school. He has sometimes wished construction could go more quickly so that his daughters do not reach high school age before the school is ready.

Like most Kenyans, Mr. Majani does not own a car. Last year, he purchased a motorcycle so that he could more easily travel home from construction projects on the weekends rather than relying on public transport.  Unfortunately, while traveling home one weekend on his motorcycle he was struck by a hit and run driver, severely injuring his legs. The doctors at first thought they might need to amputate one leg, but were able to save both despite the severe injuries.

Richard and I assured Mr. Majani that our project would wait for him. We trust his judgment and his honesty and did not want to switch contractors regardless how long the recovery period might be. However, when Mr. Majani was informed in October that Richard was making plans for the winter construction season, he sent word that he would be on the job as soon as Richard was ready to begin.

Currently, he is making his way around the construction site on crutches, taking frequent breaks to rest. We have provided housing and meals for him on the property so that he does not need to travel home in the evenings and so that he can rest during the day as needed. He is determined to do everything within his power to keep construction moving ahead and complete the project on time.

The faith and determination of people like Mr. Majani keep us going and inspire us that no matter how daunting the obstacles may be, the only right way to face them is head on.

Mr. Majani at the construction site last year, before his motorcycle accident.

Spreading the Joy of Reading

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Literacy volunteer Jack and I are back from Kenya. We had a wonderful time sharing books and stories with primary school children. I also met with the building committee,hosted a conference for primary school teachers,  visited suppliers for building materials, checked in with county officials to be sure we are in compliance with local codes, reviewed financial accounts, and supervised renovations to the volunteer cottage to prepare it for potential tenants. It was a busy time and I will take several posts to review everything we did, but today, I’d like to share the very best part of the trip, the joy of introducing new books and stories to children at our cooperating primary schools.

Jack reads to students at Kiptingo Primary school.

Our basic goal for the literacy outreach program is simple. We want kids to learn to love books and reading. We want to demonstrate for teachers the magic that happens when kids encounter books that interest them. To do that, we spend a lot of time in classrooms, doing interactive read-alouds and sharing some of our favorite books with the students.

Andrea shares a story with students at Kimuchi Primary.

Looking at the faces of the children as we read, we know this simple formula works. Many of the students are just beginning to speak and read English. Some are not reading yet at all. But high quality picture books and enthusiastic readers soon overcome any language barriers.

Helping Them Beat the Odds: Teaching In Kibera

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Today, Simbolei Academy is proud to participate in the EFA Global Monitoring Report at  UNESCO’s Teacher Tuesday,  profiling teachers meeting challenges all over the world. We are honored to provide this profile of Margaret, a teacher in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. You can click on this link to see all the Teacher Tuesday reports from a variety of blogs around the world.

Kibera, a large impoverished area of Nairobi, referred to by journalists as “one of the world’s largest slums” is for some a place of despair. But children in Kibera, like children everywhere, are filled with curiosity and an incredible capacity to learn.  Teachers in this place must overcome the physical challenges of poor school facilities and the children’s lack of basic food, clothing and shelter. Margaret, the head teacher at a public school in Kibera, is one of many teachers who help many children overcome the odds, giving them hope for the future.

The day begins at a primary school in Kibera.

Margaret’s days, like those of most Kenyan teachers, start early. She explains, “I wake up at 4am. I get the bus in the morning and travel for two hours to my school.”  Once at school, she keeps moving, “We normally come early to mark [grade] the books. I also take care of the feeding programme so have to measure the food for the day. I have to mark my work. It’s normally a packed day.” Even as the normal work day ends, teachers in poor public schools have work to do, as Margaret explains, “We end at 3:10pm and the children have prep until 5. Between 6 and 7pm we give an extra hour to some children that can’t do their homework at home because there’s no electricity or space at home. I leave at around 6:30pm.” Then, she goes home to rest and sleep before rising at four again the next morning to start the routine over again.

In 2003,  the Kenyan government eliminated school fees for primary school. Thousands of new pupils flooded in to public primary schools from which school fees had formerly excluded them. However, most public schools did not receive new resources to cope with the influx of students. Thus, teachers like Margaret and her staff attempt to cope with more students and fewer resources. Overcrowding is a problem. Margaret teaches a grade six class with 85 students. As she points out, everything is in short supply, even books. “The children share books, 1 to 3 children per book. The government sends the books, but they get destroyed in their bags and sometimes the children sell their books at 50 to 100 shillings [around a US dollar] to buy food.”

Overcrowding of classrooms, prevalent at most public schools in Kenya, presents challenges to teachers.

As Margaret points out, food can be a major motivator for the children. “The feeding programme very much increases the children’s concentration. The children love the food and that’s what keeps them in school. If there’s no food, about 50% don’t come to school.” She sympathizes with her students because like many of her fellow teachers, Margaret knew hunger as a child. “[B]ecause my father was very poor, I know what it means to be sleeping hungry, struggling with education. My siblings and I all succeeded because of education.” She notes that her situation is not unusual, “Most teachers don’t come from good backgrounds.” However, she continues, “It was our ambition that with school you can better yourself because that is how we became teachers.” Fighting hunger and poverty with education may be a cloudy ideal for some, but for Kenyan teachers on the ground, it is their life experience. They believe fiercely in the power of knowledge. “If we don’t have food today, we go to school and we get that food in abundance in the future.”

Margaret supervises children during the lunch period. The school feeding programme provides many children with their only sure meal of the day.

In addition to her own teaching, Margaret is responsible for training and supervising the other teachers in her school. Above all, she tries to instill in the teachers that they can be a lifeline for the students. “I tell them to be responsive to the slum children and supportive of them and love them the way they are.  Because they are dirty doesn’t mean they can’t learn!”  The determination and dedication of Margaret and her co-teachers may not save every child, as she points out, about 60 to 70 percent of students are able to read and write when they leave this school in Kibera, so many do not reach the goal of literacy before leaving school. But for those that do, the dedication and love lavished on them by these teachers may be the turning point in their lives. As Margaret remembers from her own impoverished childhood, “It was the teachers who brought us up.”

Join a special live tweetchat with Margaret!


The Slab is In and the New Year is Begun

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Richard Kaitany is back in Michigan and we are gearing up for another year, the year in which we hope to finish construction of the main building.  Through his pictures,  you can follow the process of laying the PVC liner and mesh, pouring and spreading the concrete.  We are now ready to begin building the structure to support the second floor.

Of course, getting from this great solid foundation to the finished building is still a bit of a climb, but our confidence is growing at every step.  We have lots of great activities planned for the year ahead so that you can be involved in our progress.  Look for more details about how you can connect and help over the next few weeks.  Also, stay tuned for stories of Richard’s visits to our friends at Kiptingo Primary and Simbolei Primary Academy.

Building a Brighter Future

Friday, January 11th, 2013

As part of my reading goal for 2013, I recently began reading a biography of Charles Dickens, one of the greatest English novelists.  Up until age 12, Dickens had a happy childhood.  Although his family had a variety of financial problems, little Charles was loved, encouraged and educated.  He loved to read and create skits and plays, even taking part in community theater.  However, when Charles was 12, his father was imprisoned for debt.  While his mother and siblings joined his father inside the prison, Charles was sent to work at a bootblack factory housed in a rat infested old house in London.  For a year, he worked 12 hours a day, six days a week pasting labels on bottles.

As an adult, Charles remembered the hunger and exhaustion of that time, but more than anything, he remembered the feeling of despair that he had felt when his education came abruptly to an end.  In a letter written to a close friend, grown up Charles described his feelings as a child taken out of school.

“…the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless–of the shame I felt in my position–of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned and thought and delighted in, and raised my fancy and emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more.” Charles Dickens qtd in “Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World.

This passage brought tears to my eyes and made me think of my own 12 year old daughter, but especially of the children we met in primary schools in Kenya.  When Kenyan children finish Standard 8, the equivalence of Grade 8 in the U.S., they take a major examination.  If they pass well, they are eligible to continue to secondary school.  However, even among those who do well on the exam, ONE THIRD of Kenyan school children must end their education at that point because there literally are not enough secondary schools available.

Standard eight pupils at Kamariny Primary School will be finishing primary school this year.

In rural areas, the situation is even worse as parents may find a school that can take their child, but it may be a day’s journey or more from home.  The hopelessness and despair of a child whose education ends at age 12 is hard to imagine.  What future can they anticipate except poverty and endless labor?

I am glad this is one of the first books I read this year, as Dickens’ words have provided a new sense of urgency and purpose for me.  Today, right now, 12 year old girls in Kamariny and nearby villages are beginning their last year of primary school.  If we work hard for the next few months,  Simbolei Academy will be ready and waiting for these girls in January.  We can prevent the tragedy of hopeless and wasted lives for these young girls if we work together now.  Let’s accept the challenge.


Construction News

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Currently, Richard is in Kenya working on construction of Simbolei Girls’ Academy.  Last week, our nephew Matthew was on hand to take some pictures of the progress.

Richard’s main goal for this trip was to complete the foundation so that we can begin work on the walls and plumbing work.

First, the crew hauled crushed stone and poured in the last layer of “ballast” before the concrete.

The final layer of gravel goes in before the concrete.


The next step “should” have been pouring concrete, but our piped water supply suddenly failed due to problems with the municipal pump.  The crew improvised by bringing out water technicians to resurrect a disused borehole “well” on the property.  This water is not safe to drink, but was perfectly fine for mixing concrete for construction.

The crew working on the bore hole.

With the water problem solved, it was on to the concrete pouring. By the end of the week, a smooth slab of concrete was curing on the construction site.

New concrete slab shows the outline of the main building.

Finishing the slab is a huge step in construction.  We thank all of our supporters for helping us get to this point.  Next up, the first story of the main building!




Sharon’s Story: The Why and How of Education for Kenyan Girls

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Today we welcome our second guest blogger, Sharon Kotut.

Our guest blogger, Sharon Kotut.

 Sharon is a Senior Level Professional in Human Resource Management and Administration. She holds a Bachelors of Education (BED, Maths & Accounting) degree from the University of Nairobi, and a Masters of Business Administration from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. She is currently in Senior Management as the Deputy Human Resource Manager at Corn Products Kenya Limited an American multinational.

Sharon also works as a mentor conducting  one to one sessions with  young people, young professionals, university students and church youth groups. Her passion for people is seen in the glow in her face every time you interact with her.

If you ask Sharon to tell you about herself, however, she emphasizes family. “My son Shammah makes me tick. He is my life, my breathe, my everything. My siblings make it for me. They are the best people on earth, cheerful givers and out there to be of help to everyone. They are selfless people and i am so proud of them.”

I met Sharon online where I discovered that her father was a high school classmate of my husband Richard at St. Patrick’s High School in Iten.  This is the first of a three part series Sharon is writing concerning education in Kenya and especially in the Rift Valley area.

Education: That Which Makes Us Equal

For a young girl growing up in the village like I did a few years ago, education is the key that makes people equal.

Educational facilities, training material, text books, exercise books, writing materials, school uniforms, shoes and other accessories that are essential for efficient and effective learning are very hard to come by. The motivation, the exposure and the horizon that we refer to in saying ” look beyond the horizon” are nonexistent.

During my days in Primary School in the early Nineties, we could walk to school barefoot, do without text books, school uniforms and other accessories because most rural folks cannot afford to provide such resources. Children go home over lunch hour but most children get home and there is no food or their parents are so intoxicated with the local brew that they forgot that lunch was to be done. Some children even go to school without food. Don’t forget that we have not touched on personal items that a girl needs day to day.

Young girls grow up with the knowledge that as soon as they turn 15 or 16, they will be ripe for marriage and they therefore learn from their mothers house chores performed by wives. Girls start learning how to smear houses with cow dung mixed with ash, how to fetch firewood and water from the river; fend for younger siblings, and other household chores. If you grow up in a family where illegal traditional brews are made then you probably learn the skill from your mother.  Luckily for girls in our area, female genital mutilation (FGM) is not practised anymore in most Kalenjin tribes. Otherwise usually after initiation, one would be married off to an old man for a few cows.

How can we then help these young girls to know that there is a life beyond their villages? That one can work hard, do well in Primary School, go to High School, College, get a job and live a better live than their ? What can we do as people who are privileged and have had the opportunity to experience life out here so as to give the same opportunity to these young girls?

A few weeks ago, I visited a village near my town and I found young boys, school going age drinking busaa (local brew) with old men. The women had had a few too many too. Their parents are oblivious to the harm they are causing these children. To them, this is the life, to these young boys; there is no other life. They have probably never gone beyond 20 Kilometres of their radius. How will these young people know that there are subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Home Science, Geography and History? How will they know that there are professions such as Law, Accounting, Teaching, Purchasing, Engineering, Architecture, etc?


What is our role here?


Sharon, shown here with a group of high school students, provides mentoring and advice to many young people.

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