Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Archive for the ‘Iten’ 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.

Andrea

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.

 

The Roof is On

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Here it is, folks, the last day of roofing!  At the end of February, we finished the entire roof of the main building. The next construction step will be to begin finishing the walls, doors and windows on the northwest wing, which is at the far right in this picture. These will be the first classrooms for students who will be entering in January 2020.

In the meantime, we will continue to use the “soccer field” to grow maize to help fund construction.

Here in the U.S., volunteers continue to clean, catalog and pack more than 6000 books for the Simbolei Community Library. Also, March 25-31 is our annual Schuler Book Days for Simbolei fundraiser. You can join the fun by shopping at Schuler Books in Okemos, Michigan and saying “Simbolei” at check out. 20% of your purchase price will be donated to Simbolei by Schuler Books. Or, online, you can shop at schulerbooks.com and enter “KENYA” in the coupon box to donate 20% of your purchase to Simbolei.

Every day we appreciate all you do to help make the dream of Simbolei Academy a reality. Things are happening fast now and Andrea and Richard and family are busy preparing for relocation to Kenya. Let us know if you would like to volunteer or learn more about Simbolei by emailing info@simboleiacademy.org.

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.

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.

The Joy of Useful Work: Literacy Workshops and Gifts

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

In the US, November is the month when we reflect on why we are thankful.  I think one of the greatest gifts is finding something you enjoy doing that benefits others. So, this month, I am reflecting on the joy of sharing books with kids. I have always loved books, which is why I became a college writing and literature professor.  Reading with my own children when they were small has also always been a joy to me. But, it wasn’t until middle age that I discovered how much fun it is to share stories and ideas with groups of children.

Sharing stories at Simbolei Junior Academy, Kessup, Kenya.

As we begin to plan our Summer 2016 Literacy Outreach, think about challenging yourself to try something new. We need volunteers to share stories with kids, we need volunteers to help organize fundraising activities in the US and lots of other activities that make Simbolei’s work possible. What would you like to try in the coming year?

Creating something new at Literacy Outreach, 2015.

Interview with Brother Colm O’Connell

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

As always, our weeks in Kenya were a learning experience for us as well as for the primary school students.  As I have mentioned before, Iten is currently the distance running capitol of the world.  Not only do many of the world’s greatest distance runners live and train in Iten, but St. Patrick’s High School, founded by the Patrician brothers as a mission school before Independence, claims many of these greats as alumni, as well as many local and national Kenyan politicians, prominent businessmen, high ranking civil servants and other “movers and shakers” in Kenyan society.

The St. Patrick’s, Iten school bus, which replaced the rebuilt truck used to transport students in the sixties and seventies.

Richard Kaitany credits much of his success in life with the education he received at St. Patrick’s. These days, aspiring and elite runners are beating a path to St. Patrick’s in hopes of meeting a non-assuming man with a gentle smile and a soft Irish accent, Brother Colm O’Connell, coach to the famous St. Patrick’s track and cross country teams and runners including David Rudisha, Augustine Choge and many others.

Brother Colm discusses education with Andrea Kaitany

I met Brother Colm last year at a memorial service at the school and this year, we were able to speak to him about running, education and the importance of Simbolei to the local community.  He emphasized the importance of expanding educational programs for girls in the area and the electrifying mix of athleticism with academic achievement that could be available to young women with further educational facilities. He also took a moment to offer some advice and insights on running and training to our volunteer, Marcus. We are excited to have the support of such a prominent community member for our project.

Local news photographer, Nicholas Kiptoon filmed the interview for us and now U.S. volunteers Joey Kaitany and Dan Mundt will be creating a short film featuring Brother Colm’s interview along with other information to introduce new supporters to Simbolei Academy and our projects. We look forward to sharing the video with you soon.

Simbolei volunteer, Marcus Tomiuk, poses for a photo with Brother Colm after the interview.

Reading and Running: An Interview with a Simbolei Volunteer

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

This week’s blog is by Katie Dooley, one of our writing interns for this semester.  Katie interviewed Marcus Tomiuk, who will be traveling to Kenya in July to help with Simbolei’s literacy outreach activities.

As most of you already know, many of the best runners in the world are from Kenya—there are a lot of lists online that name countless successful runners who were born in Kenya. This week, I interviewed Marcus Tomiuk from Montreal who is a new volunteer for Simbolei. He is also an avid runner.

The town of Iten was what originally attracted Marcus to Kenya:“Iten is a small town in Kenya which stands at almost 8000ft above sea level! Iten has managed to produce many of the top athletes in history and continues to do so today,” he said. “There is a good chance that if you have ever watched a world-class race, the winner was either living in Iten or spent time training in the ‘home of champions’.”

Marcus enjoying one of his favorite activities.

This made Marcus’s decision to become a volunteer for Simbolei very easy. “My interest in going to Kenya stemmed from wanting to absorb the Iten running culture,” he said. “Training at altitude and learning from the best in the world is invaluable to me –and to any runner who wants to be better. When Andrea [Kaitany] presented the volunteering opportunity, I immediately said yes. Thankfully training and volunteering was something that we were able to work out as part of my trip.” Simbolei is a perfect match for Marcus, and not only because of the location of Iten or the running culture.

Education, researching, and reading have all been important in Marcus’s decision to become a volunteer. He studied business in college (college is called “Cegep” in Quebec, he says) and he currently works for a business called Silanis Technology in Montreal. He has also been researching Kenya frequently to prepare for his trip. “I had some knowledge about Kenya from watching running documentaries and hearing travel stories from friends and family,” he said. “Once I officially decided to go, I started doing more research and continue to do research when I have time.” Keeping up with current events going on in Iten and in Kenya as a whole is important and will definitely be beneficial for Marcus—and for anyone else—upon arriving in the country.

Marcus also discussed some of the things that he enjoys reading. “I like to read any book that will help me reflect and self-improve. With the internet being readily available, I probably read more online articles and blogs than anything else. Also, as you can probably tell, I’m open to all books about running. I am in the middle of reading ‘Born to Run’ which my sister bought for me as a Christmas gift.” He said that his favorite book is “Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins.”

He brings up an interesting point about the Internet and how  information is consumed all around the world. Aside from some of the negative factors regarding the Internet, it can be a great educational tool and gives those who have access to it many more resources than we could probably ever imagine. Even if you are not connected to the Internet or technology, or online frequently, you can still be connected to education because of books. They are the roots of information and education and will always be an important learning tool.

Hope Marcus is in good racing shape, as our literacy outreach kids will definitely give him a run for his money!



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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