Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Archive for the ‘Kenyan culture’ 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.


A New Season for New Adventures: Literacy Outreach 2016 is Coming Up

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Felix sent a couple of new pictures from Kamariny this week. The maize is coming up nicely and little Alpha, the first new calf in our little “herd” is growing well.

Maize field at Kamariny, May, 2016.

Maize field at Kamariny, May, 2016.

Alsace and baby Alpha, May, 2016.

Alsace and baby Alpha, May, 2016.

Here in Michigan, the volunteers who will be traveling to Kenya for Literacy Outreach 2016 are filling out travel paperwork, confirming flights and eagerly counting the days until we arrive in Kenya to share books and stories with the kids.

It seems like time flies by as every year brings new developments and new adventures. There are many times when I feel discouraged at the pace of our building, impatient to see the future. But it’s important to enjoy the journey and watch the growth of good things, crops, calves, children and schools. All take time to reach their full potential. It will not be long before little Alpha is a full grown milk cow, supplying our students with safe, nutritious food. And it won’t be long before the first students settle into the dormitories at Simbolei Academy, ready to build a better future for themselves and their community.

In the meantime, over the next few weeks I will introduce you to the amazing people who have volunteered to help in Kenya this year and also to some of the people who support us here in the US and make all our programs possible.

While the calendar says the New Year starts in January, all farmers and those who love the outdoors know the beginning of a new growing season is the real new year. Take time to celebrate it.

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


Riffs for the Rift Does It Again

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Riffs for the Rift, our annual food and music fundraiser, was held on October 26 and was again a great success. Much rice, curried cabbage, roasted beef, chicken in coconut and Kenyan potatoes were consumed.

Kibor handled the craft sale this year and we sold almost all of the items we had. We found that people loved the little stone animals, so we will bring more of those for spring fundraisers. If you or an organization you know of has a spring craft sale, please let us know and we can arrange to bring some of our beautiful Kenyan crafts.

Kibor on duty at the craft table. Maybe his charm was a selling point?

Paper bead necklaces at the craft sale.

But, of course, the real highlight of Riffs for the Rift was the music and this year was no exception. The evening began with some lovely Bach cello by Jelimo. Then, Hut Two Hike played original compositions on guitar and bass. Keven Felder ( a personal favorite of mine) was back with his romantic guitar covers. Finally, Deacon Earl and the Congregation finished the night with great blues, including amazing harmonica.

Okemos Presbyterian Church provided us with a great venue in their fellowship hall. Attendance was good and even accounting for our healthy portions of delicious food, we raised over $1000 for Simbolei Academy.

Deacon Earl and the Congregation were the highlight of the evening. They’ve promised to come back next year, bigger and better.

Sharing food and music is such a joy and it’s a great way to promote Simbolei and raise money for our programs. If you are considering a way to help Simbolei and would like to know more about holding a fundraiser, please let us know. We can help you develop a fun and effective event.

There’s Still Time to Volunteer For Literacy 2015

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Just a quick note in amongst these wonderful posts by Katie and Debbie to remind everyone that we still have a couple of volunteer spots left for our Kenya volunteer trip July 10-20, 2015. We will be hosting a workshop at Simbolei for teachers from area primary schools and then traveling to each of our cooperating schools to share stories and activities and deliver donated books to the kids.  Plus, there will be time for exploring Iten and the Rift Valley also. We have a good crew assembled, but we would love to have you along also!

We’ve included a few photos of the area and our previous outreach activities. If you would like more information about volunteering this summer or about other volunteer or internship opportunities, send us an email at  and we will send you further information.

Traveling Far and Fast: Running Culture in Iten and Our Volunteer Cottage

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

While our friends and supporters associate Iten, Kenya with Simbolei Academy, for anyone who follows distance running, Iten is “the home of champions,” the birthplace and training ground for a majority of today’s top marathon and distance runners. Of course, Richard Kaitany was one of the early generations of runners to migrate from Iten to the wider world as a scholarship college athlete and later as a professional marathon runner. But while many Kenyan runners follow in his footsteps, today, Iten also hosts runners from all over the world who want to train in the ideal climate conditions and run with the best. They travel to Iten to spend weeks or even months training in the on the roads and trails around Kamariny, using Kamariny stadium for track workouts.

The volunteer cottage in Kamariny near Iten, Kenya.

If you want evidence that the world is beginning to beat a (running) path to our door, here are a links to few of the  articles in the international press.

Given all this interest in Iten as a running destination,  Simbolei’s board decided to invite the world running community give back to Iten, which offers so much to them. As a first step, we have decided to rent our volunteer cottage to runners or others interested in visiting Iten.  All proceeds from the rental will go directly to our construction project. We’ll be adding more details to these plans in the future, but for now, you can check out the volunteer cottage and learn about rentals at this website:

We hope in the near future to not only offer rentals, but to help groups plan their running trip to Iten and learn about the local culture, all with the goal of completing construction and getting the gates open for Simbolei Academy.

Please check out the photos and spread the news to your friends that a unique opportunity is available to Simbolei supporters and their friends.  In Iten, we believe in traveling far and fast. Hope you’ll join us for the journey.

World class runner and Simbolei supporter, Augustine Choge, training near Iten.

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!


Support Simbolei: Read Books

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Spring is finally here and with spring comes planning for our Literacy Outreach and the next phases of construction. Currently we are cutting rough stone into building block in preparation for putting up the walls of the first floor. Also, I am preparing to travel to Kenya in June with our volunteer Zach W., to conduct Literacy Outreach workshops at primary schools around the Kamariny area.

To support our upcoming efforts, Simbolei has organized two activities around books that will help our projects keep moving ahead.

Schuler Books and Music Simbolei Book Days: Schuler Books and Music in Okemos and Lansing, Michigan is holding a Book Days to benefit Simbolei from March 23 to March 29. On those days, make a purchase at either Schuler store and tell the cashier you support Simbolei. 20% of your total purchase will be donated to Simbolei. It’s that easy!  If you’re not book shopping right now, Schuler also offers gift cards, stationery supplies and gift items including toys, candles and more. So, shop for those spring and summer graduations, weddings and social events and help Simbolei at the same time.

Buy Books through Alibris for our Outreach Workshop:One of the highlights of our yearly Literacy Outreach Workshops is distributing new picture books to each cooperating primary school. Most of the children have no picture books at home and no access to a public library. In addition, most of the schools do not have a school library. Through SCAA’s contributions, however, the children have come to love reading picture books. Each year, we try to take at least ten high quality books to each school.

Simbolei Primary students examine new books at the Literacy Outreach.

This year, we’ve compiled a great list of beautiful, fun books for the kids and made them available for you to look at on After you’ve looked through the selections, we invite you to select a book or two or three from our wish list and purchase it for Simbolei. You can order the book right through the website and it will be mailed to us. We will personally put it into the hands of an eager young reader in Kenya. Through Alibris, we are able to select high quality used books, and thus, we can purchase hard cover books that the kids can enjoy for years for the same price as we would normally pay for paperbacks.

Please consider taking part in Schuler Book Days and/or purchasing books for the Literacy Outreach program through our wishlist on Alibris. Summer is coming and we all know that’s prime reading time!  Stay tuned for more updates on our upcoming spring and summer adventures.

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