Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Join Us for Riffs for the Rift, October 21

October 5th, 2016

Kenyan food, live music, pictures, stories, crafts and fun. We’re preparing for Riffs for the Rift Benefit Night, October 21 from 6-8:30 at Presbyterian Church of Okemos, 2258 Bennett Road, Okemos, Michigan. Admission is a free will donation and all the proceeds support our building project and summer literacy outreach programs. Last year we ran short of some favorite food items, but we’re making more this year, so you won’t leave hungry.

On the menu:

Curried cabbage with carrots and onions

Sukuma Wiki (Collard Greens fried with onions and tomatoes)

Coconut Chicken

Mokimo (Kenyan mashed potatoes with corn and peas)

Curried Rice

Spicy Beans

Spiced Stewed Beef

Pumpkin coconut pudding

Elgeiyo/Marakwet Peace Corp Chocolate Cake

Hope to see you all there as we prepare to send Richard Kaitany off to winter construction.

Up and Down the Rift Valley, Summer 2016

August 19th, 2016

As volunteers sort through photos and souvenirs, I am already making plans for our next trips to Kenya. While most of my posts focus on the work we do in Kenya, I wanted to share some images and memories from lighter moments of Literacy Outreach 2016.

Volunteers on boat tour of Lake Baringo. Weaver bird nests are visible in the upper part of the photo.

Volunteers on boat tour of Lake Baringo. Weaver bird nests are visible in the upper part of the photo.

One of the things I always tell potential volunteers is “In Kenya, the unexpected is expected.” Our Saturday drive down to Lake Baringo had a few rough spots such as motion sickness from the steep, curving roads and Lake Bogoria hot springs being flooded over. But, we did get to Lake Baringo for our boat tour and we did have lunch at the lovely Tamarind Restaurant. Anyone who felt chilly had a day of warm sunshine on the valley floor.

Allen playing around at the volunteer's hotel dining room.

Allen playing around at the volunteer’s hotel dining room.

Volunteers had comfortable lodgings and wonderful meals at the Elgon Valley Hotel in Iten. Those of us staying at the cottage on the construction site found the food and company enticing too, and spent a good amount of time there. Allen, Felix the manager’s son, especially enjoyed the chips and the adoring adult attention.


Andrea and Ellen meet some encouragers on the forest hike.

What is life without challenges?  A “moderate” two hour hike turned into something a bit more challenging when we ended up starting from the wrong trailhead. Nevertheless, we all made it to the top, even Professor K. We had lots of help and encouragement from people we met along the way.

Waterfall on the escarpment.

Waterfall on the escarpment.

Thanks for being Simbolei Academy’s helpers and encouragers as we work our way toward the opening of Simbolei Academy.

If you are interested in coming along for either the Runner’s Winter Break/Construction trip in January or the Literacy Outreach trip in July 2017, send us a message at

Visiting Kiptingo Primary

August 4th, 2016

I’m going a bit out of order with my story today. I’ll post more about the volunteers and their arrival etc., later, but I’m eager to tell you about our first literacy program with the students.


The main group of volunteers joined us in Iten on Sunday and first thing Monday morning we hit the road for our literacy visits. First stop was Kiptingo Primary. I had a special surprise for these students. In the past, our supply of crayons was limited, so at each school I would collect the crayons at the end of the activity for use at the next school. At the end of the week, though, I would always go back and deliver the leftover crayons to the kids at Kiptingo Primary. As one of three very remote schools and as the one that gets the fewest outside visitors, I felt they most needed the encouragment of keeping the crayons to use for the rest of the year.


But this year, through the generosity of our volunteers and through the a grant from the Denison, Iowa Rotary Club, we were able to purchase enough crayons to leave a big bag for each school. The kids love drawing pictures based on the storybooks we share with them. Now they can continue to use the crayons for many weeks to enrich their education.


In the past, one task no one liked at the end of a fun day of literacy activities was to recollect the crayons. Volunteers disliked doing this and I disliked requiring it. But since we needed the crayons for use in the next school, we had no choice. What a joy this year to tell the kids that the crayons will stay with their teacher for use in their classroom along with the books and paper we always donate to our cooperating schools.



On behalf of myself, the students and our volunteers, I want to thank our generous donors who added another pe next year you can join us to share the crayons and the fun.

2016 Teacher Workshop Brings in Some New (Puppet) Faces

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.

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

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

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


Shipping the Books: Spring is on the Way! Come To Schuler Book Days for Simbolei!

February 27th, 2016

It’s that wonderful time of year again when we prepare to ship hundreds of new and gently used picture books to Kenya. These books will be donated to the primary schools that take part in our literacy outreach program. As I’ve mentioned before, Kenyan primary school texts are small black and white books. While they contain the information necessary to study for the national year end exams, these books do little to foster a love of reading in students.

Every year, Simbolei brings colorful, carefully selected picture books to the students that they can keep in the school and read over and over again. For many schools, our donations are their only source of high quality picture books. For many students, the books we read and share with them are the only picture books they have ever seen.

Andrea delivers some of the books we donate to Kiptingo Primary 

Jack reads one of the books we will donate to the students.

While shipping the books is very expensive, we have found few bookstores in Kenya that carry high quality children’s books and the selections, even in Nairobi, are very limited.

For the past three years, Schuler Books and Music has partnered with us to sponsor Schuler Book Days for Simbolei in Okemos and East Lansing Michigan. If you live in the area, simply shop at Schuler Books in Okemos or East Lansing March 20-26 and mention Simbolei Book Days when you check out. Schuler Books and Music will donate 20% of your purchase price to Simbolei!

If you would like to help with our literacy program but do not live in the area, there are other ways you can help.

1. Donate to Simbolei through our paypal. You can send us an email message designating your donation for our literacy outreach.

2. Donate new or gently used children’s books to Simbolei and we will use them for our program. You can even collect books from friends and relatives to share! Books that do not meet the needs of Kenyan students are exchanged for credit with Schuler Books so that we can use your donation to benefit kids in Kenya by buying new books for them. Email us at for information about how and where to ship your books.

3. Travel to Kenya with us, July 2-10 to help in person!  We need volunteers to read stories, distribute books and help with art activities at our cooperating schools.

Thank you so much for all you do to help Simbolei enrich the lives of children and young adults in Kenya. Let’s get more beautiful books into the hands of children who will love them.


How Can You Help? Volunteering In Iten, Kenya

January 25th, 2016

The cement pour for the second floor is scheduled for Friday. Felix is lining up the construction materials and crew and our photographer, Nicholas Kiptoon, is planning his trip up from Baringo to get plenty of photos. But, that’s not the only excitement around Simbolei these days. It’s time to plan for Summer Literacy Outreach!

Every year, a group of volunteers visits all six of our cooperating primary (grades K-8) schools in the area of Kamariny to share stories and books and encourage the students to develop love and enthusiasm for reading.

Felix shares a picture book.

Our dates this year are July 2-10 and applications are now open for volunteers. We have a full program of literacy activities along with some site seeing and cultural activities for volunteers.

Visit rural homesteads, watch the world famous distance runners train (or try training with them yourself if you are brave), hike the beautiful escarpment, visit the bottom of the Rift to view flamingos, hippos and more and make memories to last a lifetime. At the same time, volunteers make our Literacy Outreach possible. Every year, more schools request our programming and currently participating schools ask us to visit more classrooms and develop more art projects, music activities and stories. We can’t do it without our volunteers!

If you are interested in doing good and seeing life through a whole new lens, please contact us at Applications will close on May 20, or when all positions are filled, whichever comes first. We want to see you in Kenya this summer.

Andrea with kids from Kiptingo Primary, Literacy Outreach 2013.

Construction Continues as We Play Catch Up and the Amazing Mr. Majani Keeps At It

January 20th, 2016

Over the past four years, we’ve worked out a division of labor for construction and literacy workshops that worked out pretty well.  Richard was in Kenya for the last part of December and the first part of January, during which time he got most of the construction work done. I, along with a few volunteers, traveled to Kenya for the month of July to organize and conduct the literacy workshops and check on day to day maintenance of the volunteer cottage and security of the construction site, plus review the financial book keeping, file government paperwork and plan the next season’s construction work with help from the building committee. But, this year we learned about flexibility and what we can really do when the pressure is on.

Richard planned to arrive in December, prepare the site and forms for the concrete and pour concrete before he headed home. But, what he found was getting timber for the forms, getting all the proper paperwork filed, renting and placing the metal “trays” that hold the cement while it dries and also placing the metal framework for the concrete just took more time and money than he had available.

So, for the first time he left without finishing everything he had planned. The good side is that since Felix Sirma joined us as site manager a year ago, we are able to do many more things “long distance” than we could before. So, even though Richard is back in the US, construction work continues at the site. Here are a couple of recent photos.

Placing the metal framework for the cement pouring.

Showing the main entrance area of the school which will have a balcony on the second floor.


Now, look closely at this picture. You can see Mr. Majani, our construction supervisor on the roof on crutches.  The plan was that he would supervise work from the ground as he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident a few months ago and is not completely recovered. But, he is as eager as we are for work to go forward. And is he can keep at it, so can we!

Crutches don’t stop construction supervisor Mr. Majani from getting up on the roof to supervise.

As construction moves along, we are making plans for volunteers to travel to Kenya on July 2-10 for the literacy outreach workshops. If you are interested in joining us, send us a message at


Look What You’ve Done!: Simbolei Academy is Moving Forward

January 5th, 2016

Today I received more photos from the construction site in Kenya. I especially wanted to show the picture below, which I happen to know Felix Sirma obtained by climbing a tree to get the right angle on the construction site. It shows the metal plates being laid so that concrete can be poured.

Humor me for a minute. Stop and look at the size of this project. This photo shows HALF of the main building. This image just brought home to me the size of the project we have undertaken and the amount of work that has gone into it thus far. After this portion of the roof is poured, the remaining work will be the roof, the second floor walls and the interior finishing.  So, yes, we have some things to do yet. Yes, we still need to raise money and do some hard physical labor, but we ARE getting there. As the motto on our homepage points out, all of us together can accomplish amazing things and this building and the educational opportunities it will provide are amazing things.

We hope to keep construction going on schedule through this year so that we can open in January 2018.  With your continued support we will make it. We have come so far with so little that I know we can do the rest. Please consider how you might further our work this year. Also, please consider serving either as a volunteer in Kenya or as a board member in the US. We have positions open in both areas as well as lots of other volunteer and internship opportunities. Send us an email at to find out more. But, don’t forget to take a few minutes and celebrate our successes so far.

Andrea carrying books for literacy outreach, 2015. We are now accepting applications for volunteers for literacy outreach, 2016, July 2-10, 2016.

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