The Children Of Kenya
I was standing curbside on a street in Nairobi when a class of schoolchildren passed by. The uniformed 6-year-olds walked single-file, with one teacher in front and another guarding the rear. When they noticed me standing at the side of the road, the children’s faces brightened. They looked up at me as they passed, one by one, with big smiles and bright eyes. “Hello”…”thank you!”…”thank you missus”…”hello”…they spoke up loudly, cheerfully, showing off their English, as they reached up their little hands, one after another, to high five me. Some, having passed by where I stood, doubled back to the end of the line so they could high five me again.
We encountered similar bunches of schoolchildren everywhere we traveled in Nairobi—at the crocodile park…at the elephant orphanage…at Giraffe Manor, where we all listened attentively to the young man in charge as he told us how Reticulated Giraffes differ from Rothschild Giraffes…at the Karen Blixen Museum…
So many schoolchildren, all in uniform, all laughing, happy, enjoying their weekly field days out, eager to interact with us if they could.
In northern Kenya, outside Samburu Village, we saw schoolchildren, too, at a little school started with contributions from guests at the nearby Intrepid Lodge where we were staying. Originally, a handful of village children met with their teacher under a big, old acacia tree on the site. Attendance was limited to eight children, because that’s all that could fit beneath the tree. The little group moved every 20 minutes or so to follow the shade the acacia created throughout the day.
The first visitors that Tilas, our guide, took to see his village nearby noticed the kids under the tree, so committed to learning. “That just won’t do,” they told Tilas, and they and others like them over the months and years to follow made donations that have resulted in the current school compound. It’s eight small concrete classrooms constructed in a U shape around a dirt “courtyard” with an administration building at one end and a square dormitory at the other. Without electricity, without computers, without uniforms, without air conditioning, some without shoes, these first- through eighth-graders sit on wooden benches, sharing wooden plank desks. They show up each day alert and eager. Their principal, Elijah, took us on a tour.
In the first-grade classroom, Elijah introduced us as new friends and prompted the children to recite a poem for us in English and then to sing a song in Swahili. They obliged enthusiastically, and we seven foreigners, wandering Americans, wholly out of place but completely welcome, stood before these dozen Kenyan 6-year-olds, drinking it all in. Pure potential…unadulterated promise.
“Do you have any questions for our visitors?” Elijah wondered of his first-graders.
“What is your name?” one little girl whispered in the direction of Jackson.
We walked from the first-grade class through the dirt courtyard to Elijah’s small, also un-air-conditioned office. On the wall, he had posted a list of his six teachers’ names and their phone numbers. In piles on his desk were old textbooks and maps.
“What do you need?” our friend Bohn, traveling with us, asked.
“We need a fence,” Elijah explained. “We have no fence, so the animals, especially the elephants, pass through and sometimes cause damage. So we need a fence. And we need mattresses for the dormitory. We have a few but not enough. Most of the children who live here sleep on the floor now.”
“How much does a mattress cost?” Lief asked.
“About 17,000 schillings,” Elijah replied. I looked over at Lief. “That’s about US$20,” Lief whispered.
“How many mattresses do you need?” Lief continued with Elijah.
“At least 40,” the schoolmaster said.
Kaitlin and Jackson returned to the first-grade classroom to take a photo of the children, and we all stood in the shade of the big acacia in the dirt courtyard, the one where the whole thing began, to take a group shot. Then we climbed back into our safari jeep and waved good-bye to the children standing in the doorways of their respective classrooms, all smiling.
“Good bye,” they called. “Thank you!”
“I have an idea,” I said to Lief after we’d returned to the lodge later that day.
“Next week is your birthday. I thought I’d buy Elijah his 40 mattresses. Tell him they’re from you. As a birthday present.”
I organized the gift through Tilas, our guide, who promised to send photos of the mattresses being delivered and installed in the dormitory as soon as he’s able to organize it all.
Maybe for Christmas I’ll give Lief a fence to keep the elephants out.