Dispatch #164 - Getting with the plan
Kilifi, Kenya -
Like some beautiful carnivorous flower, Africa had somehow trapped and transformed us, grabbing us by the heartstrings, pulling us in and in the process turning us from spectators into participants, from tourists into aid workers. One minute you're leaning over to give that exotic blossom a sniff, and the next you find yourself deep inside. Did we really want to be in there? The question no longer mattered. We were in.
More invisible tentacles grabbed and pulled at us when we happened across an office for Plan International, a world-wide charitable agency, right here in Kilifi. Unannounced, we waltzed in, introduced ourselves, and asked to see what Plan Kilifi was all about.
We already knew quite a bit about Plan International, also known as Foster Parent's Plan, because for the past 18 years, for a small amount of money each month, we have been sponsoring a succession of foster children in needy countries. This was our first chance to see Plan in action, and it was especially relevant because we were trying to do for our friends Boniface and Hamisi exactly what Plan is doing on a much larger scale.
The head of the local office is Kenneth Muriithi, an articulate and urbane young Kenyan from Nairobi whose previous work included helping street kids in the Kenyan capital. Kenneth welcomed us like VIPs and devoted three days to meeting with us and driving us around the countryside to show us what Plan is doing in the Kilifi area.
On our first day Kenneth brought us to a primary school that is gradually being improved. Thanks to Plan, this school had a new steel roof, concrete floors, pit latrines, desks, and a new classroom under construction -- but to our eyes it was still an ugly, dark and dirty place. Like the other schools we were to see, there were no materials, no puzzles or toys for the little kids, nothing hanging on the walls, no books other than the odd tattered textbook shared by many children, and no electricity to brighten the dark, dusty classrooms. At the time we thought this school was appalling, but later in our tour we realized that it was, in fact, pretty lucky, because it had desks and floors at all.
The school was, however, hopelessly overcrowded. Those seven pitiful classrooms housed an unbelievable 964 students. In one grade there were 145 pupils crammed into a space that in Canada would accommodate 30. All the desks had Plan International stamped on them, but still the average number of students to desks in some classrooms was 7 to 1. Textbooks had to be shared at a ratio of 10 to 1. We were horrified at the overcrowding, and couldn't imagine any student learning, or any teacher teaching, in such awful conditions. Yet the very fact that the school was brimming with children was, in itself, an encouraging sign.
The Kenyan educational system works very differently from ours. The only thing the government pays for is very meagre salaries for the teachers. All the rest: the construction of the school, the provision of desks, supplies and textbooks, has to come from the community. If there is a school at all, it is only because parents have paid for and literally built it themselves.
So in a place where many of the students only get two or three full meals a week and more than a quarter of them have lost one or both parents, the fact that families have managed to scrape up the money to send this many children to school at all, is in fact a miracle. The proportion of the average rural family's income that goes to pay for school improvements, textbooks, uniforms and school fees, especially in secondary school, represents a proportionate commitment to a Canadian family sending a child to go to Harvard. Every little bit of schooling these children receive is a sign of tremendous commitment to the value of education from people who have probably not had the benefit of it themselves.
The next two schools we visited were not as crowded, only 40 or 50 children per teacher, but much more poorly equipped since they had not yet been the beneficiaries of improvements from Plan. The second school had only a dirt floor and very few desks. In several of the classes students were perched like oversized squirrels on trees that had been dragged into the classroom, bark and all, to keep them out of the dust. Balancing that way, they had to do their schoolwork on their knees.
The third school was the worst of all. The dirt on the floors was several inches thick, and most classrooms had no desks whatsoever. The children were strewn all over the floor, their uniforms filthy from working on their elbows, sharing exercise books in the loose red dirt. We were all appalled by the conditions, Kenneth included. Now even those tree-desks looked good.
"Are there jiggers in here?" Kenneth asked the deputy headmaster. Jiggers are small invasive insects that crawl under people's skin, lay eggs, and grow fat there drinking human blood. Dirty floors like these, with lots of juicy little bare toes, are the perfect environment for a thriving colony.
The deputy headmaster nodded apologetically, and Kenneth shook his head in disgust. "You must do something, at least sweep away the dirt," he instructed.
Kenneth asked how many of these students were Plan-sponsored foster children, and about a third of the children sitting on the floor raised their hands. But every single little hand was red, henna red, from the dirt of the classroom. We all had the same horrified reaction to this show of filthy, stained hands. The thought of sending my own children to an infested pit of a school like this made me shudder.
Kenneth was taking notes, and later we heard him muttering, "This school can do better. I think we're going to have to tie any support to signs of initiative from the headmaster himself. But instead of floors and roofs, maybe we've got to put more emphasis on desks, on finding cheaper ways of producing them. This is intolerable." Kenneth has been at his post for only a few months, and we were impressed, watching him learn and react to his new challenges, constantly assessing the best ways of allocating Plan's limited resources.
Plan is doing a great deal of other work in this disadvantaged part of Kenya: increasing the clean water supply, providing health care, paying children's school fees, supplying community stud bulls to improve the genetic stock of cattle, providing milk cows to needy families as a source of nourishment and income. All these Kenneth showed us. Everywhere we went, people reacted with friendliness and enthusiasm to the white Plan International truck.
We especially wanted to visit with some foster children, if possible, ones sponsored by Canadian families. It turned out that of the 5800 foster children in Kilifi area, 500 are sponsored by Canadians. We met two of them: Evallene Mwangala and Thomas Mawaio. Both of them lived in the same kind of tidy mud hut villages we have come to know so well. Little Evallene had stayed home from school in honour of our visit, and proudly showed us a backpack sent to her as a gift by her Canadian foster mother, with whom she corresponds regularly.
At Thomas's house, we were greeted by a royal reception, which included a fantastic musical performance by the children and a demonstration of the processing of maize meal. The women emptied some dry kernels of maize into a large, deep bowl, and, two at a time, began pounding it with long pieces of wood, in a perfect and long-practiced rhythm. We all took a try at it, and it was demanding work.
After ten minutes of pounding, one of the women winnowed the husks of the cracked maize in a broad basket, allowing the outer shells to fall to the ground. At her feet, a couple of chickens eagerly pecked at the empty husks.
Then a huge grinding stone was produced and plopped in the middle of a cloth, the mill consisting of one round stone with a wooden handle, set in the middle of a larger one. The maize was dropped into the middle of the two stones, and then ground into maize meal, a coarse yellow flour that slowly spilled out onto the cloth.
We all took a try at it, and Christopher especially got a real charge out of turning the grinding stone, a feat that took all his might. As he went at it enthusiastically there were some giggles amongst the watching family, for grinding the maize is woman's work. In fact the labour involved in processing enough meal for the 20 people in this family amounts to five hours of hard pounding and grinding each day. All the women in the family share this onerous task, each taking their day in turn. I imagine they must have really good biceps. Of course they are also used to walking two or three kilometres each day with 20 litres of water on their heads.
The family asked us if we wanted to try ugali made from the maize meal we had just ground. We did want to try Kenya's staple food, and the minute we nodded our assent, one of the men ran off and roughly grabbed a squawking chicken by the throat.
"No! No!" yelled Herbert, understanding more quickly than the rest what was about to happen. "We don't want chicken, just a little taste of ugali!" The man reluctantly released the chicken, and we felt pleased at having given the creature at least a temporary reprieve.
An hour later, a complete buffet was set out before us: a huge bowl of ugali, a giant bowl of cooked greens, and a plate of - yes, stewed chicken. It seems hospitality required that a proper feast be put on for us. Our boys were ravenous for the chicken, which was stringy but delicious, but we limited ourselves to a little piece each so there would be enough left for the family, who stood around proudly as we sampled their fare.
The ugali was a glutinous mass of porridge the consistency of cream of wheat that has been overcooked and left to cool. To eat it, you grab a chunk with your fingers, fashion it into a fat little pancake, make a depression in the middle with your thumb, and then use it as a scoop to swab up some of the chicken juice -- or, along with your thumb, some of the cowpea greens, which taste very much like cooked spinach. The ugali itself was quite bland, but not half bad.
Christopher, however, thought it was great and just couldn't get enough. Long after the rest of us were finished, he was still enthusiastically digging into that giant white mound of ugali and scooping up cowpea greens with his thumb as if he'd been doing it all his life.
Later he asked: "Mom, can you get some of that for the boat? I'd like you to make it all the time. Especially with that green stuff." I looked around, and the rest were giving their thumbs down, so I shook my head. Besides, where would we store the giant grinding stone?
We returned from the last of our three days touring Plan projects filled with the usual mixture of intense emotions that Africa arouses in us, ranging from hope to horror. Of the work Plan is doing, I have to say that we were deeply impressed. It was more, much more, than we had hoped for. Seeing Kenneth and his team in action was important for us, caught up in the invisible tendrils of that fragrant, dangerous African flower, because it gave us hope.
But in the dark stillness of night, images of dozens of waving little red hands returned in my sleep to haunt me. As much as Plan was accomplishing, there was so much more to be done, so many children waiting to be rescued from filthy, parasite-infested classrooms like the ones we had seen at that horrible third school.