This is my first blog post of my first day in the field with World Vision in Kenya, to Tipet, a village in the Sook division, on Sunday August 5th. This post is a little long, but I hope you take the time to read it – I believe you’ll be inspired by the people there and by the work we’re funding as part of the Kenya Child Protection and Education Program. I certainly was touched and changed by my experience there!
“Our dreams are now starting”
Tipet is a story about people who waited for no one, about people who had a vision of a future better than their current-day reality, about a community that began on that journey before anyone came alongside to help. It is a story of determination, innovation, and of some women going far above and beyond what anyone might expect in this harsh place, in order to make a difference. Tipet is about community leadership open to exploring change, and now about how World Vision, the Kenyan government and the churches are coming along side to help bring a better life.
Here’s what I’ve learned about Tipet in the Sook division of Kenya. First, by all measures, it was a forgotten place; forgotten by the Kenyan government and virtually unknown by the outside world – a place where no roads led in to or out of the community. Tipet had no school or trained teacher; where none of the most basic modern services exists and, because of its isolation, where some thought the current president was the man that held that office 10 years prior. Tipet faced many challenges, one of the most significant of which was malaria that would claim many children’s lives. When a chlld dies, they talk in terms of taking that child ‘to the bush.’ I heard, while there, that the people in Tipet had taken close to half of their children ‘to the bush’ before World Vision came*. There are many crocodiles in the river waters just beyond the community. I saw a photo of one crocodile the community had killed because the croc had killed and partially eaten one of their children. They wanted to show me where they had taken that child ‘to the bush.’ Fortunately I was spared that sight by a World Vision team member who led me away. Tipet was a place where less than 2 years ago, children (and most adults) had never seen a car. In fact, the children used to run away in fear of the vehicle after ever so cautiously touching it!
I was in Tipet on Sunday, August 5th 2012, and was also the first white person who had ever visited them*. What an honor and an experience!
*This blog is of my recollections of Tipet. It is about what I learned during one day being there. This blog post is, therefore, incomplete and is certain to have some inaccuracies although I’ve tried my best to learn about and clarify what I heard and saw. And in this post, I can only scratch this surface of what it’s really like to live there.
World Vision started working in Tipet less than two years ago, and in the broader Sook division full time 4 years ago. (I will write more about the World Vision’s work in Sook in my next blog post.) Their work to date is nothing short of amazing. After beginning to work in the town of Chepunyal (Sook Division) the World Vision team had heard of a community deep in the bush and they sought to find them. The road leading to where the community was thought to be is a grueling 2 1/2 hour trek/drive over an exceptionally rough ground. Then the road ended. But that didn’t matter, as the World Vision team walked the remaining 5 km in this hot, difficult, semi-arid land and they found the community of Tipet. It took some time to build a trusting relationship with the tribal chief and community leaders, and World Vision trekked there weekly – ultimately, they succeeded. World Vision sat with the leaders and heard their issues and hopes for their future. One of the first major issues was the prevalence of malaria. Tipet is situated on a river approximately 20km upstream from the Turkwel Dam which was built in the 1980’s. When the rain and waters are high, the water backs up from the dam and causes the river behind the dam to grow significantly, spreading out and swamping Tipet’s crops … and bringing with it high mosquito infestation. One of the first interventions World Vision did for this community was to provide treated mosquito nets. The people gladly accepted the nets and have reported the incidence of malaria and malaria-related deaths have dropped to virtually zero. They’re thrilled! World Vision has just done a story on this malaria intervention that I will post for you to read.
World Vision also brought and introduced the Kenyan Department of Education and the Department of Health to this community. Because of the trust World Vision had developed, the community received them, and In partnership, they all began to work together and partnering with the churches to begin delivering on the agreed-to development plan. For example, just less than 3 months ago, people received their first-ever deworming and immunizations!
In an astounding act, the community cleared a roadway by hand over 5km to link the established ‘road’ with a track so that vehicles could travel directly into the community. Being there, I couldn’t believe how much work they did by hand, In my mind it is demonstrable of the partnership and the desire to transform.
On to the visit, Sunday August 5th
The World Vision team was excited to take me to Tipet to visit this unique community, and so we set off on the roughest drive I’ve ever had in my life (and I’ve been on some rough ones!). 2 ½ hours of bouncing over rocks, descending into dry river beds and then up the other side (always in the lowest of gears), driving over rough ground, around trees and bushes. Candidly, I loved it – it was a great adventure!
We arrived in the community to an enormous celebration. The occasion was to dedicate a single classroom that World Vision had just completed building – more on that and how the child protection and education program will augment this first classroom block in a few paragraphs. World Vision had prepared the community the week before, sharing with them that a white woman would be joining the celebration, and had spoken with the children so they wouldn’t be afraid to see such a sight. That said, the children were tentative, and I did my best to smile at all times and the children warmed up a bit as the visit progressed J.
I’ve written all of the previous text to give you a flavor of this place and would like to use it now to underscore the work of two remarkable, remarkable women and of a community that is embracing change, and may I daresay proactively driving for it, in a place that has been so isolated for such a long time.
Please allow me to introduce to you Evelyn. Evelyn is a true visionary. She is the most educated woman in the community – she has completed the third grade.
What Evelyn lacked in formal education she made up for and more with a tremendous vision, passion and perseverance to bring education to the forgotten place of Tipet. Evelyn petitioned the chiefs and community leaders to allow her to teach the children there. Evelyn knew education would ultimately bring prosperity and a better life for her community. So, she began teaching the children under a tree – not equipped and not trained to do so, but if not her, who? This is a hot, semi-arid place so as the sun moved, so did the ‘classroom’, seeking the shady side of the tree. The children’s seats were rocks. Evelyn taught the children to the best of her ability, and knew there had to be a better way and more should be made available to them.
More and more children were coming to go to school. Once introduced to the Department of Education authorities by World Vision, Evelyn and the tribal chief and leaders requested the government provide a certified teacher to lead the children’s education – and they agreed. Additionally, World Vision agreed to construct an initial single classroom block in order to get the youngest children out of the sun and elements and into a proper learning environment.
World Vision also knew that Tipet would become one of the communities that would benefit from the World Vision Kenya Child Protection and Education Program … more on this in a bit.
The construction of the single classroom began and a new head teacher was posted by the government. Her name is Selena. I have no idea what must have been running through Selena’s mind as she traveled to such a remote place, but what I have found is that personal sacrifice by many head teachers in Kenya is common. These head teachers are incredible people and Selena is no exception. She is a natural leader and she embodies the phrase ‘teaching is more than a job – it’s a calling.’ When Selena arrived in the community, the only home she was provided was the classroom World Vision was constructing. Imagine arriving to find an unfinished classroom with only walls, no door, no roof and that would be your temporary home. Evelyn decided she had to be strong, otherwise she would be known as weak and fall prey to any number of dangers. So she decided, in her words, “to walk like a man.”
The classroom was completed and the women in the community proactively decided to build Selena a house of her own. She was excited to show me her home and as we approached, she exclaimed “I love my new house!” While the school was being constructed, her house was used to store the few school supplies they had.
Selena also brought new thoughts and innovations which would help the broader community learn new agricultural techniques and discover the crops that would grow best in the soils there. Tipet is mostly pastoral, relying heavily on their livestock. Growing suitable crops would reduce their reliance on just their livestock and address issues of food security in the bad times that surely come. Selena established an experimental garden, growing sorghum, maize, pumpkin and a whole variety of different foods and vegetables – it’s so great to see innovation and creativity at work! She uses this garden to teach agriculture to the children in school, all the while experimenting to see what works best – she also teaches the community – true shared learning!
Does the visitor eat camel?
When we arrived on August 5, the community was eagerly awaiting our arrival and the arrival of a number of other dignitaries from the government and churches – this was a big deal and I suspect was the largest gathering of ‘outsiders’ the community had ever experienced. Several hundred community members came for the commissioning ceremony.
World Vision had consulted with community leaders in for the various commissioning ceremony and celebration preparations, and at one point the excitement was running so high that the leaders decided they would slaughter a camel for the celebration. (A huge honor – camels are highly prized and very expensive.) Then came the inevitable question, knowing there would be a white woman attending the ceremony: ‘Does the visitor eat camel?’ Not knowing the answer, they decided to slaughter a cow instead J (which is still a high honor and demonstrates the importance the community placed on the classroom)!
Before you came there was only darkness, now there’s light
There was so much joy and happiness as Thomas Okollah, the World Vision Rift Valley Sub Branch Manager officially opened the classroom, and then announced that World Vision would construct an additional 8 classrooms, an admin building and 6 latrines. (This is the hardware investment of the Kenya Child Protection and Education program).
WOW – Tipet is now getting a proper primary school, the government is promising to provide additional certified teachers, the church is adding some structures and some additional support. This means that all of the children will have a proper learning environment! Currently there are 240 children attending the bush primary school, with many more to come. The leaders of the community were very proactive to comment that before World Vision came “there was only darkness – now there’s light!’ The light of education, the light of mosquito nets, the light of health.
But more light is destined to come to this community. This goes far beyond just building a proper school for children – you see, the people in Tipet are of the Pokot tribe and culturally embrace the practices of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Early (and sometimes forced) Marriage. While formal education and a proper school and learning environment provides the means for girls to stay in a safe school environment and continue their education, it’s critical to set up the right formal and informal systems that will permanently change behaviors and attitudes away from FGM and Early Marriage – to bring this topic to “light” vs. having it buried as one of the community’s secrets. As part of the Kenya Child Protection and Education Program, in addition to the school building, World Vision will also provide the parents in the community with education on the long term health risks of FGM and early marriage, provide them with proper parenting skills, create and empower community action committees, engage the local chiefs to support anti FGM and early marriage, teach the children in school their rights and about the dangers of FGM (boys and girls), and engage the local authorities to enforce the law of the land.
During the ceremony, the chief and leaders all said they were against FGM and early marriage, however actions speak louder than words, and their actions will be the bell weather for how far this community will change in their attitude towards the girl-child in the coming months and years. Behavior change takes time, however the World Vision staff is very bullish that over the next 3 years, this community will undergo significant change for the good.
After our sumptuous meal, were treated to a wonderful traditional dance and singing celebration by the children of the school. While I didn’t understand much of it, the joy and purpose was evident. That said, one of the songs the girls sang was to the fathers of the community and it had the following them: “Father, please don’t marry me early.” The children clearly are already finding their voice!
I brought with me about 50 lbs of school supplies and solar-powered lanterns and lamps that we presented to the community, which also underscored that light is coming to this place.
In one final expression of gratitude, Winnie (the World Vision ADP Manager) and I were quite literally dressed by the community in traditional Pokot celebration costume. It’s an amazing experience to be taken into a private room and be surrounded by many women who proceed to dress and adorn you – here’s the result!
I so look forward to returning to Tipet next year to meet again with the chief, leaders, Evelyn and Selena and witness the changes that have already taken place.
(Coming post: Sook and St. Catherine’s Secondary School)