Blog, April 30, 2012 – So much work to do!

Blog, April 30, 2012 – So much work to do!

Why not build buildings, buy desks, or new uniforms?  I guess I believe that if, if you sit a child under a tree, give her an e-reader, and encourage her to read everything on it, her life can be transformed.  A new classroom will depreciate over time.  Knowledge has the power to appreciate.  That isn’t to say that these children don’t need classrooms, supplies and electricity it’s just that we have to start somewhere and perhaps by giving them knowledge, they will someday envision a way to help themselves.  If we are to facilitate real change, we need to focus on providing classrooms while simultaneously improving what happens inside of them.  Kenya is ripe for change.  Many here have glimpsed the possibilities via the internet and there is an overwhelming desire to use technology to progress exponentially rather than to continue down the long linear path that threatens to widen the gap between developing nations and first world countries.  The hunger to succeed is great.  The people of Koru have seen their neighbor Barack Obama become the most powerful man in the world and they often chant his slogan, “yes we can!”  I’d like to believe that they can move from poverty and ignorance to enlightenment, but there is so much work to do

It is hard to imagine that, after 20 years without a visit to Kenya, this is our second visit in less than a year.  We arrived in Nairobi the day before yesterday after a nine hour flight from London.  It was strange how familiar it felt to make our way through the airport, duffel bags of school supplies in hand, and breathe that sigh of relief when I turned on my Blackberry and got a signal.  Last June I worried about safety and how my children would adapt to travel in the developing world, this year I’m worried about how we can possibly do all that we have set out to do to transform the Menara School in Koru.  The Menara School is in the Muhoroni district which includes Muhoroni town and Koru town.  Menara is a public school which means that its teachers are paid by the government.   Several years ago the Kenyan government decided that free education should be made available to all primary school students in Kenya, but instead of funding the initiative properly, virtually no monies have been directed to these schools.  This has resulted in overcrowding, lack of supplies, poorly paid teachers and virtually no textbooks.  In addition, many of the children have no food for lunch because government funds never emerge to buy the rice or corn meal that they need.  Many of the children arrive at school at 7:30 in the morning and don’t return home until after 6pm with not a bit of food to eat during the day.   Imagine how this affects learning.  Menara has over 500 students, each with one tattered uniform that is worn six days a week, virtually no supplies, and a student-teacher ratio of between 65 and 80 to 1.  On our visit last June we saw a few torn and tattered textbooks (about 1 for every 3 or 4 children) and not one book of literature in the school.  The only school supplies the children had were a few exercise books (we call them blue books or exam books) that students use like notebooks.  What we did see was a school full of children eager to engage in anything we had to offer and a headmaster who said yes to every opportunity for learning, both for his pupils and for his staff.  During our visits to the classrooms we were overwhelmed by the challenges faced by the teachers – no teaching tools, except a piece of chalk, no light or electricity, small classrooms, small desks, overcrowding and little teacher training.  We learned yesterday that the government allocates the Menara school 60 Kenya shillings per child per year for textbooks for every subject.  That is about 80 cents!!!

On our last visit we came with art supplies, writing supplies, sports equipment, games and projects for the children and most importantly, E-readers which we hoped to load with books and magazines.  Although many of the magic markers have dried up and the art supplies have been used, Headmaster, Tom Onyana is convinced that our visit resulted in an enormous up-tick in the school’s test scores last year, from 13th in the district to 2nd!  He says, “hands on, eyes on, learning on!”  It is hard not to be inspired when others tell you that you can make a difference.  So, here we are again, eager to affect change, but this time, with months of planning at our backs and full acknowledgement that, to succeed, “it takes a village.”(Hillary Clinton)

When we first contemplated donating E-readers to the school we never imagined the challenges that lay before us.  The concept itself was incredible – give a child with nothing access to 3500 books, yet when we purchased our original 45 E-readers to charge them and load them, we just had no idea how hard it would be to find content relevant to a child living in an African village, and we didn’t know the hours it would take to load multiple books onto multiple devices and the technological glitches we would encounter both in the US and in Koru.  At that time, we didn’t even contemplate how to help the local teachers learn to teach with the E-reader as a tool and we had no sense that teachers and children here would struggle to turn on the devices and to navigate around them.  We also began to worry about whether we could sustain the project once we started it, both financially and with human resources.  How could we possibly communicate with the school, establish systems to implement E-reader use, train new teachers, replace broken Kindles, continually update content, find relevant content, and support curriculum development?   And, now that we are here, our hearts are breaking as we see the limitations of having only 46 E-readers in a school of 500 children plus staff.  The outpouring of gratitude by parents, the village chief, district officers, students, teachers and the Ouko family as well as eager requests by headmasters visiting from neighboring schools is inspiring but overwhelming.  One visiting headmaster has attended every training session since we arrived, asked to take an E-reader home tonight with promises of its return tomorrow when he has also volunteered his time to be trained on the laptop we have just donated to the Ouko Library for use by the headmaster of Menara School.  He has asked us to please remember his school.

Over the past nine months, Susan Ouko and my family have been working on building alliances that could help us to overcome some of the challenges we encountered with our E-reader program.  Our most important alliance has been with an organization called Worldreader which is headquartered in Barcelona, Spain (check out  Worldreader has the same mission that we do.  It was founded by one of the three original founders of who believed that he could use his ties to the world of publishing to bring e-readers with relevant content to the developing world.  After months of trying to connect with Worldreader, we finally established a partnership which has allowed us to purchase Kenyan textbooks and content written by African authors as well as some additional international content for our E-readers.  We now have 208 books on each device and the technological support we need to push new content successfully!  Worldreader has been working to forge alliances with publishers to get appropriate content donated or at significantly reduced rates so that Worldreader partners serving under-privileged children can access this content at these same reduced rates.  In addition, Worldreader is currently working with USAID to begin the process of data collection so that donors can assess the value of E-reader programs in the developing world.  We were blessed that a Worldreader team of three, Jennifer Baljko, Danielle Zacarias, and Zev Lowe, accompanied us to Koru last week to help us train our teachers and to attend our launch.   They are fabulous, thoughtful human beings, each dedicated to the Worldreader mission and each caring and compassionate about creating freedom and opportunity for those facing social and economic challenges.  Between them they have travelled most of the world and their personal stories and love of adventure are inspiring.   If you’d like to read more about our partnership, please check out a future post called “Worldreader and what we learned” on the homepage of this blog.

Over the past six months we have also been working to figure out the right way to implement our program on the ground.  Mama Ouko, matriarch of the Ouko family, has been working to build community support and to spread the word among district chiefs, district education officers, neighboring schools, parents and now even to members of parliament.  Mama is an extraordinary woman, wise, dedicated, progressive and deeply committed to her community.  As widow to the former Foreign Minister of Kenya, she has traveled the world but very much lives in her village.  Visitors from all over come to her home to seek her counsel.  She has been our extraordinary host for the past week and continues to open her home to us when we stay in the village.  When we arrive at the house exhausted after hours of work in the school, Mama’s friends and staff have wonderful meals ready for us and lots of cold, cold water.  We stay up for hours planning and brainstorming ideas to implement and improve our work and we seek her counsel about how to navigate the etiquette and protocols of the village.   This is what has made us successful.  It would have been virtually impossible to engender the kind of trust and willingness of district chiefs, teachers, students and parents here without Mama’s wholehearted endorsement and work for the project.

Our work at Menara and specifically the E-reader project has emerged perfectly within the context of the Ouko Library project.   Originally, we conceived that the E-readers would live at the Library and be used by visitors to supplement the library’s permanent collection of donated books.  However, the library was not yet complete when we visited last June so, at the Ouko family’s suggestion; we introduced the E-readers to the Menara School.  Mama and the Ouko family had always intended for the Library to be a community center and technology resource center so it made perfect sense for the Library to reach out to the community through the schools and to embrace reading and technology by implementing an E-reader project in the community.

In theory, this appeared very straightforward.  We envisioned that the Ouko Library would simply lend the E-readers to the school and our project could proclaim success.  We simply had no idea how much work there was to do to achieve real transformation.


Blog, December 3, 2011 – The Migration of Beast…and Man

Blog, December 3, 2011 – The Migration of Beast …and Man.

The next day we flew to the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s largest and most famous game reserve.  We had heard that the migration was on its way from Tanzania and we were hopeful to see the millions of animals on their way across the border.  I guess now might be an appropriate time to mention what my husband is like on travel days, especially those that involve flying.  It is a wonder that we survive him.  Ned’s goal on a travel day is to move as little as possible and to attempt to maintain a constant body temperature.  There is no room on travel days for enjoying the ride or experiencing the journey.  It is about getting there in one piece and not breaking a sweat in the process.  Ned has a term for this endeavor.  He calls it maintaining “stasis.”  A destination is rated by sheet quality, air temperature for sleeping, and humidity levels.  A mode of travel is rated on air temperature, air quality, dust levels and comfort of the seat.  If these are in any way lacking, Ned goes into lock-down mode.  Don’t touch Ned when he is in lock-down mode as he is working hard to get back to a constant body temperature and comfort level and needs all his resources to achieve these.  Often this involves taking a cold shower and lying perfectly still.  It can take hours for “stasis to occur,” especially after a flight or a few hours in the car with all the kids.  Ned would be perfectly content to beam himself from place to place.  For him it is the destination, not the journey. Continue reading

Blog, July 9, 2011- Learning, Laughing, Loving

Story Time at Menara

Blog, July 9, 2011 – Living, Loving, Learning

We figured the best place to keep the journals until the library is finished was at the Ouko’s house.  Later that evening when we arrived home and unpacked them, we opened them to read what the children had written.  The stories were extraordinary, candid and revealing.  Girls wrote about the lack of respect they feel from their parents and about how they are not considered important enough to educate.  They wrote that they suffer a lot and are forced to follow traditions that create hardship for them.   Children wrote about their friendships and their dreams for the future.  We couldn’t stop reading them.

Meanwhile, the mural project continued in the courtyard and the canvas was becoming colorful.  The children were almost done using the fabric markers but we decided to wait until Monday to paint the canvas with the acrylic paints we had brought because they take 6-8 hours to dry.  While the mural was being stored, I asked a small group of students if they would like me to read them a story.  The response was an overwhelming “yes!”  I had brought three hardcover books with me so I began walking to a clearing and next thing I knew, a few children had found a chair for me and several hundred (yes, hundred!) children gathered around me for story-time.  Talk about needing to project my voice!  Zac came to sit on my lap and decided that he would provide sound effects for the first story which was “Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type.”  The book is about a bunch of farm animals that get hold of a typewriter and send messages to their farmer.  At the end of every few pages there is a spot where you can make a “moo” sound like a cow, which Zac did and sent roars of laughter through the crowd of children.  It was hilarious and Zac loved his new role as entertainer!

Because Swahili and Dholuo are spoken most frequently in this part of the country, I’m not sure how much of the story the children really understood, but they loved the pictures and they begged for both of the other two books.  I was told that it is very unusual for parents to read to their children but after this experience I would tell you that, if you came here to work and did nothing but bring books and read out loud, you would contribute a lot of joy to this community.  Of course more educated Kenyans, especially those in the city who live more modern life-styles do read to their kids and Winnie’s children who are 6 and 8 are reading many of the same books that my children read.  Sadly though, this is a small percentage of the population.

After story-time had finished, the headmaster announced our plans for the next day, Saturday.  We invited the students to come at 9am to play sports and to learn how to play American baseball.  They were ecstatic!  Everyone cheered and clapped and smiled.   We all headed home, eager to get some rest so that we could keep up with all 500 kids the next day.

When we got home it was dark but dinner had been prepared by Auntie Helen and the local ladies who had come to visit.  The kids begged me to make apple pie for everyone and all the ladies thought it would be fun so everyone pitched in.  We made the entire thing by hand and had to pilfer every apple we could find, even the ones Lillian had brought in the car from Nairobi.  We cut the flour, butter, vinegar and sugar together for the crust; we used cashews (grown locally) for the crumble topping which we chopped by hand and mixed with raw sugar (also grown just down the road), cinnamon, butter and flour; and we peeled, cored and sliced thirty five apples and tossed them with lemon juice.  We put it all together just in time for the electricity to go out so the oven didn’t work!  Hakuna matata – we just put it aside and an hour or two later we were able to pop it in the oven to cook.  Although dessert is not often eaten after a Kenyan meal, everyone loved the pie (newly named “apple crumbly” by Kris and Nikki).

While we were waiting for the electricity to turn on, I realized it was Shabbat so I dug for my candles in my suitcase and asked Susan and Mama if they would mind if we lit the candles and sang our Sabbath prayers with everyone.  Twenty years ago when I lived with the Oukos, they admitted that I was the first Jew they had ever known.  They are Christians and very open and receptive to learning and sharing in the traditions of others.  I was honored that they took me to church with them and I remember the experience so clearly.  It was a hot Sunday morning and we sat in an open-sided tent on narrow wooden benches.  The singing and clapping were hearty and throughout the service, congregants stood up and shouted that they had been saved.  It was a fabulous experience.  Christianity has brought many good things to Kenya.  The church has provided education, food and healthcare.  Winnie Ouko expressed that she thinks it helps those in poverty have hope of salvation.  I am grateful for the teachings against polygamy that have encouraged men to take only one wife.  This country needs all the help it can get to curb the extraordinary birth rate of 4.5%, the fastest in the world and I can’t help but believe that a one-wife system is better for reducing the spread of disease and poverty.

At this point, Lillian, her children, Francis, Andrew and Charlie had all arrived from Nairobi.  The house was teeming with people.  All of us gathered to stand around the table and our family offered words of thanks to everyone for their generosity and for making out visit so joyous.  We then sang “Shabbat is here” and welcomed every person by name!  It was the longest version of “Shabbat is here” that we have ever sung!   We then lit the candles and sang the blessings.  We shared a little bit about how our Sabbath is similar to the Christian Sabbath and how it is different and Zachary, Gussie and Isabel explained why we celebrate Shabbat.  Then, we blessed all the children in the room, a prayer that the Oukos recognized for it is used in the Christian faith as well.  It was one of the best Shabbat celebrations we have ever had.

Sports Day-Puma Product Placement

The next day was sports day and the entire extended family joined us at Menara School to help organize the games.  In fact, we couldn’t have done it without them.  Ned, Gussie, Izzy, Susan and I organized baseball and pickle. Ken, Bob, Francis, Charlie and Andrew organized soccer; and Winnie, Kris, Lillian and Nikki organized dodge ball.  All 500 kids and all the teachers participated, even the headmaster.   We brought bats, a hundred training baseballs, whiffle balls, several dozen soccer balls, and dodge balls, and with just these few items, we were able to transform an ordinary day into a dream.  These kids don’t have proper balls.  They make balls from scraps of cardboard and paper which they try to tape or tie together.  Having real balls to play with and new games to learn was a total treat.

Ned did an amazing job teaching the kids the basics of catching, throwing and tagging.  Each of us engaged over a hundred kids in a full-fledged game of pickle and we all worked up a huge sweat.   I loved teaching the kids to say, “you….’re OUT!” with thumb and arm motion included.  It provoked tons of laughter.   Bob, Francis, Ken, Charlie and Andrew challenged their group to a soccer match and they were trounced, five to nothing!  Dodge ball was a huge hit with the little kids.  We had to force the children to take a water break but clearly, it didn’t faze them that they were running for hours in 95 degree heat.

By about 1:30, everyone was exhausted so after some singing and dancing to celebrate the day, we all went back to the house for lunch.  After lunch, Mama asked us to visit an orphanage which is home to children of Aids victims and those whose parents have deserted them.   Gussie, Izzy, Nikki, Susan, Kris, Winnie and Mama Ouko piled into the van and made the hour-long drive to the orphanage.  We were greeted by the orphanage director and some of his staff who escorted us into his office to sign the visitors’ book.  Then we had a tour of the garden and kitchen, saw the bunk room, and met the children who sang for us.  The orphanage is clean and the children have clothes and shoes.  On the wall of the kitchen is the intended menu for the week.  There are 6 items on the entire menu and this week, they ran out of corn meal so the children were only given a meal a day.  Mama knew of the hunger and had loaded our car with sacks of corn meal, sugar and other staples.   As I later confirmed but had always suspected, Mama can often be found helping those in need with donations of food and money.  She always seems to know who is suffering and how she can bring relief.  She and her children pooled together a donation to which we contributed and she insisted that we hand the envelope to the director.  The needs here are endless and the contrast between what we have and how close others are to hunger is striking.

Life Lesson #8:  Remember to live in gratitude, for it is just luck that separates one human’s condition from another’s.

Sunday was our day of rest, and we needed it!  The morning began with yoga.  Winnie and Susan were really eager to practice together and Winnie had brought her matt and blocks from Nairobi so that we could give it a try.  She’s done it once or twice and was really curious.  I used a light piece of cloth as a matt and we tried to find a place for our practice.  Our first attempt had us eaten by biting ants.  That was a no go, so we moved to the cement courtyard in front of the chicken coop and tried to shade ourselves with the side of the building.  It was so much fun and it felt so good to stretch.

Winnie is a true soul mate.  She is a glorious friend, and even though we haven’t seen each other for over 12 years.  She and I spent my year in Kenya exploring each other’s cultures and basically growing up together.  Soon thereafter, Winnie came to visit me in the States and she eventually enrolled at Cornel business school in Ithaca, New York.  I just can’t express the joy I have in seeing her.  I don’t know what it is, but when I am with Winnie and her family, everything is easy.  We laugh all day long and ease into deep conversations.  Even though I had never met her husband Francis, he felt like an old friend the minute we met and her children feel like my own.   When I am with Winnie it feels like I’m transported back to a magical place where everything just unwinds the way it should and where obstacles that would otherwise be annoying or disconcerting become fodder for laughter and an opportunity to reconnect with the joy that comes from flexibility.  Perhaps this is the true meaning of yoga.  Flexibility is a positive life-force.  I must remember to practice it.

After yoga and breakfast, Ned and I decided to visit the local market with Mama Ouko.  She drove us the 7 Kilometers to the market and we walked through the stalls of produce, dried grains, smoked fish, housewares and women selling fried foods to buy some fresh peas, pineapples and lemons.  There were thousands of people in the market and it was fun to get a taste of the local life.  This isn’t a clean orderly market like you might find on Rue Claire in Paris or in Sienna, Italy.  It is muddy and chaotic; there are chickens walking around and children sitting in random spots playing with sticks.  The produce, fish and beans in one stall looks very much like the produce, fish and beans in all the others.  As you might imagine given the education system doesn’t reward innovation, product differentiation isn’t a well-developed marketing technique here.  After our tour, Ned and I decided to walk back the 7km to the farm along the main road.   I imagine that the locals must have been wondering who we were and where in the world we were walking.

It brought back memories of twenty years ago when I would set out on my jog along the same road (it wasn’t paved then).  I would wear my lycra pants and my running shoes and carry my Taser for protection, and by the time I was through with my run, I would have a dozen local children running with me in bare-feet, barely breathing hard while I was panting and sweating and feeling utterly out of shape.

Monday morning we rose early to tackle our next set of projects at Menara School.  Our plan was to do a tie-dye project with the 70+ children in Class 4.  We also had to finish painting the mural with Class 7, hand out the printed pictures to Class 8 and help them affix them to their journals as well as finish their journals, and introduce the All about Me posters to Class 6.  We also had plans to visit Class 3 and to play a story-telling game with hand puppets and to organize a smaller mural project for them.

Gussie, Isabel, Nikki, Kris and Susan took charge of the tie-dye project.  We hoped with this project to have fun with the kids and to provide each of the 70+ children with a new shirt.   We had no idea how many children would be in the school, but had we known, we would have brought 500 shirts.   We brought 108 and used 70, so the remainder will be used by the headmaster in the future to reward children for academic achievement.

First, our crew lined up all the teacher desks under the veranda outside the school.  They covered each desk with a plastic tarp and set out all the dyes we had brought.  Then they entered Class 4 and demonstrated how to rubber band the shirts to create the desired pattern.  Gussie, Isabel, Nikki and Kris worked with children individually to help them band their shirts and then small groups of children came out to the tables to dye them.  We had brought hundreds of pairs of latex gloves for the kids to use while dyeing and to our amazement, rather than throwing the gloves away when they were done, the children brought a bucket and water and began to wash and hang to dry each pair of gloves for later use.  Nothing is wasted here.  It is a wake-up call to experience the feeling of preserving rather than disposing.  Very little is considered trash.

The kids loved the tie-dye!  After squirting their shirts with dye, Susan and the girls placed each shirt on a plastic tarp to set for 6 hours.  Meanwhile, Class 8 was hard at work finishing their journals and Class 7 had finished painting the mural.   I entered Class 6 and got the kids started on their posters and handed out art supplies so they could draw and decorate them.  Everyone was hard at work!

We left the school to go home for lunch, planning to return in an hour so that we could finish our projects and visit with Class 3 who had been eagerly waiting their turn for a project.  However, just as we sat down to lunch we felt the wind shift and a huge storm blow in.  Nikki noticed it first and insisted that she call Joseph the driver to take her back to the school to un-tape the mural from the water tank and take it inside so that it wouldn’t be ruined in the rain.  She got there just in the “NIK” of time!  The rain came down sideways, as I might imagine would happen in a flash flood, and it rained for several hours.

We waited for the rain to subside a bit but we were fighting the onset of darkness so we sloshed through the mud and returned to Menara.  Imagine how dark the classrooms are when the windows are closed to prevent the rain from entering.  When we arrived, we decided to start with Class 3.  It was an eye-opening experience.   The minute we entered the classroom we could tell that something was off.  Until this point, each class had welcomed us with enthusiasm and inquisitive eyes.  This class was dead.  It is also enormous with more than 70 children and I came to learn that they have had the same teacher for three years.  It didn’t take Susan and me long to understand what had happened.  The teacher was horrible: Uninspired, unenthusiastic, and relatively uneducated herself.  As opposed to the responsiveness of Classes 1 and 2, Class 3 could barely understand English and had absolutely no idea how to tell a basic story.  The headmaster later admitted that this was his “slow class.”  I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was too late for these children, whether they would be so far behind that they would never catch up and whether the school had given up on them.  Our lesson plan had been to have each child take a turn wearing a felt glove to which small stickers could be affixed.  Our hope was that the child would then weave a story from the images on the glove and pass the glove and the story on to his neighbor.  It was a total bomb.  The children couldn’t even name the images let alone tell a story.  Susan and I looked at each other in disbelief.  Even after the headmaster explained the lesson in Swahili, the children were unable to execute a simplified version of the game.  We decided to switch gears.

We pulled out a roll of canvas and affixed it with thumb tacks to the back wall of the classroom.  We asked the children to name common items they would find in their village.  It took some time but finally, they were able to name: a cow, a church, a house, etc.  We then asked them to take turns drawing and painting these items on the canvas to create an image of their village.  They worked with acrylic paints left over from the big mural and fabric markers and they enjoyed themselves.  Susan and I thought to ourselves that perhaps this class was supposed to remind us how many children are left behind here.  There is so much more work to do.

Nikki, Kris, Gussie and Isabel were now busy at work rinsing and hanging all the tie-dyed shirts, Class 6 was still hard at work on their posters, and Class 8 had finished their journals.   At lunch, Susan and I had discussed the possibility of spending some time this afternoon introducing the Kindles to the primary school.  Our original plan had been to introduce them on Tuesday to the secondary school (grades 9-12) but we were so inspired by the primary school and the headmaster there that we thought it a good idea to pilot the Kindles with Class 8.   With help from two school boys, I collected the duffel bag of Kindles from the van and entered Class 8.  I invited a group of teachers and the headmaster to join in and I proceeded to lead my very first literature class.  It was phenomenal!  Even though I was working with 8th graders, I chose a book at about the 4th grade reading level called “Grandma Rosa’s Bowl.”  It is from a collection that I loved reading with my girls called, “Girls to the Rescue.”  I specifically chose a short story with a smart girl heroine.  The story is about a little girl who lives with her mother and her elderly grandmother.  The mother isn’t kind to the grandmother and the girl finds a creative yet respectful way to teach the mother to be kind and sympathetic to the aging grandmother.  These themes resonate well with the Luo culture here and both the teachers and the students loved the story.

There is so much to share about this experience.  It was all I had hoped for.  The children each had their own book which was in perfect condition.  I showed them how to adjust the font, use the dictionary, discuss themes, make predications, analyze characters, compare and contrast, and find synonyms. They loved reading out-loud and every child had their hand in the air to be called upon.  The headmaster and teachers had never seen a truly interactive literature class taught before and they loved experiencing how engaged the students were.  The students requested that we put books about science and history on the Kindles and they asked how soon we would come again.   Even though none of these children had ever used a computer or e-book before, they caught on quickly and thoroughly enjoyed their experience.

It was dusk outside when we finished.  All our projects were complete and the tie-dyed shirts were decorating the courtyard draped on ropes that had been hung between trees.  It was a colorful and unexpected site.  We stored the mural to dry inside the first grade classroom and a lock was put on the door for safekeeping.   We went home but promised we would come again in the morning to say goodbye.  Our visit was too short.  We all felt that we could have stayed for months.   When we arrived at the house, Susan and I couldn’t stop talking about the Kindle project.  After seeing the pilot program come to life we were more convinced than ever that we need to develop a plan to optimize the administration of the e-books.  We also really need to re-adjust our thinking about appropriate content to put on the readers and how to train people to use them.   Susan committed herself to creating a program that would work.

The next day was our last in the village, we began with a farewell ceremony at the primary school where everyone offered words of thanks and appreciation and encouragement to visit again.  The children danced and sang for us and, much to the horror of my daughters, I joined a group of girls to dance in front of the entire school.  I think I eventually got the rhythm but at every mishap the audience clapped and laughed.

Our goodbye was really sad.  We all lingered in the courtyard.  Ned had really bonded with the headmaster and was engaged in conversation with him, I wrote our address for everyone so that we could correspond in the future, we tried to organize a storage area for the supplies we had left and we waved to all the children.  We went home to pack up our things and have some lunch and then we headed for the secondary school to do another Kindle pilot.  We decided to teach the same book there because the children are just a year older, and we weren’t sure that they were that much more advanced.

The secondary school is a bit better equipped that the primary school.  To attend, children must pay fees.  The school building is lighter and brighter and the children’s uniforms are not quite as tattered.  Children are fed lunch.  This particular secondary school is currently co-ed, however they are phasing out girls so girls in the area will have to walk miles to attend another school or simply not go.  We were told that there is just not enough room at the school for girls but we got the distinct impression that the school’s headmaster was not particularly supportive of educating girls.  I mentioned this new policy to Winnie and my worry about it, and she explained that she has a different view.  She said that there is such an enormous problem with alcoholism and delinquency in boys throughout Kenya that she wasn’t dis-satisfied with the plan and even believes there needs to be a greater focus on educating boys.  The sad truth is that education needs more funding but corruption is rampant in the Education Ministry and much of the money that the country raises for education never makes it into the local schools.

After teaching our class, which we conducted outside under a tree with about a hundred children and faculty, we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Nairobi.  There, Winnie and Francis planned to meet us and take us out for a night on the town.  We left the kids at the Serena Hotel (which looked pretty luxurious on this second visit-everything is relative!) with Grace, an Ouko cousin who had been with us all week in Koru, and headed out to Zen restaurant.  On our way we visited Winnie and Francis’ townhouse and the old neighborhood I had lived in with them twenty years ago.  The traffic in Nairobi is not to be believed.  I can honestly say it is the worst in the world (LA x 5 + diesel + no catalytic converters!).  Every single road is under construction and routes that used to take 10 minutes to drive 20 years ago now take more than an hour.  It is almost impossible to function and the air is so polluted that it is difficult to walk.  East Africa is the fastest growing area of the world and economic progress almost always translates directly into wide-spread auto ownership.  This means traffic and pollution.

Zen restaurant is in the suburb of Karen (named for Karen Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame).  The suburb is beautiful and the restaurant is an oasis of jasmine bushes, fountains and modern Asian décor.  They serve fusion food which is delicious.  The restaurant is frequented by mzungu (white people) and successful locals and it is quite the hot spot.  We loved being with Francis and Winnie and the kids were so happy to hang out with Grace.

The next day we had a late breakfast and a swim before joining our guide Robert for our 4 hour journey by Land Rover to the Olpajeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya.  Thus began the second phase of our adventure, our safari (which means journey in Kswahili).   To be honest, we were all worried that we would be completely bored on safari after such an exciting experience in Koru and we missed the Ouko family and all the kids.  Zac was most excited to see the wildlife, but I really wasn’t sure that Ned and Zac could bear to be cooped up in a vehicle for hours on end tracking animals through the long grass.   Adventures lay ahead.

Blog, July 6, 2011 – Incredible!

Blog, July 6, 2011 – Incredible!

Gussie tells me that I’m totally out of touch (as usual) with what a blog is supposed to be.  As you can see from the novel I’ve written below, I didn’t get the fact that blogging was supposed to be a running dialogue.  Every minute has been incredible and I can barely keep up with journaling our days let alone expressing the emotions that have surrounded our experiences.    Below is a week’s worth of experiences in one blog, and, it took me a week to write it all down! Here goes…

Wow!  I can barely catch my breath.  It has been an amazing day and a half since we landed in Kisumu on June 27th.  Our flight was a brief ½ an hour but it saved us a 5 hour drive.  We were greeted at the airport by the Ouko family who made the drive from Nairobi with all 14 pieces of our luggage, 5 pieces for our family and 9 huge duffels for the village.   We flew with a carry on.  We drove through the town of Kisumu which sits on the banks of Lake Victoria which is still filled with hippos and isn’t very clean.  Lake Victoria also borders Uganda and is well known as the mouth of the Nile River and the source for Tilapia, a fish eaten world-wide.  While in Kisumu we stopped for some supplies at the Nakumatt which didn’t exist when I was here 20 years ago.  The Nakumatt is really quite extraordinary.  It is the Walmart of this region.  Never before have I seen USB cables, Kellogg’s corn flakes, packaged meat, and washing machines anywhere outside of Nairobi.  The store is enormous but the Oukos explained that hard goods sit for months on end because nobody can afford to buy them.

We had to make a mad dash in the store because we can’t be on the roads at night.  They are treacherous, filled with holes, donkeys, people on bicycles, women with pots of water on their heads, children darting in and out, and they are utterly dark, especially now in the rainy season.  We rushed through the isles looking for bread, cereal, cheese, orange juice and tea.  Sadly, it was almost impossible to find foods without preservatives or sugar added.  Soda is the staple drink here and it seems that “progress” may catapult this society toward a whole new set of health challenges.  Is the only alternative to malnutrition a diet that leads to diabetes?  Currently, for those who can afford food, the traditional diet here consists of maize and beans, kale, sweet potatoes and ugali, corn meal and casaba cooked in water until it forms a thick paste that looks like an enormous, heavy uncooked matzoh ball.  It is eaten with your hands, specifically your right hand as tradition mandates that you keep your left hand (the unclean one that is used for personal hygiene) in your lap.  People who have money eat chicken or fish and on special occasions, goat.

It took an hour and fifteen minutes to travel from Kisumu to Koru where the Ouko home is located.  Their land was purchased in the 1960s after the Kenyan government won its independence from Britain.  The Ouko’s house is made from hand cut stones and cement and has running cold water, electricity (when the power grid isn’t on the fritz), and warm showers when special heaters are turned on.  They have several small refrigerators, a 4-burner stove, toaster oven, microwave and small TV.   It is the fanciest house in the entire region.  The house is located on a farm and each male child in the family has his own house on the property.  Sugar cane and corn are grown on the farm and there are cows that provide fresh milk which is double boiled and served for breakfast.  The house is utterly simple with sturdy furniture, no screens on the windows, beds with mosquito nets for us and tile bathrooms with toilets, sinks and showers.  We are completely happy.  Gussie said to me just an hour ago that she “loves it here!”  She says, “Mom, what they have is perfect, and there is so much love here.”  Isabel just said she “never wants to leave.”  The Ouko family are part of the Luo tribe, the same tribe that President Obama’s father is from.  Obama’s grandmother and uncles still live in a village about 2 hours from here.  It is absolutely awe inspiring to imagine that the child of a man from here became President of the United Sates.  You just can’t imagine the hardship, the poverty, and the struggle for education and survival that confront these people every day.

Although it was almost dark when we arrived at the house, Christabel Ouko, my Kenyan mother and the matriarch of the Ouko family, was standing on the veranda to greet us.  She is a beautiful and elegant woman who is always dressed in colorful, traditional dresses and head wraps and she has the most honest and easy laugh I have ever known.  Although nobody knows exactly how old Mom is, she has 7 children: Ken(he is trained as a chemical engineer and lives on the farm with Mom), Susan (married to Bob, she is a consultant and he is a revenue administrator for Delta, they live in Georgia), Winnie (married to Francis, they run a consulting firm and live in Nairobi), Lillian (married to Musila, she is a geneticist and lives in Nairobi), Carol (married to Ron, they live in Nairobi), Andrew (he is a web consultant and lives in Nairobi), and Charlie (he is a mechanical engineer and works for Kenya Pipeline in Nairobi).  All the girls are married and have children of their own: David (9), Jonathan (7), Alex (4), Nicole (16), Kris (15), Milu (5), Wanjiku (3),CJ (4), Renee (2).  Sixteen members of the family and lots of aunties and friends descended upon the house to sleep, eat, and to welcome us.  Somehow, everyone found a place to sleep and between all the women we managed to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for the twenty-five or so people that visited.  Memories of my life here 20 years ago came flooding back and in an instant I felt as though I had come home and my entire family was welcomed without pretense or hesitation.

The excitement and support for our work and the gifts that we brought for the community has been overwhelming.  Everyone volunteered to help us facilitate the projects we planned for the school and the library.  So many times the people here have communicated that they truly cannot believe that we came to work with our own hands and directly with the people who live here.  They thought we might bring some money and come to say hello to the school but they never imagined we would be interested in working with each of its 500 children over the course of a week.

After dinner we stayed up much too late talking and planning for our first day’s projects at the school.    The Ouko family had never worked directly with a school to implement lesson plans or art projects and none of us really knew what to expect.  I spent weeks thinking about and planning what to do with the kids but I still wasn’t sure what their education levels would be, whether their English was sufficient for us to work with them, how many children were in each class or even how many were in the school all-together.  As I began to unload the duffle bags so that we could review the supplies and familiarize everyone with the lessons and activities we had planned, the family and friends that had gathered were overwhelmed.  Everyone began brainstorming about how we would disperse the supplies and sporting equipment and how we would run the lessons and projects.

Most exciting was unpacking the Kindles so that the Ouko family, visiting friends and teachers could see them for the first time.  I passed them around and we all began to contemplate what we might accomplish with these electronic books.  Ultimately, they will “live” at the Ouko Library where they will be charged, loaded with content and administered for use by the community.  However, until the library is finished, we all began to think that the Kindles should travel so that they might be actively used by area schools.  The idea that school children might each have their own book, that the pages wouldn’t be tattered or torn, that books outside the handful of books that are part of the required curriculum would be available, that the Kindle dictionary would enable both teachers and students to look up unknown words, that print could be enlarged for children who need glasses but don’t have them, and that text books might be available was utterly awe-inspiring.  The ideas began to fly and the challenges of our project began to reveal themselves.  It took over ten minutes for me to teach everyone how to turn on the machine and how to navigate to the table of contents.   Many here had never seen or touched a computer and even using the arrow keys to turn pages was a brand new concept!

Over the weeks prior to our trip, friends, teachers and family members back home expressed their enthusiasm for our work with the library and the school.  Thank goodness for all your support because, to be honest (since I’m blogging), I have had so many doubts about whether we could make a difference, whether this entire experience would be revealed as a self-indulgent, sounds really good but in fact isn’t a truly meaningful experience, whether my kids would get anything out of it, and whether Ned would connect and make this experience his own.  I didn’t know if my family would manage to adapt to the very basic but loving Ouko home environment.  Only time would tell.  We set up our sleeping bags and pillows under our mosquito nets, scared away a gecko that had wandered into Gussie and Izzy’s room and fell asleep, eager to see what the next day would bring.

We woke up early with roosters crowing, pots clanking, and light streaming in the windows.  Susan Ouko had made incredible efforts to make sure that we would have familiar food to eat for breakfast so we made fresh eggs, toast with mashed banana on top and fruit.  The kids even had cereal.  We loaded up our car with supplies and piled into our van with Joseph our driver at the helm.

Our first visit was just a two minute drive from the house to the bottom of the long driveway.  There we found the small pre-school that Mama Ouko built herself.  It consists of two one-room mud and cement structures with tin roofs.  The two teachers who run the school are energetic and beautiful.  They have tried to implement some “modern” teaching techniques and are quite proud of their efforts.  One teacher showed me pieces of cardboard with letters and numbers written on them over which they glued beans so that the children could trace the letters and numbers to learn them. When the school first opened, Mama Ouko had the teachers wash each of the children when they arrived at school each day and she bought each of them a uniform.  She had to teach the parents of her students how to care for their children and prepare them for school.  Mama also bought small, colorful plastic tables and chairs for the school and had the insides of the classroom painted in bright colors.  Teacher Karen gathered all 35 of her children outside to greet us.  We handed them a ball (Thanks Dana!!) and promised we would return to play and learn with them the next morning.

Most of the learning in schools here is geared to preparing children for an exam they must take at the end of Class 8 (8th grade).  This exam determines whether they can proceed to secondary school (high school). Almost all the curriculum is about rote memorization, students are rarely taught to think independently and creativity and innovation don’t appear to be rewarded.  Students are given high marks for obedience and for spitting back information they are fed.  As we began to connect with the schools, our desire to encourage creativity in the children became one of our central missions.  We also got really excited about encouraging them to read outside their required curriculum.  Very few if any of the children had ever been exposed to reading a book for pleasure.  Finally, we couldn’t help but be inspired to think about the differences between the fate of boys and girls in this society.  We became really interested in encouraging the children to express their feelings about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

We piled back into the van and made the ten minute drive to the Menara Primary School which serves grades 1 though 8.  Prior to our arrival, Mama Ouko had received permission from the headmaster, Tom Odhiambu Onysona, at Menara for us to work with his students.  He said to Mama that we could have as much time as we wanted and that we could teach whatever we thought would be helpful.  He never expected what we brought or how long we would stay and work directly with the kids.  As we pulled up to the school we were first struck by the facilities, or lack thereof, and the sheer number of human beings in each of the tiny classrooms.  Every child is dressed identically in a blue and white checked dress or shirt and blue pants and a blue sweater (even though it is often 85 or even 90 degrees).  There are over 500 children in the school and the average class size is 60 students with one teacher.  One class has 72 students!  Children sit shoulder to shoulder on benches with tiny wooden desks.  Each room has a blackboard and a piece or two of chalk which the teacher guards in his or her pocket.  The classrooms each have several windows with shutters but no other light and they are very dark.  I can’t figure out whether it is better to sit next to the window and endure the heat of the sun but have light or to sit in the middle of the classroom where it is cooler and be in the dark.  The floors are dirt and the walls are cement.  There is nothing hung on the walls and they are not painted.  The teachers have had basic training and are capable of following a proscribed curriculum.  They bring no creativity to the curriculum and the Socratic method of teaching is completely unknown here; everything is rote memorization.  Sadly, it is not uncommon for a class to remain with the same teacher for two or three years so if you have an uninspired teacher you are doomed.

School begins at 7:30am.  The younger children are released at 3:30 and the older children at 5:30pm.  Many of them walk miles to school and do chores before they arrive at school and after they return home.  No food is served at lunchtime.  Some children walk home to eat.  Others go hungry.  There are tanks of rain water collected for drinking and washing.  Children are equipped with a small, often tattered composition book and either a pen or a pencil (one per year) for writing.  The supplies at the school are limited to some tape, a few reams of paper and chalk.

After we shook hands with the headmaster and several of the teachers and signed the guest book we entered the first grade classroom, Class 1, and introduced ourselves to the students.  I just can’t tell you how incredible it was!  In fact, I haven’t blogged for a while because I can’t seem to find the words to express what the entire experience has meant to me and to the kids and Ned.  It has been so extraordinary in so many ways.  The smiling faces, the anticipation, the curiosity, the need, the overwhelming feeling each of us had that we could actually make a difference in the lives of these children was extraordinary.  Life lesson #5:  Don’t underestimate that you have something to offer.  We have so much.

After our introduction, Zachary came forward and described his pencil project to the class.  He showed the class the letter he had written to his school and announced that he had collected over a thousand pencils to bring from America to give to the students at Menara.  He then handed a pencil and eraser to every child in the class.  He was so excited and the children were so grateful.  Zac continued to hand out pencils all day long and left a bucket of extras with the headmaster for future use.  To all those who helped Zac by giving pencils, buying pencils (thanks Caren Korin and Ethan and Izzy Klein and many others), delivering them to us in the middle of the night before we left (thank you Marla Olsberg!), collecting them and supporting his project – we cannot thank you enough! You helped our little guy learn that he can really make a difference in the world, and you put smiles on so many faces at the Menara School.   I also really want to thank Stephanie Rotsky, our incredible Social Justice Coordinator at The Rashi School, for helping Zac create this project and for working with him to implement it.

Our first project with Class 1 was to teach them about the human body.  We split the class up into groups, rolled out huge pieces of paper that we brought with us on rolls, and asked a child from each group to lie down on the paper and be traced.  We then passed out hundreds of markers and crayons and asked the children to color in the body and to put as many body parts on the figures as possible.  They had a ball!  For many, this was the first time they have ever held a crayon or worked in color.  The smiles and the hard work were inspiring.  After about an hour of coloring and giggling we held up one of the figures and split the boys and girls into teams which competed to identify body parts and tell what each body part does.  Again, it was the first time the students were given the opportunity to move while learning, to play while learning and to use creativity in the learning process.  The teachers and the headmaster were in awe and from then on, they came to observe every lesson we implemented.  As we left the classroom to move to Class 2, children were hanging out the windows and gathering in the school yard to see us.  We waved and smiled and Gussie, Izzy and Zac marveled at the curiosity.  It became clear that, while white adults are a bit of a novelty, white children are rock stars!  Everywhere the kids wandered the school children wanted to reach out and talk to them or shake their hands.

About shaking hands: Given that I have a little bit of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) when it comes to travelling with my kids (more on that later), before going to Kenya, I taught the kids how to do the bird handshake (the one where you touch elbows instead of hands to prevent the spread of germs- it became popular in Asia during the bird-flu epidemic).  I also taught them the concept of joining their hands in prayer position and bowing their heads to acknowledge someone they meet or reaching for the forearm rather than shaking hands.  None of it worked.  It is Kenyan tradition to shake hands with absolutely everyone you meet and with everyone that is in a room that you enter.  So, with bottles of Purell strapped to our belts, we chose to embrace the warmth of the people and our desire to connect with them and show them respect.  Everyone stayed happy and healthy, and we, the paranoid travelers from the US who sanitize our house with all natural cleaning products and hesitate to hold the handrails of escalators, experienced a definite sea change!  We conquered our fear of touching people who aren’t like us, both literally and figuratively.

Life Lesson #6:  Many of us live in fear instead of living life.  We find reasons not to do things rather than reasons to do them, and we forget to challenge our boundaries and to engage in risk-management that doesn’t send us to the extremes.  Things are often scarier in theory than they are in real life.

Our next lesson was with Class 2 (second grade).  After introducing ourselves, we showed a map of the world and talked about where we come from and about the African continent.  Then, we played addition and subtraction Bingo.  Children were asked to solve simple two and three number equations and after several rounds, we had the class running their own bingo games.  The children loved getting out of their seats to write and solve equations and the entire class chanted an enthusiastic song for each correct answer.  It goes something like this: “Well done, well done, that was better, better, another better, better, super girl (or boy or class!)!”  This song has become the mantra for the rest of our trip and we just couldn’t stop singing it.  After class we went home for lunch and to regroup for the afternoon.

When we returned to school we met with Class 5, fifth grade.  We handed each child a thin poster board for our “All About Me” project.  Each board had a template with questions to be answered by the children (what do you want to be when you grow up, where do you live, what are your favorite foods, etc.) and defined areas for drawing and coloring.  We encouraged the children to be creative and to relax and enjoy decorating their posters and writing their mini autobiographies.  We passed out markers, colored pencils, pens and crayons.  At first, the children each took one or two but as we pulled out our bags full of supplies their faces lit up as they realized they could choose many colors and would have several hours to complete their projects.  It was truly joyful!  Both Gussie and Izzy worked individually with students to help them fill in their posters, and Izzy made one of her own.  When the children were done it was dusk outside but none of the children in that class or in any other had left the school.  All of them were gathered in the courtyard, waiting to see what we had done.  It occurred to us that the children had probably never had the opportunity to present their work to others so we asked each of the 60+ children and Isabel to come up and share their work.  It was fabulous!!!  Isabel went first and shared all about herself.  Her biggest challenge came when she attempted to describe pasta as her favorite food.  Her presentation was a big hit!  As the other children came forth, the laughs and smiles and nods of encouragement were totally entertaining, and even though everyone stood for the entire presentation from all 60 children, nobody wanted to leave.  Finally, we had to insist that the children head home so that they wouldn’t have to walk in the dark.

We arrived back at the Ouko house totally exhausted but utterly excited.  My kids were thrilled with what they had accomplished and Susan Ouko’s two daughters (from Georgia) were so enthusiastic that they couldn’t wait to plan our next day’s projects.  Mama Ouko began getting calls on her cell phone from people in the village who heard about our work with the kids and we just couldn’t wait to go back the next day.  We cooked dinner, showered and went to bed, eager to get started early the next morning.

After some morning tea and hot chocolate, we began our day at the preschool/kindergarten, playing color and shape Bingo with the children and passing out supplies.  Thank goodness Gussie was there to help us define a corner!  The children came up to tell us how many corners each shape has and a little girl was even able to correctly answer that a circle has no corners.

Our next visit was to the library for a dedication ceremony.  The Oukos have been working hard to involve their village, the Kenya Library Services (KLS) and the Global Digital Village organization in the creating a library that will endure the test of time and will have access to the internet and electrical power.  We arrived at the library site and were greeted by a dozen visitors.  Parked at the site was a huge RV called the Kenya Mobile Library which is filled with about 5000 used books.  For more than a year, the library has been collecting books and spending money to ship them to the village.  The library building itself has its foundation, its walls, and openings for windows, all of which must be individually measured and made because the stones for the building are hand-cut and are randomly placed.  The roof itself, which will be tin, is not on yet and none of the interior finishes are constructed.   There are not yet enough funds to finish the library but everyone is hopeful that the project will be completed over the next 6 months.  The final touch will be to install the basketball hoop we brought in the library courtyard so that local children can come, check out a ball, and play.  Soccer balls will also be made available.

We all gathered in front of the building for words of thanks, prayers and to introduce the Kindles to the dignitaries.  (Zac was already hard at work trying to climb up the walls of the building, and Izzy just arrived as she was left behind at the house for dilly-dallying about getting out of bed and taking her malarone).  It was really exciting to hold up the Kindles and explain that, on the device in their hand, they could access as many books as were in the RV parked in front of them!   We turned on the device and navigated to the table of contents and began to explain the possibilities of electronic books.  Although the adults struggled a bit with using the device itself, they were ecstatic.  Outside of Nairobi, especially in poor villages, computers and electronic books are practically unknown.  These Kindles catapulted this village and the library into the 21st century!  How they would implement the Kindles and train people to use them became a constant topic of conversation over the ensuing days, and we began to develop a plan.  As far as we know, Kindles have only been introduced in one other village in the country through a project known as the Kilgoris project.   After 6 weeks of trying, I was finally able to connect with the district officer (the local government official) who has been involved with that project.  He tells me that 70 Kindles were donated to his district and that they have hired a manager in Nairobi to oversee their use.  Supposedly they have uploaded 300 books on each of their E-books (I find this amazing and need to check further to see if this is truly fact) and are now attempting to figure out how to upload some Kenyan primary school curricula as well.   They have also trained 20 teachers to work with E-books.  The district manager says the Kenyan government thinks bringing E-books to Kenya could transform their education system and he is happy to connect us with those who are working on strategic thinking around this issue.  Susan Ouko has already planned a follow up visit from America to train teachers and library staff and to oversee a traveling program for our Kindles.  She and I are both hoping that we can learn from Kilgoris and perhaps even send some Koru teachers for training.

After planting trees on the library grounds I gathered the women to inquire about something I had noticed during the dedication ceremony.  The head of the library committee is a woman who was kind enough to offer words of thanks.  She addressed us as the family of Mr. Edward Gordon and acknowledged us only through him.  In the most tribal societies, it is not uncommon for women to do most of the labor, bear the children, collect the firewood, tend the livestock feed their household, build the houses themselves and have virtually no rights to land.  In some tribes, like the Massai and Samburu, women are not educated beyond the age of 15 and are not given shoes.  Some progress has been made in Nairobi but throughout the country there is virtually no equality and women are often governed by village rituals that many modern women here consider difficult.  My thought was that women themselves could begin to use language that promotes equality and one way to begin was by acknowledging women by their own names and families by both parents’ names.  The women in the group were totally receptive and eager to engage in a conversation about their wishes for equality and admitted that they had never considered that they contribute to making themselves invisible.

Throughout my upbringing, my mother used to insist that we acknowledge women’s progress and the importance of women in our society.  Truth be told, I always imagined that she had a secret former life as a bra-burner and environmental activist who had marched on the mall in DC for equal rights.  She worked from the time I was a toddler yet still shouldered all the traditional “female” responsibilities at home.   Even though I was very proud of my mom, I admit that I was always a bit embarrassed when she insisted on a woman’s reading at our Passover Seders, and, as a child, I never really understood her frustration around the fact that women who worked outside the home were not relieved of any of their responsibilities inside the home.  It used to make her furious.  But she was a pioneer and my dad was a women’s libber who felt that women should not be dependent on men (though he still thought it completely acceptable for men to be dependent on women).  So mom, the women of Koru thank you.  They are now doing the hard work that you and your generation did to benefit mine.

Life Lesson #7:  Never underestimate your mother.

Finally, we rushed to the Menara School, eager not to keep the children waiting any longer and excited to initiate two of our biggest projects.  The first involved Classes 6, 7 and 8 and it was to create a mural that would eventually hang in the Ouko Library.    We gave the children in each class paper, pens, pencils, colored pencils and markers and asked them to write and draw about a dream they have or what they’d like to be when they grow up.  We told them that we would collect their work when we returned after lunch.  We had no idea what to expect, but the school was abuzz and the children went to work eagerly.

When we returned, we collected about 160 incredible drawings and essays which I plan to copy and bind when I get home.   Some of them were so inspiring:  children want to be architects, pilots, doctors and nurses.  Others want to be game wardens, police men or women and teachers.  Several want to be engineers or to work in public relations or to be journalists or newscasters.  One boy wants to be a meteorologist!   Honestly, it took our breath away.  Here they were with almost nothing but with dreams as big as our kids’ dreams.  I guess I wondered how many would succeed and how long it would be before the realities of their lives robbed them of their dreams.  In every classroom we visited we reminded the kids that education and reading are critical to achieving their goals.  The problem is that money is pretty critical too.  School in Kenya is not free beyond primary school.

As Susan, Winnie and I were collecting the essays and pictures, Ned, Ken Ouko and Bob Mwuara unrolled the enormous blank canvas that we had brought and duct-taped it to the cylindrical cement water tank in the school courtyard.  Then we selected about a dozen of the drawings that kids had made and we taped them to the canvas at intervals.  We laid out pencils and fabric markers and Ned orchestrated about 120 kids from classes 6 and 7 in copying the artwork onto the canvas.  Meanwhile, next to the school building we gathered all the teachers desks together in a line and laid out masses of multi-colored felt, scissors, stencils, buttons, colored threads, fabric glue and three-dimensional stickers and asked kids who weren’t working directly on the canvas to create felt designs that we could affix to the canvas.  They made animals, snakes, flowers, free-form designs and had incredible fun!  The teachers just couldn’t resist the urge to join in and create as well.  I wish you could have seen what this giant art class looked like!  The kids worked on the canvas and felt for about three hours and the headmaster was beside himself with joy.  He literally said he had never thought to engage the children in any activities like this but was so inspired that he would like them to paint the actual water tank when we leave!

Meanwhile, we entered Class 8 and introduced our journal project.  There are 37 children in this class and they are the oldest in the primary school.  My idea was to give each child a hard-cover blank journal and to have them write an autobiography.  The children and I brainstormed together about topics they should include in their journals, and they were utterly excited to have an opportunity to write creatively and to personalize their journals by decorating them.  Topics included details about themselves, their village, their friends, their families, being a boy, being a girl, the foods they enjoy, their environment, what they dream of, sports they like, and potential careers.   We then told the kids that we would take a picture of each one of them and print it and give it to them to affix inside the front cover of their journals.  Many of these children have never had a picture of themselves and they were overjoyed.  We snapped the photos on our digital camera and then printed them on portable Polaroid photo printers that I had brought.  The printers are about the size of a two Blackberries and use special heat sensitive paper and no ink cartridges.  Ned spent hours at the house setting up the printers and printing the photos and the kids were so grateful.  In fact, Class 8 spent almost 2 days working on their journals and several of the teachers in the school asked if we had extra journals so that they could write journals of their own!  When they finished, teachers and students requested that we transport the journals to the Ouko Library where they could be kept safely so that their parents, friends and future families could come to the library and read about them.  We had never imagined this outcome but it was perfectly beautiful.

More soon.  I must post before I lose my internet connection!!!

Krazy Koru!



WOW! Hey this is Gussie and I have been given the incredible opportunity to teach in a school called Mnara Primary School in Koru, Kenya. It is about a five minute drive from the Ouko’s home.

I have loved staying with the Ouko famly and getting to know them. After ten minutes you feel like family. Every night we have all shared laughs and eat all different  types of traditional Kenyan food as well as some food my mom cooked for everyone.

Although the nights have been fun, we have had an amazing time working in the school together. As some of you might know we brought tons of school supplies and sporting goods with us for the kids here. Over the past few days we have been using the materials and putting our projects into action. The first day we taught at the school, we worked with the first grade teaching them about the human body. We traced their bodies and taught them the parts of the body. We also sang the song head shoulders, knees and toes.

The classrooms in the school are dark and small. They are made out of cement and only have a couple of windows. In each classroom there is an old blackboard with one piece of chalk. There is only one teacher for an average of 60 kids per class. Most of the kids have torn clothes and no shoes to wear. When we walked into the school they all stared at our family like we were aliens because they had never seen white children. They all tried to touch me as if white skin feels different from black skin.

The following day we taught in the second and fifth grade classrooms. In the second grade we played addition bingo with the kids and our little game left the teachers baffled at all of the amazing teaching resources out there. The kids did very well at the game and proved to know their math facts. All of the kids in the school are very smart and talented, but they don’t often get the opportunity to show it. In the fifth grade classroom we filled out “about me” posters consisting of questions like your favorite place, what you want to be when you grow up, your favorite food and about your family. I was so inspired by these kids’ hopes and dreams. Many of them want to be pilots, teachers and doctors when they grow up. The funniest answer to what you want to be when you grow up came from a little boy who wants to be a tourist!

On Friday we started one of our biggest projects which was to create a mural with the sixth and seventh grade. The theme for the mural was learning, reading and what they want to be when they grow up. All of the kids wrote stories and drew pictures about what learning means to them and then we transferred these ideas onto a huge canvas using paints, markers, stickers, felt pieces and buttons. We also started a project with eighth grade where all of the children received hardcover blank books and they decorated and wrote about themselves in the book. I was so excited to do both of these projects because they help all of the kids get to know each other and be creative. They are both unfinished but will be completed on Monday.

On Saturday the kids have class but this Saturday we did something extra special with the kids. We brought all of the sports equipment and we taught the kids baseball, kickball and dodge ball (we also played soccer which they already know). The kids caught on and had a great time. The only thing was they absolutely kicked our butts at soccer. All of us made excuses why we didn’t win, but we were no match for these kids.

Today has been a relaxing day for all of us because there is no school on Sundays. Today we all chatted, read books and went on walks. Tomorrow we will be doing a really fun project! We are doing tie die with the fourth grade class and finishing the mural and journals. I have had an incredible and eye opening experience that I will never ever forget!

Peace Out,


Blog, June 22, 2011 – June On our way!

Blog, June 22, 2011 – On Our Way!

We just left Nairobi to fly to Kisumu which borders Lake Victoria in western Kenya.  We had lunch today at our hotel (no ox testicles on the menu!) with an old friend, Dr. David Silverstein and his wife, Channah.  Twenty years ago, when I told my father of my plans to spend a year in Kenya, he panicked.  He couldn’t imagine I would be so far from home and know nobody.  So, given my dad’s incredible resourcefulness and creativity, he of course found a way to contact a doctor in Kenya who could keep an eye on me.  To find this doctor he pulled down his directory of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and looked under Kenya.  There to our amazement was Dr. David Silverstein from Chicago!  Dad picked up the phone and called him and David graciously offered to watch over me and to pick me up from the airport when I arrived.  So, when I landed in Nairobi for the first time (I flew in the cockpit of the 747 with the headphones on to land! those were the good old days) David’s driver was there with a smile.  He whisked me away and off we went to David’s house.  On the way there I learned that 8 days earlier David had had a son and the bris was being held at this house.  Little did I expect that the then president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi would be the guest of honor.  I walked into the house and saw this enormous African president with a kippah on his head holding a Jewish baby for circumcision.  Dr. Silverstein personally guided President Moi in re-establishing strong relations with Israel and helped to build the first synagogue in Nairobi which thrives there today.  Channah, David’s wife worked as an emergency medical specialist in Somalia and Rwanda and has helped to develop Nairobi hospital’s emergency department.  David and Channah met the day of the United States embassy bombing in 1998 when they found themselves in the emergency room of Nairobi hospital inundated with 500 patients at once.

More soon!

p.s.  thanks to everyone who is sending comments!  I read them aloud to the entire family and we feel so lucky to have you connected to us.  I cannot seem to connect on my Blackberry to approve the comments, but know that we receive them and love them!  Keep them coming!!

Weird Eats? I Think Not! By: Gussie Gordon



Weird Eats? I Think Not!

By Gussie Gordon

Today was our first day in Kenya after two days of hectic travel. As many of you might know from my mom’s previous blog there was a lot of craziness. Last night after waiting in the airport all day we boarded our overnight nine hour flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Just to be clear the Virgin Atlantic Lounge at Heathrow airport is not a half bad way to spend the day. We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta, the airport in Nairobi at 8:00 this morning. We were kindly greeted by Susan Ouko, her husband and her aunt. Susan is the daughter of the former foreign minister of Kenya and a member of the family my mom stayed with 20 years ago in Kenya. We will be staying with them later on in the trip. After we got to our hotel we ate some food and took a shower. Eating food other than airplane food felt really good.

After our shower we took a trip to a bead making factory called Kazuri which means small and beautiful in Swahili. This factory was started in 1975 by a woman named Susan Wood who was the wife of the founder of flying doctors. Her mission was to help single women find work and support their families. Today there are women and men working hard at the factory molding, designing and hand painting each bead sold in the shop. Not only do the beads possess beautiful and intricate designs, but I like the fact that when I buy this jewelry I know that someone put time and effort into creating something beautiful for someone else and that by buying the jewelry I am helping these workers.

After the bead factory we drove straight to a restaurant called the Carnivore where we met up with the rest of the Ouko family. The Carnivore serves the most unusual meats I have ever eaten let alone seen in my entire life. At this restaurant there is no menu. The waiters and waitresses come around with every type of meat you could imagine. You can decide if you want to try the meat or not. They had chicken, steak, lamb chops, turkey and many other meats but the most unusual meats were ostrich meatballs, chicken gizzard, crocodile and OX BALLS!!! Yes that’s right ox testicles! I ate the ostrich meatballs and the crocodile and they were surprisingly delicious but I wimped out on the chicken gizzard and ox testicles. All of the meats were cooked in a big fire pit with the meat on spears hanging over the fire. Dinner was definitely one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had!

Thanks for subscribing to the blog.

P.S Tomorrow we are on our way to the village to help the kids!

Peace out,


Blog, June 21, 2011 – AIRPORT SECURITY: FRIEND OR FOE???

Blog, June 21, 2011 – AIRPORT SECURITY:  FRIEND OR FOE??? 

“I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane”

OK. This is one of those moments when profanity seems appropriate but I can’t quite manage to put it in print so just know I’m thinking it but I won’t actually scream it into the computer!!  We landed on time at Heathrow and came off our British Airways flight in good spirits having slept a full 5 hours.  Mind you, I haven’t slept in almost three weeks and have lost 5 pounds just getting ready to leave Boston and the Cape houses to renters, implementing the Kindle project, organizing our lesson plans for the school in Koru, planning and equipping us for our trip, getting visas & vaccinations, saying goodbye to Rashi with Gussie who will go to Nobles next year, managing through all the end of year performances and projects for the kids and finishing up my big interior design project for Riverside Partners.  Although a hassle, we didn’t think much of the fact that we had to clear security just to transfer from our British Airways flight from Boston onto our British Airways flight to Nairobi until our carry-on bag with the 46 Kindles in it was pulled aside.  It landed at the back of a pile with 10 other bags and the man at the front of the pile, the supposed supervisor of security was in no rush to make his way through the pile.  The clock was ticking and our pleas for help went unaddressed.  They wouldn’t open more than two bags at a time and insisted on taking every item out of every bag and scanning it separately.  The worst part was the supervisor himself.  He was uncaring and unresponsive and I make up that he was on a major power trip.  Do I sound frustrated?  When it came time to open our suitcase he took one look at the Kindles and prepared himself for his joyous confiscation of our goods.  He announced that there was no way he would let me through security without calling customs to determine whether our goods could pass.  Even though every Kindle was fully charged, out of its box, in a leather case with a number on it and loaded with books, he insisted that this quantity of electronics required a receipt of purchase to prove they were really mine.  A receipt!!!  I never thought to bring a receipt!!  18 minutes and counting until flight time…12 minutes and counting and I’m trying to stay calm as he calls customs.  Ned, Zac and Izzy run for the plane as I request that they at least begin to scan each Kindle.  Gussie and I frantically take each one out of its Ziplock bag and place them in the gray trays…8 minutes and he returns with my carry-on bag and the Kindles in a pile when I remember that I bought these Kindles on Amazon and had a receipt of purchase by email confirmation on my Blackberry!!!  I search by sender and there it is!  I show him the receipt on my phone and the poor female assistant is horrified because she realizes now that there was no way we would make our flight and all this was for charity.  Gussie and I pile the Kindles back into the bag and try our best, but the flight is in Terminal C and we were in Terminal B.  Hopeless.  British Airways wouldn’t hold the flight so Ned, Zac and Izzy stayed behind with us and we all spent the day at Heathrow.   11 hours later we boarded our new flight for Nairobi.

We are now on Virgin Atlantic somewhere over the Mediterranean.  ETA  7:50am Nairobi time.

June 21, 2011

Just Arrived Nairobi

We arrived safe and sound and are in Nairobi at the Serena Hotel.  After a swim and some breakfast we are off to visit a women’s cooperative where they make beautiful beads.  Dinner tonight at the Carnivore where the kids are having a contest to see who can try the most new meats!  Crocodile and ostrich are on the menu along with about 15 other unusual species!

More soon!

Blog, June 21, 2011- Life Lessons

Blog, June 20, 2011 – Life Lessons

So here goes…my first blog and my official launch into the technology age.  I hope you will all indulge me a bit as I struggle to find my voice in such a public space.  I guess I don’t know exactly how much to censor.  I’ve read about people who make careers of blogging and don’t censor a thing!  I’m tempted.  I love the idea of actually baring it all and just seeing what that feels like.  Africa is a bit raw so perhaps it is an appropriate opportunity to allow my own thoughts to be less refined.

It’s been 20 years since I lived in Kenya for a year, and 14 years since I first took Ned there on a magical, but crazy safari.  On that trip, our guides packed a revolver in the glove compartment of our jeep which got stuck in the mud almost daily.   We had no reservations anywhere and just showed up at lodges here and there or made camp and slept in tents.  One night during Hanukkah we played dreidel with our guides who got so drunk that they fell asleep and left all our food out so we woke up to hyenas brushing against the walls of our tent and nothing to eat for breakfast.  Needless to say, it is a totally different experience contemplating taking our children there.

For years I’ve been telling the kids stories about my year in Africa; about being chased by a monkey and falling backwards into a thorn bush during my first safari because it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t walk from the dining tent to my sleeping tent with a bunch of bananas in my arms.  They learned about the tragic death of my African father, Robert Ouko, the kind and wonderful foreign minister of Kenya who was assassinated.  They heard about my diet of cashew nuts and bananas and how I took baths in a tin tub while water was poured over my body from a kettle.  They know I rafted in crocodile infested rivers and how I suffered through altitude sickness with no meds to climb the almost 20,000 feet of Kilimanjaro.  They have heard my stories about all the vaccinations I had to get before I traveled and how I ended up in Africa because I followed my old boyfriend who wanted to be a flying doctor.  He never went.

I never imagined that my adventure stories would induce fear in my children when I announced our intended trip to Africa.   Instead of focusing on the humor and learning engendered by the stories, they saw the danger and the number of vaccines that would be coming their way.   And although Ned and I knew that we wanted to take the kids to Africa at some point, we never really thought it would be while they were so young.  Zac is only seven and most safari companies are leery of taking a child so young.  Nevertheless, the trip developed a life of its own when it became clear that the Ouko Library was on its way to completion and would be dedicated with his entire family present.  Because I feel like part of the family, I wanted to help.

So we began our preparations for the trip and, to be honest, there were many nights that I didn’t sleep.  I wanted to reach down and find that part of myself that could take on the unknown and turn it into a life-changing adventure.  I have often experienced that State Department warnings and travel advisories appear more ominous when you are sitting in your living room in the United States than they reveal themselves to be when you are “in country.”  But this risk-assessment felt different.  We weren’t just planning a safari on the tourist circuit.  To help build the library and work with the children in the village we would have to drive 5 hours outside of Nairobi and there wouldn’t be a tourist in site.   We and the kids would be the only non-Africans for miles and we would be bringing electronics and supplies.  Would that make us a target?  Would the drive be safe?  Would the kids remember to stay close and not put their hands in their mouths? Would Zac get bitten by a snake while working construction and digging holes?  How would I get to Nairobi for anti-venom?  Would my cell phone work to call for help?  What was I thinking??  So, I lay awake at night and wondered, am I crazy to push through all the reasons not to go?  I need a sign….The danger, the expense, the time, the opportunity cost…and the vaccines:  3 Rabies shots, Meningitis, 2 shots of Hep A, Tetnus, Yellow Fever, Typhoid!  And although I found a travel medicine specialist who made house calls so that we wouldn’t have to take the kids out of school on three separate days to get vaccines we had three nights of screaming and anxiety, kids hiding in corners and me wanting to slit my wrists.  Finally and still ahead,  there is the malaria medicine challenge – once a day pills for the entire stay and a week afterwards, and you can’t screw it up because you are then at risk for the entire trip. Oh and by the way, Isabel can’t swallow a pill.  Does anyone hear the call of Cape Cod??

And with all these challenges I began to wonder what in fact I would even teach in the school where we were volunteering and even started questioning whether I had anything to teach at all.  That led me to an inkling of a mid-life crisis that read something like – I have so much but I have nothing to offer and no skills or talents of any kind that are really valuable other than making a good strawberry rhubarb pie – but they don’t have strawberries there!  The Gordon kids were way ahead of me organizing marathons, offering to forgo birthday presents to raise funds for the library and creating a project to collect pencils for the school children in the village.   I just couldn’t get beyond all my fears about pushing too hard to make this trip work in the face of so many concerns and I couldn’t figure out how to connect with the village.

But the signs began to emerge…they came slowly at first.  Every week one of the Oukos would call me or email and breathe oxygen into the journey.  In their gentle and inadvertent way they would remind me that life’s lessons are best learned when we wander outside our comfort zone, a place I don’t go very frequently anymore.  Susan, the oldest Ouko daughter would say that just by visiting the school we were offering a gift to the children there who have so little.  She kept reminding me that whatever we would do would be enough.  Life lesson #1: Be present, be there for people, show up.   The rest will follow and your offering will become apparent.  I sometimes feel paralyzed when I cannot envision my offering in advance.  I have to remember to trust in the process.  I realized that through this trip I would model this lesson for my children.

Then, in late April, Isabel and I began to plan her birthday party.  Without a moment’s hesitation she offered that, instead of presents, she would like her friends to help her raise money to buy soccer balls or Kindles for the kids in Koru.  We circulated her invitation by email and in a flash we had a donation of 28 soccer balls from the Klein family!  In addition, Isabel and her classmates raised $280.  We began to get notes from friends and emails of support and enthusiasm and it all served to build our courage.  People would pass me in the hallways at school and ask about the trip and share their wish that they could go.  It was a sign.

For weeks I procrastinated on the Kindle project. I was nervous about asking friends and family for donations and I couldn’t quite figure out the best way to facilitate the process.  I couldn’t get definitive answers on whether we would have cellular, electricity, security and whether the village people would know enough English to make the Kindles useful.   I had to master the technology of a bulk order which is almost unknown in Amazon world, and figure out how to get content on multiple Kindles.   I had what kind of content was appropriate and useful for the village.  I called Amazon so many times and just couldn’t seem to connect with anyone who could provide definitive answers.  Then there was the challenge of how to get the Kindles from the US to Koru.  Friends insisted that I carry them on board and not check them through.  I was also a little bit nervous about choosing a project that supplied the library with Kindles instead of continuing to contribute to the bricks and mortar.  I had a vision that the Kindles would enable the library and the local schools to catapult themselves into the modern era through access to relevant and current books and periodicals.  I loved the idea that new content could be loaded remotely and that the project could live into the future.  Finally, out of nowhere ,David Aronoff offered to help me facilitate the donation process and then magically the support started pouring in!  Two minutes after I sent the first email asking for donations I received the first gift.  It was from my brother in Alaska and I literally burst into tears.  Not only did he donate, but his partner whom I never met donated too.  Within minutes friends and family showed their support and within a week we raised $15,000, enough to provide Kindles to an entire class of children and their teacher and plenty left over for content!  The notes that people sent were so inspiring and supportive and the excitement around the trip began to build.  So did my courage.  Once the money was in hand I called Amazon again and after 4 hours on the phone and hanging up twice hoping to find a more supportive operator I connected with Kara.  She loved the idea of the project and immediately found three of her colleagues to help put 40 books on each of the 46 Kindles.  It took them almost two solid days!  Word came from the village and the Ouko family that the Kenyan Library Committee is so excited about our project that they are traveling to Koru to greet us when we arrive and to receive the Kindles.  They are beyond excited to implement the program and to learn how to transform libraries all over Kenya through e-books!  It was a sign.

Finally, I had a chance to sit down with Stepahnie Rotsky, the amazing and unique Social Justice Coordinator at the Rashi School.  Stephanie has an incredible ability to help you get your head screwed on straight and to inspire the best in people.  Through her connections with friends who had volunteered with Jews in Ethiopia she helped me envision the content for our lesson plans for the village school in Koru.  She spent hours with me coming up with ideas and helping me to position my thinking around the value of our mission.  Keep it simple,” she repeated.  Lists of activities and the supplies necessary to implement them emerged from our time together and the duffle bags began to fill up!  Life Lesson #2: I began to remember how simple it is to do good.  Another life lesson with which I had lost touch…

Thanks to Stephanie, Zac also created a project that allowed him to connect to the trip in a personal way.  Together, Stephanie and Zac wrote a letter to the Rashi School asking for donations of pencils at the end of the year.  Stephanie suggested to Zac that this could be his project alone and that he could distribute and collect the bins of pencils at Rashi and then take them to Africa to give to the kids in Koru.  Zac predicted he would collect 100 pencils but actually collected over 1000!  He was so proud of himself and declared for the first time that he was excited about the trip and eager to do his part.  For me, that moment alone was worth every sleepless night.

Non-sequitor- OMG I feel like a blogger now!!  (I have to laugh because I’m writing this on board our flight to Nairobi and Isabel is helping the flight attendants serve drinks and snacks which will make my parents laugh because I used to earn wings on every flight for helping the stewardesses and even had a red and blue dress that I used to wear so that I would look like a flight attendant!  Izzy just got tipped 10 Pounds by a passenger!)