WEST KENYA – Education is life in Cherangany. It’s not a frivolous option, a petty expense or an unwanted drudgery. It’s a matter of life and death, progression and regression, advancement and stagnation.
“Education is very important because there is no other activity in this place,” said Benjamin Kemboi, a teacher at Tuigoin Primary School. “(Village residents) depend on employment through education. Education is the key; it is the only key we depend on. There are no investments, no business around.”
Cherangany, a somewhat remote, rural area in western Kenya, is plagued by unemployment, poverty and illiteracy. Rising school fees make it impossible for some students to attend secondary school, which is the equivalent of high school in the United States. But the consequences of a lack of school funding starts long before the end of the 8th grade, or primary school.
“If you’re 6 (years-old) and haven’t gone to school, it’s a good indication your parents can’t pay,” said Tarah Korir, board secretary of the Kenyan Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by her and her husband, Wesley Korir, in 2010.
The Kenyan government pays for primary school, but parents are responsible to pay for uniforms, books and exams. Families also are required to pay for their children’s nursery school education, which is required for students to attend primary school.
“The highest need here is definitely school fees,” said Wesley Korir, sitting with his wife in their home in the Biribiriet village. It was a rare moment of solitude for the young couple – a breather from the long lines of people waiting outside their front door to ask the famous professional marathoner for financial assistance.
The Kenyan Kids Foundation works to combat the school-fee problem two ways in Cherangany: It sponsors two nursery schools in Mwaita and provides scholarships for students in high school.
This year the foundation is sponsoring about 100 students, said Julius Lamai, Wesley’s uncle who serves as chairman of the organization. It costs about $350 (U.S.) to send a student to high school for a year.
In the foundation’s first year of operation, it sponsored six students. Last year, the number had risen to 50 students, and the financial need continues to grow as more students submit applications for scholarships.
“If people know how to learn, they know how to do business,” said Lamai. “Everything will just be simple.”
About 30 students attend one of the foundation-sponsored nursery schools in Cherangany. The classes, located in the back of the organization’s office in Mwaita, are taught by two teachers who are employed by the foundation.
“(The nursery school space) was convenient, free and connected to the office, so we decided to use it,” said Tarah.
The other nursery school, held in the Bible Community Church’s sanctuary in Mwaita, is the four-year-old Community Child Center. It also has two teachers and nearly 50 students.
“The purpose is to eradicate poverty through education and to empower the social life of kids in the area,” said Luke Kiptoo, the church’s pastor.
“We faced a lot of challenges. We didn’t have money for teachers or food. We had to struggle and pray that maybe God could open the door,” he said. “We were at a place of losing hope. Through God’s will he actually opened a door through Tarah and Wesley.”
Even with the foundation’s support, the church nursery school still struggles. “We need some of the instructional materials,” said Kiptoo. “We are lacking a blackboard.”
But the nursery school is just the beginning of Kiptoo’s dreams. Eventually he wants to build a polytechnic center where job skills will be taught to men and women.
“Once we put up this (polytechnic) center, the expectation is that when they enter the center, their life will be changed,” said the church pastor. “If we can create jobs for them, they can make money.”
Kiptoo shared his vision with the Korirs, and admits it is a big dream. “We don’t know how to do it, but we are praying for God to open the door,” he said. “We really need a lot of support. Maybe God could open the door for the Good Samaritan.”
Surveying a cultivated field next to his brick church, Kiptoo said: “We are willing to sacrifice this to build structures.”
Lack of education leads to pervasive unemployment
Tarah said that she’s concerned that Kenya’s high school curriculum is too academic focused and doesn’t provide the applied science skills that could bring employment to rural regions such as Cherangany.
Lack of education runs rampant in the remote villages, contributing to the high rate of unemployment. In an opinion poll conducted by Nairobi-based Strategic Africa, 29.2 percent of respondents rated unemployment as among the chief concerns they would like the country’s new president to address, according to an article published in the Daily Nation in late February. The poll ranked education second at 14 percent.
“Only 40 percent of Form Four leavers proceed to the university, with the rest joining the estimated 1.2 million unemployed within the 20-24 years age group looking for work,” according to the newspaper article. (Form Four is the last year of high school in Kenya.)
In Cherangany, villagers deal with other day-to-day challenges beside education and unemployment. For example, Mwaita lacks electricity and clean drinking water. It also struggles with HIV/AIDS, cholera and typhoid, said Kiptoo, who outlined the village’s most pressing issues with church elders gathered in his living room.
Another heartbreaking development is the rising number of cases of village children committing suicide, said Kiptoo. The uneducated youths want to attend school, but their illiterate parents are often resistant because of the lack of financial resources.
A student committed suicide in mid-February, said Kiptoo, who recalled that the student said: “It is better for people to bury me than to live with this kind of stress.”
The pastor, his church elders, Tarah and other foundation officials stressed that parents need to be educated on the importance of sending their children to school.
Then the group’s conversation shifted to cultural preference for boarding schools over day schools. One of the reasons for the preference: Boarding schools offer the opportunity for dedicated study. Lack of electricity and farm work limits students’ ability to focus on schoolwork.
But the cost for one student to attend boarding school could pay for about six students to attend day school, depending on the varying fees.
“We can work with companies who make solar lights,” suggested Timothy Kibungei, 21, who recently completed Form Four and works with the Korirs at the foundation. “We can convince principals to let students study at schools in day school.”
Kiptoo was concerned, though, with students traveling home at night. Then Tarah suggested that perhaps a bus could stay late and take the students home.
“It takes someone with a vision for that,” said Kiptoo with a smile at the young woman’s suggestion. “Not everyone has our vision.”
Two runners: A dreamer and a realist
Vision and dreams are what it takes to propel change in Cherangany.
“I have big dreams. She has ideas,” said Wesley, seated next to Tarah in their Biribiriet bedroom. “I look at the big picture. She looks at the small steps. I start with the big dream to the small step and she looks at the small step to get to the big dream.”
Helping others is what drives the young couple as they evangelize about the Kenyan Kids Foundation, which is mainly funded by Wesley’s international running career.
“I started (the foundation) to help my people,” said Wesley, seated in his mother’s sitting room after an early-morning run. “I wanted to give back to my society.”
In the midst of the hectic schedule he keeps in Kenya, the professional athlete is training for the Boston marathon next month, a prestigious international event that he won last year.
Using his hands on a coffee table, Wesley illustrated the concept of a river and someone wanting to cross it without a bridge. “When Father Welsh helped me through high school, he provided the bridge,” he said. “I wanted to do the same for people.”
After finishing high school, Wesley made invaluable connections with U.S. track coaches through Paul Ereng, a fellow athletic star from Cherangany. Ereng, a Kitale native, won the 1988 Olympic gold medal in the 800 meter.
Wesley earned a track scholarship to Murray State University in Kentucky, but the school’s track program was eliminated in his first semester. He received another track scholarship to the University of Louisville and produced several record-setting runs. He graduated from Louisville with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
In 2008, Wesley broke into the professional marathon circuit in the Chicago marathon race. With no previous marathon experience, he entered the open race five minutes behind the professional runners, but posted the fourth fastest overall time. He won the Los Angeles Marathon in 2009 and 2010. Two years ago, he placed second in the Chicago Marathon and won the Boston title in 2012. He ran his personal best late last year in Chicago when he placed fifth.
In Biribiriet, it’s common to hear Wesley’s running tales. In the evenings, village talk nearly always turns to his international career and for now the upcoming race in Boston. The small foundation needs funding, so Wesley needs to win big.
“That’s what has always motivated me in my running,” he said. “As much as I try to raise money through friends and donors, it’s hard to get as much as possible. I have to win; I have to run fast. If you don’t win, the kids you’ve sponsored will not go to school.”
Wesley’s legacy lives in the hearts of young Kenyans.
“I want to follow the way Wesley has done,” said Kibungei, helping Tarah sort through scholarship applications. “I want to help people. Even now I don’t want anybody to pay me. It is God who gives me a good mind, the knowledge to study and learn.”
While waiting for his Form Four exam results, Kibungei tutors students at the foundation’s office and devotes his time to volunteering. His test scores will determine where he can attend a university. He wants to study aircraft engineering, but his educational journey exemplifies how getting one student through high school takes a village.
For Forms One and Two, Kibungei stayed with an uncle who lived near his school close to Eldoret. His uncle paid for Form One (21,000 Kenyan shillings, $243 U.S.). But the older man didn’t expect Kibungei to succeed, so he didn’t pay for his nephew’s Form Two expenses. The school fees (about 27,000 Kenyan shillings, $315 U.S.) were waived by the principal, because said Kibungei: “I was bright.”
Kibungei lived in Wesley’s home in Chepkanga, about an hour from Biribiriet, to finish high school. For Form Three, another uncle paid 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($116 U.S.), and a teacher friend paid the remaining 2,000 shillings ($23 U.S.). Wesley paid Kibungei’s Form Four school fees of 63,000 Kenyan shillings ($732 U.S.).
“You help one person to help another,” said Kibungei. “Wesley helped me; I want to also help other people.”
In describing his high-school life, Kibungei recounted that he got up at 4 a.m. to study until 5:30. Arriving at school by bus, he studied between 6:15 and 8 a.m. Then he attended classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and afterward spent an hour participating in sports. He studied at school for another hour before going home.
Kibungei’s story mirrors many others in Cherangany, where it’s not unusual for children to leave their parent’s home in their pursuit of an education. During school breaks, Kibungei did manual farm labor to earn money to buy his schoolbooks. Once he finished Form Four, Kibungei donated the textbooks to the foundation for other students to use.
“If you want to fight anything, you fight it with education,” said Kibungei. “Education is a weapon to fight poverty. That is what I believe in.”
Joseph, 22, also volunteers at the foundation’s office and is trying to obtain a scholarship for the polytechnic school in Nairobi to become a doctor.
“The reason is where I come from there is nobody who has studied for medicine there; nobody is a doctor there,” said Joseph. “My parents are not capable for paying university fees, so if I get scholarships, I can go.”
When Joseph completed Form Four, he began tutoring students at the foundation office. “I saw it was better for me to assist (them) because of the challenges I encountered,” he said. “When they go to learn, it will be easier for them.”
Since most people in Cherangany depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, Kibungei outlined the difficulty families have with paying school fees.
Most people have less an acre of land and maybe 10 kids to support. Three of those children are in a high school and another one attends a provincial school, which will cost about 50,000 to 70,000 Kenyan shillings ($581-$813 U.S.) each year. The family’s small plot of land cannot produce enough crops to pay such a school bill.
“So you see now, parents decide that kids stay at home because they don’t have funds to pay for (their education),” said Kibungei. “We need to get more donors to the foundation because we have so many kids who are bright, but they lack their (school) fees.”
Everyone has a story
On a day devoted to interviewing the finalists selected for school scholarships for Form One, Tarah, Kibungei and Lamai talk to families to help determine student eligibility. Recipients must score a minimum of 300 out of a possible 500 marks on their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, which is a series of exams taken at the end of primary school. The marks determine the secondary school they will attend.
In addition, the foundation hears from relatives, teachers, the students themselves and village members as to the student’s need. The selection process is a matter of grave importance. At one point, five men crowded around Wesley in his mother’s sitting room to discuss one student.
But the students’ needs outweigh the available resources.
“All the scholarships are all gone,” Wesley told one woman in his mother’s home.
One of the solutions to meet the growing need for school tuition assistance is to acquire more funding for the foundation.
“It does overwhelm me sometimes, but it gives me motivation to keep doing what I’m doing, “ said Wesley. “It shows me this is what I want to do.”
Bringing hope to the Cherangany
For Isaac Ngetich, the head teacher at Tuigoin Primary School, his school and students struggle with additional challenges. “The electric line is not hot,” he said. “We need water.”
“When Wesley came, we realized we had been left behind,” he said.
On a mid-February afternoon Tarah visited Ngetich’s school. More than 480 students gathered around her in a horseshoe shape. For many of them, she was their first encounter with an mzungu (white person).
Tarah encouraged the students to study and perhaps one of them would be considered for a scholarship for secondary school next year. She recounted how her husband was once one of them, and he was able to attend an American university on a track scholarship.
Standing atop a remote hill at a student’s home, teacher Benjamin Kemboi swept his hands to include the number of village members who arrived to greet Tarah.
“These are among the needy children,” he said. “The Kenyan Kids Foundation needs to extend to those people. We depend on it like a pillar of life.”
On another afternoon, Helen, 17, visited Wesley’s home to ask for assistance for secondary school. She is concerned about who will care for her disabled mother. The teenager wants to attend college and become a doctor. Her English is fluent, and she’s inquisitive about America.
“Where is Harvard? What kind of animals are in America? Have you ever acted in a movie? Would you appreciate me coming to your country? Is it true that in America, women can’t bear many children? Only two?”
It’s explained that women can bear more than two children, but they typically choose not to. After thinking a moment, Helen replied thoughtfully: “It’s not so many you can’t feed them.”
As the needs of Cherangany become more visible, Wesley gain confidence “that God is going to open the doors.”
“Some people like to go cautiously; I go out all way,” he said, taking a moment to reflect on what the small foundation has achieved in four years, which includes finishing a hospital and increasing the number of scholarship recipients. “It’s an accomplishment in and of itself. When you think about the future, it’s amazing.”
Speaking about, much less planning, for the future isn’t common in Kenya.
“In America, you can easily plan the future, but in this country you cannot even plan lunch or dinner,” said Wesley. “People in Kenya don’t have hope for the future. They live in the now. Give me 50 shillings now. America taught me to have hope and dream for the future.”
And the future of Kenya lies with its young people and their education.
“Young people are the leaders of tomorrow,” said Kibungei. “If people can continue supporting this organization, we’ll have better leaders who can fight corruption, tribalism, and we’ll have good leadership.”
To support the Kenyan Kids Foundation, visit their website.
By Holly Wise
Read about how the Kenyan Kids Foundation supports Cherangany agriculture
To learn more about the Kenyan Kids Foundation, click here.