Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Happened in Africa Pt. 3

Cyrus at Lake Nakuru

Cyrus, age sixteen, doesn’t know where he was born, but suspects it was somewhere near Nakuru, Kenya. He doesn’t remember any of life before age four, and he doesn’t remember his parents. He does remember the orphanage where he lived until approximately age eight. The children there were fed one meal a day, a bowl of a porridge-like substance, and this meal never varied. If the children wished to eat, they were expected to labor in a farm. The farm work, as described to me, is something that Westerners would only expect adults to do.

One of the Kenyan Schools KEYS investigated prior to selecting British Greensted's.

Kenya provides free primary education to all students; this is a recent development. While the average Kenyan is proud their nation offers this education, there are restrictions and developments that prevent it from being equitable. First, the primary education only includes the grade-level equivalent of elementary school. Anyone, of any age, can attend a free primary school, and there are no class size restrictions. This means that very young children are sometimes in class with adults and that there may be as many as sixty students in a class. Sometimes, all sixty of these students share one text. Understandably, in this system the quality of the education received is in question.

Cyrus outside the Chemistry Lab building at Greensted's.

Second, as students graduate from primary school they must take a national standardized test. Students must obtain a certain score or above to move on to attend secondary school. Very few students earn the score needed to move on in their education. Those students who do earn higher marks must somehow find a way to pay for their secondary education, which is on average about two-hundred USD. Most Kenyans cannot afford this, and as such, it is typical to find only one child in a family of many to be enrolled in school.

Cyrus's first plane ride. He asked me to take this so he could put it on Facebook!

Cyrus values education. After ageing out of his orphanage he ran away to the nearby city of Nakuru where he became a street boy. The street culture in Nakuru is alive and well and street boys make up their own gangs to serve the place of families. They protect each other, and provide a support system –of sorts- for one another. They perform daily odd jobs to earn money, steal, and sleep in doorways. Cyrus used the money he obtained as a street boy to go to school.

Cyrus outside a doorway in Lodwar, Kenya. He wanted me to take this picture so I could show "our Mum" how the converse she sent fit him well. :) Isn't he cute! He bought that shirt himself.

A typical day for Cyrus in Nakuru would begin at four a.m. when he would rise to do his homework, he would then attend school, and spend his evenings going about procuring food for the next day. He is a friendly soul and developed positive relationships with several American charity societies working within Nakuru, but none were aimed at education. Cyrus learned through one of these charitable contacts that members from KEYS would be visiting to find students for educational sponsorships. He prepared himself for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The art building at Greensted's. It overlooks the Rift Valley! Can you imaging teaching landscape painting while looking at the Rift Valley?!

Greeting Keys members on the street in his school uniform, Cyrus appeared neat, clean, and professional. He handed over a folder containing his current and past grades (A’s and B’s), letters of recommendation from previous teachers, and copies of his national standardized test scores (well above the required score for secondary schools). He didn’t wait to share his story, and his dreams.

Ann, Cyrus, my Dad, and me outside the main gate of Greensted's.

Cyrus, a street boy from Nakuru, Kenya with no memory of his parents wants to be a neurosurgeon. He somehow learned about Dr. Ben Carson, the renowned American pediatric neurosurgeon, and aspires to be like him. And, to do that, he explained to KEYS members, he needed to go to a better school.

Ann and Cyrus outside the Admissions building at Greensteds. It was about 85 degrees in the shade that day so they were cold. For real. Hence their sweatshirts. I, went sleeveless.

After meeting Cyrus, it was obvious he was the type of student KEYS was seeking: students whose abilities and dreams are bigger than their circumstances. Cyrus was offered one of the coveted sponsorships to Greensted’s International School. However, the offer of sponsorship was not a guarantee. Cyrus would still have to interview at Greensted’s, and have his grades submitted for review. He was thrilled, but as a child of the streets, he knew better than to celebrate until being vetted.


Ann, age fifteen, remembers her mother quite well. She is a prostitute and gave Ann away as a toddler to her grandmother and aunt. Ann has no close relationship with any of her living relatives, and explains her grandmother and aunt did little more for her than provide shelter and food. After Ann finished primary school, her grandmother and aunt sent her back to her mother and told Ann that it was time her mother was financially responsible for her.

Ann and me right before we headed out to get her hair done. The cost of a full braided weave in Kenya? Around 15 USD!! She felt bad because it was so "expensive!"

Ann, who tested high enough on the national standardized test to attend secondary school, asked her mother for funds to attend secondary school. Ann’s mother told her that if she wanted to attend school, she would have to earn the money herself, and encouraged Ann to become a prostitute. Ann refused.

Ann and Cyrus in the library at Greensted's. Ann was excited because she had never been in a library this big.

Instead, Ann ran away and began living with some girls close to her own age in a small apartment in Nakuru. Some of these girls would engage occasionally in prostitute behavior, but Ann stresses she herself managed to stay away from this lifestyle. By chance, Ann met a few members of one of the same American charitable organizations as Cyrus. They were concerned about Ann’s safety as she was unfamiliar with street life, and offered her a bunk in their orphanage for toddler-aged children.

Ann and Cyrus decided what to eat at a restaurant in Nakuru, Kenya. I though they just liked the same foods as me, but later Ann told me: "We didn't understand what the dishes were, so we always just ordered what your ordered." LOL.

The founders of the orphanage encouraged KEYS members to visit and meet Ann. They felt sure she was the type of student KEYS was seeking. One other KEYS member and I sat down with Ann one night to see if indeed she might fit the student profile. As Ann is an initially shy person, I was surprised to hear her soft voice avoid any hesitation as she told her story; it was obvious that even though life had afforded her few chances, she recognized the opportunity. She concluded her speech by stating her dream was to become a lawyer and protect children from the type of childhood she had endured.

Students at House of Hope orphanage hold up the Greensted's pamphlet. Rebecca is in the purple flip-flops.

Ann too, was ready with a folder containing her grades and test scores. Her grades were even higher than Cyrus’s. I remember closing her folder and shaking my head at my fellow KEYS member. He said: “She might just be the brightest kid we’ve encountered yet.”

It was nerve wracking to sit on a sofa in the admission office at Greensted’s International School with Ann, Cyrus, Rebecca, and Monti. Their nervousness was palatable. All four had to interview and speak of their hopes and dreams for the future. Honestly, I couldn’t have been prouder of them than if they were my own biological children. They impressed the Greensted’s staff, who recognized that while each student might have individual hurdles to cross, each possessed the drive to succeed. It seemed Greensted’s was as excited as KEYS members to help these four children achieve their dreams.

A photo Monti took of my Mom, Cyrus and Ann in the van.

Three weeks after initial enrollment, I returned to Kenya with KEYS members to check on the children, attend a parents’ weekend, and provide some necessary support. While enduring the thirty hour trip to Kenya I didn’t know what to expect. Greensted’s has excellent communication with parents and guardians, but I know as an educator myself, that there are many sides to every story and I was concerned there may be issues of which we were not aware.

As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded.

The third day of school there was a test in Cyrus’s chemistry class. Recognizing Cyrus as a new student his teacher told him he did not have to take the test. Cyrus insisted upon taking the test, reasoning he might as well begin to identify the areas in which was deficient. It turns out that Cyrus was in no way deficient. He scored the highest grade in the class.

“You just have to try,” Ann reasons for an explanation for her success at Greensteds. “You know, so much of this is new to me. I might be good at it, I might not. So, I try.” Ann won an award for punctuality to class. Her teachers are all avid fans of her success, and during my visit to campus several came up to me to tell me how much they enjoy teaching her. Again, as a teacher, it was unusual to be on the other end of a parents’ visit to school. But, I suddenly understand why parents puff up with pride so readily when they are told their child is successful. It is love.

Monti, I found out, is already a popular student in his class. He is performing excellently in his classes, and his Spanish teacher is particularly proud of Monti’s progress in class. As Spanish is Monti’s fourth language, I too, couldn’t be prouder. Monti dreams of owning a bike and is working hard on speaking more in class as an incentive to bike ownership.

Rebecca knocks the ball out of bounds at the end of the clip.

Rebecca is simply flourishing at Greensted’s. Hoards of thirteen year old girls ran up to me and other KEYS members to tell us how much they adore Rebecca. She is obviously very popular with the students and teachers alike. She won an award, given to her by the headmaster, which recognizes her quick ability to adapt and settle down to work. As she handed the award to KEYS members and me she simply glowed as we celebrated with her. In addition to all of this, she is a superb athlete. If you adhere to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Rebecca’s brilliance is definitely kinetic. To watch her play field hockey was incredible. It is like watching someone do what they were born to do.

Rebecca post-match

Honestly, seeing the children succeed at Greensted’s is like watching someone do what they were born to do for all four of them. Think of yourself, and think of who you might be but for a difference of parents, location, and background. Are we better because of opportunities, or because of what we do with the opportunities we are given?

My Master's graduation. About 2 weeks before I left for Kenya.

I know for me my life was changed. A competitive person by nature, I was bent on becoming the best at whatever I tried. It seemed my life pursuit was to be “successful,” and I often whined about the unfairness of it all when success eluded me. Knowing, and yes, loving Ann, Cyrus, Rebecca and Monti has forever changed me.

Me, Rebecca, and Rebecca's dorm matron.

I don’t know that I would have naturally had the kind of backbone, drive, and moral fiber that each has displayed without love, aid, or support. I am kind because I was shown kindness. I am educated, because I was taught to value learning. I am driven because I was taught this is vital to survival. Ann, Cyrus, Rebecca, and Monti either were born with these traits or learned them alone. This makes them already so far ahead of you and me, and most anyone I know in the United States.

Me with the daughter of my heart, Consolata. She lives at House of Hope. Her story is another post. I hope to get her into the KEYS program during the next year or so.

The type of effect they will have on others as they mature and grow into their dreams in intangible. And, I can’t help but think that it is all because of a chain of opportunities. Serv won a grant to feed people in Kenya, they had the opportunity to build a much-need orphanage, KEYS members had the sponsorships available for scholarships, and Greensted’s had the space available for students.

Me in front of a Jen's new house outside Kisumu, Kenya. Everyone in this picture except me will live in the new house.

I earned my Masters at Kennesaw State University in Art Education this past December. I felt I had earned this degree alone and intended to use it to further my own career. But now, I realize I earned my degree because of the many opportunities afford me through my parents, friends, professors, and colleagues. I recognize my advanced degree might indeed help me along in my career, but now my interest in personal advancement has shifted. Instead of viewing my degree as something I did alone, I now view it as an opportunity given and am curious to explore how I might use what I learned in my program to provide more and lasting opportunities for others.

Drawing in Kisumu

And, I have four no-longer-orphaned kids to thank for that.


  1. What an amazing story, Amy. Thanks so much for sharing all the details. It's obvious that your heart will be taking you back to Kenya. So where do you go from here?

  2. Awesome story. We need more people with big hearts like you.