Breaking ground: travelers help build classroomby kenya on Jun. 12, 2011, under Life
June 11, 2011
Dispatch from Kenya
By Louie Sanders, St. Gregory Class of ’12
Today we left Batian’s View bright and early to make our way over to Gitinga Primary School. This is the school where we are building a new classroom with funds we raised throughout the school year. When we arrived, several men had just begun digging the trench for the foundation. Nearby the women were peeling potatoes, cutting carrots and slicing cabbage for the lunch that we would later share.
We divided ourselves into three groups doing different jobs. Collin and I took shifts shoveling dirt from the trench that local men broke up with metal pick axes. After we tossed the dirt out of the trench it was shoveled up again and put in a wheelbarrow and moved to another part of the school grounds. I was beyond impressed with the strength of the men and their ability to work for such long periods.
After an hour, flocks of students of all ages arrived and began helping with the same jobs we were doing. We only had two wheelbarrows and the dirt from the trench was piling up quickly. The young students attacked the mounds of dirt, carrying away huge clumps of the hard soil. I learned that the top layer of soil is called black cotton soil, and while very fertile, when it gets wet it becomes very muddy. When it dries, it is as hard as rock, which is why we had to first loosen the soil with pick axes before moving it out of the trench.
As we dug, the children carried dirt back and forth, stopping to giggle as they stared at us working. Mzungu! Mzungu! All the children yelled this and pointed. Mzungu means European or, in simpler terms, white person. Luckily it wasn’t too hot, but I was still tired after just a couple of scoops of shoveling.
After working up a good sweat, Collin and I decided to take a break from digging and see what else we could do. Not far from the trench, we found men on their knees twisting wire around rebar to create a foundation that would be placed in the trench. It took a couple of explanations of how to twist the wire properly, but soon we connected enough rebar to complete a 25-foot-long section, this being the length of the classroom.
As I stood up from squatting over the rebar, I saw Athena and Alex sawing the rebar. I walked over and switched jobs with the both of them, and began sawing longer poles of rebar into lengths of a foot and half or so. It was these short sections that Collin and I had been attaching to two long pieces. When it was done it looked like a very wobbly ladder, which didn’t matter because it wasn’t a ladder but would be part of the foundation. For this next project, Collin held down the rebar as I sawed away, making more and more pieces to be used for the next ‘wobbly ladder.’
At about 11:30 it was chai time for everyone. Chai break is a critical component to any day, and after nearly three hours of work, we all needed our chai. I carefully carried my chai to the opposite side of the school grounds to sit in the shade of several eucalyptus trees. For a while it was just us Wazungu, (plural form of Mzungu) but it did not take long before the school kids joined us. Before I knew it, more than a dozen kids were sitting very close, touching my skin and petting my hair. They asked me my name and if I liked soccer. As I told them my soccer history, they became more excited and invited me to play soccer with them the following day. We then talked soccer, discussing our favorite professional teams and our favorite players. I was very impressed that they knew the name of every player for Manchester United. Clearly they follow the sport, even though they live in such a rural area where it is hard to get current news.
We finished our chai and slowly left our shady place for our next activity, painting the blackboards. I was sweaty, tired, and surrounded by tons of kids… but pushed on! Doing hard, physical labor seems to be a way of life here, and I was definitely getting a taste of it.
I was given a paintbrush and followed Alex and Lauren into a classroom. We dipped our brushes into cans of paint and gave the old chalkboards a shiny coat. It is incredible to me that this is basically the only teaching resource the school has. And it literally is a black board, a piece of smooth plywood painted black. I wonder what a Kenyan teacher would do if he or she had a smart board, or even a white board with a variety of markers. The painting was fun and we were efficient at it. By the time we had finished four classrooms, the ominous rain clouds that had been building in the morning finally broke loose. It hasn’t rained in this area for a very long time, so the rain was very exciting for everybody. Plus it cooled us all off!
Luckily all of the digging was complete before the clouds opened up. The iron bars that would serve as the base of the foundation were also put in the trench. A bit earlier the foreman organizing the work had us bring over 30 wheelbarrows of sand. On top of that we put 15 wheelbarrows of gravel, and on top of that 10 bags of cement. This was all done in preparation for adding water and then using shovels to mix the sand, gravel, and cement so that it could be poured into the trench. While very taxing work, there were a dozen or so experienced ‘cement mixers’ who would complete this part of the project, allowing the rest of us to go home.
Before departing, we had a tasty traditional Kikuyu meal in two of the classrooms, protecting us from the rain. There must have been 75 people in the classroom we were in. There were six cooking pots roughly three feet across and 16 feet deep, which held the food. How anyone could have stirred the mixture of potatoes, corn, and beans for the mukimu was beyond me. We also had a slightly sweetened mixture of cabbage and carrots. These two dishes, side by side, were delicious!
As I sit and think back on the day, I am glad I worked up a sweat while helping with such a needed project. Gitinga has two stone classrooms which serve as the nursery school and kindergarten. The youngest students get the best classrooms, as they are the most vulnerable to getting sick when it gets cold and rainy. The classroom we were building would be the first stone classroom for the primary grades. I enjoyed all of the people I met today and am learning more about how the people in this area live. And I would never tire of seeing the similes on the children’s faces.
We finished up the day relaxing back at Batian’s View and watching a movie called Nowhere in Africa, which was filmed near to where we are going tomorrow, Sweetwaters Game Reserve. This will be our first chance to see Africa’s famous wildlife, and we are all looking forward to it.