Back-Breaking Labor of Love in Kenyaby kenya on Jun. 21, 2012, under Life
June 15, 2012
By Fred Roberts, St. Gregory Dean of Students
Today the St. Gregory crew and the Gitinga Primary parent, teacher and student community converged on the school to break ground and begin the construction of a new classroom. The $7,000 required to build the new classroom was raised by the members of the St. Gregory Kenya Club and through generous donations from people associated with past Kenya trips. Now the very students who helped sell pizza and organize bake sales are also helping with the actual construction. Yes, there is indeed a direct connection between Pizza Hut and tons of stones, sand, cement and physical labor in rural Kenya.
This is the second year in a row that we have targeted Gitinga for our annual community service project. Normally we move from school to school based on a school’s particular need. The needs at Gitinga, however, far exceed those of the other schools we work with. It was an easy decision for us to return to Gitinga this year.
Gitinga Primary is in an isolated area of Naro Moru. It is off the beaten path and most of the parents are subsistence farmers. They live off of what they grow on their small farms, and the surplus is sold to purchase items such as flour, sugar and general household needs. Anything extra goes towards school fees. While the government provides some funding for school building projects, it is never enough. The parent community is expected to chip in to make up the deficit, but at Gitinga this is difficult.
Work began promptly at 8 a.m., the first task being to dig the foundation trench in which iron bars would be laid and cement poured. Our job was made a bit easier because we were adding on to last year’s classroom, so we only had three sides to excavate. Still, we needed all the help we could get. The ground was hard as cement, needing several blows with a jembe, a heavy forked hoe, to break the crust. The trench to be dug measured 75 feet in length, 2 feet wide and with a depth of 4 feet. Unlike in America where one person and a machine could take away the earth in a matter of hours, we were armed with only the heavy jembes and flimsy shovels, but a work force of 200 people!
At any one time there were seven or eight people working in the trench, loosening the dirt with the jembes. After five minutes another person would jump in with a shovel and toss the dirt out. Once the dirt was out of the trench it was shoveled along a line until it was deposited on a burlap sack held by two students who would then carry it 60 meters away to be emptied. This routine went on for five hours. Only 50 or so adults were actually digging, given the physicality of the job. If not in the trench digging, the others were resting after their own stretch of work and waiting to take over for the next person needing a break. I had a full head of steam early in the morning and was whacking away at the soil with the jembe and digging, but by 11 a.m., my efforts waned quickly. I then moved to putting the soil on the burlap sacks, but even this became a real chore, and my back was screaming at me!
There were many other projects going on as well. Many of the St. Gregory students helped peel what must have been 100 pounds of potatoes! In the time an American could peel a potato, a Kenyan woman had done five or more. There were many laughs from the Kenyans as the Americans tried to keep pace, and I was happy that no one lost a fingertip in the process.
Another job was the cutting of iron rods for the foundation frame. When delivered, the rods were 30 feet long, waiting to be cut with a hack saw into 26-inch sections. This turned out to be Jaxon’s forte! Next, the last three inches of either end were bent using a vise and hammer. These were attached to two lengths of rod. All of this work was done by hand, and in the case of the Kenyans, very rough and weathered hands indeed.
After many of the St. Gregory crew had had their fill of potato peeling and digging, we tackled the school’s blackboards. These are not slate or specially made blackboards, but simply large wooden boards that were painted black. Many had faded to the point where it was difficult to see what was being written, or had chips of wood missing. With blackboard paint that looked like tar with the consistency of honey, we got to work. The students divided themselves amongst the classrooms and first washed the boards, followed by painting. It was messy work and a few the students looked like they were wearing black gloves when finished. The effort was well worth it as the result was a new, shiny blackboard in each classroom.
There was also plenty of time for the Americans to talk with the Gitinga parents and learn more about their lifestyle. The parents expressed much appreciation for the work that was made possible by the St. Gregory community, and I think the Americans felt a similar amount of appreciation for taking part in this much needed project. While the school only has three stone classrooms – soon to be four – six more are needed. To some it may seem like an insurmountable goal, but as they say in Kenya, “Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba,” which means, “Bit by bit, you fill the pot.” And in the case of education here, one must always keep trying and never give up.
At 2 p.m. the trench was done and it was time for lunch. The women hauled out six cooking pots measuring 3 feet in diameter and 18 inches deep, filled to the brim with mukimo, a traditional Kikuyu dish. Mukimo is a mixture of potatoes, corn, beans and pumpkin leaves. We also had a sweetened mixture of cabbage and carrots. These two dishes, side by side, were delicious! The Americans helped themselves to portions that filled a quarter of a plate. The Kenyans, on the other hand, filled their plates and made short work of consuming what looked like an incredible amount of food. Fortunately there was plenty to go around, and a few of us even had seconds.
On the first St. Gregory trip to Kenya, the challenging learning environments found in each school amazed the Americans. Back then, most of the classrooms were made of rough timber with dirt floors. Regardless, the young Kenyans paid no attention to the school’s structures, as they were excited to even be in school and learning. In 2006 the St. Gregory Kenya Club was founded by a group of students interested in going to Kenya, and thus began the tradition of raising funds through pizza lunch sales to be used on a project that would have a long-lasting impact on the schools where the St. Gregory students volunteered.
After lunch we returned to Batian’s View and had a short rest, but our day wasn’t over yet. Next on our project list was to paint the kindergarten classroom at Manyatta Primary, just a half a mile up the road. We got there at 4 p.m. and went to work. The plan was for the top half of the walls to be pained a cream color and the lower section black, to hide the dirt that would eventually make its way onto the walls. Two hours later we finished the top section leaving the bottom section to do later. On top of that, the students have already made stencils of the alphabet and numbers. These will be used to decorate the upper cream section using bright colors, very similar to what you would find on the walls of kindergartens in the U.S.
It was a long and tiring day, and the St. Gregory crew made a great showing with their energy and enthusiasm. I am certain that as they went about their work they also thought about how lucky we are to have so many resources to aid us as teachers and students back home. After today I have a feeling that this group of students will never look at their schools in America in the same light as before this trip began.