Students help deprived Kenyan school

By Gus Bode

Tucked away in the slopes of Mt. Kenya is a school vastly different from the ones many American students have come to know.

When children go to Kimbo Primary School, they walk on dirt floors, sit in areas more fit to be storage rooms than classrooms and have almost no books.

But thanks to Peter Gitau, dean of students at SIUC, and a group of university students, the 400 children at Kimbo Primary School now have a library for a quiet, comfortable place to study.


Gitau took a group of 15 students with him to Kenya for a service trip to build a library and teach classes in the village of Naromoru. The trip, which lasted from May 18 to June 3, was Gitau’s first with a group form SIUC. Gitau has headed 10 of these trips.

Gitau said each trip is a unique experience, and the students this year impressed him with their ability to quickly adjust.

‘There are always two types of people on these trips: A group that is very troubled at what they see and then there are people like ‘Wow, there is a whole new world out there,” Gitau said. ‘But they all adjusted and coped so well, it kind of shocked me.’

One of the students initially shocked by the environment was former Undergraduate Student Government president Chiquita Watts.

Watts, a senior from Calumet City studying marketing, said she struggled at first but left humbled and with a strong bond to the people she met.

‘The things you see on TV about children who are starving; that’s not fake, that’s not a game. It’s real life; it’s true,’ Watts said. ‘To see people living in houses made of mud and sticks was sad to see – I shed a few tears – but it was touching to see so many people come together.’

Watts said she was able to develop close relationships with the children since she taught eighth grade math classes at the school. But the children taught her too, as she was able to learn a little Swahili, she said.


Another student who spent some time teaching in Kimbo’s classrooms was Melencia Johnson.

Johnson, a graduate student in sociology from Lynchburg, Va., said it was a much different experience teaching those children compared to the college classes she led in the past.

‘It’s pretty different teaching students who run to school everyday ready to dive into their class work compared to students who are just in school because their parents make them come,’ Johnson said. ‘The students knew the work before they got there. We thought they had already learned it, but they were just that prepared.’

Johnson said she was just as eager to learn about Kenyan culture as the children were to learn in the classroom. Whether it was eating Kenyan food, walking everywhere, sleeping in huts or bathing in buckets, she said it was an eye-opening experience.

‘ Gitau said it was that cultural exchange that is the main goal of the trip every year. The hard work the students and natives did to mix cement, lay bricks and build the library is a perfect symbol of how two cultures can come together and succeed, he said.

When the students first landed in Kenya, they spent the first four days in Nairobi and stayed in a hotel. By the end of the trip, Gitau said the only complaint from the students was they wish they could have stayed in the village the whole time, despite the lack of luxuries.

‘By the end, there is a bonding with the people and the place and they are so close they feel like one. That’s the transformation I like to see,’ Gitau said. ‘Students were at the airport wanting to stay longer and asking how they can send gifts.’

While everything involved in the trip cost close to $4,000, Gitau said he hopes students who have an interest will pursue these opportunities. He said students can often get financial aid that will help pay for a good portion of these trips.