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A Mumbled Jambo to a Confident Kwaheri PDF Print E-mail
Written by Daisy Zeijlon, Georgetown Day School   

This past June, Water For All had the pleasure of hosting a group of students and teachers from the Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC on a week-long service-learning trip to Kenya. The highlight of the trip was a three-day visit to Sekenani Primary School, located just outside the gate to the famous Maasai Mara, where with the support of Virgin Atlantic, Water For All donated a solar pump and storage tank to help the school with its water needs.

As the school's enrollment has increased by more than 100 in the past year, the challenge of providing a meal each day for the students had become an enormous burden for the school community. With resources provided by the Georgetown Day School, the Leder Family, and Virgin Atlantic, the school is now enjoying their new garden and irrigation system.

Daisy Zeijlon, a Georgetown Day School student, was kind enough to share with us the story of her visit to Sekenani.  – Jill Rademacher, President, Water For All

Suddenly a sea of pale and midnight blues came flooding into the courtyard.  Hundreds of Kenyan students at Sekenani Primary School, ranging from five to sixteen in age, stood in front of us, examining us just as closely as we were studying them.  We met Simon, the headmaster, and then shook hands with each of the teachers.   But out of the corner of our eyes we could see little blue uniforms and bald heads darting in and out of windows.  After the greetings and speeches ended, the blue uniformed children appeared, but stood in silence.  Simon introduced us in English, explaining that we would be around for a couple of days building a garden.  We muttered awkwardly a few of the phrases we had learned in Swahili: "jambo" and "habari."  We had, after all, been in Africa for just three days when we pulled into the sandy courtyard of Sekenani Primary School.  We, sixteen students and four teachers on a service and learning trip from Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC, hadn’t really had a chance to settle into being so far from home: we had flown to Addis Ababa (a sixteen hour flight), then to Nairobi, and then to the Maasai Mara before going on a game drive to see our first lions and elephants up close.

In the middle of this crazy combination of jet lag, stomach aches, mosquito bites and general awe at our surroundings, we set to work building a garden.  "Today we woke up and visited Sekenani Primary school.  There we built the basics of a garden and an irrigation system.  We played with the kids too—they ranged in age from five to sixteen, and their teachers.  The older kids were really fun to speak to, and they have such ambitions. The school has 760 students and half of them board here—capacity is forty for boarding," a GDS student wrote in her journal.  Working with Water for All, we would set up a small irrigation system in a vegetable and flower garden for the school.  American missionaries who lived up on the big hill overlooking the school loaned us shovels and rakes, welded the metal bars around each garden box, and showed us where to purchase materials locally such as soil and fertilizer.  The sixteen students split into groups to do these various jobs, taking breaks only to chug water or take malaria medicine.  At the end of the first day we had raked a lot of dirt and painted the metal supports teal, but were struggling to see any real dent in the big pile of manure next to the garden sites.

On the second day we woke up less jet-lagged, without stomachaches, and armed with bug spray.  Once we arrived at the school we expected to go straight to work again, but were instead offered a tour.  Simon led us around the compound, showing us classrooms, kitchens and bedrooms.  As western city-dwellers we were shocked to see ninety-five kids to a classroom (with a crumbling roof) and three kids to a bed.  We met with members of Water for All who explained how they used solar power to pump water for the school’s taps and showers, making us wonder why our school, in the middle of Washington, DC, couldn’t come up with such a clever idea.

Most importantly, though, at Sekenani we experienced the first of many similar encounters: we saw kids with odds of success stacked against them cheering, smiling, laughing, and happy to see us. The three-year-olds wanted high fives, the ten-year-olds wanted to dance, and the sixteen-year-olds wanted to know as much as possible about Obama.  These students, sitting three to a bench in the classroom, wanted to share their notebooks, soccer balls, and Swahili with us.  We had never met a group of children so eager to break through cultural barriers, as one GDS student wrote in her journal: "The kids study English, math, social studies, religion, and science.  There are a lot of kids who want to be engineers and doctors, and I sincerely hope they get to accomplish their goals.  The older kids, fifteen and sixteen-year-olds, were so eager to practice English and to teach us Swahili."

As the day wound down we became more and more distracted by the number of kids, finished with classes, lingering and watching us finish the gardens.  We were itching to play soccer with the kids, sick of watching them watch us in the big field behind the school.  Out of nowhere, two teenage boys volunteered to wheel dirt from the dwindling heap to the garden plots.  They moved faster than all of us combined had earlier, and before we knew it, we were ready to play soccer.

Before we left the Mara to continue the rest of our trip, we had a formal goodbye.  We presented Simon with the gardening tools we had brought from Washington.  We were lucky to get to see the impact such a seemingly small project had on this school.  Simon was so grateful, explaining how excited he was to have the tools and the garden.  We were of course grateful to be able to help introduce a little bit of sustainability to the school.  The kids could go and see the vegetables they learned about in science.

But at goodbye we weren’t muttering anything in unpracticed Swahili.  We confidently shouted "Kwaheri," meaning goodbye, as we hugged, lifted, and high-fived as many kids as we could.  We drove back to the hotel, each of us quietly contemplating whether or not we could get the driver to turn around for one last high-five.