The sun beats down intensely on the field hockey pitch at Greensted’s International School outside Nakuru, Kenya. From the sidelines a coach in a charming British accent chortles, “Nice save Rebecca! Great form; stick down, now!” I watch spellbound as the ebony-dark thirteen year old girl focuses intently on a member of the opposing team’s offense. While the coach continues to shout instructions to his pupils, I observe the players on the pitch. The girls clumsily hold field hockey sticks, stumble, and try to remember plays, while Rebecca stalks them, wielding her field hockey stick as if she has been playing the game her entire life. I glance at my mother, standing next to me on the sidelines. She shakes her head in disbelief and says: “Not bad for a girl who a month ago was running around barefoot in an orphanage.”
Rebecca's first milkshake
Rebecca is one of four Kenyan students from impoverished and parentless backgrounds who, just this past January, have found themselves enrolled at the prestigious British Greensted’s International school. Their tuition is sponsored through an American organization known as Kenyan Education for Youth Society, or KEYS. And, while my involvement with KEYS is still in its infancy, I feel privileged to witness the incredible stories of these students.
KEYS has an interesting inception that stems from American support for Kenyan children. Approximately five years ago, an American non-profit Christian missionary group known as Serv Ministries International began work on a feeding program in Kenya. Utilizing a grant from the United States government, Serv Ministries disbursed dehydrated food packets to Internally Displaced Persons Camps, or IDP Camps, in and around some of the most impoverished parts of Kenya. One of the IDP Camps is located outside the northwestern town of Lodwar, Kenya. Lodwar is listed as one of the most remote places on the planet. And, until two years ago, the only way to reach Lodwar was via a two day car journey (without fuel stations) from Nakuru, Kenya or by chartered plane.
Landing in Lodwar, Kenya
Today, a small local airline can take anyone able to pay the six-hundred USD round trip fee to Lodwar. This travel option, while exorbitantly expensive for what it is, has opened Lodwar up to in-country, and international aid. Arriving at Lodwar is a harrowing experience. From skidding down a gravel runway, to exiting a tiny plane, to viewing burned out bits of old plane fuselage off the side of the runway, the austerity of the desert landscape that is Lodwar greets a visitor with an air of the oppressive. Adults and children alike hang-out at the twenty-four square-foot covered cement pad that serves as the airport for the sheer novelty of seeing Mzungu (Swahili for white people) sweat and turn pink in the sun.
The airport in Lodwar, Kenya
Lodwar is still distinctly tribal. For that matter, most of Kenya’s population still allays itself according to tribal lines. Nearly everyone marries within their own tribes. And, while to most Mzungu visitors, Kenyans appear to be from the same racial background, this is untrue. There are many tribes within Kenya, and even though all except the Maasai embrace modern, westernized dress, Kenyans can recognize a person’s tribe by merely looking at his or her face. Even considering all of this, Lodwar is still more distinctly tribal than the rest of Kenya. Its remote location alone has ensured the local tribe of Lodwar, the Turkana, live life in much the same way as they have for decades. The only exception to this is the firm hold Safaricom, the East African cellular phone company, has on local industry. The people I encountered in Lodwar may be impoverished, but many had cell phones.
Storefront in Lodwar, Kenya
Women in Lodwar marry young, sometimes as early as eleven years old. Since Kenyan culture relies on a strict dowry system, very few divorce. Women across Kenya have few rights. According to the newly approved Kenyan Constitution women enjoy equality in Kenya, but I found this to be fundamentally untrue. It is still legal and acceptable to beat your wife. When one local man learned my mother had never been beaten by my father he exclaimed: “But, what does he do when your mother makes him angry!?” Even as Western visitor, I personally endured and encountered such difficult and harsh chauvinism I doubt I will visit the country again without a Western male escort.
The women of Lodwar are strong and bright; their survival alone depends on these qualities. As a local community leader in Lodwar said about his wife: “I’ve been married to her for twenty years. Since she was eleven. If she dies,” he says with a shrug “I will marry again.” Few women, however, are educated, and even fewer still are particularly maternal. One can conclude that becoming a mother while still a child yourself, having ten plus children, and enduring likely beatings from your husband, doesn't engender a warm motherhood.
A merchant brushing her teeth (yup) in Lodwar, Kenya. She is probably in her mid-late thirties.
Women, unsurprisingly, do not often survive long enough to become elderly. Yet women are not the only affected by Lodwar. The Lodwar culture, combined with the high incident of disease (Tuberculosis, Malaria, Yellow Fever, AIDS, and other less traumatic illnesses) and lack of medical care mean that many persons, male and female alike do not live to be elderly, or even adults for that matter. The number of orphans in Kenya is unprecedented, and while this is undoubtedly tragic, most at least can find shelter and perhaps one meal a day at an orphanage. Lodwar, until three years ago, had no such outlet. The parentless children were dependent upon relatives for care, and with the current level of poverty in Lodwar, many families couldn’t support added children. Orphaned children of Lodwar slept where they could, ate when and what they could, and generally went without care.