In this month’s newsletter, I wrote about the community of Lemolo. When the temporary camp of internally displaced people (IDP) at Manjanimingi was split up into permanent settlements, one group of 400 households were settled into the hills behind Manjanimingi. Two other settlements were places 12 kilometers away, on the far edge of a massive sisal plantation: Lemolo A and B. Across several hills, separated by a few kilometers, the communities each have over 400 families that are just getting started building their homes and their new lives.
These communities are brand new in every sense of the word. In a Land Rover bouncing past endless rows of sisal plants, I spoke with men from the Member of Parliament‘s office for the Rongai district. I asked them how Maize and other essentials would grow on the land here. No one knew for sure, they said. “This land has been a sisal plantation since any of us can remember, all the way back to the early colonial days. This is the first time Maize will have been planted here.”
While the MP works from his office in Nairobi, these men I was touring the area with were the men on the ground… the dudes who got stuff done. They were enthusiastic about going to visit these new communities, and very enthusiastic about WTA’s work in Shalom building the primary and secondary school. They’ve offered any support that the organization needs. Since the motorbike trips out to Manjanimingi area were generally terrifying ordeals across disastrous roads (that once resulted in my driver and I getting chased by a pack of guard dogs snapping at our heels when we accidentally drove onto a very wealthy man’s ranch), I asked for a ride.
My mission was to get hard facts to underscore how remote this place was. On a motorbike, it felt like we disappeared into dust and bushes and were emerging into a harsher landscape that was a different country from the rich grass and towering eucalyptus trees of Shalom. I also needed to know how remote they were from the items that folks in Canada take for granted day by day.
“Here this is where the electricity stops.” We were only about 4 k outside of Manjanimingi, and a further 8 to Lemolo B, our first stop. We had passed the furthest secondary school from Lemolo, and when I took notice of the kilometers, the driver helpfully started to mark distances with the speedometer for me.
We arrived at Lemolo B after some brave confrontations with thick brown mud. I thought I might have some time to write down notes, but we were quickly swarmed by familiar faces. The children in the village had been gathered and were singing a song to welcome us.
We were given modest benches to sit on. The introductions began, first of the Community Leadership, and then the school management, even though all there was to show was empty plot of land where a school will one day be. After my steadily improving but still broken and barely coherent introduction of myself and WTA in Swahili, we got to the main concern of the visit: their children.
The group of kids in front of was over 60 or so and this was just the nursery and young classes. In total, there were 373 school going children in the community. The younger ones stay with their parents, and learn from a volunteer teacher, while the older kids stayed with relatives or friends back in Manjanimingi and attend primary school there, 12 kilometers away. Or, in many cases, they don’t go to school at all.
This was the same situation in Lemolo A, a community I had visited a few weeks back. They had 310 school going children there. The volunteer teacher somehow managed to control a crowd of 30 or so, in the stark sun with no shade, while handling every class from nursery school to Grade 2. The teacher had the preschoolers singing a Swahili rhyme, while the grade 1 and 2 wrote down formal Swahili sentences. This was a kind of symphonic educational crowd control and was very impressive.
Here in Lemolo B, the absence of a school became a focal point for many of the larger issues facing them: malnutrition is high, especially so because of the sparse food aid that they receive; a school with a proper feeding program would address this. Waterborne illnesses like amoebic dysentery were also high on list of challenges. Diarrhea-related illnesses is the number one health concern for young children in Africa; regular hand washing education would stem this a little. “…and our water source is 10 kilometers away.”
I stopped writing and asked him to repeat that. The water source is 10 kilometers away. That was it: that’s how remote we were. You needed to travel 10 kilometers to get water. I felt the weight of my Nalgene Bottle with a full litre of water in my shoulder bag. Suddenly, I wasn’t thirsty anymore.
We were wrapping up when an older woman put her hand up, and asked if she could speak. And she did, in a lovely voice speaking soft Swahili. I caught only a few words but made a mental note to ask what she fully said later. As I was leaving, Philip, the chairman of the school committee said there were many challenges here, and he knew we couldn’t address them, but maybe, “on this one thing, you can help us. Help us with the students, the rest will follow.”
Back in the car, careening down the road to visit Lemolo A, I asked about what the woman had said to us, and about this word she had used repeatedly: matumaini. “It means hope. She said, for us to come here and speak with them, it gives her hope for a better future for the children.”