When Birch Bay resident Jeana King told her friend Debra Akre about a possible job for her, little did she know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single sentence, to paraphrase Lao-tzu. Nor did she know that she would also end up on the journey.
A sponsor of a Kenyan child for many years, King had read in a newsletter produced by the child aid organization that it was looking for a person with a Ph.D. who could volunteer seven months of their life to open up a college of business administration.
“When I read that,” she said, “I thought Debra was the perfect person for the job.” Her friend Debra didn’t agree, not at first. But after thinking it over, she decided to apply and four days later learned she would be flying to Nakuru in the central Rift Valley.
That was in December 2003. During the assignment, she met a little boy who desperately needed surgery. “I turned to Marta,” she said, referring to Dr. Marta Kazymyra, well known to the people of Blaine and Birch Bay. “Marta took it upon herself to arrange for the boy to come to Washington to have the surgery done, all the costs of which were paid for by the doctors,” she said.
While still in Africa, the King family visited Akre and fell in love with Kenya. Following her return, Akre and King started talking about what they wanted to do. They had previously worked together in Southeast Asia and decided they wanted to work in education.
While in Kenya, Akre had discovered that the students were unable to think for themselves. If she asked them a question they would not reply. Finally, one student confided that for 12 years if they spoke out in class they would be caned. “I was appalled and I shared that with Jeana. It was rote learning and Third World countries can’t advance without proper education.”
The two women decided they would start a non-profit secondary school because secondary education was not free, unlike primary school. Consequently, there was a huge drop-off in students after free schooling ended.
Recognizing the difficulties their students faced in all spheres of their lives, they employed a psychosocial model of education, which sought to improve all aspects of students’ lives from health to nutrition to poverty. “In our naiveté, we decided we would tackle the entire thing,” said Jeana.
After receiving their non-profit status, they held a garage sale, which led to a larger fundraiser that raised nearly $6,000 that was matched by the Clay family in Lynden.
Debra subsequently flew to Kenya to the village of Ngomana to meet with villagers and ask if they would be interested in working with the group.
On March 7, 2005, the school opened with 30 students, two teachers in two buildings lent to them by the village.
Ngomana is located in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Kenya. The women decided that it was important to recognize that donors wouldn’t always be there and that whatever they developed would have to become self-sufficient.
“We looked at a lot of the other (aid) models out there and decided if they were still doing the same thing after 40 years, then there had to be a better way. ‘Let’s be bold,’ we said, and try something different,” King said. “We didn’t go into the village and tell them what we were going to do because we can’t fix it. That’s not our job, that’s the villagers’ job. If we go in and fix the problem, who fixes it when we leave?”
Working conditions were stark. No electricity or running water, temperatures in the high 100s. Meeting with the village elders, the two women were surprised by their insistence that they recognize how poor the villagers were.
“We couldn’t understand it at first until we realized that they equated poverty with a lack of intelligence,” said Jeana.
The two women assured the elders that it wasn’t lack of intelligence that was holding their children back but the lack of proper schooling.
And they warned the elders that if they agreed, they needed to understand that it was likely that their newly educated children would move away to seek opportunities. They also promised the elders that they would undertake to build one of the best schools in Kenya. With that, the deal was sealed.
From these first steps, Project Education Inc (PEI) has come a long way. Since then, 25 acres have been bought with the Clay International Secondary School campus having grown to 21 buildings, two wells and a medical dispensary serving 135 students and eight teachers.
A new library and conference center has started construction and, even more exciting, its first high school students graduated on March 5, 2010.
Of the 27 students who graduated, 25 of them have been teaching at local schools. The students have demonstrated high levels of achievement and have been attracting attention throughout the region and country.
Twelve students made it to the national levels in math competition and out of 100 schools competing at the 12th grade level, Clay students ranked 17th overall.
Currently, there are 42 women taking adult education courses. It is also the women villagers who have eagerly pursued the economic development that PEI has fostered. The women are producing handcrafted bags, sandals and hand-painted cards. These are currently for sale in Whatcom County in Haggen Foods on Meridian, Terra Organica and the Community Co-op stores. Distribution is expanding to Oregon and California. Around 3,000 handbags have been sold with an average retail price of $35-55.
While a lot has been accomplished, much more remains to be done before these local women can achieve their goal of having worked themselves out of a job. Dr. Kazymyra can attest to that having just returned from her first trip to Ngomana a few weeks ago.
While she previously had been active collecting and sending medical supplies to the village, she saw now first-hand the medical needs of the villagers. In two and a half days, she gave physicals to 137 people in a steady flow that kept on coming virtually to the point where she was getting in the car to leave.
Kazymyra brought nearly $15,000 worth of medical supplies donated by GlaxoSmithKline, supplies that will be put to good use by the nun who arrives weekly to provide medical care.
The hard work and conditions does not appear to have fazed Kazymyra one bit. “This trip and these two amazing women are so inspirational, that I will be making more trips.
“I have never seen anyone as dedicated to a cause as those two. They work 16 hour days, adopt kids from abroad, live and breathe this project. They are no less than totally amazing!” she said. She added, “They go back to Africa two - three times a year, they are out there pounding the payment looking for donations, it is all-consuming, they don’t get paid for this, they are going all of the time!” This comes from a woman who has a full-time general medical practice, a husband and two kids.
It’s not as if Akre and King had a lot of spare time on their hands, either. Akre is married with one son, daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and a mother who lives with them.
King is married with two grown sons and an 11-year-old who has been to Africa with her on six trips.
It’s interesting to observe how dominant the women are in this tale. From the Whatcom County residents who saw a need and felt compelled to contribute their time, skills and intelligence to the women of Ngomana who have taken advantage of the opportunity to start businesses from micro-lending to tailoring to weaving handbags.
Asked about it, Akre laughed ruefully. “When the men earn money, they buy beer. The women use the money to educate their children,” she said. Then her face brightened and she said, “But it’s changing. They see what’s happening and they want to be a part of it.”
If you want to be part of it, too, visit www.peikenya.org
. As well, go to www.thenorthernlight.com
to see more photos of this important humanitarian effort being undertaken by Whatcom County residents, people who are your neighbors and people who are making a difference.