It’s Friday in Africa, and dawn finds us at the Reformed Church Guest House, a hostel of some size here in Eldoret, Kenya. The accommodations are not plush, but they are a sight better than the Bungoma Tourist Hotel where we spent our last three nights. These rooms are larger, much brighter, cleaner, and, most importantly, the bathrooms are hardly scary at all, with the exception of European toilets which are all pretty scary. We have actual hot water that doesn’t shock; what more could one want?
Today’s full agenda begins with breakfast together at the guest house. It is consistently Kenyan, with fresh bananas, wonderful pineapple, toast, eggs and hot chi, which is the Swahili word for tea. We have consumed chi at every conceivable opportunity; in Kenya there is someone thrusting a very hot and very full cup of chi into your hands approximately every 45 minutes. Thankfully, it’s good!
We gather the day’s troops and roll quickly into town, and soon turn into the gated schoolyard of Milton Jones Academy, a primary school in Eldoret. We are welcomed by a small army of giggling, shouting, joyful children–all having been waiting eagerly for days–for this rare visit by the CRF president himself, Dr. Milton Jones, the name and man whose efforts figure so largely in the success of this school. Milton is royalty pretty much anywhere in Kenya where CRF has a footprint; but he is perhaps nowhere loved more that at Milton Jones Academy. Travis says that if Benjamin Franklin himself had shown up at the Franklin Middle School of Greely, Colorado, he probably wouldn’t have received as grand a welcome. When the chaos calms down a bit, the formality of Kenyan “meet and greet” protocol quickly kicks in. We are officially welcomed into the offices of the school, where we sign the guest book, individually, a ritual we have performed not less than 6 times in the last three days. In Kenya, it seems, even if there were eyewitnesses, if you did not sign the guest register, you were not actually there.
The Jones school is compact, encircled by other tenements and houses in the Kipkaren slum area of Eldoret. But it is filled to overflowing with joyful children whose smiles and laughter go a long way toward making you forget that you’re in the slums. Today Milton Jones Academy is an island of joy in an ocean of need. During the program I marvel at the different lives these 150 children have, all because people like you back in the USA are willing to send $35 a month for their support. They have life, and a chance for something much better as they grow up, because people care, and beyond that, because open-hearted people have figured out that God doesn’t bless us financially so we’ll have a bunch of money to spend on ourselves. He blesses us financially, and in every other way, so we’ll have more to share with others. The blessing they get from us is nothing compared to the blessing we get from helping them! As always, just outside the gates and security fences surrounding this compound stand hungry orphans on the outside looking in, lacking only the sponsorship of one more person who finds it in their heart to care about a child they may never know or actually meet, but one who is known by and matters greatly to God. The outdoor program here is a wonderful showcase of their talents as well as a surprise: a “fashion show” in which selected children parade forward, grabbing a pre-selected white person to join in the pageant lineup across the field. African children dressed in style, with paper sashes worn across their torsos that name the appropriate visitor—these Kenyan debutantes sashay forward to the music, a gift is presented to their assigned visitor, and then we dance together to the delight of the crowd. It is a funny picture, really, but everyone has a great time! Leaving is hard, partly because they keep giving us tea, and partly, because many of those in our team sponsor children here at Milton Jones Academy, and it is like breaking up a reunion when we have to go. Just as we are leaving a group of 5 children and a pastor arrive, seeking out one of our team. It turns out they are friends and relatives of a child this person in our team sponsors, and they have traveled a day’s journey from Barwesa just to greet her. That’s what Kenyans do.
The afternoon finds us traveling to one more school, Suzy Peacock High School, named after a late philanthropist who loved children and whose generosity has recently enabled a major building program at the school which now bears her name. The reception here is over the top, as this is the first visit by Dr. Milton Jones since the school officially opened in January. Milton is king again, and we are his cortege, and thus highly esteemed ourselves. First up we have a ribbon cutting and plaque unveiling, then the requisite signing of the guest register. After a thankfully brief introduction of the faculty, we must break again for tea time. This is followed by a tour of the grounds and facilities, a tree planting in which several of the visiting dignitaries is afforded the honor of planting and watering a small tree in what will be the entry courtyard of this new school. After a discussion of the master plan, a quick walk through of each classroom is followed by a lunch of rice, chapatti bread, and a stew made of very chewy chicken. At least I think it was chicken, perhaps in its former life.
After lunch we are ushered back into the largest of the classrooms, in which begins the program of programs in a very full room of students and guests, and other visiting dignitaries and school staff. This is a big deal, sort of a “grand opening” event, and it translates into a LONG program which begins to take its toll on those of us who have just eaten and are getting a bit “programmed-out” by now. The filibuster is saved in the seventh inning by the school principal, a diminutive Kenyan beauty named Maureen. When she stands up the room quiets completely, even the sleepy dignitaries wake up. She is commanding, eloquent, confident, charming, brilliant. She obviously lives for this school and her students, and the students are completely in love with her. I wish every high school in America could have a principal like this!
The meeting goes on another hour with all the requisite formality of the king’s court, even though the king hasn’t set foot on African soil since the last one died 60 years ago. These formalities ultimately wind down after a full three hours, after which we are given gifts and finally dismissed to the outdoors, where we can do what we’ve really wanted to do all afternoon–visit with the exceptional students of Suzy Peacock. And exceptional they are, all top-of-the-class level pupils who get up at 4 am each morning to study, break for breakfast at 7:30, then attend classes from 8 until 6 pm. After supper, they study until 9 pm. It is light’s out at 10:30 and the next day it begins again. It is no wonder these kids are brilliant! We linger longer than we should, until the sky darkens and the coolness of Kenyan early winter returns. We leave with hugs and some tears, as the sponsors and their children do not know when they will have the chance to hug again, if ever.
We drive back toward town into darkness, and my mind is filled with thoughts of these two very different schools on our agenda today, both striving for excellence and growth. They seem to be doing it well! Tomorrow brings a tour of the Kipkaren slums, and then we jet off toward the northern desert. We’ve seen so much already; I have a feeling we’re just getting started!