Yesterday, we finished our tour of Western and Nyanza Provinces in Kenya and traveled through Nairobi to Tanzania. But before I tell you about this next leg of our trip, I want to tell a story about borders.
On our way from Rift Valley to Bumala in the West, we made a stop in the town of Eldoret. One of our graduates had contacted us via Facebook at the start of the trip, and with help from John (world’s greatest van operator) we had arranged to meet her for lunch in Eldoret, where she now works. The name, Eldoret, might make you think of a wild and wooly border town from the early American West or maybe a rough edged Minor trading port at the junction of two ancient Islamic trading routes. Visiting Eldoret will do nothing to dispel this impression. The city lies at the intersection of roads that service Kenya, including towns all the way down to Mombassa and over the border to Uganda. Over the years it has sent through to the country’s borders timber, manufactured goods, food supplies, emergency aid, military weapons and refugees. All kinds of refugees.
We arrive amongst the massive trucks that clog the main intersection of this town, John deftly weaving our van between gaping potholes, streams of pedestrians and the heavy trailers. The traffic kicks up red dust from the road’s edge and sends it into the air in clouds to mix with the diesel fumes. Iron workers and timber sellers crowd the sides of the roads, their saws adding to the noise. Eldoret is not particularly pretty.
But Lucy has come here with a purpose. After graduating from Gatugi in 2009, Lucy had a secondary school diploma and test scores to qualify her for something more. What she did not have were the funds to continue. The Kenyan government provides university scholarships for those who perform best on the national exams, but the scholarships no longer cover the associated expenses of University and few are granted them anyway. Kenya (like our own country?) is in danger of returning to a system in which University is for the wealthy. Growth Through Learning can not afford to cover higher education and still ensure that we issue enough secondary (high school) scholarships in our areas. We grant only a handful of university and college scholarships through an honorary program. This means that most of our Kenyan grads finish their educations the hard way.
Lucy has been working for three years to support herself while paying the fees to a private institution for a program in teacher training. Her secondary degree, intelligence and quiet, smiling demeanor made her an attractive candidate for the jobs available in her home village, and she has worked in a hotel, boutique and primary school over these years. Her village was small; none of the positions paid much more than an East African living wage (a world away from a US living wage!), and the work can go as easily as it comes.
Having paid about half of the roughly 40,000 Kenya shillings required to complete the course and now in her last year of studies, Lucy is almost there. But her village no longer offered a job that could pay her fees and textbook costs and allow her the precious few hours she needs each night to study.
Lucy arrived in Eldoret about a month ago looking for better work. She found a position at a small law firm in an office above a storefront on one of the main roads. We meet her and take her to lunch at an American-themed diner across the street. The restaurant is sparsely decorated, with chairs and tables anchored into a concrete floor, but they have improved upon our diner traditions with freshly-squeezed lime juice and Samosas.
With her gentle smile and quiet voice, Lucy tells us her story. We glance, worried, at one another when she is not looking. Lucy is vulnerable in this town. The rent and food costs are probably higher than she expected, and she is alone here. We may come up with a creative solution for Lucy, but we are aware that she is one of many. Other young men and women around us have traveled to the bustling trading towns looking for a means to cross that boundary between those who really live and those who struggle to survive. Lucy, with her funded high school degree has a good chance, but there are so many more–and not just in Kenya.
We pull out of Eldoret amongst crowds of people from many countries and countless tribes, families and villages. Once upon a time, this town and others like it were the strategic points for empires, their power founded on the quickening flow of people and goods across vast expanses. We built nations to harness that flow and in the belief that a politically united people would create better lives for the many. I wonder how well we are doing at that project now.