Haba na Haba – Little by Little
It is our first day in the village of Bahakwenu. We, a group of nine from the US, have traveled 30 hours to get here. Still unhinged by culture shock and jet lag, we gather to meet with the eleven young people ages 18-25 that graduated from our sponsorship program last December. There are nine boys and two girls. Clothes pressed, proud but uneasy, they sit in a circle and survey our strangeness. We begin to talk. First, congratulations on their graduation. Most every one of them is the first in their family to complete secondary school. It is not a small feat in this part of the world where school fees keep most students from going past grade 8. Their smiles, wide and bright as only Kenyan smiles can be, are full of pride.
They go around the circle, expressing gratitude in their official, stilted way. “Without your help I could never have gone to school. In behalf of me and my family, I say…thank you!” We share some things about ourselves. We try to get them laughing. We keep asking questions. What were your biggest challenges while going to secondary school? What are you doing now? Where do you hope to go from here? How are you supporting yourself?
What would your life have been like had you not gotten a secondary education? They are quiet. They look down. One dares to speak for all. We would have been houseboys, or maybe would have learned to make charcoal. We would have been useless. Silence prevails. To imagine these bright young children – useless.
Slowly, slowly the walls come down. They ease into trust. They dare tell us the real story. They are living on an average of 50 cents a day. They long to go on for further education. Some want to go on to teacher training college. Some are interested in health care, or studying business, or ECD (early childhood development). One longs to attend seminary and be a priest. But where will the money come from? Every one of them asks, “Is there a way we can continue to be sponsored?”
I sigh. I know what happens on the other end, as I struggle to renew scholarships at $325/year for secondary school. How could I possibly increase these scholarships to $1,000/year for post grad training? I pose the question to them, “If you had to make the decision and you had to choose between sponsoring three high school students or one college student, which would you do?” They respond in unison, “Sponsor college students! If you help us progress to where we can really get a job, we will educate our younger brothers and sisters and others in the community. We are even trying to do so now.” And I know this is true. Selfishness is not part of their culture. Once they have received, they “pass it on,” in the most natural way imaginable. They don’t think twice. Even now, many of these young people are volunteering at schools, and are helping their families financially. But all are stuck in a place of limbo, longing for more education .
Despair washes over me. If only there were a way to help them realize their dreams. It is not a nice car they want. It is not a new house. It is simply the opportunity for education that they long for. I must remind myself, haba na haba, little by little. We only do what we can, as we can. At least they have gotten their high school diplomas. Already they are role models to this struggling community.
Already they have far surpassed their parents in education. Slowly, slowly we have seen a cultural excitement about learning come to this area. Libraries have helped. Teacher training has helped. Scholarships have helped. New classrooms have helped. Haba na haba, we hope to see more people each year graduate from secondary school. Such progress could help create the demand that someday Kenya will have more than six universities for a population of 40 million people. Haba na haba.