In 2006, when I first met Njoki, the African girl my family supports in school, she was the skinniest of third-graders, so shy she would not even look me in the eye. When I asked her to show me around her campus in Nyahururu, Kenya, she said not a word but slipped her tiny hand in mine.
On the long walk to the soccer field, she finally spoke, "May I carry your bag for you?" she asked. I gratefully handed her my travel pack. Her shyness — and mine — evaporated.
I had traveled to Kenya to volunteer for the Makena Children's Foundation. Founded in 1997, MCF has American sponsors for the education of about 50 deserving students. Many of the children are AIDS orphans; some have a single parent. All come from Maraigushu, a sprawling rural area of subsistence farmers who raise their families without the benefit of electricity or running water. The average educational level of the adults in Maraigushu is third grade, and fewer than 40 percent of eligible Kenyan students attend secondary school.
Every spring finds me in Kenya with Sherri Mills, MCF's founder and president, to meet with our Kenyan colleagues and do the work of this small, personal organization. The "Makena kids" attend six primary and secondary schools, as well as nine universities and technical colleges. We meet with school personnel at each place and spend time individually with every student and their families.
A highlight for me is my annual reunion with Njoki, whose full name is Alice Njoki Kibugi. Last year, when I arrived at Njoki's secondary school, she saw me in the principal's office and ran to greet me. After a long hug, I turned to the principal and said, "Isn't she beautiful?"
The principal looked a little shocked. I put my arm around Njoki, looked back at the principal, and said, "She's so smart."
The principal looked somewhat less serious. Finally, getting the message, as I pulled Njoki toward me, I said, "And she works so hard."
Then, the principal smiled. "Yes, she is a very hard worker."
Children are in class from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then, for two hours, they play games — soccer, field hockey or basketball. Supper is the following hour. At the end of the day are several hours of tutored homework. Some classes even meet on Saturdays. Any adult would have to agree these kids work hard.
In this part of Kenya, a country striving to deal with issues of blatant corruption, poverty, political unrest, violence and lack of education, children rarely receive compliments. There's concern the kids won't work hard if they get positive feedback. A couple schools even told us children are graded lower than their actual scores to motivate them to work harder.
I don't question this stance. This is a country trying to bring its people into the developed world. I wouldn't dream of telling them how to raise their young. And yet, in private, I can't stop myself from reminding Njoki of her considerable strengths.
Letters from Njoki reflect her growing fluency with English. I treasure one I received from her about five years ago — when she was obviously studying similes. She ended that letter by saying, "I miss you just like roasted meat."
Now, our letters are frequent and lively. We talk about current events, relationships, dreams, values, love. And I marvel at the strength of our bond. We've spent maybe a total of 15 hours together. We're from different continents, different countries, different generations, different classes, different races. But from my most recent visit, I know she experiences our connection as deeply as I do.
Some of the "Makena kids" are understandably embarrassed to be seen on campus with a mzungu (white person) because it sets them apart as sponsored children; poor kids. So, at her new school, I asked Njoki if she wanted to sit in the principal's office for our visit, in order to be less conspicuous. She responded by pulling me into her classroom to introduce me to her friends. Her growing self-confidence touches me deeply.
To find out more about the Makena Children's Foundation, see www.makena.org. Or email board of directors member and Medford resident Mary Jo Baich at email@example.com or Anne Batzer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joy reader Anne Batzer lives in Sams Valley.