Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pleasures and Perils: The Roads of East Africa

(Nanyuki with Mt. Kenya in the background)

Nanyuki is the largest town near Daraja. It is about 25 km (a half hour driving) away and is the destination anytime I want to use the internet or buy anything (except a coke or a beer). Most days someone from the Daraja staff is driving into town and I can catch a ride, this is ideal. Otherwise If I want to get to Nanyuki I have four options: I can hire a boda boda which is a small motorbike for 400 kenya shillings (the exchange rate is about 75 ksh to $1, so the ride is about $5), I can hire a taxi for 800 ksh. I can take a Matatu which is essentially a van that travels back and forth between different locations and picks up many passengers on the way. The most exciting thing about matatus is that they are usually adorned with artwork and a hip name spray painted on the side. Sometimes there will just be a picture of a random celebrity from the states or Europe. My favorite so far was the Lil’ Bow Wow matatu. A matatu trip from Nanyuki to Daraja would cost about 150 ksh but would take probably at least an hour, and the wait itself could be another two hours. Plus if it gets full you might end up with someone sitting on your lap. Its a fun cheap way to make friends.

The road itself has both its charms and its perils. The charms include zebra, camels, baboons, and beautiful countryside. The biggest peril would be the road itself, half of which is partially paved, with gigantic potholes, a quarter of which is dirt and another quarter of which is dirt and covered with boulders because they have apparently been planning on paving it for the last THREE years and they don’t want people driving on it until its done. This forces the drivers onto the shoulder of the road, or sends them zig zagging between boulders, neither of which would be described as “safe”.

In theory people in Kenya drive on the left side of the road. In practice they drive on the left side, the right side, in the middle and on both shoulders. The road is covered with people walking and riding their bikes to town with huge bundles of sticks, the aforementioned animals huge sand trucks, military trucks and sometimes bandits.

(When charm becomes peril: A herd of Zebra crossing the road)

There is a sharp turn on the mostly straight road to Daraja and along the side of the road are boulders. I am told that late at night Bandits put the boulders in the middle of the road and wait for cars to come so they can rob them. The bandits arm themselves with machetes, clubs, spears, and sometimes guns. The road here is littered with shattered glass which leads me to believe that there is more to these stories than just talk. Taxi Drivers often refuse to drive you back at a certain point at night and sometimes they bring armed friends in the trunk as “bodyguards”.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Girls of Daraja Academy

The girls of Daraja Academy are from all over Kenya. They are accepted based on a few factors. First is academic, they are judged by their KCPE (which would be like a middle school version of our SAT test). Then an interview with some of the school faculty. The third and maybe most important factor is that the girls (and their parents or guardians) must be unable to pay for them to continue their education. Other factors that are considered include: Geographical location, tribal affiliation, and personal hardships (many of the girls have no parents, HIV/AIDs in the family, have been affected by violence, or have a lack of food and special consideration is given in these cases).

I am constantly amazed by their hard work and discipline. They wake up at 5am every morning to get ready for school, and do some cleaning chores, before breakfast at 730. Their weekly chores include but are not limited to: Cleaning the dining hall and dishes everyday, laundry (by hand), sorting the food (a process of picking out the bad kernels of beans, maize, and rice that we will be eating in the coming week) and cleaning their dorm/bathroom each day. On top of that they have a full academic schedule which starts at 730 am and ends at 9 pm with study hall everyday.

What is most amazing about these girls is the excitement that they bring to everything they do. Every chore is accompanied by 26 smiles, singing, and often dancing when possible. They are so happy, loving and most of all grateful for the opportunity that they have at Daraja.

I wish each and every one of you could meet these girls. My writing does not do them justice.

(pictured from top to bottom left to right: Nasibo, Hadija, Betty, Marylene, Catherine, Elizabeth)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Daraja Academy

Daraja Academy is East Africa’s first completely free secondary boarding school for girls. It is the organization that Paria and I have been devoting much of our time to the past six months, and it is where we are living for the next six months.

The campus itself is the site of the former Baraka school for boys from Baltimore MD (that was featured in the popular documentary The Boys Of Baraka). It is located approximately 25 km north-west of the town of Nanyuki, Kenya. The closest town to daraja is called Naibor (pronounced Nigh-Bo) and is maybe two km away.

The founders are Jason and Jenni Doherty, a couple from Marin county who both have a background in education and a passion for making the world a better place. They spent years researching and planning the best way to help the communities here. The ultimate decision was to help a limited number of girls but help them completely. Daraja accomplishes this by providing food, housing, uniforms and everything else the girls need on campus so issues of everyday survival will not hinder their education. The idea is that they will then be able to use their education to improve their community.

One of the most attractive things about this organization is the fact that there is such little overhead cost. There is only ONE employee making over $5,000 a year and even she is vastly underpaid. This allows the donations that people make to go directly to the needs of the girls.

For more information on Daraja Academy go to