It’s a 50-minute drive through the Kenyan countryside to the school in Lahunda — a stone’s throw away from Obama’s Kenyan hometown. The long road there is in pretty good condition, until you get to the dirt-road intersection that leads directly to the school. Even our Safari-edition Land Rover 4×4 had to take it slow over the four-kilometer stretch of dirt road, which is used by many 6- to 13-year-old children every day in the blistering heat — and night, where there is no light whatsoever to see where you’re walking. So, we haven’t even reached the school, but we’ve already encountered a major problem with a not-so-simple solution: With very little money to spare, fixing a four-kilometer uphill rocky dirt road is not even an option.
The reason we’re here is to get hands-on — to help with and document the amazing work a fantastic organization called Millennium Promise is doing here in Kenya. The Omindo Primary School in Lahunda, Kenya, is just one of 31 schools that the organization has been transforming, rebuilding and creating a self-sustaining infrastructure for for the past five years. In this instance, we are here to build a brand-new computer lab — complete with Internet connections — giving these children a connection to the world.
We arrived at the school, greeted by smiles all around — hundreds of children dressed in blue, black and white uniform, only a few wearing sandals, the rest barefoot. The children are remarkably small for their age. I was surprised when one child — Joshua, who looked about 6 years old — told me he was 13! A tragic result of years of malnutrition. The children were timid at first, but extremely inquisitive towards us and especially our equipment. Our director of photography, Stephen, had just bought a brand-new, top-of-the-range Sony camera for the trip — and, like any brand-new piece of technology, Stephen was pretty in love with it. But after seeing how many kids were fascinated with his new piece of gear, it didn’t take too much convincing for me to borrow the camera off Stephen and start passing it around the children and show them how to point and shoot. It was interesting to see how fascinated the children were to see what they looked like on camera — and even with their own reflections. The teacher simply explained that cameras or even mirrors were a complete rarity in the village, and that most of the kids had never seen a camera or a mirror in their lives.
We actually didn’t even intend to shoot anything on our first visit, but we couldn’t resist pulling all the cameras out and documenting the great work that was going on.
As we entered a classroom that was still in its original pre-construction state, I was shocked at the conditions of the children’s working environment. I knew it was going to be sub-par, but didn’t realize how poor the conditions were — this wasn’t a classroom, but more of a construction site. Steel support rods with spikes at the end were laid on the floor, unable to be kept outside due to the fear of theft. Corrugated steel beams left over from the roofs were precariously balanced only a foot away from the kids heads. The blackboard was just a painted wall that was cracked and chipped away, and the floor — made of compacted cow dung — was pot-holed and jagged. In a classroom that is no larger than 200 square feet, 60 children spend their day packed in like sardines, four kids to a desk (that is ideally made for just two) with only two open windows and no real form of ventilation. With outdoor temperatures reaching 100-degrees-plus and a steel roof and mud walls, the conditions inside the classroom are not just hot, but suffocating as well.
While all of us know the benefits of being able to get out of class for about five minutes for a bathroom break, the latrine here at the school consists of no more than two holes in the ground covered by a shack. The floor is a mess and the smell is intoxicating — conditions unsuitable for anyone.
But this is all the children know. It is what they are used to and, as the teachers told me, the conditions at the school are, most of the time, a lot better than what they are used to at their homes. Despite all this poverty and hardship, the children are incredibly happy, playful and so willing to learn new things. School is not a chore or a burden for them, but an escape — and it’s clear that they love to learn. Each kid has a favorite subject — from math to English to science — and as they’ll happily tell you they all value the importance of their education, which is a key part of change here in Africa.
On the day we were there, they were removing the old flimsy wooden doors and replacing them with sturdy steel doors — something that I could manage. So, with a hammer and chisel I removed the old door, chipping away at the mortar and cement, widened the doorway by a foot in height and then helped mount the new door. And yes, I did hit my finger once, taking off a layer of skin — what can I say? I’m clumsy.
But for today, the children got a couple of hours away from the classroom and a chance to interact with us. They were very inquisitive about where we were all from, where we grew up, what sports we like and, in particular, the kids liked my producer Sean’s hair.
After spending a good four hours at the school, it was time to wrap it up and head back. The trip back was a quiet one … I guess because everyone was deep in thought taking in everything from the last 24 hours. Tomorrow, we do it all over again.