My early excursions into Africa were connected to the field of architecture and hospital development. They were large projects and, except for some minor achievements, the dreams were not realized. Several years later an opportunity came to me from an individual in Africa who reached out to get my attention. I was not seeking a project and very nearly missed becoming involved.
A complex situation began very simply. Dr. Humberto Rasi was editor of an international journal whose purpose was to connect with Christian young people who were studying in universities around the world. He instituted a quarterly journal, Dialogue, published in four languages. The articles were broardly based in science and theology. In order to create a balance in the journal’s content, it was decided that each year one issue of the four would include an interview with an artist. Dr. Rasi invited me to be interviewed for the Spring 2005 issue and offered to include a portfolio of watercolor images to accompany the text.
When the interview was completed, Dr. Rasi suggested that it might be advantageous to provide my email address at the conclusion of the article. Perhaps it could lead to the sale of one of my watercolors. This didn’t happen. But I did receive about 100 requests for financial help. Not knowing which email requests were genuine, I proceeded to delete them all. Some I struggled with, wanting to believe the story that was presented as a dramatic and seemingly sincere request.
Almost four years later, on June 7, 2009 I received an email from a girl in Kenya:
“Greetings in the Lord’s name.
“I am called Faith Akoth, am a seventh day Adventist young girl aged 12 years and an orphan, my parents died of AIDS in the year 2005. I am a member of pathfinder class and children choir. I have longed to talk to you or to e-mail you. .. I know you might be wondering how I came to know you but I am a Christian and I believe it is God who showed me your e-mail address to write to you after fasting and praying for some time. Just know that I was referred to you by God.
“ I need to be your friend, I need you to accept me as part of your family, to let me be your daughter if it can be possible for I don't have a parent or anyone to care for me. … Since my parents died I have never gone back to school. I need an education. Please help me.
The message was one that I could not easily shun. Yet I considered that perhaps the writer was an accomplished internet worker who knew enough about the Adventist Church and Pathfinders to create a plausible plea for money. I decided to respond but would ask questions for verification that might discourage anyone other than a twelve-year old orphan with genuine zeal. My wife Norene and I composed an email that requested the names, telephone numbers and email addresses of the Church pastor, Pathfinder leader and Choir Director. This information came without delay, but the writer recommended that we contact an Aunt Lilly, of no relation. Our email to Lilly Ouma asked for particulars, and her response provided the details.
Faith was described as a bright twelve-year old girl with a burning desire to go back to school. Both parents had died of Aids within one month back in 2005. Norene and I were encouraged to become involved. Authenticity at this stage seemed reinforced by Lilly’s comment that Faith would be a prime prospect to be taken as a teenage bride in a community where polygamy was part of the Luo tribal culture of Western Kenya.
We wrote to Faith to indicate that we would assist in getting her back to school. Her excitement was expressed in the words:
“Wow! I am very happy I can’t believe it. May God bless you. I now believe that when God closes a door he opens another. Life has not been good for me, you know since I lost my parents sometimes going without food, no education. But today I am the happiest. May God bless you. …”
Lilly shared a room with Faith in the village of Rapogi. We heard of some difficult times. When Lilly had malaria, Faith carried her bag as they walked to the hospital. Later it was Faith’s turn and the bout with malaria was severe. Lilly brought food and slept under Faith’s hospital bed.
Lilly provided information on the availability of schools, recognizing that it was midway through the 2009 school year. St. Theresa Catholic School provided the highest available academic standard. There were limited places and the tuition was beyond the reach of most of the families. There was also mention of the local public school, two kilometers away and over-populated with more than 100 children in a classroom. I inquired if there was a public library in the town. With the payment of a monthly fee to St. Theresa school, we introduced Faith to this option for the rest of the year. It gave us time to consider the possibility of having Faith attend an Adventist boarding school the next year.
Faith immediately followed through with daily visits to the library. She expressed thanks for the assistance given by a lady on the library staff and, in thanking us for paying the library fee, she wrote that she loved the library and read a lot of books. Further evidence came in an email written in response to one we sent to her while I was teaching watercolors on a European river cruise. I had mentioned the city of Vienna. She commented in her reply that she had found Vienna in an atlas, but this city was in Austria and she had read that the people there spoke German. She asked if we spoke German.
Given a natural tendency towards skepticism, there were times in the ensuing months when our minds questioned the reality of a genuine connection with the small town of Rapogi. There was an internet café of sorts, sometimes without power and often without internet connections. When operational, it provided the opportunity for email contact -- and we hoped our contact was with Faith and Lilly. Within a year from our initial conact the 'internet cafe' closed.
At a moment of some uncertainty I decided to read the full email texts of all correspondence from both Faith and Lilly. I was stopped in my tracks when I read in one of Lilly’s emails that she was 27 years of age. I was sure that I had read earlier that she had given her age as 24 years. Ah-ha! I thought, here is a mistake which could certainly be that of an internet worker who has creatively brought orphan, carer and Church into a scam. I went back to the search record. The age of 24 was in the first email from Lilly. It was written three years before, in April 2006, when she was studying in Kampala, Uganda. I reported my finding to Lilly, and she confirmed that she had written to me in 2005 and again a year later.
I was apparently interested enough to not delete the second message. But I still did not respond. Recently Faith had found Lilly’s printed copy of the Dialogue article, and it was Faith’s email that finally got through to me.
Norene and I, with Lilly, decided that Faith should attend an Adventist primary boarding school. Rangwee School was located a day’s journey away and involved four buses. Faith showed incredible dedication to learning and she worked very hard in her studies at school.
Email correspondence from Faith was very infrequent but we looked forward to these communications. Her dedication to the Church, her sensitivity and concern for the needs of others was impressive for a young girl.
The following was written from Rapogi during a Term break:
“How are you Mama and Baba, I pray for you everyday. Tomorrow we will be in church the whole day, I will be singing with the children. I taught them a new song from the camp meeting and then we also have songs to sing in our small group and in the pathfinders. So I have a lot to prepare and be ready for tomorrow and this is why I had to write to you early morning today friday.
“Below is a poem I wrote to you last night. …Please mama and Baba kindly read the poem below dedicated to you. My humble request is can someone read you the poem as you listen, so that you can assume that it is me telling you the words…’
[Here are a few sentences from the poem]
“…After my first Mama and Baba left me I knew it was the end of all, I cried and argued with my God and told him all my pain and grief, I told him I was lonely, I told him I needed someone to love and care for me, I told him I need a mama and baba. Praise God he heard my prayer.
“Today I am blessed and am happy, I am no longer lonely or in pain. I am so happy because I have a mama and baba who cares for me. I will continue praising my God for answering my prayer as long as I live.”
. . . . . . .
Our travels in December 2010 included a visit to Cairo. Norene and I decided that we would visit Kenya a week prior to the beginning of our stay in Egypt.
We arrived at the Ouma family home at Rapogi late in the afternoon. The buildings are planned around a courtyard according to strict principles. In keeping with the Luo tradition, Lilly’s father has five wives and each has a house. The first wife’s house is in the most prominent place directly opposite the entrance to the courtyard. Lilly’s mother is wife number 3 and her home is to the right of the first wife’s house. As soon as we arrived we were greeted and asked to sit in comfortable chairs, with low tables placed alongside. This was the first of many experiences that made us feel very welcome. We were told that we were the first white visitors to their home and all the family wanted to greet us. On many occasions the room was filled with adults and children. There were around 15 small children in the Ouma family and in addition the home was shared with almost as many total orphans of no relation.
Sabbath was a high day at the Rapogi Lwanda Church. After the morning meetings, lunch and choir practice, the Church leaders had arranged for two separate afternoon meetings. The women met with Norene in the Church, and I joined the men in an open air camp meeting space in the shade of trees and trellises. It was immediately apparent that there was a dream for a primary school in Rapogi Lwanda. I could not foresee at the time that we were meant to be a conduit.
But my thoughts were not the same as those of the community at Rapogi. Lilly had already gone to Nairobi to register a Rapogi Lwanda Self-Help Community-based Organization with the government office, and she had started to teach using a blackboard and chalk while a group of children sat in the shade of a large tree. To the community the story of orphan Faith was peripheral. The visit of Norene and me to their village at the big rock called Rapogi Lwanda was seen by the community as an answer to prayer. The men were sure that the 3 pm meeting on 27 December, 2010, was the time when their dream to build a primary school had begun to be realized.
The impression that we might be involved in such a project became more interesting to us by unrelated circumstances. We had purchased a villa in Queensland while living in North America, ahead of our hoped-for retirement years in Australia. We had rented this waterfront villa on long-term leases without difficulty, but the situation changed when in January 2011 we needed to find a new tenant. Putting a notice on the unit did not work as it had done in the past and we decided it was necessary to place the rental in the hands of a Real Estate office. By the middle of March we were becoming very concerned. What had been an asset would quickly become a liability.
With the memories of Rapogi clearly in our minds, we knew what our Christian friends there would do – they would pray and believe.
We made the rental a matter of prayer. If the unit rented in two weeks, by the end of March, we would accept that we were meant to provide a classroom to begin a school for orphans in Rapogi. Nothing happened until March 30. On that date we received a telephone call from the real estate agent. The unit was rented with a contract on March 31.
We know we made the right decision to provide the funds for a first classroom to a school. When I mentioned the rental experience to my brother, Keith, he and his wife Ngaire committed to providing a second classroom.
Lilly Ouma’s father immediately donated a portion of his land for a primary school. It is adjacent to the Rapogi Lwanda SDA Church.
We were also encouraged when A Better World Canada provided the funds for the construction of a well and water tower to provide clean water to the site. Our commitments for the first and second classrooms created leverage for a larger Phase 1 to be built with local labour by A Better World Canada. With this support, the project included three classrooms, an office and toilets, and was officially opened in January 2013.
Phase 2, with 3 additional classrooms, was opened in January 2014, and two projects were completed in 2015. Phase 3 included Classroom 7 and a Dormitory for 80 orphans. 48 girls and 36 boys, all total orphans, were now accommodated on the school site for the full year. During the school year there are 385 primary school students.
When a state school is completed in Kenya the central government provides teachers. Not surprisingly, the Rapogi church and community want the curriculum taught by Adventist teachers. There are many well qualified Adventist teachers, so an important part of the school development is the payment of at least minimal teacher salaries. The local community understands that this must be considered in terms of funding from sustainable projects. Two important projects were implemented - the raising of hens on an egg farm and a market garden. Eggs, beans and maize were sold to the community while also assisting with providing food for the children. The most recent sustainable project is a Bakery using solar and porta gaz ovens.
Future projects include Classroom 8. The school will then have a classroom for all grades from 1 to 8. In November 2016 the first group of Grade 8 students will sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations. Early Childhood classrooms are needed so that the small children can attend kindergarten while their mothers work in the fields.
There is another exciting challenge. Very fewl children have access to funds to attend high school. The local community saw the opportunity for these students to gain work skills which would lead to employment. A Vocational Centre has been completed (2018).
A classroom with sewing machines provides the opportunity for girls to learn dressmaking skills. Just the making of school uniforms would be valuable. Cooking and baking can also be taught.
Boys can learn skills of bicycle repairs, tent making and agriculture. Every young man in Western Kenya wants a small motor bike which is used as a taxi (with 2, 3, or 4 passengers who pay for their transportation). There is an employment opportunity for young people who have expertise in repairing bikes. Tents are used for all types of celebrations in Western Kenya, including weddings, funerals and school events. The costs of renting tents and chairs are high.
In all aspects of development, it is essential that the local community has ownership of projects. This was seen at Rapogi Lwanda from the day I spoke with the men in the shade of the trees and trellises at the Church. Faith’s "Aunt Lilly" had shown the way by providing the organizational structure and taking on the role of being "the eyes and ears of the community". When her family could no longer take additional orphan children, the Community-based Organization became the community’s eyes and ears. One of the first evidences was the re-building of a one-roomed house for a widow whose home was destroyed by a deluge. When a van was needed to transport eggs and for emergency use, the local Community-based Organization gathered one-third of the vehicle cost. That was seven years ago, and the vehicle was a year 2000 Toyota van with 200,000 miles on the clock. It filled a need for a while, and the community’s care and maintenance of that vehicle provided a confirming signal that a 'new' vehicle will be given meticulous care and maintenance. A 2010 Toyota van with 100,000 kilometers was purchased and now provides transportation for class field trips and emergency visits to hospitals for students and the community.
The original “Story of Faith” was about a special young woman. We have been privileged to be part of a story that became much larger.
Norene and I came to believe that, amid early uncertainties, we were meant to help one orphan girl achieve academic success and become a leader to her people. Faith, with her best friend Hannah, are already leaders in their Church and wherever they go. They sing in a quartet of four girls, and Faith writes and composes songs in Luo, Swahili and English.
Faith sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) in November 2016 and she has completed the second year of the Music Program at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton..
Meanwhile there is another faith, a dynamic belief put into practice, which a village community in Western Kenya shares as they build their primary school.
The following are the words of a song composed by Faith. A recording of this as performed by the Segero SDA Secondary School choir is on Youtube, reference Faith Akoth Ouma.
“One Day I was wondering What is Life about
Life is full of heartaches, restlessness and dying
Then a gentle stranger whispered words of Love
Pointing me to heaven Wrote my name above.
I know where I’m going And who I going t
I have a friend named Jesus Waiting there for me
He has given me something only He could give
Gave His life in payment so that I can live
Friends if you are searching For a better way
I’m recommending Jesus, trust in Him today
He will give the Spirit that no other can
Come and travel with me To the Promised Land”