by Sean Maddox- CODE Director of Development
Kenya Nov 30, 2009
Two Degrees of Separation
Over the past 24 hours I found myself return to a district in South Western Kenya that I had worked in in 2004. Never had I thought that one day I would be returning to the district of Kisii to start another literacy project. But here I am in this beautiful part of the country, surrounded by lush forests and farm lands.
After our six hour drive from Nairobi to Kisii - a drive that took us from a busy capital city through the Great Rift Valley and finally climbing about 7000 feet - we reached the Egerton University branch campus on the edge of Kisii town. This visit was a courtesy call since the University is a member of our new partner in Kenya, the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK). We were welcomed by their representative on the council, Dr. Elkana Ong'esa and then by the principal of the University branch, Dr. John Akama.
Our delegation proceeded to explain the nature of our trip and the project we were initiating in Kisii - a project that will work to support the mother tongue in primary education, along with Kiswahili and English. Dr. Akama was very excited as he is from the area and is on the Kisii Council of Elders, a group working to preserve their language and culture.
At a point in the meeting I noticed a carving that indicated that Dr. Akama had graduated from Ohio University, the same university I had attended for my Masters. Well it isn’t often that alumni from Ohio University meet in Kisii. This led to a lively conversation that excluded my delegation for a while. Our connection became closer when we learned that not only did we share the same university, but the same Faculty Advisor for our Masters thesis. I can’t wait to share this information with Dr. Bob Walter; I know this will have him laughing all day.
The next afternoon we were making another courtesy call to another member of the NBDCK. Mr. Elkana Ong’esa lives about an hour away in a community called Tabaka. Tabaka is world famous for its soapstone carvings. Elkana has moved back to Tabaka to help the Kisii Soapstone Carvers Co-op Society (KISCOOP) recover from their market decline that was experienced after the post-election riots in 2007 that shook the country. Due to the insecurity in the country at the time many clients of KISCCOP stopped procuring their products, then the global economic breakdown found Tabaca.
We were welcomed with open arms. I was overwhelmed by Elkana’s affection for everyone he greeted and worked with. Upon giving me a very warm hug (actually two) he said we have so much in common and it was just right that I had come to Tabaka. When an informal meeting started – intended for his staff and my delegation to learn more about each other - Elkana started by explaining our connections. It turns out that he had been on a teacher trainer exchange to Montreal several years before. He spoke of his love for Canada and shared that as a sculptor he had been so interested in the work of the Inuit and the Inuktitut that he traveled to Inukshuk for three weeks. According to his hosts they claimed he was the first African to ever visit them; we can be sure he was the first Kisii. So coming from Canada is what connected us?
No. He proceeded to tell me years before he had contacted CODE to help him provide books for the community library in Tabaka. Through our partner at the time, CODE arrange for the library to receive 1,000 books that are still being used in the library today.
To celebrate my visit to Tabaka on behalf of CODE and as part of their cultural tradition, they asked if I would plant a tree for the community to remember this day. Have you ever planted a tree with 20 people watching, people who grew up and in some cases still work the fields with their hands. Yes, they had a couple good laughs. Upon leaving I asked one of the Co-Op staff if she would take care of the tree so that the next time someone from CODE has the privilege to visit they can appreciate the tree that connects us all.