Central Albertans supporting disadvantaged students in Africa

The terrain in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province couldn’t be more different from Central Alberta. Winding red dirt roads rife with jagged rocky patches wind through fields of tea and maize, up dusty brown hills still parched from dry season and an ongoing drought.

Advocate reporter Paige Aarhus is in Africa for two weeks with members of the Lacombe-based charity A Better World. She is filing stories about the people she meets and the issues they face. Today she describes the impact on Kenyan schools from the charitable efforts of several Central Alberta schools and businesses.

NAKURU, KENYA — The terrain in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province couldn’t be more different from Central Alberta. Winding red dirt roads rife with jagged rocky patches wind through fields of tea and maize, up dusty brown hills still parched from dry season and an ongoing drought.

Traffic hold-ups are caused more by herds of slow-moving donkey and cattle than SUVs, and everywhere there are people — people tilling gardens, people hauling shoulders of firewood and sacks of potatoes, schoolchildren in matching uniforms waving at passing cars.

It’s when you head to the schools themselves that the shadow of Central Alberta is cast. A host of projects from the Maasai Mara reserve to the cities of Kericho and Nakuru offer local children a better chance at a good education, thanks to the efforts of schools and businesses in the Red Deer region.

At the Kiprengwe School near Kericho, over 580 students are screaming and playing on the hilltops. They have three new classrooms after students from H.J. Cody High School in Sylvan Lake and local business Carpet Colour raised $25,000 in only a year.

The old classroom, a dilapidated wood shack, stands several metres away from the new one. It’s still being used for preschool students, but that will change in July, when another classroom funded jointly by H.J. Cody and the Kenyan government opens.

Principal Wesley Koech described the changes he’s seen since the new rooms opened.

“We are so happy. Our children are so happy. The attitude of study has improved because the children are more comfortable,” he said.

The new classrooms are simple concrete buildings with long lines of wooden desks reminiscent of Alberta’s one-room schools.

It might not seem like much, but these buildings keep out the rain. Windows allow the air to circulate. Children come to school more because it’s bearable to sit inside for hours.

“Almost daily we have more children,” said Koech.

Two-dozen students from H.J. Cody will make the trek with Lacombe charity A Better World to Kenya in July for the grand opening of the new classrooms. When they get there, a sea of young faces will be waiting to greet them, cheer them and gawk at them.

“They are not used to seeing Canadians. You are so different. We are very excited. The children are waiting eagerly,” said Koech.

Further south, near the city of Nakuru, staff at Ringa School chalk their improvements up to divine providence.

In 2002, volunteers with A Better World were having a picnic on a dusty hilltop when they were approached by some students from the school, which was just metres away. After visiting and seeing the need for new facilities, the volunteers enlisted help from students at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School and Lacombe Composite High School. Together with Red Deer business AEI Wealth Management, the students financed and built six new classrooms at the school in 2006 and 2007.

“You could not imagine our surprise and our luck. We are blessed,” said principal John Bariwot.

A carefully-fenced Canadian maple sapling stands next to a fluttering Kenyan flag in the Ringa schoolyard. Bariwot planted the tree in November 2007, when AEI’s classrooms were unveiled.

Since the classes have been built, enrolment swelled to over 450 children from less than 300. The school has achieved top results in its district two years in a row, and two of its students were selected to attend the prestigious national academy in Nakuru last year.

“The Canadians have done such good work. Students like to be associated with a good facility. Actually we think we will have to restrict enrolment soon because so many people want to come here,” said Bariwot.

A new building for kindergarten students is running behind schedule, but should be open by July. Both schools are struggling to supply the kids with drinkable water, and hoping for some wells and drill pumps in the near future.

Darcy Mainville, who runs the numbers for A Better World, said even the poor economy won’t slow those projects down.

The Canadian dollar slipped from parity to its normal rate of about 70 cents to the dollar, which reduced A Better World’s 2009 budget by about $500,000, said Mainville. But surprisingly, despite a recession and global financial meltdown, donors are still giving.

“From a financial perspective, the biggest factor against us is the exchange rate. The driving force is people’s generosity, and if we can show the need is there, the community will probably come through,” he said.

The $500,000 shortfall doesn’t mean existing projects will be left in the cold, said Mainville. Instead, A Better World will wait for a better economy before taking on any ambitious new projects.

“I anticipate we will continue no problem,” he said.


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