July 6, 2004

Memorial links Emory, Kenyan school


By Stephanie Stinn

Six microscopes, no electricity and a library consisting of just a few books.

That's all the Meru School in Meru, Kenya, had to its name when Ron Schuchard arrived with his wife, Keith, to teach at the all-boys secondary boarding school in 1963. Schuchard added to the library by bringing a newly purchased set of encyclopedias.

"It was just the most basic operation," said Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English.

He and his wife were two of 40 newly minted college graduates who joined Teachers for East Africa, a precursor to the Peace Corps. The teachers were sent to secondary schools in Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Uganda just as these countries had received their independence from Britain. The Schuchards taught at Meru School until 1965.

They returned to the school in 1985 and again in 2003. Not much had changed. The same six microscopes and the 1963 encyclopedias were being used by current students. The school now had electricity but still cooked on a wood-burning stove. The most significant change was that enrollment had shot up from its original 120 to 700.

Situated near Mt. Kenya (Africa's second-highest mountain), the school shared its landscape last summer with a tragedy that affected the Emory and Atlanta communities. In July 2003, Emory pediatrician and School of Medicine professor emeritus George Brumley, his wife Jean and 10 other family members died when their plane crashed into Mt. Kenya. Brumley's career was marked by a dedication to bettering Atlanta through philanthopic efforts, including work with the Whitefoord Community Project, an inner-city education and health program.

Schuchard was in Meru at the time of the crash, and returned to Emory with the death on his mind. An idea for an educational memorial to the Brumley family at the Meru School soon was hatched. It was a way for Emory to honor Brumley's legacy at a school that could truly stand to benefit. Schuchard broached the idea with Bill Fox, former senior vice president for Institutional Advancement and longtime friend of the Brumley family, and the two asked then-President Bill Chace for support for the memorial, later receiving additional support from President Jim Wagner and the President's Cabinet.

"We saw this as just a great opportunity for Emory to reach out to Kenya, which Dr. Brumley had loved, and indeed, that's why he was there: to share the love of that country with his family. Frankly, I had no trouble raising the money—it was one of the easier tasks I've ever had," said Fox, who added that funds came from several anonymous donors.

Schuchard then contacted Alan Cattier, co-director of the Academic Technologies Group (ATG), and Don Harris, chief information officer and vice provost for the Information Technology Division (ITD), with an idea of creating a computer lab at the Meru School.

It just so happened that an IT training lab with 17 computers had closed in December. Computers at Emory often have multiple lives, Cattier said. Going to Kenya was just a little further than they typically travel for second, third and fourth lives.

Logistical planning started immediately, and the group enlisted the expertise of Ade Afonja, ATG support specialist. Meeting weekly in the Cox Hall computer lab, the group worked out minute details of the project, from travel arrangements to packing to electrical voltage issues.

It was a long checklist that changed frequently. One of the initial technical concerns was finding computers and electrical equipment that fit Kenya's 240-volt electricity system; the United States is on a 120-volt system.

A key figure in the project was Wahome Kaburu, an IT specialist at Kenya Methodist University (KEMU) who assisted in the lab installation once the computers were in Meru. Near the Meru School, KEMU has obvious ties to Emory since its founder Bishop Lawi Imathiu received an honorary degree from Emory in 1990.

Very early on, the group decided the Meru School project would be approached in phases, with phase one being the delivery and installation of the computers. Three laser printers also would go to Meru and the computers would be outfitted with the Microsoft Office suite.

Delivering the computers to Kenya came with its own set of issues. In January, the group had to negotiate Kenyan terrorism laws. A week before the computers left Emory, these laws changed, delaying their arrival. For five days in late April, they sat at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport then traveled to Amsterdam and finally arrived in Kenya, where they sat at the local airport for another week.

"The bureaucracy was just too strong to break through. There are so many people that need to put their stamp on something," Schuchard said.

A ceremony honoring the new computer lab was held May 18, and it was a grand affair, with Afonja, Fox and Schuchard attending to present a plaque to the school.
All 700 Meru School students, the school's Board of Governors, prominent alumni and local dancers feted the lab, with the alumni pledging to help support the lab financially--which was something of utmost concern with Schuchard.

"At the ceremony, we praised the Brumleys and talked about the good they had done and how generous they were with their own actions as well as their own resources. This was just a very small way we could reach out and express our appreciation from a university with which he had been long associated," Fox said.

Unfortunately, the computers hadn't arrived in time for the event; they showed up a day later. However, they received the same grand reception as had Afonja, Fox and Schuchard.

Afonja and Kaburu then worked 24 hours straight, installing the equipment. As late as midnight and 1 a.m., Afonja said he saw eyes peeking through dormitory windows, making sure the two were still there and still working.

For the students, just the appearance of the computers was surprising, Afonja said. The Gateway Profile 4 computers are all-inclusive machines, with the central processing unit (CPU) attached to the monitor.

"Nobody had seen anything like that. They were expecting a monitor and a separate CPU. So they were excited," Afonja said. "It was the first time, I'm guessing, that some–not all–of the students actually saw a computer."

On the day he left Meru, Afonja stopped into the lab and saw the room was packed. About 150 boys were clamoring around the computers, ready to explore.

Computers weren't the only items Emory sent to the school. Woodruff Library donated a current set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the School of Medicine donated three high-powered microscopes. Schuchard said the school's science master was grateful for the microscopes because not only would the equipment help with lab teaching, he said it also would help school officials determine if students have malaria. Currently blood test slides are sent to Kenya's capital of Nairobi, and results take three to four weeks.

As Cattier said, the Meru School project will be done in phases, and the group is already mapping out phase two: Internet connectivity for the computer lab (feasible with the help of Kaburu and KEMU). Harris said the future projects are exciting for Emory because of their unique way of connecting the University with the rest of the world. He added that IT is considering the possibility of sending full-time staff and student workers to Meru to help with projects.

"What's exciting for us is the possibility of having a more ongoing relationship with the school, the students and the next phase of working on Internet connectivity," Harris said.

Overall support for the Meru School--monetary, educational and equipment-related--tops the group's wish list. Schuchard said he'd like to see donated goods go to the school's medical dispensary and add more equipment to the science labs. As the group recapped its Meru experience, it discussed ideas for educational exchanges and future scholarship opportunities for the Meru School and KEMU.

"It's an opportunity for us to donate not just money but good, used equipment to help make an outstanding school--maybe even a model school--in the name of the Brumleys," Schuchard said. "This is what he was trying to do as a philanthropist in Atlanta: to create model communities."

To donate or for more information on Emory's work with the Meru School, contact Schuchard at 404-727-7985 or e-mail him at engrs@emory.edu.