Emory Report
June 25, 2007
Volume 59, Number 33

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June 25, 2007
Under African skies: Reckoning in Kenya

Alan Cattier is director of academic technologies with AAIT Academic Technology Services.

On May 15, I began a journey to return to Meru, Kenya, a location that I had initially come to know four years earlier. At that time, Dr. Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, had come to me to ask what the University did with its surplus computers. He went on to tell me the story of Emory pediatrician Dr. George Brumley and his wife Jean who, with ten members of their family, perished tragically in a plane crash on the side of Mt. Kenya in 2003. Dr. Schuchard was leading an effort to celebrate the life of the Brumleys by coordinating a gift to an all-boys boarding school—The Meru School in Meru, Kenya—and he wanted to know whether there would be any computers that could possibly form part of a gift.

From an initial donation four years previous, to a trip to Meru to set up an Internet connection for the school in 2005, I had seen this initiative evolve and take root. Now I was returning in 2007 to see what future shape our efforts might take alongside a larger University initiative to Meru which was being considered. Some reflections:

May 18:
Travel to Meru. One of the things that strikes me immediately about being in Nairobi is the number of people. The sidewalks are filled, the sides of the road are filled, the roads are filled. There are donkey-pulled carts next to bikes next to trucks next to buses next to ubiquitous vans called “matatus” which carry passengers as surrogate taxis throughout the country. Very minimal traffic coordination—either officially or unofficially.

As the road begins to climb out of Nairobi, into the Central Highlands, the traffic becomes less congested on the road, but everywhere around you, people walk alongside it. The country is lush, green with a fresh rain, and crops of coffee, tea and pineapple line the hillsides. Cows and goats graze without interruption as our van passes and climbs further along the flanks of Mt. Kenya.

May 19: To arrive in Meru is to arrive in a large town of roughly 50,000 inhabitants. Our home this year, as in previous years’ expeditions, is the Three Steers Hotel that sits on the edge of town, adjoining one of the many open markets, but separated from it by a very large and imposing gate. After settling in, it’s over to Meru School to meet the headmaster, David Kariuki, and reacquaint with some of the teachers that have been working with us the past four years.

The excitement of arrival is in hearing the latest rankings for the school from David. Meru School, like any other school in Kenya, is judged based on the performance of its students. When the initial request came to provision computers in 2003, the school was ranked nearly at the bottom of the nation, close to 500th. In 2007, Meru, through the headmaster’s energetic leadership, the teacher’s dedication, and the boys’ hard work had climbed to be a top fifty school in the nation, number one in its region. To hear the headmaster talk
about it, it is a miracle.

May 20: Today is spent updating the computers and talking with the faculty. With me are three colleagues from Emory’s Academic and Administrative Information Technology Division: Ade Afonja, David Lower and José Rodriguez. Updating the lab takes but a few hours, but in the course of doing it, we soon realize that the Internet connection we enabled two years ago, paid for by the school’s alumni, is barely serviceable. We contact the provider and attempt to troubleshoot, but the reliability is just not there.

The incredible thing about the boys at this school — indeed, my perception of many of the people I meet in Kenya — is just how much good they can derive from a challenging situation. On this day, a German teacher walks in with his class and sends his students to their e-mail. In his class, he has established a conversation between students in Kenya and students in Germany discussing global warming. Students in Meru can easily see the glaciers on nearby Mt. Kenya melting, and they e-mail with their counterparts observations about temperature and precipitation and the changing nature of each other’s environment. Many of these boys had never seen a keyboard, much less a computer, when they arrived at the school. But here they were, being witnesses and teachers of their place. There isn’t much bandwidth in Meru compared to America, but there is enough to do this.

May 21:
As Ade and Jose work with faculty and students at the Meru School, David and I travel with
Dr. Schuchard and his wife, Keith, to a nearby village, Maua, to visit a hospital. The place is just pulsing with people. We’re there to inventory infrastructure and technology in case the University decides to
send medical residents for training in Meru. What I find in the facility is an incredible sense of family and community working together on health issues. This is particularly striking in the children’s ward and the palliative care clinic for AIDS patients. As sobering as a place like this can be, it is positively alive.

May 22: David and I travel to Isiolo, a town with a significantly higher Islamic population that sits at the edge of a desert landscape. At no time in Kenya do I feel like there is a recognizable context for me, but this area is a vision. In a very compact area you see Bedouin tending their camel herds, Christian Kenyans in normal Western attire, Islamic women dressed in black wearing full face veils and a traditional abaya, and then the Maasai, with their Scottish- inspired tartan patterns with ornate jewelry and necklaces. I have trouble believing what I am seeing.

Going to Africa inspires this type of reaction. It is the sense of reckoning incredible difference at every pole of navigation. I am ever so grateful for the sheer privilege of my family, my friends, my education, my country, my job — but none of them had prepared me for this trip or for this moment. It is the invitation, for me, to see and know the world afresh for both its beauty and hardship and rawness and difference. Speaking of privilege, I am grateful to have the moment.