by Meghan Frere

This winter break I had the opportunity to visit Nyumbani Village in Kitui, Kenya on a Branch Out International trip. Our group, the Kenya Sustainable Village Project (KSVP), volunteered for two weeks at Nyumbani, and focused in part on the issue of higher education access for the youth in the village. Nyumbani, which translates to “home” in Swahili, is a village that provides a home for orphaned children in the surrounding area, including those affected by HIV/AIDs. These children live in groups with older community members, or “grandmothers” (Susus in the local language, Kikamba) and attend elementary and secondary school in the village. While some attend university or trade school upon completion of secondary school, funding remains a large obstacle for many students in the village. Access to information and application materials are also major difficulties in attaining higher education. Access to higher education would provide secondary school graduates with the opportunity to contribute to continued development in the village and other parts of the country.

Prior to our arrival in Kenya, our group did research on various issues affecting the country, as well as general Kenyan culture. We learned some Swahili, an official language in Kenya (along with English), as well as Kikamba, the language spoken in the region around Nyumbani. The group further discussed politics in Kenya and economic issues facing the country. For our work with higher education, each group member did research on private and public universities in the country, as well as trade schools.  We gathered information on each school’s location, values, and primary focus, if applicable. We also found material on the schools’ application process and possible financial aid options available. This information was compiled into a profile for each school.  The research gave us a general idea of the number and type of higher education institutions available in Kenya. These institutions range from more general universities, like large state schools in the United States, to more narrow establishments focused on science and technology or a specific trade. While I thought that we learned a lot about higher education in Kenya by gathering this information, I think that our group learned the most about the issue when we were in the country.

In Nyumbani, our group did an information session with the village’s form four students (the equivalent of high school seniors in the American education system) about their various higher education options.  KSVP members discussed our own studies and our experiences at the College of William and Mary. We then broke into groups for public schools, private schools, and trade schools and distributed the school profiles to the students. This ended up being very informative, as many of the students had clear career goals in mind already, and many seemed eager to go to college. Many of the students that I talked to aspired to be engineers or scientists, though I also spoke to some form four students interested in writing and languages. In the Kenyan school system, many degrees require specific classes taken in secondary school, so students have to have some idea of their career path early on. Learning more about the Kenyan school system and the educational interests of individual students in the village lent a new perspective to our social justice issue. This information will help future Kenya Sustainable Village Project members to more effectively help form four students at Nyumbani Village to find and apply to institutions of higher education. Further, connections that our group made with faculty at the secondary school will prove even more useful in our continued partnership with Nyumbani.

Along with our work with the village’s secondary school students, our group also performed a variety of other jobs during our time at Nyumbani.  On top of education of children living in the village, another important focus of Nyumbani is sustainability. The village uses solar power and collects rainwater for drinking and cooking. Further, Nyumbani has its own organic livestock and produce farms, or shambas. This focus influences the children’s education, and agriculture classes are a part of the high school curriculum. During our time in the village, we did work in the shambas and in processing of the various crops grown, including the high nutrient plant moringa. I study Public Policy and Environmental Science, so I found the implementation of these sustainability initiatives to be particularly fascinating.  This trip provided me with an amazing opportunity to see sustainable development in action at Nyumbani, from organic farming and collection of rainwater to use of renewable energy techniques.

This Branch Out trip has piqued my interest in both sustainability initiatives and higher education issues back home. My trip to Nyumbani has made me want to involve myself more deeply in the community. While I was previously involved in many activities related to sustainability at William and Mary, I am now more interested in sustainability in the larger Williamsburg area. While being able to volunteer internationally was an amazing opportunity, environmental and educational issues exist within the Williamsburg community that should also be addressed. Further, though I was interested in sustainable development prior to this trip, I am now interested in the field as a possible career path.

I had several firsts on this trip, including my first time in Africa, first time in the Southern Hemisphere, and first time milking a cow. This Branch Out trip gave me the opportunity to learn more about a social justice issue in Kenya, as well as other issues facing the village. I have also had the chance to see sustainable development practices, including organic farming and renewable energy use, in action. Being at Nyumbani gave me the opportunity to see concepts that I have studied in classes at William and Mary being implemented in real life. Our group also had the opportunity to learn more about higher education access in Kenya. We learned things by working in Nyumbani’s secondary school that we would not have been able to learn by simply doing research at home, and KSVP will be able to use these lessons to improve our issue education in the future.