It happens at nearly every school. We step from the car with skin veneered in dust, and half the students constellate around us. The brave among them press in as close as breath to hold my hand and twist my hair through their fingers, hair that hangs in a bewildering sweep instead of wisping into proper clouds on one’s head. The shyer kiddos risk furtive glances before skittering off to giggle in the shade.
And nearly every time, at nearly every school, at least one student appoints himself (or herself) my Personal Ambassador to the Immediate Vicinity. He’ll flank my side, spine tall, translating the chatter of Maasai or Kikuyu. Or she’ll upbraid her jostling, rapscallion classmates, and brief me on the inner workings of the schoolyard echelon.
This time his name is Abraham.* He is earnest and small for his eleven years, and I tell him he reminds me of my middle son who is just a year older.
“Twelve?” he says, lighting up with the thought. “Then your son and I—we are nearly the same.”
He introduces all thirty kids flocked around us, giving a special preamble to one in particular: “This is Joseph; he is my little brother and I love him very much.” He asks a thousand questions (“Have you ever seen President Obama with your very eyes?”) and coaxes me across the dirt courtyard to see his classroom.
“It’s brand new,” he explains about the room, “and we do sweep it. But sometimes it has a lot of dirt like today.”
Outside again, we pick our way across the gullied earth, and Abraham eyes my camera. “Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?” His voice is animated and sincere. “I want to be a photographer like you.”
I laugh at this, at this child who speaks just the right words in his flawless English, who makes friends quicker than a smile. Photographer or not, he’s bound to go far.
It takes a full ninety minutes for the whole school to get their food dished up and eaten. During the cycles of queuing up, washing plates, and laughing through mouthfuls of githeri, I talk with some of the teachers finding a few minutes’ peace in folding chairs beneath a tree.
School attendance is burgeoning, they tell me—they’re up to more than fifteen hundred students, and still growing every year. One of the older teachers explains the enrollment spike. “It’s because of the lunch and the computers. All of the children are making sure they come to school now.”
I survey the rush of the schoolyard, and it’s easy to see how it takes a small army of people doing faithful work to keep a school this size humming along. Folks like the cooks here, who smell of cinders and woodsmoke, boiling up lunch for hours over an open fire. Teachers who deftly manage classrooms now swollen with students. A Deputy Teacher with the integrity and graciousness of a born leader. Mr. Harun, who girds our kids with foundational skills in Excel, Word, and the like, as they peck along at their keyboards.
And it’s folks like you, who give these students with such open, eager faces a reason to show up each day, who keep small stomachs filled and minds sharp and engaged. It’s you who provide the means for technology skills that will ferry our kids into a future gone digital.
When time grows thin we make the rounds of gratitude and handshakes, and tell each group how deeply we value their work. Just as I’m turning to leave, Abraham materializes once more by my side. “Please tell your son who is twelve hello from me.”
And I tell him that I will, and what I don’t add is that it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he and my son one day work shoulder to shoulder at the UN, or teach economics together, or keep each other awake with bad coffee and stale jokes as they dress wounds in some forgotten, war-wrecked nation.
Because when you boil reality down and peel it back to its core, nutrition and education are all it takes to open a world of possibility for a child like Abraham.
I pray for my new friend as we drive from the hinged metal gates, for him and for every classmate with just as much raw hope and ambition—that they’ll thrive beyond the wildest reaches of these humble roots. And I also pray that when they do, they’ll come back to bless the grandparents and neighbors who’ve pooled love and maize flour and firewood to raise them up so tall, and that their own children’s world will turn out bright and expansive.
I pray they’ll go far, ambassadors to the future, carrying the hope of East Africa with them.
*Names have been changed to preserve privacy