Be Generous. Be A Witness.

There was no one like Samuel Karanja Muhunyu

There was no one like Samuel Karanja Muhunyu. 

When we went to a rehabilitation center in Kenya I wasn’t sure what to expect. But Samuel wanted to know if there were ways we might get involved. 

Adults with significant physical and intellectual disabilities had been abandoned here or brought here by family members who simply couldn’t care for them. Some were nonverbal, others had mobility issues. One of them was singing. 

We followed her voice into an immaculate room with the then-executive director, herself a formidable business-savvy woman with an expansive international career. Just like Samuel.

“Give her your hand,” she told me. 

I walked to where the blind singer was smiling, sitting cross-legged on the floor with one hand outstretched. She took mine in hers and brought it up to her face. I thought she was going to kiss it and I didn’t know how to react.

“She’s smelling you for sunblock. She wants to know if you’re a mzungu,” the executive director told me. She was smiling too. Samuel had told me ‘mzungu’ was Swahili for a white person. The young woman smelled all of our hands and welcomed us. 

Everything was too sweet. This place was too special. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the deep humanity of a place? An experience? I could feel the tears coming.

I didn’t want to make a scene so I excused myself and went outside as fast but as subtly as I could. I was grateful for my big sunglasses but tried my hardest not to cry. My fellow Metrotarian Jim Bryson followed me out into the sun. 

The grounds were lovely. The facilities were spotless. Colorful handmade quilts were draped across every bed. It was a remarkable organization with an even more impressive budget. 

Primarily financed by a religious organization, their entire operating budget was somewhere around $20k USD. But there were serious questions about how much control the executive director actually had. The more we talked with her the more concerned we became that she didn’t have the autonomy she needed to continue to successfully run this comprehensive facility. 

“Can’t I just write her a check myself?” I asked Jim. This dynamic woman was working so hard with one assistant to run an incredible organization with dignity, humanity, and integrity – to give vulnerable people a cozy home. Neither of us had ever been so bowled over by an NGO.

“Or we could do a district grant. We could apply for a global grant! Maybe we could structure it for multi-year funding? Or what if they were our paddle raise next year?” My mind was racing, I quit fighting the tears and kept rushing through possibilities, trying to think of every way our club could help. 

Jim was quiet, calm.  

“Let’s wait to see what Samuel says,” he said. “Samuel will know what to do.” 

Metro had worked with Samuel, (pronounced Sam-well), since Gwen Meyer and John Neumeister started Friends of Kenya Schools and Wildlife in 2004.

As the executive director of the Network for Ecofarming in Africa since 2003, Samuel Muhunyu made friends all over the world. Many of those friends became professional collaborators. John and Gwen partnered with him for twenty years.

This July we lost a great man. 

His passing is a shock. He was a gift to everyone who knew him. And he had a calm, informed answer for any question. The right solution for every problem based on experienced insight – a career of empowering communities.

He was a polyglot. He was a pioneer of the Slow Food movement and an internationally respected local champion. He always knew the right thing to do. And he wasn’t afraid of the truth, even when it’s hard.

It is heartbreaking to suddenly speak about a titan in the past tense. Sometimes we use words like legend, icon, or mentor hyperbolically. This time, words like “titan” aren’t an exaggeration. They’re a quiet and beautiful truth, an acute and profound loss. 

In 2015, Samuel ultimately decided that the way the rehab center was being run was not sustainable. Corruption seemed too likely to compromise this amazing organization. Whether we supported it as individuals or as a collective Rotary effort, he wasn’t convinced the money would actually stay under the executive director’s skillful administration. 

We left. 

And now he’s gone. But his impact is immeasurable. His lessons are timeless. I am forever grateful Gwen and John gave Metro the opportunity to call Samuel a friend and to work with him as a partner. We never would have known him otherwise.

Image description: Samuel Muhunyu sits on John and Gwen's deck with his hands folded. Green grass stretches behind him surrounded by colorful trees and foliage.

The last time Samuel was in Oregon we sat outside on John and Gwen’s deck. It was a very Oregon day – brisk but beautiful.

“When are you coming back to Kenya?” he asked me. 

I told him I wasn’t convinced that Kenyans benefited from me buying another plane ticket as much as if I donated that money directly to FKSW. How could they possibly benefit from me being there as much as I do? Another trip seemed selfish.

“You are a witness,” he said without hesitating, his wise way of speaking without pretension.

“You go back to advocate and fundraise in your country. You can speak from personal experience, from the heart about what you’ve seen, our successes here.” 

He was right. I’ve seen the empowerment of students, valedictorians, teachers, farmers, ranchers, herders, weavers, butchers, tailors, healthcare workers, entrepreneurs, librarians, and co-op members myself. I’ve shaken their hands and listened to their stories. I want to share their inspiring stories. I want us to do even more.

I don’t know if or when I’ll go back. But I do know that Samuel left his beautiful country better than he found it. 

If you give the local champion your hand and listen to their answers, you will learn everything you need to know about service above self. If your passion is philanthropy your priority should be empowering the people you partner with. 

Sometimes that means saying no and walking away. But when the answer is yes, always trust the local experts, their experience, and their vision. And if you have an opportunity to visit Kenya with FKSW, do it. Listen. Be generous. Be a witness. 

Rest in peace, our dear friend. Asante sana for your legacy, your lessons, and your love of community.

Image descriptions:
1. Samuel Muhunyu helps student Irene Lechigei with her homework as they boat across Lake Baringo on a sunny day toward Kokwa Island.
2. Samuel Muhunyu sits on John and Gwen’s deck with his hands folded. Green grass stretches behind him surrounded by colorful trees and foliage.

6 Responses

  1. My heart is heavy with sadness I feel to hear of the loss of Samuel. Although I didn’t know him as well as Gwen and Heather, he made a lasting impression on me on my journey to Kenya with our Rotary International project on Kokwa Island. I won’t forget that last hug.

    1. Thank you, Claire <3 One of the things that struck me so much about Samuel is that I *don't* know him that well. Certainly not like Gwen and John's twenty-year friendship with him. Yet spending just a month with him in Kenya and visiting with him when he would come to Oregon taught me more about development and philanthropy than some of my economics classes 🙂

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