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The Gift of the Pregnant Cat

Want to serve another community? Ask them what they need.
Community members raise money for an additional classroom at the primary school in Endonyio Sidai, Kenya in July, 2015. All rights mine.

We made it to Rangi Saba the night before the harambee. We were told Rangi Saba is Kiswahili for seven colors, and that harambee means “let us all pull together”. The post-independence Kenyan motto is also what community fundraisers are called. Everyone comes together to support a cause. 

This harambee was to raise money for the primary school in Endonyio Sidai. So many donors and nonprofits had matched the money raised by this community high atop an escarpment over the Great Rift Valley. I was finally going to see the school with the new borehole and new well. Except the water wasn’t running. Yet.

All the women sat squarely in the sun on a dry hillside without even spots of shade from the acacia trees. We were escorted around the perimeter and seated in plastic lawn chairs with the men under a canvas canopy. The students danced and sang. They wore their school uniforms, American sneakers, and Maasai beaded necklaces tiered and stacked around their necks. The boys jumped as high and straight into the air as they could.

After the performances, the fathers lined up first. Then the mothers. Then the guests. The whole community would pull together to donate money for the next classroom of the school.

Many of the 109 students were walking 13 kilometers to attend school here. It had grown from one to six classrooms, each one built adjacent to the last. Broad concrete floors, big windows, large smooth blackboards, and wooden desk/chair combos that reminded me of one-room schoolhouses. Each classroom was spacious and headed by a Kenyan teacher.

We met with the school board in one of the classrooms after the harambee. They passed around large bowls of lamb meat and talked about the upcoming national exams that determine whether or not students get into high school. And about Diana, the student who, again, was getting the highest grades. After all the scholarships and academic issues had been discussed it was finally time to go to the well. The well that had yet to draw any water.

We walked down the hill to a 300-meter-deep borehole. A church group had donated a diesel-powered generator to operate the well and run water to wide basin sinks closer to the school. But it wasn’t nearly powerful enough to pull water up from such a depth. It sat, unused in a pumphouse a few yards away. The only functioning mechanism was the lock on the door.

“That,” Samuel Muhunyu, told me, “is the gift of the pregnant cat.”

I cocked my head to the side, waited for his explanation.

“We so appreciate the generosity offered to this community,” Metro’s Kenyan partner continued, “These are gifts from the heart. But if the people cannot use what they are given without having to raise more money to buy more things …”

With the best of intentions, good people had raised money to buy this generator and donated it to the school. But they hadn’t done their due diligence. They hadn’t conducted an environmental assessment or a feasibility study. They didn’t know how deep the borehole was, how powerful the generator needed to be to pull the water up from that depth, what the cost of diesel was, or how else they might be able to operate the generator to actually get water flowing to the school.

Without meaning to, good people gave the gift of an additional expense to the community they were so eager to help.

Metrotarians John Neumeister and Jim Bryson examine the diesel generator in the pumphouse at the Endonyio Sidai Primary School in Kenya, 2015. All rights mine.

For a time, the basin sinks remained dry and the women and children still hiked for water, hauling jerrycans from ropes pressed against their foreheads, the weight of the water on their backs.

You don’t always have to do a formal needs assessment or environmental impact study. But you do have to start by asking communities what they need and how best you might meet those needs together. Are there additional expenses that might be incurred? Do they foresee any potentially negative consequences? What would be most helpful?

In the case of the well at Endonyio Sidai it took another donor who stepped in to fund the monthly cost of the extra diesel it takes to run this generator. A generator that isn’t powerful enough burns through more diesel. And for now, buying more diesel is the best solution.

“Sometimes a cheaper, less fancy intervention will work for the time being,” was one of Samuel’s many suggestions to individuals and organizations that want to help.

Samuel Muhunyu was the inimitable executive director of Network for Ecofarming in Africa. I always loved that his name is pronounced Sam-well. He always taught us to do well and do as much good as possible. He partnered with the Rotary Club of Eugene Metropolitan’s John Neumeister and Gwen Meyer for almost twenty years as the local champion guiding all of Friends of Kenya Schools and Wildlife’s vast work throughout the country. He spoke Kikuyu, Kiswahili, and English. He understood several other local languages and some Italian. And in every language, he was respected and trusted.

We lost Samuel this July. His passing was as devastating as it was unexpected. But his legacy lives on. His lessons live on in the work we do and how we partner with other communities, in the questions we ask.

Samuel was a man of wisdom and insight, he shared his compassion and understanding of the human condition with humility and grace,” Metrotarian Jim Bryson also worked with Samuel for years on a variety of community development projects.

We’ve all learned the same important lesson about serving communities you are partnering with: ask what is needed.

Good intentions still require best practices.

3 Responses

  1. Wonderful story and better told. Thanks for sharing your lesson about serving communities. This describes ‘Service above Self”.

  2. What a wonderful lesson for all of us trying to help international communities and reminding us why it is important to speak with all stakeholders before launching a program. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you, friends! We were so fortunate to have worked with him, learned from him, and called him a friend.

    Brian, you’re so right. Stakeholder insight and investment are the most important parts of building successful partnerships at home and abroad <3

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