Jennifer Mueller

© Copyright 2005 by Jennifer Mueller 


In Kenya they call it Harambee. It's a concept that Jomo Kenyatta the first president of the country created to pull his country together and build a new nation. It was meant to build hospitals, schools, and the sort, but over the years it has been taken to a new level. Now it is used whenever there is a need for money by private citizens, school fees, medical bills, even weddings have their own party to raise the money for the actual service. My Peace Corps husband and I met in Kenya and when it came time to leave everyone was so disappointed that they wouldn't be able to come for our wedding that we decided to have a pre-wedding party for them to celebrate at. We paid for the entire party, but by the time we counted up all the gifts we received we fed about 400 people on 100 dollars.

There was one of the women that I worked with, Lucsilla, that when her second child was only a few months old was beaten severely enough to spend three months in the hospital just because she had forgotten to take her ID with her when she went out. 10 years later her ovaries were constricted in a web of scar tissue that in one spot trapped fluid and put her in great pain. The doctor suggests surgery to correct the matter and Luscilla collected the money and blood for transfusions. In Kenya there is a lack of blood because when it is collected they test it for AIDS. The policy is to tell the person if they are positive. Donations dried up because it seems no one wants to know. One gets their family and friends to go get tested to see if they are a type match and that is then set aside for that surgery only.

The date was set and Luscilla went to the hospital in the larger town in the area. We waited for news of how it went, but instead of a call she appeared in our village Kiritiri herself. There had been no operation. The Doctor never told Luscilla that she wasn't qualified to perform the surgery and when she tried to get on the schedule with someone that was he demanded an outrageous bribe.

Luscilla appeared at my door with her story. As a Peace Corps volunteer I made the equivalent of a middle range civil servant, about 178 a month US, but for our village I was probably one of the highest paid people around. I also had no family to support that would quickly eat that up in the form of food and school fees. Could I loan her 6,000 shillings to pay the deposit for a private hospital? It hadn't been an option before because the public hospital was cheaper. With the bribe added on it was all of a sudden cheaper to go with the more expensive option. Of course I couldn't just sit there and watch her doubled over in pain day after day. "Just let me get to the bank." The blood was transferred and Luscilla checked into the private hospital. This time we quickly received word that she was done and doing well. We visited her several times before she was discharged and she returned to her own house to recuperate.

Time passed and when she was well enough to travel she went to her home area. Many Kenyans have two homes one where they work and one where they were born. Their entire adult life they will work so they are able so that they can buy land, build a house, and have everything prepared for their old age in a country that doesn't really know what a pension is. Some have them but they are meager. If you have a house and a field to grow food you will live even without a pension. Luscilla had a harambee there among her large extended family to pay for the rest of the hospital fees, the pharmacy fees for the drugs she needed, all of the little bills that had piled up. When she returned she had another harambee among her coworkers and friends around where she worked. In all she gathered enough to pay off the hospital and all the other bills, all except me.

She had hoped that she would collect enough extra that she could send her son to secondary school. Kariuki had a medical problem of his own. As a young boy he had chunks of bone that would come out of his leg. Having a person with an 8th grade education explaining medical problems so that it is understandable as to what exactly was wrong was always frustrating. Kariuki had missed three years of school until Luscilla again had a harambee and raised the money for him to have a permanent treatment. I am told that he is walking around without a bone in his leg. That they wouldn't put in a metal rod until he had quit growing. Isn't that impossible? I haven't asked a doctor about that to find out.

Anyway after a three year absence he entered the fifth grade and with only three years of schooling after that he passed his Standard Eight exam on the first try with high marks. Luscilla sat there as they finished counting the money knowing it was me or her son and she was going to honor her word to pay me back.

"Send your son to school?" I told her quietly. "I'll pay for him to get though the rest of high school when I get back." She made about 3,000 shillings month about 60 dollars, but after the various loans she had taken out for these medical problems and to buy some land for a farm she made much less that she could use for food and necessities. She had no husband to help her; she was a single mother of two children. Luscilla would have been doing that for the next four years every term, harambee.

Kariuki by the end of the first term, which started in January and it was February before she had the money to send him, was third in his class. By the end of the second term just before I left he was first in his class. Kariuki told his mother that they had to go buy a chicken and have me for dinner. Somehow when the day came it was something like 15 people, various members of their family that came to honor the fact that I was helping their family member get through school. Side note Kenyans at least in my area are very big about you trying the food that they eat, but when the tables are turned on them they are very closed minded. I talked them into making chicken and noodles with that chicken. All it had was chicken, eggs, and flour all ingredients that they use daily. They ate the chicken, but I still wonder how many bowls of noodles were thrown away with up turned noses.

Every December I sent 500 dollars for Kariuki's fees for three years more and he graduated first in his class in December 2002. The Kenya system is odd in that your grades determine which program you go into. One grade was a B instead of an A and I was told that was enough to keep him out of medical school, but they could offer him a place in computer science or I don't remember what the other option was. Kariuki wrote an impassioned letter to me asking if I could fix a place for him in an American university. I unfortunately had to write a very long letter back informing him that Medical school here is what 10 years and millions of shillings to pay for. 13,000 dollars is roughly a million schillings more than most Kenyans would earn in a life time. School there is only three or four and he's a doctor. He had waited so long for my letter that he had missed his place in Computers or his other choice. He could enter general college and just see if some people didn't show up when the year started. You really have to wonder about a system that keeps a boy first in his class from his dreams.

Time passed and with the various quirks of the Kenya school system and lack of money it was 2 years before Kariuki was able to attend college. In the time after he had graduated he had developed a passion for electronics and wanted to pursue Electrical Engineering. Now 20 he reported to school to be told he would be going into Range Management before the school was shut down for riots after they hiked fees by 200%. We got a letter asking for information on scholarships Kariuki feared that when he finally got to school that they would never reopen, but it's a little hard to find them for a foreign country when sitting in another. I couldn't help myself. Me, well my husband and I are I paying the school fees of 5 children in primary and over the next 12 years the secondary fees for 3 more kids that would have never had a chance. They're fortunately born staggered enough that we won't be paying two in a year. A few weeks later the school was reopened. Kariuki was in college and an uncle lobbied for him to be switched to Electrical Engineering. Finally, Finally Kariuki is fulfilling his dream.

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