About this Blog

Starting this winter, iMentor will begin connecting students from two remote villages in Kenya with American mentors.

In November of 2006, in preparation for the launch of the iMentor Kenya program, we traveled to Kenya and visited with teachers, students, principals and community leaders. This blog is an account of that trip, an attempt to bring back the flavor of Kenya’s evolving students, schools and villages.

To follow iMentor's trip, start at the bottom of the blog and read up...

You can also visit the iMentor Kenya Photo Gallery & Video Gallery

To learn more about iMentor, visit our website.

iMentor Kenya Rewind
The Last Three Weeks

What a truly inspirational trip. From Machakos to Sereolipi to Lamu, three weeks in Kenya were over before we knew it. Here is how we spent our time...

Week 1

After two day of travel, I arrive in Nairobi, via London, and Week 1 for iMentor Kenya starts off in celebration, then just keeps getting better.
  • I am greeted at the airport by the world's most ambitious retiree, Jane Newman, who will be my host and guide for the next three weeks.
  • Even though schools are on holiday this month, there are 200 people there to greet us and the students and faculty have many surprises in store.
  • The school has constructed a computer lab for the 20 laptop computers we are handing off (they have been donated by Pfizer). These are the first operational computers the school has ever owned.
  • After we tour the computer lab, everyone gathers in a large hall for the celebration, which is mind-blowing. Students perform songs and poems and the principal and the village pastor (who is also the Board chair for the school) give speeches about the "global village" and the power of IT. Watch the video!
  • Day 1 ends with a hike into the mountains and a wonderful dinner at Jackson's ranch.
  • Then we go back to Nairobi, to prepare for the long journey to Sereolipi, where I will meet my mentee...
  • We arrive in Sereolipi and Week 1 ends when I meet my mentee, Thomas. Thomas and I had been communicating for the last four months over email and it is an amazing moment to meet him in-person.
Week 2
  • I also get to sit down and talk with several students, including the charismatic Steve. Watch the video! Steve discusses everything from his views on education, his analysis of the Kenyan government and his hopes for the future.
  • How does a place without electricity or running water have a fully functional computer lab and internet access? We find out...
  • Week 2 ends on a high note, when Thomas and I travel to Ndonyo Wasin and I get to meet his entire family. Watch the video!
Week 3
  • After 6 days, it is time to say what becomes a surprisingly difficult goodbye to the wonderful people of Sereolipi, but not before we put up "the big picture."
  • And as soon as we're gone, Thomas reminds me what is so good about iMentor's mentoring model with THIS EMAIL.
  • After a one day stop over in Nairobi and a half-day workshop with the Machakos team, it is time to set off for Lamu. (Post coming soon)

Last few posts coming soon...


iMentor Works: What You Didn't Say

There are many amazing aspects of iMentor's program model. And one day after I leave Sereolipi, I get a shining example of one of my favorites.

While much gets said about iMentor's ability to recruit mentors who would not otherwise volunteer (81% had never served as a mentor post-college) and our ability to connect these mentors to students in communities where mentoring programs did not previously exist, we end up talking less about the power of the written word. This is truly one of the most unique and powerful components of iMentor's mentoring model.

This is why: In-person, it is not easy to say everything you want to say, or to express yourself fully to someone you have known for only a short period of time. There is something that happens when mentors and mentees sit down to write each other an email. They have time to think and reflect on what they would like to say. They have the opportunity to "compose" a message. And what comes out is a communication more fully formed, and with more depth than each pair would have been able to express in conversation.

This is obvious, of course. Think about the times you turned to a journal or wrote a letter in order to say what you really meant.

Only one day after I leave Sereolipi, I have an email from Thomas in my Inbox.

Thomas' Email
Subject: its have been good,unforgettable moment with you in -personal

Hi friend mike,

its have been days not to be forgotten in my life to be with you for five days here in Sereolipi and my homestead Ndoyno Wasin. What you have done here and visit my home will remain in my heart, soul and mind for ever. At the same time the heart of my family you have a place special for you in my family all the time. Its my hopes and believe that you have real enjoy your visit here and feel welcome again.

As usual let keep coming here all the time i hope you remember what it mean.........

More soon. I had nice rest yesterday ,more rain here. I had nice moment to show the childrens the movies through the NEW TECHNOLOGY THE PROJECTOR THE REAL LIKE , ALL THE VILLAGE LIKE IT, ITS NICE, FANTASTIC, your are hero.

Its have been a long lonely moment without you, anyway we are together via new system, the email and internet. Please my friend mike i am happy for accepting to visit us where you are not able to see your face for five day, just imagin, the bumping roads but with love you had towards as you accepted to visit. Remember I have special place in my heart which is keep marking mike. And my family were very happy to see you and greet you too.

Please let us keep our friendship keep coming,

I miss you and my eyes are itching with tears remembering more help you have given
during your visit.

We keep blessing coming ,wishing nice, best of luck in your work.

I have real learn alot from you. I send my heartfelt thanks and regards to your family. With you i have learn alot.

May God bless your journey here in Kenya. Have safe journey to Machakos, then Nairobi then Lamu. Remember i pray for your trip.

From your mentee,



Leaving Sereolipi & The Big Picture

After six amazing days in Sereolipi, it is time to say what becomes a surprisingly difficult goodbye before we start our journey back to Nairobi. Thomas and I are up before sunrise, to work on one final project together before we depart.

The problem: while Sereolipi has more than 30 computers, only two of them are connected to the internet. This is fine for when Thomas is teaching MS Office, but has so far limited his use of the internet in his teaching. It has also made it difficult for him to model tasks for his students. Imagine trying to explain how to use Excel to a group of students with no previous knowledge of computers or (obviously) spreadsheets.

No longer. The answer is simple and looks miraculous once we get it up. The answer is a projector and there is a small moment where both Thomas and I sit back and smile when we see the internet thrown up on the wall. This will revolutionize the way he is able to teach.

What is the first thing we show? Sereolipi Primary School's new website, of course. Then iMentor's website. Then, we throw in a DVD that had been donated to the school. All of a sudden, there are tigers and lions crawling across the wall. There is music playing. People poke their heads into the room, all of them surprised, some of them audibly. It is like a small movie theater landed in the middle of Sereolipi.

I think to myself, this is the thing that lands the "cool" factor. The people who are coming in, amazed, are not students but warriors and parents. My mind races to community movie nights, to internet demonstrations for non-students. For a moment I consider whether this large image can become one of the tipping points for education in Sereolipi. Cache for the school...

But there is little time to ponder that. Thomas and I have to stay goodbye. And Thomas is saying, over and over again, "OK Mike, we keep going over email. We have a lot of work to go. We have got to keep it going."

And we will...

Postscript: On the drive back, we get what Kenyan roads are famous for, a flat tire. As I expected, this one is no match for Jane.


Meet the Family: A Trip to Ndonyo Wasin

A day after our Lewa visit and a stop back in Sereolipi for more work with Thomas in the computer lab, we set off again on another day trip to a place I have heard much about, the "real bush" Samburu land of Ndonyo Wasin.

Tangent: The contrast of these days, from working in the computer lab to participating in more traditional activities in the rural areas has me increasingly excited about the possibility of Sereolipi's evolution. That it need not be a coup of modernism, or a fight against it. It feels like the very first hints at what a prosperous and diverse Samburu life might look like twenty years from now. The hope is not that the village overflows with computer engineers and PHD's. The hope is that the village overflows with choices.

And we are off. 26 miles of paths and a late afternoon arrival. We go immediately to the place where Thomas was raised. To visit his mother, his sisters and his brother in their manyatta.

Thomas and his brother Stephen. Also, Thomas' family looking at pictures of the school where he works.

Thomas' mother gives me this traditional Samburu "mala." This is a flask that holds milk, and is given to a woman as a part of Samburu marriage proposal. Thomas' mother gives it to me for "my future wife." (See the video for other gifts I am given.)

It is an amazing experience, to meet the people I have been learning about over the last four months of email exchanges with Thomas. His family is extremely important to him. His father died when he was just 15 years-old. In Samburu culture, the oldest male takes over responsibility for the family, is in charge of their well-being. Thomas takes this charge very seriously, a pressure that was compounded by tough decisions the family has needed to make along the way.

As Thomas and his family describe it, after his father's death, the family began working as "slaves." They worked for a more prosperous Samburu family, taking care of their livestock. After a couple of years they had saved up enough money to send one child to school. This child was to go off, get an education, and then get a job to support his family (and the education of his younger siblings). At the time, both Thomas and his brother were old enough to attend school. The Lolipuske's put their money on Thomas.

But perhaps it is better to let Thomas explain. Here he is, with his family, from our visit to Ndonyo Wasin.

Meet the Lolipuske's

View the Ndonyo Wasin Photo Gallery


Sera Camp, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy & BBC Mission Africa

After three nights in Sereolipi we set off just before sundown to spend the night at Sera camp, part of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. It is a wonderful two hour drive through the bush and I ride in the back of Jane's Landrover with Thomas and the three warriors we are taking with us for the journey.

Paul, Tringus and Lucas

As the sun is setting we turn a corner to find three men standing in what appears to be the middle of nowhere with walkie talkies and guns. We have arrived.

The wonderfully outfitted camp where will be spending the night was actually built as part of a BBC program called "Mission Africa." The program, think Extreme Home Makeover, followed 15 fifteen artisans from the UK (plumbers, carpenters, electricians, interior designer and architects, to name but a few of the skills) who volunteered to spend 6 weeks of their lives developing a remote but growing community conservation initiative with the Samburu. The result is the camp in which we stay, and hopefully increased attention to this part of the country. Learn more about the BBC project HERE or watch a video about Lewa HERE.

Center Camp, where we take our meals

My lodge (left) and the view from my bed (right), where elephants come to drink in the mornings...

My bed & shower...all made from materials found in the bush.

The security guard who sleeps just outside my lodge all night and the warriors cooking breakfast over a small fire the next morning.

Extreme Mike Makeover

There is a surprise for me after breakfast. The warriors come into my lodge with big smiles on their faces and begin removing pieces of jewelry.

They have decided. It is time for me to dress like a real Samburu man.

Then it is time to embark on what is quickly becoming a favorite Samburu pastime, the taking of digital pictures.
This is the first time I see Thomas in his traditional Samburu attire. Also the first time he has seen me in mine.

Then Together...

Too see all of the pictures from Lewa, click on the image below.


Sereolipi Photo Tour

Want to see more pics from Sereolipi? Take a photo tour of the village by clicking on the image below.


A Website Grows in the Bush

Thomas doesn't waste any time. After a tour of the school and a great lunch, Thomas says, "We have a lot of work to do."

What I begin to understand over my first few days is the challenge and the pressure of being the only computer expert (read: functional knowledge of computers) in an entire village. Until his first class graduates, it's all up to Thomas. This is a challenge he takes on with pleasure and pride. Over the course of our visit, Thomas wants to talk to me about resources on the internet, about what else he can be doing with students in his computer class.

Thomas is strong in Microsoft office and classes have focused on using the various programs it offers, along with typing and writing skills. What he is interested in is in bringing the internet more fully into his classroom. At first we begin making a list of internet resources and websites he can use. Then we decide to take it one step further.

The Website

Thomas and I decide that Sereolipi Primary School should have its own website. That it should be a living website, a portal through which the school can provide the world with continually updated information on life in Sereolipi and Samburu culture. We begin devising a structure so that each student can contribute. Then we put it up...

Luckily, iMentor has already developed a great curriculum project where mentors and mentees can work together to create a website. It uses an extraordinary program offered by Google, called Google Page Creator. Page Creator makes it easy for anyone with a Gmail account to create and publish a webpage. It offers a variety of templates, easy to edit page designs, and perhaps most importantly, it hosts all of these pages on Google's servers for free.

While I am there, Thomas and I create the homepage. We also create a page of internet links that may be helpful to students (everything from news sites, to You Tube, to free e-books, to online educational games). Students will be encouraged to search the web and add links to this page, working together to build Sereolipi's database of internet resources.

When students return to school (early 2007) they will begin to work on fleshing out the site. Early projects will include:
  • Each student will work on writing a biography and then post the biography as their own webpage in the "About our Students" section.
  • The class will work together to create an online Sereolipi Primary School Photo Gallery.
  • Students will work in small groups on webpages that explain and celebrate Samburu culture. These pages will be located in the About Samburu Culture section of the site.
  • Posting samples of their work to the 2007 Sereolipi Computer Class Goals section of the site that Thomas and I have created. This page is designed as a way to create and track specific goals and benchmarks for the class next year.

And this is only the beginning. If you have ideas for projects for the class, please share! You can post them as comments to this blog or email them to Mike O'Brien at iMentor (mike@imentor.org).

Check out the Sereolipi Primary School website HERE

Sereolipi 2.0 (The Computer Lab)

It is hard to describe what an achievement this is, a fully functional and internet-connected computer lab in the middle of the Kenyan bush. The school's principal calls it, "leapfrogging the industrial age." From most places throughout town, it looks like a mirage. How does it happen?

One answer is: Sereolipi's school (especially its Principal and village chief) has been wonderfully forward thinking and open to change. Another is: Jane makes great introductions.

Sereolipi's computer lab, which launched in January of 2006, is the product of an extraordinary collaboration.

Enter Whitney Tilson (T2 Partners LLC / Tilson Mutual Funds / Teach for America) and Bill Ackman (Pershing Square Capital Fund). These two got together around a big idea that is followed by a big question. The idea: to bring the internet and computers to Sereolipi, a place without electricity, phone lines or cellular reception. The question: what happens next?

A computer lab was built. A solar panel was installed. So was a satellite dish. Over 30 laptop computers were donated through Helen Suskin-Lang at Pfizer.

Over the course of the day, the solar panel automatically tracks the movement of the sun, to provide maximum power to the lab.

What happens next? The answer to this question grows almost monthly and begins with Sereolipi's first computer class, in February 2006. Lesson #1 was titled: What is a Computer? When students first entered the newly constructed classroom, they mistook the laptops for TV's.

And what has happened over the course of this first year. Students have learned the basics, including how to operate and maintain computers, Microsoft Word, and image manipulation. Along the way, students learned typing skills and got extra opportunities to practice English language skills, two opportunities that raise them above a large part of their competition in Kenya's competitive job market. These students will enter high school (which does not have computers or the internet) with a huge leg up.

Students hard at work...these students have stayed at school during the month-long holiday to receive extra instruction.

And what's next? In just this last month, in conjunction with iMentor Kenya, the school has made yet another leap forward. For a detailed description of each of these new projects, see this post.
  • Beginning this winter some of the students will receive American mentors through iMentor Kenya and all students will receive email accounts through iMentor. This will further empower students by providing them with baseline email and internet skills that are also attractive commodities in Kenya's evolving job market.
  • My mentee Thomas (who is also the computer teacher at the school) and I have created an ambitious workplan for the computer lab in 2007. Throughout the year, I will continue to work with Thomas on lesson plans and give him access to iMentor's innovative curriculum and resources.
...And the computer lab has not even celebrated its first anniversary. The question snowballs with possibility: what's next?

Bill Ackman has continued his support of Sereolipi, including building a new dormitory for boys (with solar power) and installing taps on Sereolipi's water tanks, to provide running water.

Whitney Tilson continues to work vigorously to introduce American professionals to life in Sereolipi, and has begun a scholarship program for high school students who cannot afford school fees.


Meet Steve!

It is amazing, the number of students I have a chance to meet in Sereolipi. As I have mentioned before, all schools in Kenya are on holiday this month, but there are maybe twenty students who have stayed on in Sereolipi, to receive extra instruction during the holiday break. I had a chance to sit down and talk with several students, including Steve, one of the more outgoing students I've met this trip. Steve is excited to talk to us and later, he comes back and asks if he can add to what he's said.

Steve, along with Joy (from Machakos), will be one of the first students to join iMentor Kenya this winter. See him here, as he discusses why he came to school and his views on education, along with his evaluation of Kenya and its president, what he thinks about America and his hopes for the future.

Steve Speaks...


Education Moves: The Thorn Tree Project

So many factors (and people) have come together to inspire the education boom in Sereolipi. Maybe none bigger than the Thorn Tree Project, part of the Sereolipi Nomadic Education Trust, designed and run by Jane Newman.

The Thorn Tree Project inspires an investment in education from the very beginning. In the last four years, the project has established nine pre-schools over a 40-mile radius in the rural areas surrounding Sereolipi and Ndonyo Wasin.

The pre-schools were designed to inspire a love of education among communities where most families were nomadic and few parents could even write their names. Each school serves 25-35 students and are assigned to a group of families. In order to accomplish these goals, 3 of the pre-schools actually travel with the families when they migrate (the families have agreed to move together) and six schools are located in central areas, where families tend to congregate. It is an amazing example of a project that is designed to work with the communities it serves.

What do these schools look like? The largest thorn tree in a given area becomes the site of the preschool. Branches are placed around it in a circle to make walls and the black board is propped against the tree trunk. The children are given an exercise book and a pencil but all the teaching materials are home grown. Seedpods and stones are used as counting materials.

When the project began, less than 10% of children in Sereolipi and Ndonyo Wasin attended school. Graduates from the Thorn Tree Project have increased enrollment at the two primary schools from 130 to 460 students over the last four years. Many of the children entering primary school are the first members of their family to ever attend a school.

To learn more about the Thorn Tree Project, and to find out how you can get involved, visit their website.


Photos courtesy of the Thorn Tree Project

Take a Tour: Sereolipi Primary School

By far, the biggest thing in Sereolipi is the school. At its outset, the school consisted of a blackboard around a Thorn Tree. Students took their lessons altogether outside. In 1975, the first classrooms were constructed (around the same time the bridge was put up) but enrollment remained very low. Why?

(1) Traditionally, families employ their children to tend the livestock, to protect and graze and goats and cows. Since this was the sole source of food and income for these families, they simply could not afford to send their children to school during the day.

(2) The Samburu are nomadic people, they go where the grass is. Families and homes move (as often as every 5 weeks, but in some cases they will stay in the same place for up to six months) and the walk to school becomes longer and longer. Many families simply did not have the stability to send their children to school.

(3) For many Samburu families, education seemed simply impractical and had little perceived benefit in their day-to-day lives. 98% or 99% of the parents currently living in Sereolipi have never set foot inside of a classroom. There were no role models in the community, no success stories to bring the benefits of education from the cliche catch phrase down to something tangible.

But now everything in changing, dramatically, in large part due to the work of two Georges (George the village Chief and George the school Principal) and Jane Newman. Much more on how this happened later, but first, my mentee Thomas gives us a tour...

Take the Tour

See the Photo Album

The Kick-Off Begins!

It is mid-afternoon of Day 4 and we have finally arrived in Sereolipi. We make a quick right off the main road and head directly for the school, to try and find my mentee Thomas. We do. He hears the car (there is only one "community car" in Sereolipi, used mostly for medical emergencies, so it is easy to identify) and comes strolling out of the computer lab, his hands in his pockets.

This comes as a surprise to me, but it is a truly extraordinary moment, to meet someone in person with whom you have been communicating over email. Thomas and I had discussed so many things in the first four months (our family histories, our aspirations for the future, our daily routines) that finally meeting him in-person is something special...

...Learning what is great about iMentor, all over again.

Since it would be difficult (and costly!) to meet iMentor's benchmark of 5 in-person meetings between October and June, Thomas and I will be spending the next 6 days together. Over the course of that time we will tour Sereolipi and the school, talk with the students, I will sleep in Thomas' Samburu Manyatta and we will travel together to Ndonyo Wasin, the real "bush village," where I will get to meet Thomas' mother, his two brothers and his two sisters.

We jump right in...

On Samburu Culture: The Basics

I find it daunting, the challenge of giving an overview of Samburu culture, with its varied and interconnected customs...Especially as they begin now to evolve at a rate far quicker than ever before. That being said, let's jump right in...

A Place to Call Home

The Samburu tribe lives in Northeastern Kenya, just above the equator in the Rift Valley Province (See Map). The tribe generally set up homes in small encampments (8-10 families) located in the valleys and mountains of a 4,500 square mile area which surrounds two villages: Sereolipi and Ndonyo Wasin. The Samburu are generally classified as semi-nomadic pastoralists. Once the grass is gone, they will pick up and move in search of land better suited for grazing.

Two Towns: The Modern & The Bush

Sereolipi is the epicenter of "modern" Samburu life. The people I meet there are quick to tell me that Sereolipi is "a modern town" and they talk about the "bush village of Ndonyo Wasin." Sereolipi got its jump start in the mid-seventies, when a bridge was built over a mostly dried and silted riverbed, allowing trucks carry supplies to other villages farther north. First it was a truck stop. Around this the village grew.

Approximately 800 families live here, adding up to about 5,000 residents. The vast majority of residents live in the Samburu "manyatta" (below) and keep their livestock (goats and cattle and recently camels) in pen they construct from thorn tree bushes. The most affluent members of the community, three or four families, live in cement houses.

It is hard to see Sereolipi as the modern town that the Samburu describe. The largest institution in town, ten times over, is the school. After that, there is a tiny Christian church (leftovers from the missionary push), no electricity, no running water, no phone lies, no cell phone reception, no postal service, approximately 4 shops selling basic provisions, one bar (and extension of someone's living room) and many warriors is full regalia making their way up and down the dusty paths.

Main Street in Sereolipi

So what about Ndonyo Wasin, the "bush village" the Samburu talk about in nostalgic tones of bygone days? Ndonyo Wasin is the "other Samburu town" and is located exactly a marathon (26 miles) deeper into the mountains, on a path that loosely resembles a road. To my untrained eye it looks and functions much the same as Sereolipi. The residents live in manyattas and keep their livestock with thorn trees. However, Ndonyo Wasin is certainly more remote and often residents traveling into Sereolipi leave at 4 AM, to avoid the midday heat. They travel in packs and speak or sing loudly to one another, so as not be a surprise presence to elephants and lions. (More on Ndonyo Wasin when I go to visit my mentee's family, who live there.)

The Manyatta

Almost all of Sereolipi's residents live in the Samburu hut called a manyatta. To match the nomadic lifestyle, there huts are made to move, constructed from sticks and twine and with a thatched hut roof. Manyattas have either dried cowskins or simply dirt for floors. Often residents do not have a bed (although my mentee does). Other things you will find in a Manyatta include: a small fire pit for cooking, a traditional Samburu school for blessings, a plastic bin for washing, and some decorative cloth.

It is the Samburu women who build the manyattas. In Samburu culture, a wife must build the hut for her husband. If a man is not married, he must employ a woman to build the hut for him (approximately $60 US). Often, all family members will sleep together in a single manyatta, the mother and father on the floor with their children. There are only a few key exceptions (below).

You can tell a Samburu family on the move to greener pastures by the roll of sticks tied to women's backs...The manyatta they have taken apart and will reassemble the next time they find home.

A Moveable Feast

Dine with the Samburu and you begin to get an idea of how their long history shows itself on the plate.

The most prominent fixture in any household is tea (British colonialism) served in a plastic Thermos. It is customary that tea must be served to all visiting guests, each time a new person arrives, even if he has simply crossed the street. I average about 8-10 cups a day during my stay. Tea in Sereolipi is heavily loaded with sugar (to ward of hunger pains) and there is also a special Samburu Tea with added chai.
Samburu Kitchen

Meals vary little from day to day. Breakfast is often just tea, but it can also include a porridge made from mealy-meal or some nan cooked on an open flame (Nan is the Kenyan carb-staple, Somali influences here).

Lunch is a stew of potatoes and sometimes meat (usually goat) over rice or mealy-meal ground into a consistency halfway between bread and mashed potatoes.

Dinner is the same.

: The Samburu love their livestock, they take care of their animals with craft and concern and relish in the meals that contain them. A favorite Samburu joke is when a group of men slaughter a goat and go off into the bush for a "meating."

The Birds & The Bees

Gender relations are one of the most complicated and conflicted aspects of Samburu culture. The customs follow a more or less traditional patriarchy: a man of marrying age (15 years after circumcision) can choose any woman to be his wife. There is no age regulation here and the stories, at their worst, include 70 year-old men marrying girls of 13, the girl of 13 coming on as a third wife. Additionally, although there is no divorce, a wife can be "returned" and a marriage annulled if she fails to produce a male child within the first year. The female's father is paid a dowry for his daughter (usually 5-8 cows). Wifes are responsible for building and keeping the Samburu hut, cooking meals and taking care of dishes and laundry. Children are responsible for grazing and tending to the livestock. Men are responsible for protecting the family (Reminder: this is a culture of warriors who have only recently stepped down from war).

Men and women do not eat meals together and cannot show affection in public. It is, obviously, tough to find the romance in these relationships and I find myself wondering what they are like behind closed doors. In many families, there is obviously affection. There are times when you can feel it repressed in your presence.

Age Sets

Age sets determine the roles and responsibilities for the male Samburu and are designed to benefit the community at large. A quick run down would go like this:

  • Herders (Under 18): Samburu children are in charge of taking care of the families livestock. Taking goats and cattle out to graze consumes most of their day, every day, and Samburu children begin working with the animals as early as the ago of 5. Initially, and in many cases still, this was the single large roadblock to education in Sereolipi. Parents could not release their children to school because it would leave no one to take care of the livestock. This is a conflict the community is still addressing.
  • Warriors (18-30): Although there is no set age for the transition (it is at the father's digression to choose), Samburu males go off for circumcision around the age of 18 or 20. Circumcision is an important ritual for the Samburu, as it is in many African cultures, signifying the point in life where each boy becomes a man. Boys march off into the bush in groups of 10 or 15, where they meet a traditional healer who performs the circumcision with a spear (two other relatives or appointed friends hold the back and legs of each boy during circumcision). When the boys return, now as men, they take on an entirely different role in the community. Now they are warriors and must wait 15 years until they can marry. During that period they are in charge of protecting all Samburu people. They begin to wear the traditional Samburu attire. They can no longer live in their family's manyatta. They cannot eat any food cooked by Samburu women (until they are married) and must not be seen eating by women at all.
  • Junior Elders (After Marriage): After a Samburu marries, he becomes a junior elder and becomes a part of the large decision making consensus groups which rule over all important community decisions.
  • Elder (50-60): The Elders are a highly respected faction in the Samburu culture and are called upon to make important decisions is personal and community matters. There are usually between 100-200 elders in the Samburu tribe at any given time.

On English

Of Sereolipi's 5,000 residents, about 20 are fluent in English and the oldest English speaker is the village chief, who is 45. This is a challenge for a school where all classes and qualifying exams are given in English. (Many students at the school are the first members of their family who can write their name.) It will be a significant marker between the younger and older generations currently living in Sereolipi.

Much more on Sereolipi, Samburu and the evolution of education and technology in the bush... coming soon...

How to Preserve a Culture

What environment must exist for a culture not to change? How can you preserve a culture and create a community that allows its people to climb to the top of Maslow all on its own?

Some guesses…

The Factors

  • Isolation—What seems by far the biggest factor, the elimination of outside influence, not the rejection of it. What we are talking about here is a culture condensed to a single location and physically remote from others. Ideally, modern means of communication (phones, internet) should be absent, potential travel between this location and others should be difficult, lengthy and (for basic survival needs) not necessary.

  • Subsistence—Location, location, location. Location and lifestyle need to come together to provide the basics: food, water and shelter. The supply must be in a continual state of replenishment.

  • Adaptability & Security—The culture needs to be flexible enough to adjust for intrusion of outside forces, both natural and human. Its strategies for adaptation must provide for subsistence and security without breaking isolation. If this does not exist, need and anxiety protrude to push people out, to experience and learn from other cultures. These people, their ideas or their stories, may return.

  • Pride & Contentment—What secures the moat against influence is pride and an overall contentment among the people. This means a culture with a working religion, a community that operates as a whole to assist its members and a social structure of hierarchy that provides the two basic psychological needs: mastery and belonging.

This may be a crude list but it is a start. The Samburu, who I am about to meet, score high marks in all four categories. And on the whole, it has worked, incredibly well. Until a few years ago, the culture had preserved and had not changed.

So my entrance to Sereolipi and my first few days there have that amazing feeling of stepping inside a vacuum. But it is not as simple as that. And it is much more interesting. Sereolipi is no museum.

Because the dam has broken, and everything is changing.

Four consecutive years of droughts (2000-2004) have crumbled the walls and threatened subsistence and security. The cattle died and the cattle raids came back. It became harder to be content. At the same time, the Kenyan political landscape changed. A new president in 2002. Free education in 2003 (especially important for a culture without much use for traditional currency—you can’t pay school fees in goats and cows). And the rest is dominoes. The realization that jobs outside of the farming industry and not susceptible to droughts. Sereolipi gets a store. More than doubles its school enrollment…And that creaking sounds is the big wheels of change starting to turn.

What an amazing opportunity to visit this place at this time! In the first few years of a culture making giant lunges at change. Much more on this, including specifics, in future posts. Jobs in place of subsistence farming. Camels for cows. The cell phone….


Week One: Review

After two day of travel, iMentor arrives in Nairobi, via London, and Week 1 for iMentor Kenya starts off in celebration, then just keeps getting better.

Day 1
  • Even though schools are on holiday this month, there are 200 people there to greet us and the students and faculty have many surprises in store.
  • The school has constructed a computer lab for the 20 laptop computers we are handing off (they have been donated by Pfizer). These are the first operational computers the school has ever owned.
  • After we tour and computer lab, everyone gathers in a large hall for the celebration, which is mind-blowing. Students perform songs and poems and the principal and the village pastor (who is also the Board chair for the school) give speeches about the "global village" and the power of IT. Watch the video!
  • Day 1 ends with a hike into the mountains and a wonderful dinner at Jackson's ranch.
Day 2

  • Then we go back to Nairobi, to prepare for the long journey to Sereolipi, where I will meet my mentee...
Day 3

Days 4-9 (Coming Soon)

  • We travel the remaining three hours to Sereolipi, where I live with the Samburu warriors and meet my mentee...Posts, video and pictures will be up in the next few days...