“Africa, in a second, grew endlessly big, and Denys and I, standing upon it, infinitely small.” Isak Dineson
From Nairobi to Nyeri, wooden signs are everywhere, mostly painted by hand, pointing to schools. Schools of all kinds – colleges, technical schools, secondary boarding schools, small primary schools, religious and proprietary, public and private – are mixed in among the small shops, modest homes and open air markets that dot the countryside of Kenya. In a nation new to democracy and largely dependent on tourism as an economic engine, the signs and the schools they represent send a powerful message to a visitor. Kenyans know what will raise their standard of living, bring them more fully into the global economy and cement in place their political reforms and economic stability – education. The ubiquitous signs say it all.
I found myself on the road from Nairobi to Nyeri on a special mission to visit Mount Kenya Academy. MKA is one of these schools but is unique in its mission and origins. The school’s relationship to Westminster goes back to its founding and an alum and his wife whose adventure in Kenya began in 1972 and eventually led to a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” – more on that later.
Over the past decade, the Westminster/MKA partnership has taken life through the participation of over 250 students, teachers, trustees, and parents in a dynamic exchange program characterized by passion and devotion among members of both school communities. As much as anything, understanding the story – and stories – behind these deep ties was the purpose of my visit. What follows is just that – not a travelogue or an annotated agenda of our visit – but encounters, stories and bits of history. Taken together, these explain the abiding affection between two communities and illustrate how we are our best selves when we see beyond our differences to the aspirations that we all hold in common.
The guiding light of Mount Kenya Academy is Charity Mwangi, who at age 71 continues to energize and inspire the school she founded. Charity is the embodiment of grace and serves as a welcoming presence on campus. Before I ever arrived, she wrote the following in an email to me:
“Westminster is truly a sister school. Together we have come a long way and strengthened one another in many areas. Mount Kenya Academy has benefited greatly from this relationship and we feel privileged to enjoy such friendships.”
In many instances, a school only grows only to the scale of the founder’s vision. In the case of great schools, the founder spurs the imagination of others and the school grows beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. These are the schools that end up making a mark in the lives of their students and communities. MKA is one of these schools. It began decades ago as a small primary school and stands today as an impressive K-12 institution with a mission to develop leaders for the future of East Africa. Charity has been there from the beginning, welcoming the talents and gifts of many to continually expand the vision for MKA. The school’s history and growth have a lot to teach us all.
In recent years, MKA has developed and managed a feeding program for two local elementary schools. The schools serve the children of workers in the coffee plantations and many of them would go hungry without the breakfast and lunch that is provided through this effort.
We visited both schools at lunchtime and were immediately struck by the contrast between young children and heaping bowls of nutritious food. In order to attend a public school in Kenya, students must have a uniform so all of the children were dressed alike although not all of the uniforms were in good condition. The buildings and furnishings were austere but the students were familiar – eager to welcome visitors, bright eyes and smiles – no different than young children anywhere taking a break from the classroom for some social time at lunch. The one big difference was that many of them had brought their preschool age brothers and sisters as the school represented a source of nourishment for these children as well.
As one first grader exited the room past me, he stopped, looked me in the eye and stuck out his hand for a handshake. I responded and we made a proper farewell. As he turned to the door, he studied his hand carefully, brought it to his nose, sniffed it, and then went outside to play. I am pretty sure I represented something new and different in his experience.
Susan and Scott Hawkins
Susan and Scott were our traveling companions – along with Scott’s childhood friend Scott Crook – and are longtime supporters and champions of both Westminster and MKA. Their relationship to MKA goes back fifteen years and the evidence of their generosity surrounds any visitor to the campus. More than just benefactors, Susan and Scott love the faculty and students of MKA. They know them by name and not one escaped their company without an enthusiastic greeting and an encouraging word. Sustaining a relationship across time, space, cultures and life changes is not easy. Susan and Scott have stayed the course and the result is a school that has already created a cadre of young leaders for Kenya.
One purpose of our visit was to dedicate a new multipurpose building in Susan’s honor. At the luncheon afterward, I sat next to a Presbyterian minister whose parish included the school. She exuded an unmistakable grace and joy even as she described the challenges of serving six local congregations by herself. In spite of the demands of her ministry, she hoped we would be in town over the weekend so she could host us for tea.
The Minister of Education attended the dedication ceremony. An impressive speaker and former dentist, he and his sizable entourage took a tour of the school. Upon arriving at the Principal Ian Stamp’s new house on campus, the tour proceeded right through the living areas downstairs to the bedrooms upstairs. As the group descended the stairs and left through the front door, Ian breathed a sigh of relief that he had, in fact, made his bed that morning.
On our second day, an impressive young woman showed up in the reception area with her fiancé. She was an alumna of MKA now in med school and was back for a visit. A few minutes of conversation convinced me that this school is doing something special to produce graduates of her caliber.
Late one afternoon, Westminster alum Randy Whitfield came by the hotel for a drink. Randy is an opthamologist who traveled to Africa by ship in 1972 with his wife. He ended up in Kenya where his wife met Charity and became an important part of MKA’s founding. Randy crisscrossed Kenya eventually training nurses and other medical personnel to perform cataract surgery. The initiative had such a profound impact that he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for his work. The Whitfields never left Kenya and have seen the country through the dramatic changes in population, politics and culture of the past four decades. People like Randy don’t come along very often. Our conversation was fascinating.
The highlight of our visit to MKA was a chance to meet the delegation of students who will be traveling to Westminster in April immediately followed by those who participated in the exchange last year. The first group was all enthusiasm and questions. They hold high hopes of making important intercontinental friendships and, for most of them, seeing a foreign country for the first time. The second group – now experienced veterans – was reflective and composed.
The exchange experience had done exactly what it was designed to do – broaden perspectives, make connections, instill confidence. These students demonstrated all that and more and reminded me of their counterparts back home on the other end of the exchange. It was not hard to imagine them in the vanguard of Kenya’s emerging generation of leaders and even to hear in their comments a sense of purpose and responsibility to their homeland. To have a chance to be their partner and friend is indeed a privilege.