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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
October 11, 2006
DeKalb — Moses Mutuku’s transformation of Mwala, which started with roofs and dams, has reached hearts and minds.
Mutuku and his NIU College of Education colleagues have worked in the small Kenyan village since 2000 to narrow the education gap between rural and urban students. Their simple and unwavering policy: Empower the people.
This summer, parents in Mwala demonstrated startling and critical confirmation that change is afoot.
“It’s something we never expected. We knew by empowering people we were doing something, but we never knew they’d have so much insight into their own needs,” Mutuku said. “It was really something. We were just taken aback. We were really proud.”
“They’re definitely sold on the project’s importance. They’ve come around to see things are changing,” added Maylan Dunn, who teaches with Mutuku in the College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning. “Although they could still improve their farming quite a bit – they could make more money than they are now – they know they’re going to have to prepare their children for something else.”
What opened Mutuku’s and Dunn’s eyes was a building, a business plan and the successful acquisition of money without roots in DeKalb.
Women in the village’s Harambee, an active group of women committed to working together for change, have opened a seed bank and built a storage facility for seeds, fruits and vegetables.
They raised money to fund the project and carried out its construction. A roof should cover the building before the October rains.
Seed companies are traveling into rural areas such as Mwala, about 90 miles southeast of Nairobi, to sell expensive hybrids that are neither native to the soil nor perennial in nature.
“Farmers are going so deeply into debt. The farming issue there is drought, not seeds,” Dunn said.
“When the crop comes in, farmers are so desperate for funds they sell everything they have, and it’s a low yield already. When it’s time to plant again, they have trouble finding the seeds they need, so they go out of the area and pay market price. They get into the cycle of having to buy seed every time, and then they’re dependent.”
The Harambee’s initiative will put the village in business, Mutuku said: Mwala’s farmers can sell their goods to others who will then take the fruits and vegetables to the marketplace and sell them to consumers.
“A lot more families are planting vegetables. It’s giving them income and socio-economic skills,” he said. “We have funding to plant fruits and produce plants for them – papayas and mangoes. One hundred plants turns into 700 shillings every week for a family.”
Mutuku’s original interest in Mwala focused on school achievement.
Since that time, the scope has broadened.
Attitudes of despair are being reversed. A town library was built and stocked with books. Teachers were given the newest instructional strategies and best practices. Parents were taught how they can help their children learn.
Mutuku, meanwhile, is looking at other struggling villages where he can test his theory. He expects someday to present his ideas to the Kenyan leadership.
“The government has started to pay attention,” he said. “They are starting to notice.”
So are others. “A lot of families are starting to think there’s something here, and they’re moving into the area,” he added. “Teachers are spending more time with kids. Parents are more positive. Parents were hungry. They were just looking for support and a little education.”
More children in Mwala are graduating from eighth-grade, the final year of “primary” school, and qualifying for the optional “secondary” school.
Prior to NIU’s arrival, Dunn said, 15 years had passed without one student from Mwala’s Kwamwonga primary school advancing to the secondary school.
“Now we have one student who’s a junior in secondary school, and we routinely have kids qualify for secondary school every year. Their eighth-grade class had a record number of graduates qualified this year. Now our challenge is supporting parents so they can afford secondary school tuition,” she said.
“It’s wonderful that they’re qualifying, and that their parents are sold on the importance of that, but with the drought and the poor economic activity in that area, our focus has to be on getting some money into the family economy,” she added. “We know one family who are members of the Harambee, and when it was their turn to get a water cistern, they said they’d prefer to have tuition. Giving up something that essential to send their child to school is pretty amazing.”
Meanwhile, the new pre-school building is almost ready to open. Financial support came from DeKalb, including the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb and the Roots & Shoots and Students for Peace and Social Justice groups at DeKalb High School.
The building, a project Mutuku and his colleagues put into motion with the village’s cooperation, will replace an old one-room school where the roof has fallen in. Classes currently are held in the town library.
One last attempt at digging for water is planned. Reservoirs are being constructed for all the homes, and water cisterns are collecting rain from rooftops.
Mutuku is hoping to take a sabbatical that would return him to Mwala for a long-term visit. A new goal: focusing on children with special needs, a “neglected population” who “stay behind the shadows.”
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