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A North Carolina Mason in the Peace Corps

by Dave Rowson, 32°, KCCH

The Peace Corps describes the experience as the hardest job you will ever love. Well, so far it's the hardest job we have had, but we are yet to develop the great love. How do you describe a situation so totally different from anything in your experience?

Isaac Denisen opened her book, "Out of Africa", with the lines, "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." We trained in Loitokitoc, at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, and nothing in the very thorough training in language and Kenyan culture could have prepared us for the culture shock to come in the west of Kenya. We are stationed on Rusinga Island at the far west of Kenyan Lake Victoria. We have been assigned to Waware Secondary (High) School and teach Math and physics.

After training, we traveled to Rusinga on the 16th of December. We had a representative from the school accompany us and help us navigate through the various modes of transportation. You have not lived until you have the adventure of being cheated and oppressed at the same time. We had all of our luggage for two years so we expected to pay for the seats that the bags would occupy. The "matatu" ( a 12 passenger van on its last legs) owner charged us for two extra seats and we paid. Before we left for Rusinga, after the vehicle had been fully loaded, we were told that because they usually put four people in the three seats I was occupying I would have to pay for another seat. I explained kenyan law only to hear that he knew that but we had to pay! OK Msungu (white man) pays, then we go.

The matatu is a vehicle with 12 seats. In Kenya, that means 20 or more men, women, babies, children, chickens, goats and anything else you can fit in for a fee. (One lady held her chicken.) They stop to pick up any person along the highway and drop off where they want. You just can't imagine the fun and comfort of this intimate crush of humanity in a rattletrap of a vehicle in the heat of the African sun.

Our school has been a real eye opener. During the first term the 109 freshmen were all housed in a single small classroom of metal sheeting and concrete floor. It goes without saying that it is not possible to teach in these conditions, let alone learn anything. There is an ongoing issue with delinquent fees to the school. The students are regularly sent home to get the fees before returning. Because the fees are not current the principal was always shuffling capital and operating funds to stay current with vendors and salaries. Our last classroom was not built and she was suspected of embezzling the funds. When we arrived at school on Monday of the second week we were greeted by a student riot. The seniors had barricaded the school and set a fire at the gate! Teachers, board members, and students had conspired to have the principal removed. We lost nearly a month of the term recovering and getting a new principal and deputy.

It is funny, looking back on this and so many other events, which in and of themselves are not show stoppers, but taken en-masse become oppressive, that we stayed here at all. I did have a heated discussion with our boss in Nairobi and, luckily for all, he dragged his feet. It began to make sense why we were at Waware. I told our boss that this was not a school, etc. Well, if it was so bad maybe that was why we were here! Peace Corps doesn't need us to be in a place that is functioning efficiently.

Once we started to adjust to the crush of humanity, chaos and inefficiency, we began to see our mission. We have students that need to have a chance in this life. In Kenya, all future success in life is dependent on the end of secondary school exam, the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education, KCSE. If you do not take it or fail to pass it at a high enough level, your choices in life are markedly reduced.

When we began to meet other NGOs and leaders in the community we really began to see our mission here. The AIDS epidemic has swept through the population of Kenya and one of the products is a large number of orphans and single parent families as well as children living with older poor relations. We have had the opportunity to visit some of the organizations that care for these kids and meet the owners. One need we found is hunger. Some of the orphans or near orphans get one meal a day because of Daryl Oft. He is a man from Arizona who has set up the Living Waters feeding center in Kaswanga on the island. ( Approximately 150 plus orphans and other needy children get a good and plentiful lunch every day. For some of these kids it is the only meal, especially on the weekend. Until recently, there was no weekend feeding program. As of April the center feeds these kids all seven days. We are now on the list of supporters and try to visit weekly.

For the same reasons, education is a real problem for these children on the island. One man who is a primary school teacher by training, saw the need for early childhood development in these kids and opened a center for the very young on eastern Rusinga. If you can imagine a sensory deprived childhood preparing you to enter the school system, you can envision the trouble the child will have keeping up. This child has a much greater chance of dropping out of the system in later years. Samwel Okomo has not only started the childhood development project but has grown it into the Sargy School for up to fourth graders. He is in the process of finishing the new facilities for the Sargy School that will encompass up to eighth grade. The children who attend Sargy do so without fees. Because of this man these kids can go to school. It is our pleasure to support this effort as well.

Masonry claims to take good men and make them better. Our fraternity also has the care and welfare of orphans as a prime charity. As the dust has settled around us and we have acclimated to this culture, it has become clearer where we can be of assistance and make a contribution. It is funny that we are posted as secondary school teachers but our real mission is to support the orphans.

Our thoughts wander daily to Arizona and North Carolina. There isn't a day that passes that we don't wonder what we are doing here and ask if it wouldn't it be better back home. For me, I have to remember the lessons of our craft. We meet on the Level and Part on the Square. As a past Senior Warden I know my Jewel. Brother Maxi from Millbrook Lodge in Raleigh, taught me how to calibrate it. The analogy holds for the need to calibrate myself on a regular basis. It is interesting that one of the earliest lessons I taught in mathematics in term two, was how to construct a perpendicular line to a flat surface (level). We even constructed a level from a discarded board, string and small nail!

What is an older, North Carolina Mason doing in the Peace Corps in Kenya? The jury is still out, but some of the reasons that come to mind revolve around practicing the greater tenets of our craft. My wife and I wanted our last efforts in the work force to have some meaning and matter to someone. (Ageism is alive and well in this world.) Well, we all are advised to be careful what we ask for, because we just might get it! We waited for two years to get into the 'Corps and we will serve for two years. I am confident that we are here for several reasons and because of the tenets of Masonry, we will make a real difference.

Best Fraternal Greetings to all my Brothers from the wilds of Kenya!