M is for Milk: Education for Nomadic Children Born Amidst Violence

[We’re Giving Up Violence for Lent]

Guest Post: Nathan Roberts

This is our first guest post in our series We’re Giving Up Violence for Lent, in which we feature friends resisting violence with non-violent love for their neighbor and enemy.

When I started a school for orphans of war in Kenya, I thought I was doing something unilaterally good. Sending kids without parents to school seemed like a social justice slam dunk. But everything is more complicated once you start getting into the details.

My brother tried to warn me when I asked him to make donation to the school. “You know the pioneers already tried what you and Michael are doing. They rounded up native kids and put them in school, dressed like tan Europeans.  They tried to make them white.  But it didn’t work.” He had recently begun teaching at an inner city school in Minneapolis with a large Native Population.

“That was 200 years ago and they didn’t have Michael,” I said. Michael grew up a World Vision sponsor child in the villages from which our kids had come. “They had people like Michael,” he said writing me a check for a month’s worth of food. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying it’s gonna get messy. The Native kids at my school have the highest suspension rates of any ethnicity, and it’s not because we are racists about it. It’s just that the sit down, shut up, and listen to the white lady model doesn’t seem to work very well for them.”

“So you think we should just leave the orphans to die out in the Kenyan desert?”

“I’m not saying that,” he said putting his hands up as if I had pulled out a gun. “I’m just saying it’s gonna get complicated.”

He was right. It had gotten complicated. “This is it.” Michael said a year later as he pulled the truck through the iron rod gate and into the school. It was my first trip to Kenya and it felt surreal looking at the sign Daylight Center and School Headmaster Michael Kimpur having seen it so many times in pictures he would send me. “This is where we bring all the orphaned kids from the villages.” After a month of driving from homestead to homestead I was getting used to parking the truck and stepping into a village sing-a-long, beaded women jumping and dancing in a circle, the oldest woman leading the crowd in a call and response.

Daylight - Nathan1But outside the passenger window there was no one dancing. All of Daylight’s students stood in two rows just like the kindergarteners in America. Gone were their traditional beads and robes, replaced by a mish-mash of fraying orange and blue shirts, skirts, and shorts.

Michael and I got out of the car and clapped along with the class singing “We are marching in the light of God” in English. I watched the teachers in long African print dresses mouthing the words to the song and clapping to keep the beat. “Michael, how come they aren’t jumping in a circle like in the homesteads?”

“Oh, they do that one sometimes,” he said. “But they also need to learn to stand in lines. The modern world is divided up into lines, not circles.”

Daylight - Nathan2“We could use a few more circles in America,” I said thinking of shoppers waiting at the check-out, each cart full of their own food, wondering what would happen if everyone stood in a circle with all the food in the middle.

After the song we followed the students into the classroom, posters of addition and subtraction problems hung next to pictures of M is for Milk and C is for Camel. The building blocks of their culture now served as reading lessons. Daylight reminded me of the school Laura Engels Wilder attended. I went to a museum of her life when I was young. The classrooms were just the bare essentials: pencils and papers, books and bricks, cows and chickens.

The students’ cheeks were fuller and their hair was darker than the children I had seen in the desert. Their bellies weren’t bloated with a knot of intestinal tape worms. These kids could read and write.  And they smiled when they looked at me, they weren’t afraid of white people like the kids in the villages. And most importantly, they weren’t living in fear of raiders attacking their villages with AK-47’s in the middle of the night.

That’s when I realized that there are no social justice slam dunks. It’s always complicated. The British pushed these kid’s great grandparents off their native land and into the desert, where they spent five generations fighting over seasonal rivers and brown patches of grass. The Kenyan government abandoned them out there without schools or hospitals.

And so Michael – himself a victim of that war – and I, his naïve American friend, stood in front of a classroom of orphans trying to clean up the mess left by the powers that be.

I swallowed my apprehension and smiled wide. “Hello, I am Nathan,” I said in my slow teacher voice, pointing at myself in front of the children who were now seated at their desks.

“Hellow Natan.” They said in unison.

Michael told the class in swahili that I was the man who helped pay for their food and books.

Asante sana. Thank you.” The children said smiling.

As I left the classroom a Kenyan teacher walked up to me and handed me a mug of hot tea.

He poured himself a mug and pulled a knitted hat out of his pocket with a patch on the front reading “Obama” next to the Kenyan flag.

“You like Obama?”

“Surely.” He raised his eyebrows as the other teachers laughed with their shoulders nearly spilling their tea. “He is the hope of Africa. If he can be President of America, than anybody can do anything. One of these kids could be President of Kenya.”

“People need role models.” I said watching Michael playing soccer with six boys running circles around his grass stained khakis.

Maybe one of those boys will grow up and start another school…or maybe one of them could be the President, I thought sipping my tea.

Things would certainly get complicated if one of these village kids became President.

Right now the Kenyan Government has enough resources to bring a school, hospital, roads, electricity, and running water to every village in the desert. They just don’t have the incentive. But a President from one of those villages might.

But then again, bringing modern amenities to a desert village of thatch huts would certainly get complicated.

nathanNathan Roberts is a writer for The Salt Collective and Midwestern minister. He is also the Co-Founder and US Director of Daylight Center and School in Kenya reaching out to nomadic orphans. He is a critical appreciator of indie and hip-hop music, magical realism, and theology. His life ambition is to explain the problem of evil in one sentence.


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