Prince Albert resident helping less fortunate in Africa

Jodi Schellenberg
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With her love of teaching at the forefront, one Prince Albert resident has been making a difference overseas.

Connie Gerwing, a former teacher who lives in Prince Albert, has been travelling to Africa regularly to help a village in Kenya make their school a better place for children to learn through Rainbow of Hope.

This fall, Gerwing went to Africa to visits both the Kinyambu Primary School in Kenya and another project in Tanzania a friend of hers from Rainbow of Hope has been working on.

“I taught in Kenya in 1980 for a short time and I didn’t go back until 2010,” Gerwing said. “When I went back I was quite shocked to see how little the primary schools had changed. They just looked exactly the same, as pathetic as they were when I was there before.”

After she visited the primary school, Gerwing and her son headed back to Africa later with a bag of simple school supplies and a little bit of money.

“I was amazed -- they were so excited to get this stuff and the $50 we gave them they used to paint educational murals on the sides of the school,” Gerwing said. “I thought if that is what $50 can do then what could they do with a few hundred or even $1,000? That is how it kind of started.”

She took it upon herself to start raising money for the school to help improve its resources.

Her friend, Simon Muendo Ngumbi, lives in the village where Kinyambu is located and teaches in a neighbouring school. With his help the project flourished.

“They developed a local organization there that has a board with teachers and community members and parents,” Gerwing said. “They have an organization that would work through in the local area. It is called Kinyambu Rural Education and Community Development.”

Not long after Gerwing came home and told people about the schools in Kenya, people took an interest in the project.

“Then a school in Saskatoon -- Cardinal Léger School -- got involved,” Gerwing said. “They wanted to write letters back and forth to the kids at the school. Then they decided to raise some money to build a library for the school. That is how the project started.”

The library is currently being built, Gerwing said, and should be completed in the middle of January.

“In terms of the resources, we decided we would leave it up to the school to decide what they want -- we don’t tell them what they want,” Gerwing said. “They decided they wanted to build a fence, so we started the fence a few years ago and we didn’t have enough money to finish it but now we do. As soon as the library is finished, we will send them the money to finish the fence.”

A fence will help the school a lot because often farmers will herd their animals through the schoolyard.

The school is only two and a half kilometres from Nairobi and close to Tsavo East, one of the biggest game parks in Africa.

“They are huge and there are baboons that wander around,” Gerwing said. “That is one of the reasons for the fence and also people herd their goats through the school yard too. If there is any grass there, they herd their cattle through there.”

The schools tries to grow a garden to help feed the children, but with animals being herded through the schoolyard, all the plants and trees they try to grow are eaten by the goats or cattle.

Although Gerwing is working to raise money to help the school, she said they can only do so much at one time because volunteers do most of the work.

“The parents did a lot of the labour for the fence -- I think they did almost all the labour and we provided the materials,” Gerwing said. “For the library they have done some kind of unskilled labour and provided some security and those types of things.

“They are not construction workers so it is a project that volunteers and people from here are essentially working with volunteers and people form Kenya to help bring their schools up to a better standard,” she added.

The reason Gerwing wanted to help the schools as much as possible is because she is a big believer in education.

“I was a teacher and a counsellor for many years,” Gerwing said. “I think education is really the main driver for Africa in terms of getting people out of poverty.”

Recently, Gerwing heard about a 13-year-old Kenyan boy who invented a way to scare lions away so they wouldn’t attack the family kettle. Without education giving him the opportunity to learn skills, he probably wouldn’t have been able to make his invention.

“I think a lot of that is they need enough basic education,” Gerwing said. “This kid is essentially an electronic wizard but … they have none of that stuff to play with the experiment on. The kids get little notebooks and a pencil if they are lucky for the year.”

Primary school, Grades 1 to 8, is free but the students must provide their own uniform and since resources are so low, many times they have to pay for food as well.

On the other hand, secondary school is partially government funded, but students have to provide a uniform, pay for room and board and to travel from school to home on the weekends.

There are not enough textbooks for all the children and the ones they do have are falling apart, she said.

“There is a blackboard at the front that is usually in very poor condition and there is a cement floor,” Gerwing explained. “There are really half broken desks and that is it. Teachers teach by standing at the front and students learn by rote.

“If they are teaching English, the kids would memorize what it is or they write on the blackboard,” Gerwing said. “They don’t even leave chalk in the room … It comes in with the teacher and goes out with the teacher. It is pretty basic.”

Although she has been working closely with Kinyambu Primary School to make their conditions better, she said recently she came across a school in worse condition.

Nzavoni Primary School is about 11 kilometres from Kinyambu and doesn’t even have bars on the windows to keep out unwanted visitors.

“I didn’t think there was much poorer but there you have it,” Gerwing said.

Without education, they will not be able to get a job or support their families, she said. There are about 40 million people in Kenya, a landmass the size of Saskatchewan, Gerwing said. The population is mostly young children and teenagers, many HIV/AIDS orphans.

“If you don’t education them, what do you have?” Gerwing asked. “You need to educate them. In a lot of places there are no jobs. There is a high unemployment rate. The only way they can earn money is often through entrepreneurship.

“They need to be able to build their own job so they need skills and particularly girls need to be educated because there is numerous statistics that show if you educate women, you educate really the whole country,” she added. “That is why I was interested.”

One they graduate from secondary school, students have the option of going to university, Gerwing said, which is another expense.

“There is very little technical education or trades education available,” Gerwing said. “That is another area that is an empty hole.

“They have universities that are probably reasonable adequate to take the number of graduates they need, because to a great extend university education isn’t all that useful,” Gerwing added. “What do you do out in the rural area or smaller town with a degree? Technical education is a lot more useful but they don’t have much.”

Although Gerwing knows many schools in Prince Albert and area have their own projects they may already raise money for, she said if anyone is interested in helping Nzavoni Primary School they would welcome the help.

“If any school is interested in adopting a school, that one is not far away, it is only a few kilometres from Kinyambu,” Gerwing said. “That is really a pathetic place although the headmaster was just wonderful. We had been at one that obviously had a few resources and they had all these painted murals and water tanks that Kinyambu doesn’t have.

“We had been at that school and they were OK but you could tell that (we were) bothering them,” Gerwing added. “We went to this other school that had nothing, the staff was good, the kids were friendly, and the headmaster was really great. It was a really warm environment in comparison. Resources aren’t everything.”

She said those are only two schools that need help, but there are many others. While there this fall, Gerwing was able to visit three primary schools, three secondary schools and a rural development project in Kenya and four primary schools and one secondary school in Tanzania.

“You get a sense, after you have been to a few of them and these are out in the country, what the circumstances are and what it is like, what schools are like typically,” Gerwing said.

Although she would like to help them all, right now Gerwing is just focusing on Kinyambu.

“If someone dropped a whole whack of money on me I could spread it around, but I don’t have a whole whack of money,” Gerwing said.

As it is now, Cardinal Léger School will be continuing to raise funds for bigger projects at the school, Gerwing said.

“They may take on the issue of the water tanks next,” Gerwing said. “This area is quite dry. They get rain twice a year. They have what they call short rains in October to maybe into December. In March to May they get the longer rains. In between that, they basically get no rain.

“If you can get enough water tanks and collect rain water, it is reasonably clean or you can drop some chlorine in it to clean it,” Gerwing added. “Then they will have enough to tide them over.”

The water tanks will be a large project, probably costing $1,000 to set up each 8,000 litre tank -- she would like to see 10 tanks go up to help the school, which will cost about $10,000.

The library also has to be filled with resources, Gerwing said. She is also trying to raise money to put books and resources into the building when it is finished.

Although it is wonderful that many people want to send over books, Gerwing said that is not best idea.

“It costs a lot of money to send a container or boxes of books,” Gerwing said. “They are very heavy. The second thing to think about and to me even more important is they are culturally inappropriate in many cases.

“What our kids do or parents would do if we got shiploads of books from Africa to learn to read with -- how relevant would they be to us?” Gerwing asked. “We wouldn’t even get most of what they are talking about.”

Although they speak English, it is their own dialect, similar to how colloquial English varies from Canada to Scotland or England to Australia.

Also, many of the children do not learn English until they start school, she said.

“When children start school in Kenya, they come in with a knowledge of their own tribal language -- in this area the tribal language is known as Kikamba,” Gerwing said. “Then they come into school and it is basically kind of immersion. They start learning Swahili, which is national language of Kenya, and English, which is also a national language of Kenya.

Since they have those differences in language, it is too difficult for the students to use Canadian book to learn to read.

“Plus, you are helping the economy there if you are buying things there,” Gerwing said. “It is fine if you are going to take some stuff but not to ship it because it is way too expensive.”

Gerwing said anyone interested in helping her cause can send donations to the Alphose Gerwing Foundation or visit the website at

People could also send donations through Rainbow of Hope at

Through either foundation, Gerwing said to make sure they specify the donation is for Friends of Kinyambu.

Organizations: Kinyambu Primary School, Nzavoni Primary School, Cardinal Léger School Alphose Gerwing Foundation

Geographic location: Kenya, Africa, Tanzania Saskatoon Nairobi Saskatchewan Canada Scotland England Australia

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