Every School Year a New Beginning

© U.R. Romano

© U.R. Romano

Peak coffee harvest, Rift Valley, Kenya, 2002. Dozens of children, more than half teenaged girls, some with babies on their backs, are picking coffee that will sell for thirty five cents a pound to companies that will market that same coffee in our U.S. stores at an 8000 percent mark up.

The children work hungry. One young girl told me she'd had a piece of sugar cane and some weak tea. The day stretches from dawn to dark. The kids are from a single migrant tribe and have walked to the plantation to work. For them, there's no school. Just work, hot, repetitive and not without its dangers.

The kids reach for the beans and you can see the white powder on their faces and arms. Pesticides that cause shortness of breath, skin rashes, even fever. Looking around, I spot many children with cuts and injuries from climbing into the hard-stemmed plants to pick the coffee. Those wounds quickly become infected and fester into far more serious injuries, but here there are no medicines of any kind, not even an aspirin. There are also no toilets or clean water to drink in the oppressive heat of the day.

For the young girls, the older foreman who carries a club at his side poses another menace. In this field, his word is law and he can help himself to any young woman he wants.

I'm posing as a coffee buyer, and my crew has cameras hidden in their sunglasses. At one point we stop and treat an infected wound on a young girl's leg. My son runs for the medical kit back to the van.

The girls giggle as the white teenager, something they have never seen before, runs between the rows of plants. "Tell him I'll take poison if he leaves!" to howls of laughter, "Tell him to bring his suitcase when he comes back!"... without translation he runs to the van clueless he's the object of their humor. Entertainment is in short supply here.

After several weeks of contact with these kids and on the eve of leaving, a question comes to me. Why exactly can't they go to school, instead of this daily nightmare of child labor that will simply use them up and spit them out sick and hungry?

We go to the village and meet the parents. We bring the social worker from ANPPCAN with us. We ask who wants to go to school and 60 hands shoot up... from age 5 to 15. We take their pictures, write their names, parents names, tribe and village on the back of each picture and I transfer about $3000 (collected from the crew) to pay for the school fees.

It's our last day and we've been driving around visiting the new students, carefully placed in local schools. Smiles greet us everywhere. It just feels awesome and happy. Before we leave, Sylvie, the young girl whose leg we bandaged approaches me and says, "Will I ever see you again"?

I answer "Of course," though I actually have no idea if that's true.

The Kenyan Schoolhouse program is entering its 16th year educating former child laborers, orphans and street children across Kenya. Today, 7 of our students are enrolled in universities and three have qualified for university placement in this year's national exams.

Help us keep these kids in school. Every year marks a new beginning at Kenyan School House and another step away from the old life in the coffee fields to the promise and potential that education brings a child, their family and their community.

And yes, I did visit Sylvie again. Several times in fact. She wanted to be a lawyer but she ended up living in Nairobi with her grandmother and brothers. We put her through ten years of school, sent her to hair-dressing school and set her up in her own business. She has two children and swears they'll get an education.