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Kenya Diaries, Part 3: School of the Future

by Stephanie March

The following is a slice of life on the road with OneKid OneWorld, a charitable organization that provides sustainable academic and athletic programs for children in impoverished communities. A small group from OKOW travels to Africa about once every 18 months to check-in on current projects and seek out new ones. 

QATAR – Days 8/9
Traveling, traveling, traveling.

Yesterday morning, 9:30 a.m. We loaded all our gear onto the little ferry that could. Bought a few local papers, positioned ourselves upwind from the sacks of fish called omena, and sloshed our way across Lake Victoria. From the ferry dock, we drove an hour and a half on the first paved road I've seen in days. We made our way into Kisumu to catch a flight to Nairobi, have lunch, shop at the Nakumatt (Kenya’s Wal-Mart) and buy a few more supplies to send to the students at Nayamasare. Petee, our driver from our first IMC year, joined us for lunch. We caught up on all the gossip about his wives (two) and kids (nine).

Flew to Nairobi. Got our bags, got to the Fairview. Yet another shower, repacking, driving tropical rain, some beers and chicken. We said our final goodbyes in a torrential downpour, madly trying to pack the van (four of us are leaving). It was pretty tearful — like saying goodbye to your cabin at camp. A few decided to stay and safari. I headed to Jomo Kenyatta airport for the second time that day — to spend a few more hours in really crappy lighting.

I am in Dubai now, trying very hard not to fall asleep before my connection. The airport is a madhouse and, after a very short redeye, tough on the senses. It's like being dropped into a bad mall — all Pinkberry and loud Katy Perry.

I bought an abaya in one of the shops for the hell of it. If my luggage doesn't show up, it's a good option. I had big plans to see the Museum of Islamic Art today, but I am spent. I can think of no greater pleasure than my hotel pool, a long nap, and a shower. Dare I hope for a salad and a hairdryer? Monday's a big Northwestern University day, so I think I'll take it easy.

On the way out of Mbita yesterday, I bought a great basket from The Banana Future Women's Collective. It was priced at 250 Kenyan shillings (about three dollars). I gave the lady 1000. I explained that it might cost one thing, but it’s worth another.

Days 10/11
Well, Qatar is just fine. Perfectly nice. Similar to Dubai, though less rock'n roll/pollution/plant-shaped islands and more orderly traffic and landscaping. I am at the hotel beach and the water is the most spectacular color. But it's cold (weird) and there are a lot of high-rises (and sand). It’s a nice respite though. The rains started in earnest in the last 36 hours, and I'm glad not to be wading through muck (and sewage) to see a school.

That said, it would be hard to overstate the difficulty of saying goodbye to everyone. I feel a little shell-shocked. One minute I am bouncing around in a van in Mbita, and the next I am sitting at this pleasant, vaguely institutional hotel staring at a crappy poolside snack menu. 
I did end up going to the Museum of Islamic Art this morning. I drove right by it, and it looked pretty darn cool. I have an adorable driver from the Philippines who cleared his schedule for me, and he told me the museum was "nice, like a good meal."

My airport greeter is from Goa, my server is from Varanasi, and my porter is Nepalese. I did see some actual Arabs at the museum, but I think they were Saudi tourists. Everyone else is from Somewhere Else. There are the usual beefy, pink British families, thousands of Western businessmen, and, inexplicably, Italians. The Italians are at the beach, on the offensive when it comes to claiming a lounge chair. Do not get in their way. These folks look like leather. They will cut you to get the best spot in the sun. 

I have been reading up on Qatar Foundation and on all the foreign universities at Education City. Education City is Sheihka Mozah’s brainchild and is exactly what it sounds like: a conglomeration of American universities, each operating a fully accredited satellite program. Virginia Commonwealth for design and arts, Northwestern for journalism and communications, Cornell for med school, Georgetown for international studies — just to name a few. I met a whole gaggle of girls from Virginia at the museum today; they are here studying interior design. So bizarre. My driver told me there are 1.3 million people in Doha and only .3 are native Qatari. I wish I had my Mac to research this startling statistic. I don't totally believe it.

Now I am going to have some white wine and watch a movie, which is sort of like being on a plane without the Indian Ocean at my feet.

Days 11/12
The day at Northwestern University Qatar was incredible. After spending so much time in schools that look like hovels, it was exhilarating to be in one from the 22nd century. NUQ is from the future. In the works: a five-story facility with three auditoriums, two black box theaters, two steady cams, and a massive digital library.

The students in the acting program are in a strange place: They have to run plays by a censor and ask their parents for permission to perform. Conversely, it's far easier to get a hold of high quality film equipment and work guerilla-style. Much of their work is on camera. 

The Qataris were wary of an intense theatre program, as acting is vaguely slutty and pushes lots of boundaries. But Northwestern was pretty clear: If you want an NU program, you’ll get one — no compromises. Hence the tricky, delicate, exciting balance between old and new. As anyone who watches the news can see, the horse has left the barn with regard to traditional Arab states. To the eternal credit of Qatar (spearheaded by the fearless Sheikha Mozah) they want to be ahead of the curve. There is a giant monument on campus that reads (roughly), "Do Not Fear Progress."

In the class were two girls in full veil and robe, one boy in full robes, several hybrid dressers (covered, but in Converse footwear), a super-rich Egyptian kid who wants an agent, and four people killing time fleshing out their major with acting class. And it was exactly like my acting class: gay theater nerds, well-meaning homely girls who can sing, and a few future stars. 

People are the same all over.

Too bad we can't skim a little off the top for One Kid One World. Still, I have nothing but respect for the volunteer efforts of the wealthy few. They are fighting traditional ways to give these kids a chance at something else. There's the dismaying crap on the news, and then there are the students who will one day run this place. I have faith in them, and so do their parents — or they wouldn't be here.

NUQ denied admission this year to a higher percentage of applicants than NU Evanston. They want to grow it slowly to keep up standards and make as few mistakes as possible during expansion. Sort of like opening a restaurant. (Speaking of, the Indian food here is sublime. I had prawns in coconut and chilies last night that would knock your socks off.)

My childhood was pretty different from the ones I’ve encountered on this trip. I didn’t buy henna stencils or dodge hippos on my walk to school. On the other hand, I wanted to have a good education, study for a job I love, and live somewhere nice.

We are all the same. Every last one of us.

Except I am the luckiest person in the world.

Read more Kenyan Diaries: Parts 1 and 2

Stephanie is an actor, activist, and chronic wanderer. You can follow her at @marchstephanie on Twitter and Instagram. She travels for the sheer animal pleasure of seeing something new.

- Get to know her better: FATHOM Questionnaire
- Read more: FATHOM articles

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