Forward ever

This post comes from one of Roger Thurow’s visits with the farmers of The Last Hunger Season

Kimilili, Kenya

The young man from the farm was looking smart in an olive green suit, salmon tie and cufflinks.  His black shoes were a bit scuffed, but his English was polished.  “We are moving forward,” he said.  “Forward ever, backward never.”

When last I saw Gideon Wanyama, at Christmastime 2011, his high school education was wavering in the balance.  He had just finished his third year, but it had been a mighty struggle.  All year long, his family had sacrificed to scrape up enough money for his school fees.  His mother, Leonida, a smallholder farmer, sold their maize harvest, prolonging the family’s hunger season.  Still, that wasn’t enough; several times, the principal of the high school sent Gideon home to bring back more money to complete the tuition payment.  Leonida, prizing the education of her children above all else, sold off other assets.  Then, days before the final exams, Gideon was stricken with a bad case of pneumonia.  He recovered in time to take the tests and, as the year came to a close, he was back home on the farm awaiting the exam scores.  During the holiday he helped his mother and father improve their mud-and-sticks house by slinging a new layer of mud on the walls.

I featured Gideon and his quest for an education in my new book, The Last Hunger Season, and often readers ask, “What has happened to Gideon?  Has he finished school?”

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After a week of reporting in western Kenya, visiting the farmers in the book, I am happy to report that Gideon has indeed completed high school, likely near the top of his class.  He won’t know the precise final scores for another month or two, but he says, confidently and with a broad smile, “I passed, I’m sure of it.”  If those scores are good enough, he hopes to enroll later this year at a university in Kakamega, a larger town in the region, “and my education will continue,” he says.  He still harbors an ambition to study law, but he knows that could take eight more years of school, which would require a longer stretch of sacrifice by his family.  So he is focusing on an alternate course: environmental studies.

Which is why I found him sharply dressed in the lyrically named town of Kimilili.  He was in the middle of a three-week course taught by Worldstar International Climate Change Educators.  It is an opportunity to obtain a certificate as an environmental officer, which could lead to a job and income to help pay for college.

While he studies the importance of trees and rain and clean water and learns about ozone depletion and changing climates, he thinks back to how his mother sold one of the family cows last year to help cover the tuition for his final year of high school.  He now believes that a healthy environment which allowed trees and grass to grow on his family’s small farm even during the dry season helped him get through his senior year.

“In high school, I heard that my mom sold a cow to pay school fees,” he says.  “If there’s  no grass around my house for the cow to graze, my mom can’t have a cow.  If there’s no cow, there’s no income.  If there’s no income, there’s no school.  I couldn’t have finished high school.”

He is quiet for a moment.  “You can see,” he says, “it is a circle of life.”

Back home on her small farm, called a shamba, Leonida also sees a circle of life spinning.  With his education, Gideon can get a better paying job beyond the farm and then help pay for the schooling of his three younger sisters.  “I am getting old,” says Leonida, who is in her mid-40s.  “I might not be able to work like I do now for my daughters.  But Gideon will be able.”

Shortly after Gideon greeted me at the classroom in Kimilili, Leonida and her husband, Peter, arrived on the back of a motorcycle.  They beamed when they saw Gideon in his vest and tie.

“You see,” she said to me, proudly sizing up her son.  And then she repeated what she had told me the day before on her shamba: “We are going to win.”

Stay tuned for more updates on the farmers of The Last Hunger Season.

Buy Roger’s book, “The Last Hunger Season,” on Amazon.