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Into Africa: Project Said ‘Transformative’

December 5, 2010
By LINDA COMINS Life Editor

The Rev. Mark E. Seitz of Wheeling has seen first-hand that the work of the Elewana Education Project in Kenya is "transformative."

Seitz, rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Wheeling, spent three weeks this fall at the Elewana headquarters in western Kenya as part of his sabbatical time.

The Rev. Zachary Drennen, a missionary of the Episcopal Church and priest from the Diocese of West Virginia, is the founder and director of the Elewana Education Project, which is now in its third year of operation.

Article Photos

Sixth-grade girls at Amagora Junior School in Kenya pause in their studies to greet the Rev. Mark E. Seitz, rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wheeling, and other visitors from the Elewana Education Project, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships, solar power, Internet connections and computers for schools in western Kenya.

He paid a return visit to St. Matthew's, Wheeling, this fall to tell of the ongoing work of the nonprofit organization and its commitment to enhance educational opportunities for young Kenyans.

St. Matthew's Church contributes financially to the Elewana Education Project through the parish's outreach abroad program. A number of parishioners also are individual contributors to the effort.

Currently, the Elewana Education Project awards scholarships to more than 140 deserving students in 30 primary and secondary schools in western Kenya and provides solar power, computers and Internet access to schools.

The Elewana project, founded in July 2008, also facilitates partnerships between schools in Kenya and in the United States.

Partnering institutions include the Greenbrier Episcopal School in White Sulphur Springs and the Neighborhood Academy, a private school in Pittsburgh where Drennen taught before going to Africa.

Discussing the project's transformative work, Seitz commented, "Providing scholarships where the cost of a year of education is equivalent to a third of a family's annual income is like manna from heaven. Providing solar power, computers and access to the Internet in places where there is no electrical grid is nothing less than shining a light in the midst of absolute darkness.

"The effect is clear when a school's performance moves from the bottom of its district to third in the year after computers were introduced. And connecting students in Kenya and the U.S. through the Internet has the power to transform the lives of both groups on either side of the ocean," Seitz remarked.

Acknowledging that he only scratched the surface during his brief stay, the Wheeling priest also observed, "I can say that this is an experience of remarkable people living wonderfully challenging lives with great faith and grace."

The Elewana staff and volunteers work from a mission house in Amagora, Kenya.

They work closely with the Most Rev. Zak Epusi, bishop of the Diocese of Katakwa in the Anglican Church in Kenya, and the Rev. Job Ekuru, the bishop's chaplain. The village is located about 5 to 7 kilometers from the Ugandan border.

In addition to provided much-needed scholarships, the project has installed two solar-powered electrical systems and four computer labs in local Kenyan schools, Drennen said. Four new partnerships between schools have been established this year, allowing students from Africa and America "to learn from each other, which is pretty powerful," he said.

"What makes all of this possible is the love and prayers from here in West Virginia," Drennen told the audience at St. Matthew's. "I trust God is going to do what He does - transform us through our relationships."

Drennen, 40, grew up in Charleston; his parents now reside in Shepherdstown. Through this project, he said, "We're building relationships between churches, parishioners, schools, students and teachers."

After recalling memorable and harrowing travel experiences, Seitz commented, "On a deeper level I am impressed by the Kenyan people I have encountered. Their concerns appear to be much the same as people from elsewhere in the world, but their challenges are much greater than ours in the west. Most must travel by foot or hire a bicycle, motorbike or a joint taxi to get where they are going. Things we take for granted they cannot. The process of preparing meals is complicated by the limited food storage and the time necessary to purchase or gather it each day. These challenges and others like them make a life focused on the basics by comparison to my life at home."

Citing Kenyans' patience and persistence, Seitz also noted that large challenges exist for the most basic education in the East African nation. "Classrooms, trained teachers, textbooks and materials cannot be taken for granted and yet it is clear the parents, teachers, students and the church are committed to surmounting whatever the challenges are," he said.

Seitz said, "Seventy percent of the people in Kenya are 18 and under. There are kids everywhere." One Sunday during his visit, he preached at an English-language service attended by 350 people at St. Thomas Anglican Church, Amagora, which has 1,200 members. Seitz also preached at a cornerstone-laying service at St. Peter's Church, Kaboru, where the unfinished building still has a mud floor and where classes were being conducted in the open air.

During Seitz's stay, they visited several schools, including Chamasiri Secondary School, a boarding school where 65 teenage girls sleep in triple bunks in a small dorm room; Moding Secondary School and St. Mark's School, Kipchiria, which has more than 200 students. They visited St. Mark's to install computers in the facility where an Elewana-provided solar power system generates enough energy to power eight to 10 computers and an office building. "That (having electrical power), in and of itself, is encouraging to a lot of the students and teachers and even the community," Drennen remarked.

They also visited St. Peter's School in Aterait and the Kim Girls School where, after computers were installed by Elewana, both schools went from being low-performing institutions to the first and third highest, respectively, in their district, Drennen said.

St. Mark's School, Machakos, now in its second year, has 90 students in the ninth-grade class and 60 students in the 10th-grade class. "They want it. They are very clear that their education is important," Drennen said.

One-fourth of the students in Kenya are orphaned or partially orphaned, Drennen said. Most deaths of Kenyans, ages 25-40, are caused by AIDS; the nation has an infection rate of 6 to 10 percent, which is low by African standards, he said.

Drennen said that 90 to 95 percent of children attend primary schools, which are mostly free across Kenya. However, it costs $600 to $650 to educate a student in secondary school, with the government covering only $150. Scholarships are vital because the average annual income is only $300 to $400, and most families have four to eight children, he said.

Elewana emphasizes educating girls because, Drennen said, it has been demonstrated that "the more education the mother has, the healthier the children." Kenya has a higher infant mortality rate than the United States.

"Education is important," the project's director observed. "The importance of education is not lost on anyone."

Contributions to Elewana are used to provide annual scholarships of $500 for each student and to pay for technology. A solar power system costs about $5,000; installing laptop computers in a school costs between $3,000 and $6,000, Drennen said. Books, educational software and materials, used laptops and clothing also are needed, he added. "Even small donations are a huge blessing to us," he remarked.

 
 

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