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Peace Corps Volunteer Brian Theroux sows seeds of hope in Kenya
Peace Corps Volunteer Brian Theroux sows seeds of hope in Kenya
Peace Corps volunteer sows seeds of hope in Kenya
By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian
Sentinel graduate working to bring electricity, water to village school
Electricity came in April, and with it computers and a library and light to read by at night.
Now Brian Theroux wants to bring running water to the little hilltop school in central Kenya where he teaches science and English composition as a Peace Corps volunteer.
With electricity and water, he said, will come hope.
"I want my students to have a dream and a vision and to work for it," said Theroux, a 1994 Sentinel High School graduate and son of Missoula bookstore owner Barbara Theroux.
In the face of so much poverty and so much they don't have, the children of Ichagachiru need hope, he said. And sometimes, hope comes disguised as clean water or a library book.
Three years ago, Theroux was an out-of-work middle-school science teacher, the victim of school cutbacks in Spokane. Not sure where he wanted to live or what he wanted to do, he landed in Washington, D.C., working for Conservation International.
The Peace Corps office was a block away.
It didn't take long for Theroux to walk in the door, fill out an application and say no to an assignment working on environmental projects in Ecuador.
"I'm a teacher," he insisted.
"How about teaching in Kenya?" came the reply.
And Theroux headed for a high school called Huho-Ini - "It means windy place in English" - in the remote Kenyan village of Ichagachiru.
Kenyan schools are based on the British model. After elementary school, the students who test highest go to the most prestigious national school. Then come the provincial high schools, then village schools.
Huho-Ini is a village school, and therefore poor like the villagers themselves. The school cook serves the same lunch every day: a soup of maize and beans boiled over a wood-burning fire.
Until last April, there was no electricity. Now the village has electricity, but only the school uses it - and, even then, sparingly.
"Electricity is expensive," Theroux explained, "and these people are very poor. Very, very poor."
There's a water tank alongside the school, but no way to collect or distribute water. When students act up, their punishment is always the same: go fetch a bucket of water and carry it back up the hill.
The more serious the transgression, the more water a student must fetch.
Nearly all the villagers are subsistence farmers, coaxing tiny patches of ground into producing barely enough food to keep their family alive, then picking tea for wealthy landowners to make a little money.
A 45-pound basket of tea leaves nets the landowner about 50 cents. The villager who picked the leaves gets a fraction of that amount.
When Theroux arrived in Ichagachiru two years ago, he was struck by the similarity of its landscape to Missoula.
The village sits on the edge of the Aberdare Range, from which flows all of Kenya's major rivers. Nairobi, 80 miles to the south, gets all its water from the range.
"It is a beautiful place," he said, showing off photographs of rolling hillsides and a wide, richly agricultural valley.
In the distance, the mountains hold a forest so precious the Kenyan government built a fence around it, lest poor people cut all the trees for firewood.
Still, the forest is disappearing. Even the trees around the schoolhouse show signs of cutting. As high as villagers can reach or climb, there are no branches.
Eventually, the barren trunks will be taken.
But the villagers cannot be judged harshly, Theroux said. They are only trying to provide heat and food for their families.
More than anything, his Kenyan neighbors are warm and welcoming, he said. It's one of the reasons he recently re-upped for a third year in the village - a rarity in the Peace Corps, which normally sends volunteers for two-year stints overseas.
"The people are fun," he said. "They really have a lot of fun with everything. Their poverty is great, but they are still so happy. It just amazes me."
What the villagers do need, though, is a "spur" and Theroux has increasingly filled that role, poking at people until one and then another project is completed.
During the school day, he teaches science - biology, chemistry, physics, some geography - and a little English comprehension and composition.
On days off, he works on his projects.
Huho-Ini School now has a tree nursery, tended and managed by its 140 students, as part of the Kenyan government's reforestation campaign.
This year, the nursery produced 30,000 trees, all purchased by the government and replanted in areas that have lost their forests.
Next year, the students will produce 70,000 to 90,000 trees - 40,000 of them by April, so they can be planted at the start of the rainy season.
"The nursery teaches kids that they can make a change," Theroux said. "They can really see a difference.
"And every kid is learning how to manage a tree nursery, which is important since most of them will end up living on a farm and growing subsistence crops."
Last year, the nursery earned $5,000 for the school, a huge amount of money in Kenya, enough that students now get rice and a little bit of fried meat for lunch on Wednesdays.
"We can feed the kids better," Theroux said, "and that really means something."
When electricity finally reached Ichagachiru last April, Theroux worked with villagers to build a resource center for the school.
Completed in June, the building houses a computer lab, a library and a resource center - all firsts for Huho-Ini.
The resource center holds sports equipment, including shoes "so the kids can wear shoes when they play soccer." The computer center allows him to teach students skills they could never have developed before.
"By staying another year, I can help it become more organized, so it doesn't fall apart when I leave," Theroux said.
He'd also like to get a water system in place in the year to come, but that's going to be difficult, given the $8,000 price tag.
The water tank is ready, and an artesian spring has been located down the hill from the school.
The idea, Theroux said, is to build a reservoir - a collection box about the size of a desk - around the source of the spring, both to collect water and to protect it from contamination.
The water would then flow into a series of troughs, one for humans, one for cattle, again to protect the purity of the spring water and therefore the health of the villagers.
Then would come the pump house and steel pipes needed to get water from the spring to the school.
Plastic pipes won't work because all agriculture in Ichagachiru is done by hand, "and someone would eventually dig into the ground and hit the pipe," Theroux said.
And he wants to build a water system that lasts.
"We have a plan," he said. "The big thing that's missing is the money."
In Missoula this month to visit with his family, Theroux has been encouraged by friends to share the village's story with the wider Missoula audience.
Maybe Missoula could help the little Kenyan town by providing the money needed to pump water from the spring's outlet to the school, Theroux's friends said.
He'll be home through Jan. 4, and is eager to talk with anyone about Huho-Ini School and its future. Then he'll head back to Kenya for another year.
Hoping to bring running water to his little school. Knowing there is hope in a glass of tap water.
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at firstname.lastname@example.org