The pitted road was impregnated with rocks and small boulders as our 4
wheel drive Toyota dodged zebra, gazelles and impala's across the Massai
Mara. Yet the wild animals and natural splendor are only tangential to
our journey that afternoon. We are heading to the Sienna Boarding
School, just outside the boundaries of the Massai Mara game park. It is
my third visit to the school, yet I still feel chills of inspiration as
we approach the gateposts emblazoned with the motto: "Education is
Light, We Extol Academic Excellence." Two elderly Massai open the
gates and we roll down the driveway to the center of a compound of one
story stone structures with corrugated metal roofs.
This inauspicious location is one of the most exhilarating
educational success stories in the world. When it opened 15 years ago,
there were 30 mostly Massai children who moved onto the property. The
Massai are culturally and geographically isolated among Kenya's 41
tribes and very few village schools existed. Sienna school, founded
with a grant from the World Bank, sought to provide mostly Massai
children with intensive education in a boarding school environment.
Today, over 300 students attend Sienna and it is one of the top ranked
academies in Kenya. Students raised in Massai villages in dung huts
compete with children of the elite Nairobi schools. And while most
Sienna students to not proceed beyond the eighth grade, many
matriculates onto secondary schools in Nairobi and attend university.
These children are invariably the first generation in their family to
even be able to read and write.
The force beyond this amazing achievement has been
headmaster David N'Kanai. Six feet tall, 160 lbs with a shaved head,
Mr. N'Kanai looks half his age of 62. Immaculately dressed in
seersucker suit, sweater vest, button down shirt, necktie with suede
shoes Mr. N'Kanai exudes all the formality of the headmaster of an
English public school. He single handedly assembled a faculty of
equally committed educators, growing the school year to year. Part
headmaster, part teacher, part social worker, Mr. N'Kanai travels to the
nearby Massai village, exhorting parents to send their children to
school, chasing after children who have returned home, arguing with
fathers not to betroth their 14 year old daughters and threatening
families with arrest if they practice female circumcision. The walls of
his dark office (generators are only run at night) are festooned with
handwritten charts documenting the academic scores of attained by Sienna
students over the years and the tables filled with trophies from
academic and musical competitions throughout Kenya. Three 20 year old
computers, one literally held together with duct tape, sit on a table
and papers and documents cover every flat surface.
In Yiddish we refer to a righteous man as a Tzsadik and Mr.
N'Kanai clearly merits this title. He is row own throughout Massai land
for his single minded dedication to education and selfless devotion to
The modesty of the school grounds with its decrepit
classrooms, absence of playgrounds and grassless dusty grounds is belied
by the formality of the students and teachers. Boys dressed in green
trousers, checked shirts, neckties and sweater vests play soccer with a
decrepit tennis ball while girls in matching green checkered school
dresses hold hands in a circle dancing to age old Massai chants.
Teachers maintain strict discipline in the classroom, their authority
bolstered by a cane, liberally applied. The seriousness of the
enterprise is evident in every move. The absence of material prosperity
inversely related to the solemnity of the undertaking.
Sienna school owes its success to the World Bank, the Kenyan
government, and the tenacity and dedication of David N'Kanai. Since the
election of President Kibaki in 2002, free education has been made
available to all children up to eight grades. While a tremendous step
forward, government funds are not available for food and boarding
expenses or for small uncertified community schools. Hence, Sienna
students must each pay 2000 shillings ($27.00) per semester in school
fees. Raising this money is a tremendous hardship on many Massai
families, particularly during times of drought when the cattle do not
produce milk and prices are low. Mr. N'Kanai cajoles parents to pay
their tuitions, while allowing students repeated extensions to satisfy
their obligation. Operating on a tight budget, Mr. N'Kanai does not
have the luxury of waiving school fees; there is no other source of
money to feed the students. If students do not pay their school fees,
they are essentially requiring other families, equally impoverished, to
fill in the gap.
The dire circumstances were driven clear on our visit today
when an elderly Massai man in traditional dress, watery eyes, withered
face, and worn walking stick walked to the office to make a small
payment on a student's tuition. It became clear what the School was
asking families to sacrifice and the tremendous hardship associated with
Yet, the precipitous financial condition of Sienna school is
ameliorated by the relatively small amount of money required to
alleviate its problems. During our first visit to Sienna in 2004, we
met Mr. N'Kanai and watched a traditional Massai dance program. The
singing and choreography was superb and we learned that the school was
trying to raise money to rent a bus to send the dance group to the
national competitions in Nairobi. We gave the school $350, the cost
of a mid range case of wine, which allowed them to attend the
competition. Sienna school won first place, bringing distinction and
pride to the school, its faculty and students.
During our second visit to Sienna in 2007, was asked Mr.
N'Kanai to identify five girl students with financial need who would be
forced to get married if they left school and returned to their
villages. When these beautiful pre-pubescent girls were brought before
us, the only thing I could think of is that they no more had the
appearance and demeanor of women than my 13 year old daughter. Yet if
these girls were allowed to return home to their village for want of
school fees, they would probably be subjected to genital mutilation and
then be married off to a second, third or fourth wife to a much older
man. As I looked at these girls, the only thing that came to mind was
the image of my own 13 year old daughter being violated in such a
horrific way. In the past 15 months, we have spent less than $350 and
enabled these children to remain in school unscathed from such
On our third visit to Sienna last week, we drove up to find
that we were not the only gusts. A luxuriously appointed white Range
Rover was parked in the lot. This was the most tricked out ATV I had
seen in my previous three visits to Massai Mara. The $75,000 vehicle was
garnished with a $15,000 single side band radio and emblazoned with the
emblem of the UN World Food Program. A chic producer, clad in painted
on designer jeans and a tight shirt revealing her midriff was followed
by a video technician and porter also entered into the office. "We are
going to need to borrow the headmaster for a while so you will need to
wait", she blithely told us in the pseudo-British accented of the
A conservative and traditional society, even the most progressive Massai
feminists who I know take care to dress modesty in public. Yet the
auburn haired hottie with her camera crew in tow was not about to super
ordinate local custom and tradition to the opportunity the chance to
flaunt her cute butt and perky tits. "We're making a film, she
explained." Embarrassed at having arrived at Mr. N'Kanai office
unannounced and mindful not to upset any assistance the school might
receive from the August World Food Program we stood aside as this
latter day Leni Riefenstahl be directed Mr. on his film debut.
"We want you in shirtsleeves, she told Mr. N'Kanai, "it makes you look
busier." Can you take off your suit jacket?" My Massai goddaughter has
known Mr. N'Kanai for years and has never seen him without his jacket.
Yet mindful that the weighty power of the International Food Program, he
tolerantly takes off his coat, subordinating his personal sense of
decorum and rectitude for the need to appeal to international donors.
We also want to have a bunch of kids around you," she insists, "but not
when I'm asking you questions." Mr. N'Kanai resigned himself to the
indignity and sat himself down in front of a $10,000 video camera while
Ms. Riefenstahl fired off rehearsed and rhetorical questions.
While Mr. N'Kanai was undergoing his examination, we spoke
to the five girls who had benefited for our sponsorship for the past 15
months by avoiding betrothal and violation. The oldest girl was in the
eight grades and about to take her qualifying examinations for secondary
school in Nairobi. With delicate features and soft but surprisingly
firm voice, she explained that she wanted to become a doctor and go back
to Massai land when she graduated. She explained that she was very
strong in science and math and was hopeful that she would qualify for
specialized education. We asked how she intended to pay for secondary
school since no government funding was available whereupon she expressed
the hope that her brother would be able to sell enough goats to raise
The second girl we spoke to was in the fourth grade and less
confident in either English or Swahili than her older counterpart.
Nevertheless, she explained that her goal in life was to become a pilot,
although she had never set toot in an aircraft. I thought of my 14 year
old daughter currently learning to fly a pipe cub and promised that next
time I visited the school I would try to find a way for her to take her
up on a bush plane.
The other three girls all wanted to be teachers, a
prestigious but not particularly remunerative position in Kenyan
society. When asked if they wanted to be married, they all demurred
politely, while the oldest rolled her eyes in the disdainful smirk
universal to 14 year old girls worldwide. At this point in the
conversation, Ms. Riefenstahl barged into our conversation and, without
any acknowledgment of these five amazing young women, asked us to move
to the sidelines. Apparently our Barak Obama tee shirts were
interfering of the idyllic tranquility of sweet little black children
frolicking in ignorant bliss. The Obama phenomenon that had swept
Africa, to every village and hamlet and mud hut was of no interest to
this documentary filmmaker.
We walked over to the other side of the yard and a group of
30 boys ages 8 to 14 surrounded me. Some of the children with limited
English fluency put their arms around me and others played with the hair
on my forearms arms, something they had never seen up close on a person
before. The other boys noticing my Obama tee shirt began shouting out
"Who is going to win, Obama or McCain?"
"Obama is ahead right now and I'm very hopeful."
"Does McCain want to kill Obama?"
"No No" I responded, anxious to protect the integrity of my
political opponent. "They just disagree on fundamentals."
"Then why do people at McCain's rallies say Obama should be
"They are just crazy," I explained, "and McCain denounced
"What about Sarah Palin?" they ask skeptically, "did she
distance herself from the people at her rallies who want to kill Obama."
"I don't think so," I reluctantly conceded, anxious not have
foreigners think of Governor Palin as a race bating bigot, but unwilling
to lie on her behalf.
"What about the guy in England who was killed for wearing an
Obama tee shirt?"
"McCain had nothing to do with that, "I responded
defensively. "How do you know so much about the US election?"
"I read the paper every day," a 13 year old boy explained
proudly. "The school gets three papers every day and we pass them
around the 100 kids and teachers"
"Do you like politics?" I ask him
"Yes, I want to be a politician when I grow up," he said in
"Does anyone have any more questions about the US?" I
offered, and the inquisition expands in as more kids join in the fray.
"Yes, does Bush support McCain or Obama?"
"Bush and McCain don't really like each other, but Bush is
"Will Bush rig the election so that McCain wins?"
in the US elections are only rigged at the state level," I reply,
thinking of the disenfranchised voters in Florida in 2000, " and only
when the outcome is very close does vote rigging make a difference,"
thinking of Ohio in 2004. Hesitantly, I continue, "this year there is a
Democratic Governor and Secretary of State in Ohio so that unlike in the
last election where voters in Democratic precincts waited up for 12
yours to exercise their franchise we think the election will be handled
more appropriately this time." Not exactly a ringing endorsement of US
democracy, but I was not in the mood for prevarication.
"Any other questions?"
"What do you do?"
"I'm a lawyer."
"Do you go to court?"
"Yes, I get money from big companies who poisoned innocent
citizens with cancerous chemicals."
"Do you get money to defend criminals?"
"I don't do criminal work anymore but everyone should be
given a chance to prove their innocence and not let the government just
put people in jail without a fair trial. Even criminals have rights."
"What about the four guys who tried to kill Obama?"
"I don't think they have had a trial yet."
"Will they be executed?"
"No, we don't have that many executions in the US, "I said
haltingly remembering that the US executes more people than all
countries except Iran and China.
"We usually just put people in jail."
"Do judges take bribes to decide the case the way you want?"
"No, judges in America don't take bribes," I say with
"Does the US president have to follow the law?"
"Yes, in the US we have an independent judiciary and no one
is above the law, even the president."
"Does Bush follow the law?"
"Well, not really," I admit thinking of Guantanamo, domestic
surveillance, torture and the legal theories of David Addington and
"So when Bush leaves office, will be he prosecuted for war
crimes before the International Court of Justice?"
"No, I don't think so," I say hesitantly, dreading the next
At this point I am saved from further inquisition when Mr.
N'Kanai, having finished his interview with Ms. Riefenstahl walks in
front of me. "What are you boys talking about?" he asks.
"Obama," they respond in unison.
"Are you for Obama?" he asks.
"Yes" they shout at once.
"Well I'm for McCain," he proclaimed defiantly. "Why are
you for Obama?" I see a Socratic dialogue taking shape.
"His father is Kenyan"
"So what," Mr. N'Kanai responds. "You need to vote for the
most qualified person. What makes you think that Obama is qualified
just because his father is Kenyan? Do you know him?"
"Is he going to move back here?"
"So what does it matter that he is Kenyan? You need to
support the candidate who is going to serve the people best, weather or
not he is from your tribe or not. You can't vote for someone based on
what tribe he or she is from, you need to think who is going to serve
the people best. Now tell me what makes you think that Obama is going
to be a better president than McCain, not just that he is from Kenya."
"Without missing a beat," Obama will make the US foreign
policy less warlike than McCain."
"There you go," Mr. N'Kanai grins, "you're a smart kid. Now
get back to class!"
Mr. N'Kanai turns to confer with some teachers. As we walk
back to the main building, I see the documentary filmmaker standing by
when her cameraman and helper are packing up their equipment. Filled
with optimism and joy over this exhilarating exchange with Sienna
students and eager to share some connection with someone who has
witnessed an equally inspiring thing I turn to her and ask.
"Isn't this place inspiring?"
"Oh it is so pitiful," she condescended. "These kids that
don't have enough food. It's so depressing." Assuming it was our first
trip to Africa, she went on "but don't let this place get you down,
maybe you will see some lions on your drive back." With that she
alighted into her $75,000 World Food Organization range rover, slipped
on her designer sun glasses and look straight ahead as her driver
chaffered her past the driveway and out the gates without speaking to a
single child. Had she seen the same school I had?
We work our way back into Mr. N'Kanai's office. He is
obviously relieved to have the aid agencies gone and we begin to talk.
"We are the last boarding school in Kenya to charge 2000
shillings a semester. Most schools like us are charging 3000 or 4000,
but our parents are already struggling to pay the school fees to educate
their kids. As it is, there are 50 students who are so behind in their
school fees that they are going to be sent home. I gave a warning two
weeks ago and another warning last week. Tomorrow I am going to have to
send these students home. I hate do to it, but I have no choice. We
are down to two sacks of beans and one sack of maize. Some kids will
come back with some money and I will take them, no matter how little
they bring. Other kids will never come back. I'm particularly worried
about my eight grade students. The national examinations are next month
and the kids need to place well to get into secondary school. We are
pushing the kids pretty hard to get ready for the examination for
secondary school and I think our school is going to place very well in
the national rankings. However, if our eight graders miss a week or two
of school before their parents come up with the money they will not be
as prepared for the national examination as they should be."
"These kids who aren't paying their school fees," I ask, "is
it just that their parents are selfish or do they truly not have the
"They don't have the money," explained Mr. N'Kanai, "many of
these kids have single mothers who barely struggle to survive. The
political violence last January has caused tourism to fall off and the
Massai women are not able to sell as many beads to the tourists they did
last year. Also the drought has cut milk production among Massai to
less than a liter per cow today. As it stands right now, we are feeding
our kids powdered milk. Imagine, In Massai land not having fresh milk to
feed our kids!"
I inquire weather increased food prices have affected his
"The widespread violence in the aftermath of the flawed
elections resulted in farmers not planting their crops in January. This
in connection with raising energy prices and increased demand for
agricultural products worldwide has more than doubled the price of food
in the past six months. We used to pay 2000 shillings for 50 kilos of
beans; now the price is 6000. Rice was 100 shillings a kilo; now its
500. There is simply no way we can keep feeding all these children when
they don't pay their school fees.
"What about the International Food Program folks who were
just here," I ask, "haven't they been providing the school with aid?"
"They came last fall and promised to help, "Mr. N'Kanai
replied. "We got a little bit of food a few months ago, but have
received nothing since then. They keep coming back and doing interviews
promising assistance, but we have seen nothing."
I sit back in disbelief. The annual budget for Sienna
school is less than the cost of the tricked out range rover I just saw
outside the school. They could have handed Mr. N'Kanai the keys to the
vehicle and fed the kids for two years. The International Food program
is probably spending $100,000 producing the humanitarian film in which
Mr. was posed for an interview, a 20th of which would have brought all
the student balances up to date. Apparently the impact of a slickly
produced film filled with hungry little black children and earnest
teachers in shirtsleeves was a higher priority than putting food into
the bellies of the very children the organization was filming. I
remembered all the disparaging things that Conservatives say about the
international aid bureaucracy and wondered weather they are correct.
As a man of action, I am often wrong but seldom in doubt.
When I see a problem with an obvious solution, I have little patience
for extended dialogue or sophisticated analysis. I take a deep breath,
and address the issue head on.
"How many students are so behind in their school fees that
are in danger of being sent home?" I ask decisively.
"About 50," he replied.
"And how many kids in total are behind on their school
"Over a hundred," he says.
"And these are kids whose parents don't have the money, not
just ones whose parents don't want to pay?"
"Absolutely," he said, "if their parents were just selfish I
would have sent them home months ago."
Shifting into my take charge mode, I say.
"How much will it take to keep these kids in school?"
"A few thousand shillings will let us keep going," he
I clear my throat. "Mr. N'Kanai, your school is the most
inspiring place I have ever seen. The kids you are teaching are so
bright and vibrant; the work you are doing is so important to the future
of Kenya. I breaks my heart to think of you having to send children
away from such a wonderful place just because they are poor and can't
pay their school fees. I am going to make it possible for you to avoid
sending any children home tomorrow or any time. Can I see the list?"
I am handed a three sheets of paper impeccably typed with
British formality listing the names of the sixth seventh and eight grade
students who were arrears in their school fees and the amounts owed
which range form 200 to 7,000 shillings. There were 105 students in
total. I asked Mr. N'Kanai for a calculator and added up the total
amount owed by all these students which came to 272,500 shillings.
Divided by 75, the current cash exchange rate, it came to $3,630. I
then reached into my money belt and counted out how much money I had:
Mr. N'Kanai had expected a donation to keep the kids in
school for a few more weeks, but was visibly shocked when I waked into
his office with $3,630 in cash to pay the outstanding school fees of all
105 students. Despite his eloquence and erudition, Mr. N'Kanai was so
shocked that he could not muster anything besides a mumbled thank you.
Mindful of Maimonides' writings on charity, I was happy that the
suddenness of events had prevented any effusive words of gratitude and
praise. I was the one who felt thankful for being placed in a position
to perform such a mitzvah.
The secretary told us it would take several to prepare
detailed receipts for all the 105 students we had assisted. (I always
insist on receipts for all my charitable work in Africa), so we agreed
to come back on Saturday and pick up receipts. We left the school at
twilight and headed back to our lodge. On the way, we pulled over to
look at a pride of lions. Four lion cubs walked to within a yard of our
car and we later pulled within six feet a gigantic male loin. My
goddaughter who had spent 30 years growing up in Massai land said that
was the closest she had ever been to a lion.
As I near the half century mark in my life, I have become
more spiritual and open to a divine presence to the world. We showed up
at Sienna school unannounced one day before they were going to send 50
home and the amount of money the children needed was the exact amount of
cash that I had. Coincidence? Probably so. But irrespective of
weather or not our presence at Sienna that afternoon was subject to a
divine plan, I know that we were doing God's work.