Acacia in Kenya was founded in 2005 as an official outreach project of First Parish Waltham, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. In July 2012, it was granted its own 501(c)3 status. Acacia in Kenya partners with community leaders in Mumias, Western Kenya, to care for and educate high school girls.
Acacia in Kenya was founded in 2005 by Joyce Mohr and Sammy Lutomia. Joyce had already become interested in traveling to East Africa through her work as a tax accountant with international clients when she met Sammy, who was returning to Kenya after 18 months working in the U.S. His family had hosted Americans on occasion since the 1970s, and Sammy, on behalf of his family, extended a generous invitation for Joyce to visit Kenya and learn more about East Africa.
During the planning for and experience of their 30-day trip in 2005, Joyce and Sammy saw a tremendous outpouring of support, interest, and well-wishes from a range of people who knew of the impending trip. Friends, churchgoers, colleagues, family, as well as those from each of their respective communities (both in the U.S. and Kenya) expressed a heartfelt desire to do something that would have a real, sustainable impact on, and better the lives of, at-risk teens. “People began to ask what they could give to [the Kenyan youth Sammy and Joyce would encounter],” Joyce recalls. “Initially I was collecting money, clothes, and school supplies such as pens, pencils, etc., but then, because there was so much interest, I asked Sammy and Francis what items would be most helpful. We created a poster board that listed how many beds, blankets, bags of food, and other items were needed. At that point we were collecting items for the orphanage I visited as well as the high school.” These donors bought blankets, food, school uniforms and English text books to be purchased while in Kenya.
It was during the trip preparation and gathering of some of the supplies, and then again during the actual month-long stay in Kenya, that Sammy, Francis Lutomia (a retired school principal), and Joyce, along with other community leaders, realized that their efforts were not only effective, but that they, as a team, enjoyed working together. What’s more, this group began to see great potential to do more for these at-risk Kenyan students on a regular, consistent basis, and the vision for Acacia in Kenya as a long-term, growing, multi-pronged education and sustainable development mission took shape.
In short, there was a precious opportunity here, as Joyce noted: “…the opportunity through our shared values and that of our extended communities to make a difference in the lives of young people in Western Kenya through caring for and supporting the education of vulnerable young people. To feel a greater connection and to expand these, with our African friends. To make the world smaller. To feel that we might in some small way be contributing to world peace by extending friendship and understanding across continents.”
Why? Simply because “Poverty and injustice are hard to face, or live with, and remain just a bystander. By working together we were making tangible and significant differences in the lives of individual young people and by extension, their communities; we hoped to create greater opportunities for these individuals, who in turn would be able to contribute more and give back to their own communities, thus empowering as many people as we can for the greatest possible impact for individuals, families, communities, and even whole villages.”
Although unsure about the next steps for developing their Kenya-U.S. partnership mission, this team resolved to continue their work together. After returning to the U.S., the Acacia In Kenya Project was born, and Joyce asked the Board of Managers at First Parish Church in Waltham to make the Initiative an official outreach project of the church, a motion unanimously and gratefully approved.
The Young Women
With the help of Acacia in Kenya, the St Elizabeth Lureko Girls’ School opened in January 2005 to provide a high school education and daily meals for an initial enrollment of 18 girls. Currently, there are approximately 170? students.
Community leaders who were concerned that some girls were not getting the opportunity to continue on to high school started the St Elizabeth Lureko Girls’ School. The founders of the school knew that not going to high school limited the students’ individual opportunities as well as prevented the young women from becoming more active in and more able to contribute to their community.
In fall 2008, our first group of seniors (known as Form 4s) took their graduate exams (similar to the U.S.’s SAT) to qualify for possible acceptance at a postsecondary level school. Acacia in Kenya then sponsored a postsecondary level education for the student with the highest score, Saida. This young woman is now studying at an agricultural program in Western Kenya to learn and share critical skills for sustainable agricultural development. We have immediate plans to sponsor more students in the near future, as donations allow. You may donate by clicking on this link:
Why Acacia in Kenya? For the partners of this project, the acacia tree is a powerful symbol. Strongly evocative of Africa, it is a reminder that even dreams that seem out of reach can come true. For Joyce, just the thought of ever journeying to Africa and seeing Acacia trees up close seemed impossible at one time. The 2004-2005 year was a time of intense personal transition for Joyce, who was beset with a number of personal and professional challenges that forced her to look deep inside herself and make important changes in her life. Always strongly drawn to Africa, Joyce routinely used the image of an Acacia tree when she went jogging in Cambridge as an imaginary destination or finish line, a Shangri-La, an oasis in the desert, to strive for—to keep her focused on what’s truly important, on the world outside her own internal life, one she knew she could reach with determination and perseverance.
The very nature of these morning runs became a way to rejuvenate, to re-inspire, to re-direct Joyce’s soul to her deepest goals and dreams, and the Acacia tree was the icon she used to spur her on. It was all about inspiration, and connecting to something greater than herself. “Just put one foot in front of another,” Joyce would tell herself each morning as she laced up her sneakers. “If you just take one more step you can run all the way to Africa and reach that Acacia tree!”
At this point, Joyce had yet to meet Sammy and had no plans to visit East Africa; although the Acacia tree was a powerful source of inspiration, it didn’t seem like a dream that could be manifested or directly experienced. But by facing her challenges and accepting the opportunities that suddenly opened up a path to Africa, Joyce eventually found herself in Kenya, face to face with what she had only been able to imagine before—a dream made real. And if that were true, Joyce thought, how could anything else be impossible?
Aside from its personal significance for Joyce, the nature of the Acacia tree makes it a powerful symbol of Africa as the source of human life. Its canopies of branches clump and cluster together, enmeshing their roots to form a mini-forest, a graceful living network that serves to remind the humans that live among them that we are all interconnected and a part of one another.
Finally, the Acacia tree bears an instructive history that serves as a compelling warning to those who do not fully respect the ideas, wants, and needs of cultures not their own—and one cautionary tale in particular makes the point forcefully. When British colonialists first came to East Africa in the 19th century, they tried to force an extermination of the dreaded Tsetse fly—a carrier of many deadly human and animal diseases—which laid its eggs on the moist underside of Acacia bush leaves. The local Masai had long controlled the Tsetse fly by grazing their livestock in rotation throughout the miles of terrain where the Acacia predominated; the livestock ate the Acacia leaves, thereby keeping flies to a minimum. But the British, rather than honoring this time-proven strategy, decided that the correct solution to the Tsetse fly problem was to fence the range lands into privately owned ranches, cut down all the Acacia, and create a colonial bureaucracy to monitor the progress the fly’s elimination. The results were disastrous. The program was costly, complex, and difficult to manage, and once British funds were diverted to the World War II effort, the control program was abandoned. Unsurprisingly, the number of Tsetse flies shot up; in just a few short years, the problem was out of control and could not be reined back in by any Masai-designed solutions. The genie was out of the lamp, and could not be put back.
For all of our Acacia in Kenya members and partners, this catastrophic and avoidable chapter in Africa’s history underscores how crucial it is to listen to one another. Western partners especially must attend carefully and respectfully to our African friends if we are to realize our shared values, principles, and goals.
* Thank you to Richard Ford and his sermon “Transformation Through Learning to Listen.” Click here to download and read the sermon.