Ali Bovender says she expected that a recent journey to Kenya with six of her fellow Western Carolina University teacher education students would turn out to be a life-changing experience, but she had no idea that it would affect her like it has.

The students were accompanied on the 15-day trip to the African continent by Rus Binkley, associate professor in WCU’s School of Teaching and Learning, and his wife, Kathy. Binkley said the October excursion was organized to provide the students an opportunity to experience the schools in Kenya by observing teaching methods and taking part in classroom instruction. Bovender said she was mostly looking forward to spending time with the children. “I thought I was going to be the one to impact their lives, but they are the ones who changed mine,” she said.

WCU student Hannah Whitehead elicits a smile from a student during a lesson.

WCU student Hannah Whitehead elicits a smile from a student during a lesson.

The WCU contingent spent its first week in the city of Nairobi, and the first school visited was a private Christian institution that is “somewhat better equipped” than the typical Kenyan school, Binkley said. But, toward the end of that first week, the group went to a second school that is located in a slum outside of Nairobi – a school with no water. “Just by the school gates there is a huge garbage dump, several city blocks in size, and maybe 50 feet or so high,” Binkley said. “There were hungry Marabou storks and people all over it picking through the trash, looking for stuff to sell and for food to eat.”

Inside the school, Bovender found children to teach, including some children with special needs – her passion. “One of the little boys we worked with in the special needs class came up to us before we left one day,” she said. “This young man kept speaking to us in Swahili, and we weren’t sure what he was saying. We asked Steve, the man who was with us, to translate, and he told us that the little boy was thirsty.”

So, the WCU group gave the boy a bottle of water. “He thanked us and walked off,” Bovender said. “As he did, other children came up to him to take the water from him. I stepped up to stop them, and Steve put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. He told me that they were not trying to be mean, but that they were just as thirsty. I was moved to tears. It was so hard to see children who were having to go without something that was so necessary for life. Things like that will set a fire inside you. It’s a passion I now have that will never go away.”

The school enrolls about 1,800 students, and all of them live in poverty, Binkley said. “They arrive at 7 a.m. and leave at 4:30 p.m., and they have neither food nor water all day,” he said. “Our students were really moved by this.”

Binkley has a longtime friend, Winston Akala, who is dean of the College of Education at the University of Nairobi. “Winston confirmed that digging a well for the school would probably cost only about $5,000, and that would mean kids could drink all they want and, in turn, the school could sell the excess to local people for a few shillings and recover operating costs,” Binkley said.

WCU student Victoria Blount works with a student in a Kenyan classroom.

WCU student Victoria Blount works with a student in a Kenyan classroom.

The WCU students who went on the Kenya trip are making plans to raise the money to have the well dug. In addition to Bovender, that group consists of Amy Bennett, Victoria Blount, Carson Bridges, Taylor Hunter, Emily Martens and Hannah Whitehead.

Other plans are in the works, too, Binkley said.

“As we speculated about what we could do, we thought about adopting this as a model school over a number of years where there could eventually be a school garden to feed the kids, and provide professional development for the teachers, who are doing the best they can with what little they have,” he said. “This school is full of dedicated and loving teachers who haven’t been paid since August, but who keep coming to work, anyway.

“I was really proud of how my students jumped in and taught what they’d planned, and afterward, they winged it and taught some more. That interaction was really what they came for – and it was emotionally draining, but really a tremendous experience. We left the school about 50 kids’ books we had brought and, of course, the headmaster made a big ceremony of it, with me attempting to make a speech at the Kenyan flagpole under the equatorial sun,” Binkley said.

During the Kenyan adventure, the WCU group also journeyed about five hours southwest of Nairobi to stay for five days at Wongonyi, a small village on top of a mountain that is surrounded on three sides by Tsavo National Park. The village is where a native Kenyan, Ronnie Mdawida, was raised. Mdawida attended a Canadian university and leads The Ronnie Mdawida Fund (, which is working on sustainable development in African communities.

“He has so far brought a health clinic, greenhouses, beehives, fish farming, craft operatives, a dried banana flour industry, a special education classroom and fresh clean water to Wongonyi, among other things,” Binkley said. “We worked at their primary school and our students got to do a good amount of teaching. I was quite impressed with our students as they pitched in to teach, even with older age groups they had not worked with previously.”

The trip to Kenya took place partially during WCU’s fall break, and the students had to cover their own travel expenses, Binkley said. Taking advantage of their rare opportunity as visitors in Africa, members of the group also incorporated some wildlife viewing in their itinerary, spending a night at a safari lodge and going on two game drives. “We saw countless elephant herds, giraffes and zebras. Altogether, we saw more than 20 lions, including one pride with a lone male, some lionesses and two generations of cubs,” Binkley said.

In addition to the powerful desire she now has to help the Kenyan children who live in poverty, Bovender said the trip left her feeling surprised by the happy nature and determination of the people she met.

“They are extremely hardworking, no matter what the situation,” she said. “They are thankful for what they have and just know things are going to get better. It was humbling to see that. We come from a society that tells us that we need all of these expensive things, and here these people go without things that they really need, but they are driven to overcome it.”

The students’ trip to Africa comes as WCU begins a two-year exploration of “Africa! More than a Continent,” with plans to connect curricular and co-curricular experiences across disciplines and provide a framework for common intellectual experiences for WCU students.

Following-up with Rus Binkley…

Where did the idea for this trip come from?

Rus Binkley

Many years ago, my wife and I had a job where we led college students in an immersion experience in Haiti. We saw them come back with a new understanding of the world and an obligation to work for social justice. So, I became convinced that student travel to places so different is a must if I want to promote global citizenship. When I got my doctorate at the University of Illinois, I made a friend of Winston Akala, a Kenyan. We went to visit him and his family six years ago and have been planning this student relationship ever since. He is now the dean of the College of Education at the University of Nairobi, so he’s in a key position to make things happen. We hope to repeat this student trip every year and, eventually, I’d like to spend a semester teaching at the University of Nairobi.

Will the students try to raise money to have the well dug?

We are in the planning stages right now, so I think it will happen. What is reassuring is that the head principal of the school explicitly said that the school needs and wants this well, so we aren’t telling them what we think they need. As we dreamed big together in Nairobi, we thought about a multi-year plan: First, let’s find a way to dig a borehole to provide clean water for the 1,800 kids in that school. Second, could we sell the excess water to the neighbors to help defray operating cost? Third, if the well provides enough water, let’s plant maize and irrigate it to maintain a school feeding program. Last, let’s provide professional development for this group of overworked and dedicated teachers to create a model school with the University of Nairobi teacher education program.