Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 11, 2014

Off Deadline: Henry's vision — changing the world, one community at a time

by Jay Thorwaldson

A quiet young man from halfway around the world approached us recently as we visited a small primary school in a rural village named Yimbo, in Kenya.

"I'm Henry," he said softly.

It was an emotional moment on top of an already feeling-packed return visit to this small, mostly impoverished community about 10 miles from Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile. It had been five years since my partner, Patricia, and I had been to Yimbo, where we helped dedicate a school library funded by our group, following an overwhelming African welcome of singing and dancing by mothers, teachers and students.

The group we were with, "Friends of Yimbo," is a nonprofit organization co-founded by brothers Charles Odipo, a psychologist, and Ben Odipo, a computer specialist, in memory of their late father, Joseph Odipo — who founded both the local primary school and a nearby secondary school. Their mother and an uncle still reside in the family compound. Both brothers live with their families in California.

In our earlier visit, about 300 members of the community gathered to honor our group with songs and skits on our final visit to the school. Skits depicted the importance of education as opposed to becoming a fisherman or water-hauler. In one skit, a 13-year-old eighth-grader named Henry Jagongo announced that "Miss Pat and Mr. Jay" would sponsor him through the University of California. It was intended as a joke, and taken as such, being far beyond our capacity, or the entire group's, for that matter.

But a secondary school was a different scale. High schools in Kenya charge tuition and room and board except for "day students," who often have to walk or bicycle miles to attend classes. It was a shock to see qualified students denied a badly needed education for the lack of a fairly modest amount. Henry was eminently qualified, ranking at the top of his eighth-grade class. Yet his family was unable to pay for both him and an older sister.

Working through a Friends of Yimbo scholarship fund Patricia provided nearly all the support, adding up to several thousand dollars over the four years. I contributed much less.

The scholarships are based on academic performance and personal need and are administered through the committee, not as individual support. But word spread that Pat was the major contributor.

Now, meeting Henry again as a young man — who had not just completed his secondary schooling but had done so with outstanding success — members of the group were deeply impressed and personally touched to the point of choking up a bit when meeting his aging parents at their modest, three-room brick home.

His father, Elisha Jagongo, had been a local policeman for 20 years before he retired in the mid-1990s. He suffered a mild stroke in 2012 that left him walking haltingly with a cane. Their pride in Henry glistened in their eyes.

But the point of this column isn't just about a young man in a small village in a remote corner of the world or about personal feelings and connections.

It is about vision and how one person can make a difference in the lives of hundreds or thousands of people, of all ages. It is about individuals who take initiative anywhere in the world, to do what we call in America "building community" or laying foundations for future generations — as so many have done over decades in Palo Alto and the Bay Area. Etch this in stone: One person with vision can make a vast difference.

So this column is about Joseph Odipo, an employee of the Kenyan national railway who believed in education so strongly that he founded two schools and inspired his children to become professionals with advanced degrees, as well as doing small acts of compassion and generosity.

It is about Charles and Ben returning to their home village and creating a small yet committed organization to improve the community. Projects this year include creating washable menstrual pads for older girls so they don't have to miss school each month; helping local "peasant farmers" (as they classify themselves) set up a "chicken project" to expand their meager monthly incomes from crops; and repairing school desks and repainting a classroom.

Last year, after a community meeting five years earlier chose running water as a priority, the village's first well began flowing.

And now Henry has developed his own vision, flowing from his lifetime in Yimbo, marked by both tragedies and successes. His birth mother died when he was 2, and he and a new sister were cared for by an older brother, Michael — who in turn died when Henry was 7. His father remarried and his new mother finished raising him, sharing his father's pride.

His early schooling was rudimentary, and competition with an older sister pushed him to study. In secondary school, he was named "prefect" of his first-year class, something like class president but with numerous duties and working with fellow students. The class surged to the top in performance.

He became engrossed with biology and chemistry, and a vision began to form within him: to go to college followed by medical school to become a physician, and return to Yimbo to establish a clinic, possibly a mobile clinic and ambulance transport so people don't have to travel more than an hour to another town. He has applied to three universities in Kenya, recognizing that funding is still in question.

In the meantime, he went to a nearby secondary school and asked if he could teach biology. After meeting with the deputy headmaster and headmaster, they invited him to teach three classes of biology, which he is doing this summer.

He has applied to three Kenyan universities for undergraduate work, then hopes to get a medical degree and return to Yimbo to develop a staffed local health clinic, with well-equipped ambulances so fewer people die en route to a hospital more than an hour away.

He knows it will be hard, but that is his vision.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

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