Teacher builds bridges with African students

RFH Harambee Project supports education of students in Kenya

To most Americans, Africa is a distant, mysterious “Dark Continent” of wars, pestilence and poverty. Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School social studies teacher Megan Arnone is opening up that continent and making a people-to-people connection that benefits her students and the RFH community and the people whose lives are being dramatically transformed in Africa.

PHOTOS BY MEGAN ARNONE RFH teacher Megan Arnone and Fair Haven native Stacy Harris with children at the Ramah Care Center in Nairobi. PHOTOS BY MEGAN ARNONE RFH teacher Megan Arnone and Fair Haven native Stacy Harris with children at the Ramah Care Center in Nairobi. During the past summer break, Arnone traveled to Kenya and Uganda for two months in an effort to build bridges between schools and aid organizations in Africa and the Harambee Project, which she founded at RFH. “The RFH-Kenya Harambee Project is one of human unity bringing together Kenyan students and educators, the RFH community, the larger communities of Rumson and Fair Haven and our families and friends,” she said.

The term Harambee is the national motto of Kenya; it can be defined as “coming together for a mutual cause.”

With this in mind, students have been raising funds and collecting school supplies, clothing, books and toys for rural and urban schools and rescue centers in Kenya.

Top: Arnone with (l-r) Wendy and Catherine, two young African women whose educations are being sponsored by the Harambee Project. Above: Arnone with some of the children being helped through the Harambee Project's efforts in Nigeria. Top: Arnone with (l-r) Wendy and Catherine, two young African women whose educations are being sponsored by the Harambee Project. Above: Arnone with some of the children being helped through the Harambee Project’s efforts in Nigeria. The RFH Harambee Project is an integral part of SAVE (Student Activism Via Education), a student activist group, which provides a way for students to research and become active in their choice of a variety of social causes.

English teacher Dana Maulshagen and Arnone are co-advisers of SAVE; Arnone manages the Harambee Project, and Maulshagen handles all other activism initiatives. Response by the RFH community has been enthusiastic and generous. When the Harambee Project’s first large shipment of school supplies arrived at the Ramah Care Center in Nairobi, it was described as “the biggest event in the seven-year history of this school” by Stacy Harris of Fair Haven, Arnone’s contact in Nairobi.

She added, “The kids were so happy to receive the books that they started crying. They had a prayer service to thank the Americans for helping. These simple paper and school supplies that we take for granted are changing an entire school and the community.”

Last year, RFH students sold woven African-style friendship bracelets to raise funds to help pay school fees for students in Kenya. Although elementary schools are technically free to all, families must pay for the cost of uniforms, books, supplies, transportation and school maintenance.

The total cost may be minimal to most Americans, but in Africa, it makes an education prohibitively expensive for most poor, rural and urban children.

Secondary education is tuition-based, and few families can afford to allow their children to continue beyond grade school.

The Harambee Project has taken on the school fees for several students and is making a major difference in their lives. Letters from the students describe what the project means to them.

One student lost both parents to AIDS.

Wendy is attending Lady of Lourdes Girls High School in Nyeri, Kenya, and is ranked first in her class. She hopes to continue her education by attending a university.

“My dream is one day to achieve in life and help those who are unfortunate just as I have been helped to be where I am today,” she wrote.

Arnone says, “A girl like Wendy deserves the chance to pursue higher education and make use of her startling intelligence – an opportunity that she was robbed of when her mother died of AIDS and her family disowned both her and her brother.”

Another student being sponsored by the Harambee Project is Retune who has “lost her entire cultural and familial existence” and needs to have her basic needs met. Fees are being provided so that she can be helped at the Suguta Marmar Rescue Center, a place of refuge, care, residence and education for Samburu girls who run away from their tribes to avoid early marriage and female circumcision.

The school’s connection with the project began when Arnone attended a lecture on the Darfur genocide at Georgian Court University, Lakewood, in 2004.

There she met Sister Mary Teresa Murugi, mother superior of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Central Kenya.

Mother Teresa was the link to Africa that Arnone needed in order to connect on a personal level with those in need of assistance in Kenya.

Her two-month trip last summer, funded by a Summer Incentive Grant from the RFH Board of Education, allowed her to deliver a shipment of supplies and to see first hand many facilities that might offer suitable projects for The Harambee Project.

She also taught in the schools, helped with curriculum and toured the area looking at educational facilities.

She found, she said, that “every area of life is in need” and the possibilities for meaningful assistance are abundant.

Currently, all of the initiatives being funded are in Kenya, but the hope is to expand into Uganda in the future.

Arnone has been invited to present a lecture series next summer at Mountains of the Moon University in Ft. Portal, Uganda, where she will look for in that area during her visit. Arnone has long lists of Kenyan students long lists of Kenyan students who would like to correspond with Americans and her long-term goal is to start a visiting student program.

Thus far, local donations from both private and corporate sponsors and the fundraising of the RFH students have enabled the Harambee Project to sponsor several girls who would not otherwise be able to attend school. The project has also provided clothing, school supplies and other necessities to other children.

According to Arnone, “These are children who have ambitions for university and will no doubt come back to their communities as major assets to development. But for right now, they need refuges where they can feel safe as they prepare for bright futures.”

“The Harambee project is at this time centered at RFH, but it is such a worthwhile venture that it should be shared with other schools nationwide,” said RFH Superintendent Peter Righi. “We would be gratified to see this expand to other schools so that more and more young people in Africa can enjoy the gifts that a good education can provide. At the same time, American students can see firsthand the benefits of education and how lucky they are to be learning in the United States.”

“The whole point of the Harambee Project is to encourage student activism and make them participants in a global society,” Arnone explained. “So many people see the suffering of African children as overwhelming and hopeless. I find it to be incredibly inspiring and hope to foster that same inspiration in my students. I believe that the children of Africa are all worth saving. I am trying, one at a time.”

For more information or donations, email marnone@rfhrhs.org or megan@theharambeeproject. org.