BUILDING HOPE: The Story of Mahiga Hope High School

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Building Hope

The Story of Mahiga Hope High School


The Nobelity Project Copyright Š 2011 2600 Cuernavaca Drive, Austin, TX 78733 All rights reserved Photographs by Turk Pipkin Additional Photos by Greg Elsner, Vance Holmes, Gary Miller, Christy Pipkin, Katie Rose Pipkin, Lily Pipkin and Dan Shine Building Hope Library of Congress Control Number: 2011919404 ISBN: 978-0-9847717-1-4 First Hardcover Edition, 2011 E-book design inspired by hardcover design by DJ Stout and Stu Taylor, Pentagram, Austin The iBooks version of Building Hope is designed for Landscape/Horizontal viewing on the iPad, iPod touch and iPhone


This book is dedicated to the life and spirit of Wangari Maathai. Thank you for showing the way.


The State of Hope Introduction by Dan Rather ONE OF MY LATE MOTHER’S FAVORITE SAYINGS WAS, “One sweet step at a time.” She was also fond of Alexander Pope’s immortal quote, “Hope springs eternal.” Both of these come to mind in thinking about the work of Turk and Christy Pipkin. When we look at the size of the problems facing current and future generations, it’s easy to lose hope that we have solutions as big as the challenges. A billion people lack clean water and adequate nutrition. Infant mortality is shockingly high. Education funding falls far short of the need, with millions of children unable to attend school. This book and the films of The Nobelity Project are the story of a continuing adventure to keep hope alive. The Pipkins have learned and shared a great deal about tackling big problems by focusing on specific solutions that work. Turk calls that approach “One Peace at a Time,” with the ultimate success depending on the actions of many. Educate a girl and you lift an entire community. Provide clean water and sanitation at a cost of a few dollars per person, and kids are able to attend school and create real opportunity for themselves. Inoculate millions of children for smallpox and you eradicate a disease that killed nearly half a billion people in the 20th century. The Girl Effect, clean water, and childhood vaccinations have been movements of great change. In his new film and book, Turk Pipkin is shining a light on another idea whose time has come. The Global Campaign for Education estimates that 69 million children in the world do not attend primary school, and dramatically larger numbers of kids are unable to attend high school. “Education shouldn’t end after the eighth grade.” That is such a simple and obvious statement, and one that should rally all of us in the understanding that the big problems we face in the world from hunger to terrorism will never be solved without every child receiving his or her rightful education. iii

I first met Christy and Turk Pipkin through our mutual friend Ann Richards, the great lady of the state of Texas. This was well before the Pipkins began to make films about global problems and solutions, and before their founding of The Nobelity Project. Like Governor Ann, I was curious to see where their work in television and books would lead them. In 2006 I was pleased to attend the world premiere of their film Nobelity, which looked at some of the world’s biggest problems through the eyes and minds of nine Nobel laureates. This was good journalism wedded to good filmmaking. The journey continued with their next film, One Peace at a Time, which focused on the possibility of providing basic rights to every child. Tracking down solutions that worked in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ecuador and a dozen places in between, Turk was a one-man journalism wrecking crew. What he demolished was the perception that there are no solutions. It was another great woman who led Turk to East Africa. Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai invited him to plant trees with the women of the Green Belt Movement. Before long he was planting trees at a school, then partnering with the community to build a water system for those trees and for the kids who’d been walking long distances to collect dirty drinking water. Soon The Nobelity Project and the community of Mahiga were building the area’s first high school and providing real hope and opportunity for generations to come. Those stories are the backbone of this inspiring book, but the heart of the story is how a small Texas-based nonprofit reached across the ocean to embrace a rural community with dreams of a better future for their children. Perhaps Turk was lucky to find a community with the willingness to work for their dream, but I suspect that the people of Mahiga, Kenya, are not all that different from the members of any community in need around the globe. When the Pipkins’ journey began, they didn’t know the size of the challenges they’d be taking on, or the personal satisfaction that awaited them. But life is for learning, and among the things I love about the story of Mahiga Hope High School is that the practical lessons from building this model school are applicable at countless communities in need. Education is the compact that works for everyone. Building Hope shows that universal secondary education is an achievable goal in every nation for every child. In a world where we suffer from a shortage of good news, that is one of the most hopeful reports imaginable. iv

So, this is Dan Rather, signing off from East Africa and East Texas with a concise news flash. There’s a great deal of hope and promise in the world that you never hear about. You don’t have to wait for the evening news or the Sunday paper to learn about it. You only have to reach out to your neighbor across the street, across town or across the ocean. Then take their hand and do something great together—one sweet step at a time with hope springing eternal. That’s the true story of Mahiga Hope High School. - Dan Rather, 2011, Austin, Texas



The Road To Mahiga

THREE FLIGHTS AND 8,000 MILES FROM MY HOME in Austin, Texas, I’m driving to Mahiga. Technically, I’m not driving. I’m riding, sitting in the front passenger seat of Mike’s van as we talk about the new road pavement. We’ve both been in bad accidents on this highway and were both lucky to walk away unharmed. For three years we’ve been marking the progress of a Kenyan road crew as they ripped up the old potholed two-lane highway, regraded, then laid down new tarmac. Three years to repair thirty miles of deadly road. That’s emblematic of how progress comes to Kenya, slow but steady. Progress you can mark and appreciate. 6

The sky is a deep blue, and on the left side of the road the Aberdare Mountains are fully visible, a forested range that is ringed by the longest electric game barrier in the world, the 400-kilometer Rhino Ark Fence. Circling the Aberdare National Park, the fence took 20 years and cost $10 million to build, the great majority of that raised in donations. Entire communities of illegal forest dwellers—loggers, poachers, and charcoalers—had to be relocated. Alternate land for those people had to be found, and villages for those and other internally displaced persons (IDP) had to be built. Slow but steady. Inside the barrier, 10,000 mountain elephants had to adapt to the severing of their traditional migration route to Mount Kenya, which is just visible across the wide valley to our right. The morning sun is shining on what little remains of ancient glaciers that are melting under the assault of a Kenyan climate that seems to grow warmer and dryer with each passing year. We start down a long hill and cross the Athi River bridge, where kids are filling water jugs. I’ve been this way many times, passing the little dam as kids get water and women do laundry. Each time, I remind myself to come early next trip and stop to shoot some photos here. But I never stop. I’m always too eager to get to the school. Or I’m too tired at the end of a long day. Until three years ago, the Mahiga school kids walked to this river for water, drinking runoff from upstream farms contaminated with animal droppings that often made them too sick to attend school. No Mahiga kids are at the river today. They’re at school, drinking purified rainwater. Slow and steady. At the top of the hill, we turn off the highway onto a graded road and pass the construction camp for the highway crew and their equipment. I estimate three more years for the paved road to reach the end of the highway at Nyahururu. For now, those jobs are safe. Mike slows the van, and a smartly uniformed guard jumps out of the little guardhouse and gives us a formal salute that’s straight out of the British Army manual, circa 1900. Nick Abrahams’ son George is a student at Mahiga Hope High School. I like to stop and talk with Nick when I can, but there is no time today and I return the salute with a wave. We drive a few miles down the graded road—Mike Mutuku (whom we call Mike the Bush Driver), my wife Christy and I, the school’s computer instructor, Gibson Githaiga, and two more teachers we have picked up in Mweiga town. This is a big day, possibly the biggest day in the history of this community, the Grand Opening of Mahiga Hope High School. It’s a big day in my life as well, one of those days when everything seems right with the world.


The clear skies are lovely for a celebration, but not a cause for one. Mahiga, Kenya, is in a district known as Kieni, which is Swahili for dry. During the past few years, the term has been an understatement. Like much of East Africa, for the past decade, extended periods of drought have been more the norm than the exception. The land, crops, animals, and people are stressed. The kids are skinny and persistently undernourished. Most of them will never grow as tall as their parents. It hasn’t rained in months and is now past the traditional beginning of the annual wet period known as the Long Rains. Farming practices in much of Kenya are built around the September and October Long Rains and the March and April Short Rains, but in the past decade the weather has been disastrously unpredictable. “The rain doesn’t come when it’s supposed to,” a farmer told me. “Then it comes too much at a time.” Just six months earlier, we had lost weeks of construction to impassable muddy roads when we couldn’t get building materials to the site. In an area where the rain comes all at once, water challenges come in every form. Extended droughts are followed by flash floods, disaster heaped upon disaster. The road to Mahiga is lined by people walking to the school. Young and old, from far and wide, they’re coming to celebrate the Grand Opening of Mahiga Hope High School. So are we. I’ve been in the States for two months and have missed some of the school’s construction and am anxious to see the progress. Mike passes the turn to the primary school gate, and I can feel my heart racing. We wait for a flock of sheep to clear the road, then turn onto the narrow lane that leads uphill to the high school. We’ve been stuck on this lane twice before—I mean really stuck, the four-wheel drive van sliding over into the drainage ditch. It happened once going up the hill and another day coming down: wheels in the ditch and leaning so far sideways that only the sturdy fence posts seemed to be holding us up. Two sharp turns and the gate to Mahiga Hope High School is in front of us. There’s not an actual gate. By “gate” I mean a place where a gate will stand some day when more pressing details are finished. In my head, in countless notebooks, on Excel spreadsheets, and in architectural sketches, there is a list of things remaining to be done. I add the gate to the list in my head and wonder where the money will come from. I like the idea of the kids’ passing under a welcoming sign as they arrive at school in the morning after their long walks from home. Many of them leave home at first light in order to get to school on time. They deserve a gate to welcome them.


The next thing I know, I’m opening the sliding door and climbing out. Greg Elsner, our resident design fellow from Architecture for Humanity, has ridden his motorcycle out ahead of us. He gives me a big clap of a handshake. “Welcome to the RainWater Court!” he hollers. During my absence—after many months of design, planning, and foundation work—Greg and a crew of forty workers have finished building the RainWater Court that I’ve been pitching, scheming for, and dreaming about for years. The original primary school in Mahiga had needed water, and the typical solutions—a well or a pipeline—would have cost too much here. But rainwater collection was something I understood from growing up in West Texas. If we built a covered basketball court, the roof would be big enough to collect 30,000 liters of rainwater from one good storm. From one big rain, we could provide months of drinking water for hundreds of kids. The RainWater Court was a game changer. Not only would the school have drinking water, but it would have a sports facility and a stage for performances and community gatherings... like the dedication of a high school. I look up at the towering roof trusses, with one soaring wing slanted up against the sky, and clasp Greg’s hand. “It’s beautiful!” I tell him. “Beautiful.” Truer words were never spoken. Mutongu is next in line, the joy of the day written all over his face. A naturalist by training, Joseph Mutongu brought me to the school the first time. It was Joseph who had overseen construction of our first rainwater system at the primary school; Joseph who had dedicated the past five years of his life to his community. “Mutongu!” I bellow as we embrace Kenyan-style, right hands clasped, right shoulders bouncing together, heart to heart. The crowd is still streaming into the school grounds for the Grand Opening. There is no town to be seen in Mahiga, not a single concentration of buildings other than the school complex. The rest is little farmhouses and shacks scattered in all directions for miles. But out of those houses, a thousand people have come on foot, on motorcycles, or jammed into the occasional car. But how did I get here? “In Mike’s van” is the easy answer. The truth is, I had traveled a more circuitous route. I had traveled from a different life to this one. I’d given up a lot along the way, but knew that I’d gained much more. On its surface, the story of building Mahiga Hope High School is pretty simple, the nuts and bolts—or the foundations and walls, if you will—of building a secondary school in rural Africa. This was a place where education had ended after the eighth grade. If parents had the money, kids could attend high school elsewhere, but not many parents could afford 9

i t .
 We had called the school Mahiga Hope High School because our goal was to provide hope and opportunity for these kids, and also because I knew that raising the money to build a school would be tough. The community was our major partner and would also have to overcome many challenges. A school called Hope might make all our jobs a little easier. It had taken me years to get here, and I was just beginning to realize that working with this community had helped rebuild my faith that a troubled and often broken world might not be as bleak as it sometimes appears. If there is hope for these kids, there is hope for my kids as well. This is the story of Building Hope.



A New World

A map of my journey to Mahiga starts far away in an unlikely place. In February 2000, I was writing a travel story in the Central American nation of Belize. I had been to Belize a few times and had a friend who helped me get a gate pass to drive the long private road that parallels the Guatemalan border. I had explored the upper and lower pyramids of a Mayan ruin that had only recently been discovered, seen the Nature Conservancy’s 250,000–acre Rio Bravo Conservation Project, and driven hour after hour through former rainforest lands that industrious Mennonite farmers and their giant tractors were turning into cattle pastures. 11

I had driven into the Macal River valley, where a Canadian energy conglomerate was soon to break ground on a giant hydroelectric dam, which it promised would deliver abundant clean energy. The dam would also flood the breeding grounds of the endangered Baird’s tapir and scarlet macaws. (Ten years later, as environmentalists predicted, the Macal River Dam has delivered a fraction of its predicted power output and the rapidly disappearing scarlet macaws no longer have a viable nesting population in Belize.) I had done a good deal of travel writing over the years and had seen the downhill slide of many previously unspoiled places, the destruction caused by crooked development deals, ocean fisheries destroyed by unregulated international fishing fleets, and coral reefs wiped out by the seeping sewage of tourist hotels and the sprawling towns that grow up around them. I had enviable freelance gigs writing about whatever paradise I might find, but stories of ecological devastation don’t make their way into tourist magazines and I often felt complicit in the spoiling of secret places. I had been off-radar in Belize for a week and finally found my way to a phone on Valentine’s Day to tell my wife that I loved her. I knew by the way she said hello that something was wrong. “Remember that mammogram I had a couple of weeks ago?” Christy asked. I packed my bags and raced from the mountains to the airport. By the time I got back to Austin, she already had a diagnosis of DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ. We went from doctor to doctor, and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. As millions of people can tell you, the word cancer really gets your attention. It is like the focus dial on a camera pointed at your life. For more than a decade, Christy had produced television and commercials while I alternated magazine and book work with writing for television. We were good at our jobs, but most of what we created was forgotten soon after it aired. Now we had a wake-up call on a new reality and spent many long hours talking about our past, our future, and our kids’ future. Was this the way we wanted to spend our lives? Was there something more we could offer than the occasional charity fundraiser we produced? Our new reality also meant learning way too much about breast cancer, skin-saving mastectomies, chemotherapy, and needle biopsies. And as it turned out later, we didn’t learn enough about needle biopsies. To give us something positive to focus on, we bought a small piece of land on the Llano River, and I started building a cabin where we could escape with our daughters, Lily and Katie Rose. The girls were 6 and 10, and I wanted them to know the river as I had in my childhood. The four of us rode horses to a mountaintop in Mexico to see the winter home of millions of monarch butterflies. We made wishes on shooting stars. We


hugged and laughed and worried, and less than a year later a doctor looked at Christy’s lab results and X-rays and said, “You’re cured. You don’t have cancer anymore.”

I HAD WORKED OFF AND ON over the years as an actor in small parts. I liked the work, and even a little Christopher Guest movie like Waiting for Guffman helps pay the bills. I got a lucky break when David Chase, the creator of HBO’s series The Sopranos, came to Austin, where I moderated his film festival panel about the show. David and I hit it off and talked about my experiences in Italy, particularly my interviews with lawyers and hit men for the ‘Ndrangheta, the feared Calabrian mafia. A few days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to ask if I would audition for the role of a born-again narcoleptic character named Aaron Arkaway. Christy directed me in a three-minute audition tape, and a week later I was in Queens, falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having walnuts bounced off my sleeping noggin at the Soprano family Thanksgiving dinner. “Have you heard the good news?” I asked a blank-faced Tony Soprano. “He is risen.” There wasn’t much comic relief in The Sopranos, so mine definitely stood out. One episode turned into a second, then a third. Christy was well, and our worries about the future began to fade away. Then one autumn morning, 27 men in three planes turned America upside down. I didn’t know it at the time, but my experience on The Sopranos would be key to the founding of The Nobelity Project. Katie Rose was just 10 years old when she flew to New York with me for one of the tapings. It was her first trip to New York, and we went to the top of the World Trade Center and spent much of a morning talking to workers from around the globe who had followed amazing paths to their jobs at the Windows on the World restaurant. Each of those employees wore a nametag that also denoted their home country. The week after 9-11, I couldn’t look away from the television and internet. I had to know everything, had to email everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be okay. The hardest questions were from Katie. “What happened to the people we met at the top of the towers?” she asked. “What’s going to happen to their kids?” And the hardest of all: “Why?” I was so preoccupied that I almost didn’t notice when Aida Turturro—my on-screen girlfriend on The Sopranos—was nominated for an Emmy. But we did remember to


tune in to watch Aida on television. But instead of the Emmys, a new kind of reality television greeted me: America Strikes Back. I watched in a growing depression and tried to imagine what it was like to be under the bombs and missiles raining down on the people of Afghanistan. And I thought about the soldiers and the families of the soldiers who had been sent to fight that war and wondered how it could end well for any of us. Katie wasn’t prone to bad dreams, but with a war going on and America in a panic over an anthrax scare, she told Christy that she had dreamed she was in a market with her friends and something terrible had happened. A man had come in and started spraying them with chemicals. “What was that chemical they used to spray on crops that was poisonous?” Katie asked. “DDT,” Christy answered. “That was it,” Katie said. “I guess the man was crazy, but he looked normal, and he started spraying us with DDT.” I was stunned. Her description sounded so much like my childhood fears at age 9 during the Cuban Missile Crisis when I dreamed over and over that Russians had herded my family and neighbors into the football stadium where they did terrible things. And just as in my childhood, Katie’s dream had overwhelmed her with sadness. I didn’t know what to say ... didn’t have a clue. But Christy always seems to find the right words when they are needed. “Sadness is a real emotion in your heart,” Christy told our little girl, “but fear is in your mind. And your mind you can control. If you live in fear that bad things might happen, it can be as bad as if they really did happen. That’s why you have to take strength from what’s real, even when it’s sad. “Man has been faced with terrible tragedies and events throughout our history,” Christy reassured her. “And we’ve always come through it.” “I know,” said Katie, “but this is the first time it’s happened to me.” Christy and I had unique skill sets in work as well as in life, but our 15 years of television comedy and awards shows suddenly seemed pointless. With our combined skills, shouldn’t we be trying to create something more relevant? I had a fairly broad knowledge about the world and its problems, and I was taken with an idea that stood in opposition to almost all documentaries. Rather than focus on a specific issue or story, I wanted to look at the world as a whole and try to present some kind of informed view of the kind of future my kids would know. Climate change, the environment, the East-West divide ... a layperson’s view of the big issues would be relevant to everyone.


Unfortunately, I also knew that the big-issue opinions of a guy best known for playing an idiot on The Sopranos were not going to command much attention. And with the left-right divide in American politics growing greater every year, I would need experts who were equipped with the knowledge to trump politics. What I wanted to do was seek out the smartest people we could find and ask them about the most pressing problems facing humankind. Since I was a boy in West Texas, I had been fascinated by the Nobel Prize and the people who had won it. From Marie Curie to William Faulkner, from Martin Luther King to the Dalai Lama, the world’s Nobel laureates are our intellectual nobility. It’s not possible to be devoid of politics, but winning the prize is a little like being “made” in the Mafia. A Nobel laureate starting from an informed position can pretty much say whatever he or she thinks is right, without regard to what others might think or do in response. That’s an unfortunately rare opportunity. So Christy and I decided we would redirect our work and seek out Nobel laureates and ask them about the problems we face in the world and what kind of future might await our own girls. The smartest guy I had ever met was Steven Weinberg, who had received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of a field theory that unifies the weak and electromagnetic nuclear forces within the atom. In addition to being one of the world’s leading cosmologists, Weinberg also has diverse interests that include poetry and Shakespeare and is passionate about the role of science in all kinds of problem solving. I had met him a few times in Austin and had tried to talk to him about the origins of the universe, string theory, and other minutiae of cosmology. I didn’t get the feeling he was impressed. We were at a mutual friend’s birthday party when I told him about my idea to interview ten Nobel laureates about the problems of the world. I asked if he would have lunch with me and talk it over, but he didn’t seem too interested—not until he met Katie Pipkin. Eleven years old, Katie Rose had recently unearthed a large shell fossil and taken it as a present to the birthday party. Dr. Weinberg asked her if she knew how old the fossil was. “I’m not sure exactly,” Katie told him. “It’s from the Cretaceous period, when this part of Texas was a sea. So maybe 80 million years, but it could be more.” Seeing that I wasn’t needed in the conversation, I walked away and let the two talk. Half an hour later, Weinberg came over to me with a smile on his face. “Your daughter is really smart,” he said. “Let’s have lunch and talk about your movie.”





CHRISTY AND I SPENT MUCH OF 2002 RESEARCHING, planning, writing, and raising money, then another two years shooting and editing the film we were calling Nobelity. As it turned out, finding the money to make the film was easier than finding the right 10 Nobel laureates. The Nobel Prizes in physics, medicine, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901. A separate prize in economics was founded in 1969. The prizes were established by the final will of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and were to be awarded to those who confer “the greatest benefit on mankind.� 17

While the peace laureates tend to be the most famous, the problems we face in the world involve many issues, so I wanted to cast a wide net, which meant reading about nearly every living laureate. Our first invitation had been to Steve Weinberg, who began our filmed conversation with a layman’s explanation of the search for the basic laws of the universe, then continued with some basic logic about the threat of global warming. “Part of the training of doctors,” Weinberg reminded me, “is the fundamental principal ‘Do no harm.’ Intervene when you can to help people, but make sure your intervention does no harm. When it comes to the atmosphere, we’re doing things that have an obvious potential for doing harm. “When we’re doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere within a century, that’s a tremendous impact on the balance of energy in the ocean. So I believe the burden of proof should be on the people who think that’s nothing to worry about rather than on the people who think it is something to worry about.” “To me, 300 billion tons of carbon going into the atmosphere every year seems like something to worry about,” I commented. “But there seems to be a good deal of public opinion in favor of doing nothing.” “Science and public opinions are two different things,” Weinberg reminded me. “In our lifetime, we may see the drowning of Venice. Perhaps the drowning of Galveston.” That was in 2003. Within two years we would see the drowning of both New Orleans and Galveston. And every year, the waters creep higher in Venice’s San Marco Square. “I think we should try to control the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere,” he told me. “It isn’t a politically popular thing to do, because it doesn’t help us this year or next year. It’s a matter of helping us in our grandchildren’s lifetime. But our grandchildren, with a few exceptions, generally don’t vote, and politicians don’t care very much about people who don’t vote. Our decisions clearly are not made with our descendants in mind.”

JUST DOWN THE ROAD FROM AUSTIN, RICK SMALLEY was a professor at Rice University in Houston and had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of the 60-atom carbon structure, which he had called the buckminster-fullerene, or buckyball. In essence, Rick was the father of nanotechnology. Five years before we met, Smalley had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had embarked on treatment but had also been warned by his doctors that he might have just five years to live.


Determined to make the most of those years, he had begun a personal campaign to educate the public about the top ten problems we face in the world. We filmed in his office in Houston with beautiful light shining in on us from a wall of windows. Smalley looked fit from his dedicated exercise and diet regimen, and I was relieved to hear that his leukemia seemed to be in remission. Rick Smalley’s interest in science began in his early teens, and he had been an eloquent spokesman for the need to educate a new generation of scientists to find solutions to the world’s problems. “Be a Scientist—Save the World” was the title of his lecture on the great energy challenges we face in the coming decades. “I would put up a picture of planet Earth from space,” he told me, “and ask my audience members to make a list of the top ten problems they thought we’d face in the next fifty years. Energy was always there. Water. The environment. Food. The richpoor divide. War. Terrorism. “If you move energy to the top of the list,” he explained, “and imagine a world where that problem was totally solved, you would find that at least five of the remaining problems on the list now had a path to a reasonable answer. But in the absence of having solved the energy problem, it wasn’t clear that there were any acceptable answers at all.” “How about water as an example?” I asked. “If you don’t have water, you have to get it,” Smalley told me. “And there isn’t much potable water on this planet. Ninety-seven percent of our water is in the oceans, but if you have abundant, clean energy, you can remove the salt and pump it where it’s needed. That fresh water can be used to grow food to feed the world’s growing population.” We talked and talked, our conversation broken only by the camera crew’s saying they had to switch tapes, then Smalley laid out his vision of a new generation of young scientists who were lucky to have been born at a time when they would be most needed by the world. “This project to find the basis of energy prosperity for ourselves and the world—to enable the well-being of all God’s children—will get more and more compelling each and every year until we get it done,” Smalley said. Ours was one of the last interviews that Rick Smalley would film. A few months later, his disease came back quickly, and he passed away on October 28, 2005. Just as he had hoped, a great number of scientists had already answered his call, including Steven Chu, who would later become the U.S. Secretary of Energy. In New York City, I filmed with Harold Varmus, M.D., the director of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the former head of the National Institutes of Health. One


of my first questions was about the common perception that the U.S. funds the largest portion of global aid. “As a fraction of our gross national product,” Dr. Varmus began, “the U.S. is at the bottom of the 22 wealthiest nations on the list of donors. Furthermore, only one-eighth of our foreign aid goes to health, and it doesn’t all go to the poorest countries, because we use foreign aid as a system to assist our friends. We focus on terror and we focus on a war in Iraq, and the consequences are we don’t have any money left over to do the things we should be doing that would build a stronger world.” In California, I sat down with Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. As a boy in Egypt, Zewail had dreamed of becoming a scientist. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his seminal work in the field of femtochemistry, which made it possible to observe molecular changes measured in femtoseconds. In essence, he was taking the world’s fastest photographs, with exposures measured in femtoseconds, or a millionth of a billionth of a second. “Compare a femtosecond to a second,” I asked. “A femtosecond to a second,” Zewail explained, “is like one second to 32 million years.” I’m still trying to process that information. As a man of many cultures, Zewail also has a unique personal perspective on the world and East-West relations, and a low opinion of those who try to simplify a complex world by tossing out terms like “conflict of civilizations” and “conflict of religions.” “I am an Egyptian. I am an Arab, I am an African, I am a Middle Easterner, I am a Mediterranean, I am an American,” he explained. “So do I have an internal conflict of cultures and religions and civilizations?”

ONE INTERVIEW SEEMED TO LEAD TO THE NEXT, often with one laureate introducing me to another. Jody Williams had received the Peace Prize for her role in the international ban on land mines. Williams speaks to students around the world, demonstrating that she is an ordinary person with an extraordinary commitment to the causes of peace and disarmament in our mad global arms culture. I wouldn’t say that receiving the Nobel Peace Prize had gone to her head. Before our interview, she invited Christy and me to her home, where she made us a nice lunch of tuna fish sandwiches.


“We’re taught that peace is wimpy. It’s a spineless non-alternative to global problems. Well, I think that’s bull,” Williams told me as we strolled through the Fredericksburg National Cemetery in Virginia, the final resting place of 15,000 Civil War soldiers. “Peace is not a vision of a rainbow with a dove flying over it. It’s hard work in millions of different ways to contribute to making the world a better place for everybody. If you want to change the world, you have to get up off your butt and take action.” I wanted to know how Jody and her fellow activists had the audacity to create a treaty banning landmines and get it ratified by more than a hundred nations. “Every act you take on this planet contributes in one way or another to an outcome,” she said. “When we launched the mine ban, we didn’t know what we would accomplish. But we did know it was the right thing to do.” Jody also introduced me to Sir Joseph Rotblat, whose life had been dedicated to fighting nuclear proliferation and who was equally passionate about the ability and responsibility of ordinary people to make a big difference in the world. With each interview, the scope of the film expanded while our budget got tighter. The solution was for me to shoot more and more of the film myself. By the time I arrived in London to film with Rotblat, we had gone from eight crew- members to two, my cameraman, Vance, and myself. We set up Vance to shoot a handheld camera that roved between Rotblat and me, and I held a camera in my lap that shot nothing but a close-up of Rotblat, who would be looking directly at my camera and the viewers. What I wanted was for the film’s viewers to see Joseph Rotblat through my eyes. Sir Jo was 96 years old when I interviewed him at his home office. He and his wife had been in that house for decades, and his office was filled with his life’s work in physics and nuclear disarmament. Ceiling-high shelves circled the room, and a double stack of documents more than three feet high ran down the center of the room from one end to the other. As we were setting lights, I rotated one of the books on top of that huge pile to shoot the cover with my video camera. I was about to rotate the book back when Rotblat tapped on the door and said, “No rush. I just need to retrieve one paper.” Walking to his giant stack, he froze for a moment as if he was disoriented. Something was wrong. He had more than a million papers and books in his office, and the one I had moved had disrupted his organization. “I’m sorry,” I confessed, “but I moved one of the books.” “It’s not a problem,” he said, as he tracked down the errant title, reversed it, and slid it over one pile to the right where it belonged. With all in order, he counted a few stacks to the left and down a few documents, grabbed the buried folder he wanted, and slipped it out of the stack.


Rotblat began our talk by reminding me that the threat of nuclear war had been reduced since the Cold War but had by no means been eliminated. “At one time, the two superpowers had nearly 100,000 nuclear warheads,” he pointed out, “each with at least ten times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. So if all these weapons were really exploded, the total of civilization would have been destroyed. Talks between the superpowers reduced the arsenals, but there are still 30,000 nuclear warheads in the world, which is far too many.” Along with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, Joseph Rotblat was one of 11 scientists who signed the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto, a letter to the world calling for a total ban of nuclear weapons. Signing the manifesto was essentially the final act of Albert Einstein’s life. “Einstein thought the problem was stark and inescapable,” Rotblat told me. “Shall we put an end to the human race or shall mankind denounce war? We can either get rid of war or get rid of nuclear weapons. “I was the youngest of the people who signed,” Rotblat continued, “and now I am the only one still alive. This is the reason why I feel it is my duty, indeed it is my mission for the remaining days of my life, to alert the world to the continuing dangers of nuclear weapons.” A few months after our interview, Joseph Rotblat invited me to show Nobelity in Hiroshima at the gathering marking the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. The film wasn’t finished, and declining that honor was one of the most painful conversa-tions of my life. As it turned out, Rotblat fell ill and was unable to attend. Sir Joseph Rotblat passed away in August 2005, but his message lives on. Since Rotblat’s death, nuclear disarmament negotiations have resumed. The START II treaty became effective in February 2011 and is intended to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 2,000 from the current total of 8,000. In the meantime, any one of those 8,000 deployed nuclear weapons could destroy a city the size of London, yet somehow we go about our daily lives in the assumption that the dangers of the Cold War are in our past. “All we have to do is for the nuclear weapons states to agree to their commitments to eliminate their nuclear weapons in a manner that prevents them from falling into the wrong hands,” Rotblat had told me. “You make it sound simple,” I told him. “Because it is so simple,” Roblat pointed out, “people don’t accept it.”



Thirty Million Trees

IN 2004, TWO YEARS INTO THE PRODUCTION OF Nobelity, I was facing a quandary. I wanted to speak to a Nobel laureate about environmental issues but there is no designated prize for being “green.” The great Norman Borlaug, often called the Father of the Green Revolution, had received the prize for his work in creating hybridized rice and grains that enabled multiple crops to be grown in a single year by developing world farmers. Borlaug’s work made it possible to feed a billion more people in the world, but he was more a scientist than an environmentalist, and I wanted to speak to someone about the possibilities of reversing 23

some of the rampant environmental disasters that are laying waste to the world’s renewable resources. Right on cue, in November 2004, the Nobel Committee announced that it was presenting the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Muta Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization that has planted millions of trees across Kenya. The first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Wangari Maathai had the idea of reversing deforestation and stream degradation by harnessing the power of rural women to plant trees. Over a 20-year period, the Green Belt Movement planted 30 million trees, creating opportunity and change for rural African women while improving the Kenyan environment. As Africa’s first woman Nobel laureate, Wangari plunged into a nonstop schedule of international appearances. I caught up with her in Paris, where her beautiful Kenyan dress hardly seemed adequate against the bitter winter weather. We sat in the glassed conservatory of her hotel, and our conversation started with the connection between the environment and peace. “When you look at the world and the fights and wars that have been fought,” Wangari told me, “they are always over resources. Sometimes the resources are so degraded, and we are fighting over the little that there is. Sometimes we are fighting over those resources because we do not want to change our way of life. And so managing the resources is an important ingredient to promoting peace.” More than two decades earlier, at the National Council of Women, Wangari heard rural women say they needed firewood, clean drinking water, and more food for their children. When farmers in Kenya introduced cash crops, mainly coffee and tea, they had cleared hillside land and created erosion that had washed their soil into the streams. Wangari’s solution was simple. “Let us plant tress,” she proposed. “A tree is truly amazing,” Wangari reminded me. “You plant a seed, it germinates and looks so fragile, and eventually it becomes a huge tree that gives you shade. If it is a fruit tree, it gives you fruit. If it is a timber tree, it gives you timber and you are able to build your houses. This work transformed the lives of the very women who planted the trees.” There are many aspects of conducting an on-camera interview. If you’re trying to cram a world of ideas into a 90-minute film, it’s essential to get what you need in a concise form while leading the conversation toward some kind of logical conclusion. Wangari was making it easy for me, but my questions were complicated by one thought that kept rising in my brain. And that thought was, “Invite me to Kenya.” Wangari’s struggle for human rights and environmental conservation in Kenya had not been easy. She had been beaten unconscious and jailed on multiple occasions, but 24

her persistence had fostered extraordinary change and she had eventually been elected to Parliament with 98 percent of the vote. She had won countless international accolades and become the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite all that, her excitement was about the women of the Green Belt Movement and the way they had been able to transform their lives. “For every seedling these women grow and plant, if it survives, they get paid. It’s a very small amount—about 4 U.S. cents per tree—but if women are planting trees in the thousands and the millions, that money is able to buy food and clothes, and they are able to pay school fees.” When we concluded the interview, I asked Wangari if she would sign my copy of her book, THE GREEN BELT MOVEMENT. As she was signing, she paused, looked up at me, and said, “You have to come to Kenya. You will love it.”

DESPITE MY ALMOST CONSTANT TRAVELS FOR 30 YEARS, I had never been to Africa. When I got off the plane in Kenya, my crew had finally been reduced to one— me. I was carrying a Panasonic video camera, a Nikon SLR still camera, and about 50 pounds of camera and audio gear. I had a shot list of coverage I needed for Wangari’s interview, and one of my first stops was the Kibera slum, home to 200,000 people jammed into what should be a space for a tenth that many. My driver and I circled the slum, and I shot some video of a group of boys splashing and swimming in some nasty-looking water. From our vantage point to the horizon, Kibera looked to be one unbroken sheet of rusted metal roofs. My driver said I would be mugged if I got out of the vehicle at Kibera with my video camera, but he stopped in front of a long alley that bisected the slum. Against his protests, I rolled down the window halfway and hit record on my video camera. Within five seconds, a young man saw the camera and a big smile lit up his face. “Hey! Can I be in the movies?” In a flash, he and his smiling buddy were crouching at the window for their closeup. “Roll up the...” my driver urged me, but it was too late. Both guys thrust their arms inside the car, one grabbing my video camera and the other the still camera that was slung around my neck. I held tight to the video camera with one hand and tried to roll up the window. The guy with his hands on the Nikon released the camera and grabbed my neck. “Let go!” my driver shouted as he put the vehicle in gear, then slowly began to drive away. Not releasing the camera or my throat, the two men began walking with the car. 25

“Let go!” my driver said again as he pushed a little harder on the gas. The two assailants were now practically jogging with the car, refusing to release heir prizes and yelling at the driver to stop. Finally they let go at the same instant, and we sped away. “I told you not to roll the window down!” the driver barked at me. That was the last thing I heard him say all day. We continued to tour Nairobi and got a lot of shots that I needed, but he was so mad he couldn’t speak. He was right and I was wrong, and the only thing I had proved was that a foreigner with $5,000 worth of camera equipment is always welcome in a slum where thousands of people are living on a dollar a day. Ironically, I have been back to Kibera and other Nairobi slums many times, have walked through those crowded lanes with my equipment, and never had a subsequent problem. The following day, the transportation company I had hired sent a different driver to take me to the offices of the Green Belt Movement, and my first trip to Kenya was back on track. In order to teach thousands of women a year how to grow trees from tiny seeds, and how to create sustainable agriculture that can feed a balanced diet to their families, the Green Belt Movement operates a training center in the hills above Nairobi. Every Friday, their buses roll in with groups of women who spend a nice weekend as apprentices in the seedling nursery and gardens. But the real work happens far afield in hundreds of rural communities. In the mountains north of Nairobi, not far from the village where Wangari was born, I was welcomed into the homes of four women whose age I couldn’t have guessed within ten years. Their modest wood houses had tin roofs, and they also had chicken coops, impressive vegetable gardens, and a shared tree nursery. Using black plastic, they had made hundreds of slender cones of rich soil, stacked them tight in a wooden frame and carefully planted a native tree seed in each one. Some rows were just sprouting, but many of the older seedlings were more than two feet tall. The ladies selected several choice seedlings, and we set off on foot to plant them, passing through their tiny town where everyone waved at the tall guy with the camera. Just past town, we headed down into a beautiful valley surrounded by trees of all sizes. On this community land, their local Green Belt group had been planting trees and stabilizing the slopes of the valley for years. Some of the trees they pointed out were 40 feet tall. There are few acts more satisfying that planting a tree. I’ve planted my share over the years and have sat in their shade and eaten the fruit from what had been little more than seedlings when I put them in the ground. Planting a tree can be an empowering 26

experience; planting trees with these women was, from my perspective, a holy one. When they swung their heavy hoes, the earth moved. When they touched the soil, the ground was alive. When they watered their seedlings, my thirst was quenched. When each of us had completed our tasks, we held our hands close and laughed at how the deep red soil had turned their dark hands and my pale hands the same color. Wangari had been right. I liked Kenya. There was only one more item on my Kenya to-do list. I wanted to visit a school.



One Family

I HAD THOUGHT A “TOP TEN” BRILLIANT PEOPLE IN Nobelity would be a good hook, but our ninth Nobel laureate was so wonderful, I knew I was done. It’s difficult to top Desmond Tutu. Christy and I were old friends with the former governor of Texas Ann Richards. I had first met Ann as a door-to-door volunteer in 1976, when she ran for her first political office. Christy had known her much longer. Christy Ellinger came from a political family. Her dad had worked for Robert Kennedy in D.C. when he was the U.S. Attorney General, and Christy had known the 28

Richards family since she was a little girl. Governor Ann once told Christy that in the fifties in Dallas, the Ellinger house was the first home she ever visited where blacks were there as friends rather than as household help. That’s one of my reminders of how things have changed for the better in my lifetime. We had also worked with Ann on political and charity fundraisers so when we told her about Nobelity, she agreed to be the head of our advisory board. Her first official act was to write a letter of introduction to Desmond Tutu. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role as a unifying leader in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. Tutu had also headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was credited with helping avoid the widely predicted revenge bloodshed when black South Africans finally came into power after so many years of oppression. Tutu is willing to speak his mind on issues like disarmament and gay marriage, and despite being one of the world’s most respected religious leaders, has had threats on his life. I found that to be both sad and absurd, particularly when a security officer popped into our interview location and announced, “The bomb dog is coming to check out the room.” I was pretty sure I didn’t have any bombers on my video crew, but when that sniffer dog was mentioned, my cameramen disappeared. We were still looking for them when the Archbishop arrived. Ann Richards thought the world of Desmond Tutu, and not just for his elegant and eloquent role as global spokesperson for those who have no voice in decision making. “He’s very mischievous,” Ann had told us. “Always a gleam in his eye, a funny thought that he can’t wait to get out, and this wonderful long laugh.” As if to prove her point, while my missing cameramen returned to work, Tutu filled in with a surprising joke. “After the fall of apartheid,” he started, “President Bush is flying into Capetown with former Prime Minister De Klerk. Bush looks out the airplane window and sees two men in a speedboat pulling a black man on skis and says that it shows amazing progress in South African race relations. “But De Klerk just smiles and says, ‘You don’t know much about crocodile hunting, do you?’ ” With his punch line, Tutu burst into a wonderful laugh, his eyes lighting up. That wasn’t what I expected, and he knew it. As quickly as it started, the laugh ended, and the Archbishop got down to business. Taking my hand, he bowed his head in prayer. “Come, Holy Spirit,” he said. “Fill the house of thy faith. And I shall bring you the face of thy faith. Amen.”


Because Tutu admired Ann Richards, we had also been given permission to film his full 90-minute lecture later that evening, but I knew this half-hour together was the true gift. I had to make the most of it and began by asking about his latest book, GOD’S DREAM. “We are frequently overwhelmed by somber news that dominates the media,” Tutu told me. “We may despair and think the whole world is going to blow up in our faces. While there is a great deal of evil, there is also a great deal of good, which we frequently hear nothing about.” I’m 6-foot-7. Even seated, I appeared to be about three times the size of Archbishop Tutu. “You talk about the idea of a human family,” I told him, “but you and I are quite different.” “Absolutely,” Tutu said, after he stopped laughing. “Sometimes people think that to say we are family is very sentimental, but this is one of the most radical things. It speaks to how we see ourselves as individuals and as nations. What we possess and what we do are for the benefit of the family. God’s family. “With a family, you don’t say you are going to get only in proportion to what you contribute. With a family, you say it is from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Therefore, when we do what we think is charitable, it isn’t any more than our obligation as family members. “It also means we have to look very carefully at what we invest in so-called defense. That we can’t spend so much money on budgets of death and destruction when a fraction of that would enable all of our family, God’s family, our sisters and brothers everywhere, to have clean water and the other essentials of life. This is a radical idea to many people.” As Tutu described that concept as radical, I knew what would follow would be the idea that many people would consider truly extreme. “We are family,” the Archbishop continued, “and that means God has no enemies, certainly not my enemies. If God loves us without distinction, then God loves Arafat, Sharon, Palestinian, Israeli, Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland, Protestant, gay, lesbian, straight. That should shake us up and say, What a fantastic dream. And that is the dream that God has, that one day we will actually realize that we are family.” “A lot of people believe in that dream,” I said, “but there are many who don’t.” “Even the most powerful nation can’t exist on its own,” he reminded me. “It has to do business with other countries. You can’t win the war on terrorism, for example, unless you have the cooperation of other countries.” “Does that also apply for religions?” I asked.


“Absolutely. Some religious people make out God as a member of their religion. Most Christians think that God is a Christian, and I tell them, God is not a Christian. I got into trouble at home because I said so. Can you tell me then, what was God before Christianity was... on the scene? “Do you really think that God is upset that Mahatma Gandhi was not a Christian? That Albert Einstein was a Jew? We tend to make God have our weaknesses, our prejudices. We want God to accept that my enemies must obviously be God’s enemies.” “He’s not choosing sides,” I said, thinking that I was agreeing. “No, no!” Tutu implored me. “God does choose sides. God is biased. But he is biased in favor of the vulnerable, the weak, the hungry, the voiceless.” “Considering the number and size of problems in the world,” I said, “how can we remain optimistic?” Leaning forward, the Archbishop touched my hand. “Remember, the sea is made up of drops of water. What you do, where you are is of significance.” “We have a saying in Africa,” he told me in conclusion. “That there’s only one way to eat an elephant.” “What is it?” I asked. “One piece at a time.” And then he laughed the most wonderful laugh.



It Started With A Tree

PLANTING A TREE IS A SIMPLE ACT. ANYONE CAN do it. But as Wangari Maathai had told me, “A tree is a symbol of hope. And the act of planting a tree is very empowering. They start as vulnerable seedlings, and in your lifetime they grow into huge trees that provide shade, fruit and timber.” I don’t know why I felt it was so important for me to plant trees at a school in Kenya, but I suspect most parents who have seen the wonder of their child’s birth and growth can identify with the fundamentals of hope, nurturing and trust. We don’t know


how things will turn out for the life we bring into this world, how tall they will grow, and how wide their shadow will be, but we proceed with hope. I have planted many trees in my life, some that have grown to 40 feet in height, and many that I’ll never see again that I suspect are even taller. If I planted a tree at a school in Africa, it might outlive me by decades. I also wanted to see some of Kenya’s natural wonders and had contacted the owners of the Ark Game Lodge, high in the Aberdare National Park. I told them about the film I was making, and they invited me to stay at the Ark. Luckily for me—and for the community of Mahiga—they asked their staff naturalist, Joseph Mutongu, to accompany me. Joseph and I were friends from the moment we met. Behind the wheel of an old Land Rover with 300,000 kilometers of mountain travel on it, Mutongu drove us into the national park and began an explanation of the history of the area and of the animals and birds that live in it. Mutongu’s grasp of detail was amazing. He would point out a beautiful bird like the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, then give me the Latin name and the common or Swahili name. It wasn’t all on the tip of his tongue. Sometimes he would pause, trying to remember the English name of a songbird or tree, and say, “In English ... how you call it?” Then he would remember and finish his explanation. We would drive on and the lesson would continue with the medicinal uses of the Kenyan Hot Tree, a cure for digestive ailments, sometimes used to combat stomach cancers. As a group of Colobus monkeys swung magnificently through the trees above us, their four-foot-long black and white tails cutting through the air, Mutongu spied a pure white Colobus baby clinging to its mother. Just before dusk, we checked into the Ark, which is built much like the Biblical Ark, with observation decks overlooking a watering hole frequented by herds of elephants, Cape buffalo, and the occasional rhino or giant forest hog. That evening at dinner, I told Mutongu about the trees I had planted with the Green Belt women and that I also wanted to plant trees at a school. “You’re in luck,” he told me. “I just started a tree-planting program at a school not far from my home, in a place called Mahiga.” By mid-morning the next day, we were out of the national park and I had my first drive down the bumpy road to Mahiga. In a dry creek bed near the school, a neighboring landowner had dug a small pond by hand and had collected enough rainwater runoff for his little tree nursery. I bought two hundred seedlings to plant at the primary school. They cost $10—not each—$10 for the lot. The name of the school was St. Joseph Mahiga Primary School. The headmaster greeted us and showed me one of the classrooms—dirt floors, slat-wood walls, and 33

small windows that were closed to reduce the wind and the mountain chill. There was no electricity, and most of the light came in through the gaps between the siding boards—beautiful for filming but not very conducive to learning. “We have more than 300 students enrolled,” the principal told me. I would have guessed that those small rooms would hold half that number. I’ve since learned that the aging classrooms at Mahiga are fairly typical for rural Kenya. The school was built in the seventies with the support of the Catholic Church, but it had been years since the diocese had been able to operate or maintain it. The Kenya education district ran the school and paid the teachers but had no money for infrastructure. The school was built on a hill with a steady south wind, and Mutongu had recently begun a program to plant a barrier of native trees to provide wind protection and restore the deforested area to its former wooded state. As we came out of a classroom, a boy walked from the office and rang a hand bell, clanging it loudly over his head, and a mass of kids spilled out of the classrooms. The kids knew we were coming, and they had already dug the holes. I planted the first tree and helped with a few others, but the main thing I remember were the smiles. I’d never seen kids smile like these kids, such radiant smiles that I couldn’t imagine there were any problems or challenges in their lives. When I looked closer, I saw their ragged school uniforms and shoes worn to almost nothing. But when I backed up, all I saw were smiles. After we planted trees, we gathered around to take some pictures. Some of the kids had homemade balls that were made of strips of plastic bags wrapped together, layer after layer, till the ball was big enough to bat or kick around. I wished I had brought a soccer ball for the school, and I vowed not to make that mistake again. That vow has since led me to carry soccer balls and English dictionaries to rural schools around the world, a practice that I recommend to all my fellow travelers. As I walked, half a dozen kids held onto my hands. They clearly didn’t get visits from many mzungus (the Swahili term for foreigners). Add in my height and long hair, and they wanted a piece of me—literally. Even the hair on my hands fascinated them. When I wasn’t looking, they’d close their fingernails around one of the hairs and pull it out for a souvenir. End-of-term exams were coming up, and the principal didn’t want to distract them from their studies too long, so the kids soon went back to their classrooms. While they studied, I wandered through the school and looked at the remnants of tattered paperback textbooks they shared, three kids to a book. Their pencils averaged about an inch in length, and the teachers wrote lessons on the blackboards with stubs of chalk. But written at the top of every blackboard was the school motto: “Hard Work Pays.” 34

As the headmaster walked Mutongu and me back to our vehicle, I asked about the prospects for the trees we had planted. “Some of trees you planted before are turning brown,” I said to Mutongu. “Do they get watered?” “I assign each tree to a student whose responsibility is to water that tree,” the principal explained. “But some of the kids are small, and it’s a long ways to the water.” “How long?” I asked. “A mile and a half,” he told me. “What about the water they drink when they’re in school?” I asked. “The same. It’s a mile and a half. They walk to a cattle pond or the river, and carry water back in jugs.” I looked at him blank-faced. “Sometimes the water makes them sick,” he continued. “So we have a lot of absent students.” “We’re trying to build a water system,” Mutongu added, trying to put a better spin on the situation. “But we haven’t found the funds.” I didn’t look like a wealthy American and didn’t get the feeling they were asking for money. But I did think of a favorite saying from Christy’s mother. “If it’s a problem that money can fix, it’s not that big a problem.” And I said, “Okay then. I don’t know where I’m gonna come up with the money, but I’ll help you build a water system.” “Thank you!” the headmaster said with surprise as he pumped my hand and then embraced me tightly. Backing up, I saw that both he and Mutongu were smiling as broadly as the kids. WE DIDN’T KNOW IT at the time, but that day was the official beginning of The Nobelity Project. Before Mahiga, Christy and I had been making a film—one film— but now we needed to raise money for a water project, which meant we had to admit what had been coming for quite a while. To do this work, we needed to be a certified nonprofit. Over the years, Christy and I had raised money for many organizations we I believed in. In 1984 we had a wedding at our little A-frame house in Austin. (Our 19inch difference in heights resulted in a favorite wedding picture that had us eye-to-eye, with Christy sitting in my lap.) I guess we were hippies, and we weren’t into the idea of receiving lots of household gifts, so we requested donations to UNICEF. It was a good move, and for years after that, whenever we needed a toaster, a blender, or pots and pans, we remembered that the money for those items had gone to famine relief in Ethiopia. That’s not a bad start to a marriage. 35

I had performed at a steady stream of charity fundraisers—concerts, comedy shows, literary readings, golf tour-naments, and more. In 1986 I performed at the first Comic Relief concert on HBO, with my buddy Harry Anderson pulling me out of the crowd as a planted volunteer for our two-person pickpocket act. To prove his skills, Harry took my wallet, my watch and my suspenders. When I told him I didn’t wear suspenders, his pants fell down. The concert raised $2.5 million for Americans in need, a fundraising effort that has since grown to $50 million. Deep down inside, I knew that as a performer, I would always be a sidekick, but as a writer with good ideas, I could walk through many doors. When I wrote variety specials for ABC in the nineties, I convinced Procter & Gamble to donate $250,000 to the charity Give Kids the World, which I featured on a special that we shot in Orlando, Fla. GKTW has a great facility where kids with lifethreatening illnesses can stay with their families while visiting Disney World and the other parks. GKTW is where the Make-A-Wish Foundation sends the children who want to meet Mickey and Minnie while they still can. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was a great charity. As we began filming for Nobelity, it didn’t take long for Christy and me to realize the laureates were offering us a rare gift, and we needed to find more ways to share their insights. You can cut a two-hour interview to what you think is the best six or seven minutes, but it doesn’t mean the other great material should remain in the editing bay. It was all great material, and we wanted to share it in schools. We had talked about forming an education nonprofit and dedicating the profits of Nobelity, but until I planted my first tree at Mahiga, it was still just an idea. Thanks to Wangari Maathai and Joseph Mutongu, the idea had taken root.



Nine Ways to Change The World

FOUR YEARS AFTER THAT VALENTINE’S DAY PHONE call from Belize, we finally finished Nobelity. The film featured nine of the smartest people on Earth, great music, and a surprising amount of beautiful images. I thought it was an excellent film, but if you’re the director and don’t think that, you may be in the wrong business. We didn’t have a studio or distribution, and we didn’t have any movie stars. We didn’t know what kind of audience reaction we would receive. We didn’t even know if we would find an audience.


Luckily, the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin was riding a wave as the hottest up-and-coming film festival in the States. There were 1,571 feature films submitted for the 2006 festival, and we were thrilled to be accepted. Even better, festival director Matt Dentler gave us a prime evening spot at Austin’s 1,100-seat Paramount Theatre. As an unfunded and unknown nonprofit, The Nobelity Project desperately needed to raise some money. We bought a hundred seats to our own film and had a prescreening party just down the street at a friend’s Congress Avenue home. Dan Rather and Lyle Lovett came to offer support. Ahmed Zewail flew in from California and chatted with Steve Weinberg: the Arab and the Jew talking politics and science. Tutu would have loved it. The party was full, so we knew we would have at least a hundred people at the screening. When we walked out of Eddie’s house to head to the theater, we discovered two lines of people waiting to get into the Paramount. Each of the lines turned the corner of the block and extended up the side streets. “I love Austin,” I told Christy. The audience response to the film was beyond our wildest expectations. Zewail and Weinberg joined me after the film for a Q&A, and most of the questions related to what we could do as individuals to help address these persistent problems. For the audience, the highlight was a question from a guy who asked in a sincere tone if one of us could explain the connection between science and religion. Ahmed and I looked at each other and both said, “Steve can take that one.” “The connection between science and religion,” Weinberg began. And then he paused. It was an expectant pause, and the room was dead quiet when Weinberg bluntly stated the answer. “There isn’t one.” The room burst into applause. We didn’t set the world on fire with Nobelity, but Craig Baumgarten, a producer who’d cast me in several of his films, connected us to one of America’s oldest home video companies, Monterey Media. We had a small theatrical release, a lot of private screenings at colleges, churches, and community centers, and plenty of good reviews. Esquire magazine ran a full-page story with a headline that read, “Nine Ways to Change the World.” On the downside, we opened in theaters the same day as Al Gore’s environmental leviathan An Inconvenient Truth. A few months later our DVD release again matched the release date of Gore and Co. Nobelity had some great insights into climate change, but our entire production budget was 1 percent of the promotion budget of An Inconvenient Truth. We didn’t find the big audience we had hoped for, but those we reached love it. 38

“One piece at a time,” I kept reminding myself. Whenever I introduced the film, I was happy to find audience members from all walks of life. I didn’t want to preach to the choir, didn’t want to make a movie that prompted one political side to pat me on the back and the other to scoff and add bricks to the wall that separated them. I talked about the walls that had been built between East and West, between Muslims and Christians, right and left, red and blue. “The problems and the challenges we face in common are bigger than the issues that divide us,” I often said, an echo of similar remarks I’d heard from the laureates in the film. After a screening in Austin, a muscular man in his sixties came up to me in the lobby. His face and the top of his chrome dome were red with rage. “I’m totally right-wing!” he told me. “Miles to the right of Rush Limbaugh.” I thought the only thing to the right of Rush Limbaugh was the door of his limousine, but I kept listening, ready to duck if I needed to. “I loved everything about your movie except for one thing!” he barked. “What was it?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer. “It was when Desmond Tutu said, ‘God is not a Christian.’” I appreciated the fact that he remembered it was Tutu, not me, who had said it and asked him why it made him so mad. “Because I always thought God has to be a Christian!” he blurted out. “Now I’m not so sure.” “Thanks for coming to the film,” I told him, knowing I’d never get a better review. And then he said something very kind. “Thanks for making it.” ONE OF THE QUESTIONS AFTER THE SXSW PREMIERE screening was about the school in Kenya. I gave a rundown of the challenges faced by Mahiga Primary School and told the audience I’d promised to help the school build a water system. Joseph Mutongu was working with the school committee and the Kenyan authorities on permission and a budget estimate for drilling a well. We didn’t know what it would cost, but The Nobelity Project was looking for support. In the audience was a 12-year-old kid named Julian Kunik, the oldest son of my daughter’s orthodontist. I didn’t know it at the time, but Julian would turn out to be a world-changer for the kids of Mahiga.



One Peace at a Time

I HAD SPENT THOUSANDS OF HOURS IN THE EDITING bay as we cut Nobelity and had probably heard Desmond Tutu’s closing segment a hundred times. His observation that we must solve the world’s problems “one piece at a time” was a natural conclusion to the film. But it wasn’t until I heard audience reactions to his joke that the “elephant in the room” suddenly came into focus. What if we simply respelled the word as peace? Wasn’t that what it was all about? We started shooting our second feature, One Peace at a Time, in 2007. Instead of the top ten problems we face in the world, One Peace at a Time would seek solutions 40

and focus on the possibility of providing basic rights to every child. Not in 10 or 20 years, but now. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child in every nation has the right to clean water, adequate nutrition, education, health care, freedom of thought, religion and more. The Rights of the Child Convention has been signed by 194 nations, including every member of the United Nations except for Somalia and the United States (which I find both baffling and infuriating). When I had filmed in India for Nobelity, I interviewed Nobel economist Amartya Sen at his boyhood home, Santiniketan, which means “the abode of peace.” Sen is one of the world’s foremost authorities on poverty and famine, and I wanted to ask him about the one billion people in the world who live on a dollar a day. In the weeks before I began my trip, at least a dozen friends told me, “India will change you.” One woman said, “India makes your heart grow larger.” I was going for an interview, not a pilgrimage, but India may have had a different idea about that than I did. My cameraman, Vance, accompanied me, and our first stop was in Calcutta, at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. I wasn’t surprised to see people begging on the streets here but was taken aback by the number and the age of the beggars, some of whom were just 2 or 3 years old. One tiny boy was sitting on the pavement in a puddle of his own urine. It was impossible to choose whom to give money to, or to know if they would be able to keep it or have to pass it on to someone else. After a tour of Mother Teresa’s, where dozens of dying men and women were being tended with dignity in their final hours, we moved to the nearby Kali Temple and made a contribution to its public kitchen, which feeds thousands of homeless people each day. India was a rollercoaster of sights and emotions. We spent long hours walking down back alleys and along railroad tracks, where hundreds of people were living in cardboard shacks. There were children everywhere, all of them in need of clothes, food, and medical care. Whatever I can describe falls far short of the problem. UNICEF estimates that there are 18 million street children in India, a staggering number. Despite the living conditions of the children we met, they invariably lit up with the most beautiful smiles at the sight of our cameras. Dawn to dark, day after day over the course of our visit, Vance and I shot 40 hours of video and hundreds of stills, pausing only to show the kids their photos, an exchange that prompted even bigger smiles and more photos or footage. After I returned to the States, I sat down with a doctor and showed him our photos of the street kids, and he gave me a rough diagnosis of their medical issues: 41

tuberculosis, malaria, vitamin A deficiency. I showed him a photo of a beautiful girl who had what appeared to be a round burn or scar on the tip of her nose. “Hansen’s disease,” he told me. “Leprosy.” I was suddenly unable to breathe. I had seen many adult lepers in India, with deformed stubs where their hands and feet should have been, but this girl was only 7 or 8 years old. Despite the fear that leprosy is some sort of highly communicable and untreatable disease, the opposite is true. Only 5 percent of any population is susceptible to the bacterial infection M. leprae, and the one key part of treat-ment is early response to keep it from spreading to the nervous system. “It’s treatable by common antibiotics,” the doctor continued, “but a street kid is not likely to get the medicine, which means the disease will likely progress.” For months, I couldn’t quit thinking about her. Out of all the street kids on every corner of Calcutta, I knew it would be impossible for me to find this one little girl again. India had changed me, but instead of making my heart bigger, it had drilled a hole right through the middle of it.

VANCE AND I TRAVELED SOUTH TO THE INDIAN OCEAN town of Puri, a holy city of temples that is renowned as a destination for weddings. Searching for a raucous band playing somewhere behind our hotel, I passed through the hotel kitchen and laundry, then climbed over a wall into an alley. There, 20 musicians were sitting in pedal carts that were connected by electric wires to a rolling generator and speaker. I followed them out of the alley into the street, where this rolling-thunder band led a blocks-long wedding procession. The music was noisy and triumphant. I followed for several blocks, filming as I walked and stopping only when the procession arrived at a beachfront hotel. Elated to have captured the colorful images and music, I turned to walk back but was stopped by the bride’s father, who invited me to be an honored guest at the wedding. I dashed back to our hotel and told Vance to forget his day off and grab his cameras. Our footage of the long and complex Hindu wedding ceremony was wonderful, but the keeper of the day was a still photo Vance took of the bride’s henna-tattooed hands. That photo would become the background of The Nobelity Project’s logo. Two days later, we made it back to Calcutta for the Muharram, the Shia festival of Ashura, which commemorates the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century. A crowd of 200,000 Muslim celebrants was expected to jam the streets for a mass pilgrimage that would include everyone from families with children enjoying a Sunday parade to 42

flagellants who shred their own flesh to commemorate the death and martyrdom of the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussain. This was soon after the American invasion of Iraq and possibly not the safest destination for a couple of Americans with cameras. Vance and I plunged into the flowing stream of humanity and were swept along for miles to an accompaniment of a thousand drummers drumming and a thousand horns blasting at deafening levels. The chief form of entertainment seemed to be blowing the horns very close to my camera or my ears. I didn’t exactly fit in at 6-foot-7. At one point, I stopped to film a woman lying in the sun, performing her fakir act, apparently stopping her breath as she laid motionless for more than five minutes. I was mesmerized and when I looked up, Vance was gone. Fifteen minutes later, we found each other and he showed me a photo he had taken of one white-haired goofball standing a foot and half taller than a sea of dark-headed Indians. “You looked like a human Q-tip!” he laughed. We pressed on, despite the growing number of teens who were following us, the drums and horns replaced by long knives and swords that they waved in front of our cameras. They were smiling and I was confident they were just showing off, but one older gentleman had followed us for 20 blocks and his gaze had never left us. I was getting nervous about his intentions, when we came face to face and he smiled broadly. That’s when I realized he didn’t mean to harm us but to protect us. Stepping out of the flow of the parade, he told me that we did not want to follow the procession to its final gathering place, where troublemakers might be waiting. Vance wanted to continue until we found the flagellants. No worries there, as the group soon found us, a large circle of chanting men, sharp knives attached to bundles of chains that they swung over their shoulders and that shredded their bare backs. A massive crowd of onlookers, many as shocked as Vance and me, formed a circle around them and watched the two foreigners film the men, some of whom seemed little older than boys. The coppery smell of blood filled the air, and the chanting and crowd became more and more intense. When we finally moved away, I had to wipe the blood from my camera. Making our way backward through the procession, we eventually arrived at our starting place. The crowds had thinned, and our final encounter was with a group of teenage boys and girls who asked us to take their photos. The girls were about the age of my daughter Katie Rose and had no interest in the weirder parts of the day. They just wanted to enjoy the holiday. One of the young men was wearing a T-shirt that read, “If you are looking for a big opportunity, seek out a big problem.” 43

And that’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since.

THE MUHARRAM AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF Calcutta formed the backdrop of my segment with Amartya Sen in Nobelity, which we filmed in his childhood home at the beautiful open-air university of Santiniketan. As a child, Sen had witnessed the most deadly famine of the 20th century, when 3 million people died of starvation in West Bengal. He has since become one of the world’s leading voices on the cause of hunger, which is not a shortage of food. “It really is concerned with poverty,” Sen told me. “If you can’t buy food, you’re likely to go hungry, no matter how much food there is in a country. And you have to remove that vulnerability, which comes from poverty.” Sen’s insights, coupled with the moving images of India, made a strong impression on our audiences for Nobelity. At our premiere, I met a woman named Caroline Boudreaux who had given up her career in TV news to travel around the world for a year. The first and last stop of her tour was India. After visiting an orphanage where dozens of undernourished children were sleeping in one room on hard wooden beds, Boudreaux returned to Austin and founded a nonprofit that was dedicated to improving the lives of India’s orphans, whom she calls “the forgotten children.” Boudreaux is an articulate supporter of the Rights of the Child, and I journeyed back to India so that she could show me other possibilities for the orphans there. We began our visit at The Miracle Foundation orphanage in the town of Bhawani in the State of Orissa, not far from the temples of Puri, which I had visited on my last trip. Instead of street children, I found an orphanage that was structured as a home. Because India has one of the world’s lowest adoption rates, housemothers who cared for the kids were asked to work there for 15 years, essentially making them the mothers of the infants who are left at the orphanage. In some cases, young women who were unable to show their pregnancy or give birth as a single woman in their rural villages had given up their newborns to the orphanage and subsequently decided to stay as housemothers themselves. Caroline Boudreaux seemed like the mother of all and was rarely without a child in her arms. “The Miracle Foundation exists to ensure the rights of children and to improve the lives of orphans,” she told me. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s just one child, one orphan at a time, enabling them to reach their full potential.” A second trip to India and The Miracle Foundation orphanages turned into a third. Austinite Nav Sooch, the founder of Silicon Labs, had left the company a wealthy man and was determined to do good with his money. Born in India but raised in America, 44

Nav had succeeded in business but had never returned to the hardship of India that his parents had left behind. After hearing about the successes of The Miracle Foundation, Nav became the principal funder of a proposed village orphanage where forgotten children would be raised, not just to survive but to thrive. The first time I visited the sprawling mountaintop site in 2007, construction was so far behind that Caroline asked me not to show my footage or stills to Nav. The project was behind schedule and not likely to meet its million-dollar budget. I looked at the plans for a dozen homes, a dining and worship hall, administration buildings, and more and wondered if $2 million would be enough. In spite of my doubts, seven months later, I filmed Nav Sooch and his children as they cut the ribbon for the Grand Opening of Sooch Village. The difference between the back alleys of Calcutta and that lovely village was like night and day. As I looked at that amazing place, the accomplishments of The Miracle Foundation actually did seem like a miracle. But there was one important distinction: This was a miracle that could be repeated by anyone with a big heart, some basic street smarts, and a partnership between a community with a problem and a community who cared. Filming Caroline’s work was the beginning of a journey that became One Peace at a Time, a film that would take me to five continents to profile solutions that work.



The Right to Clean Water

WHETHER YOU LIVE IN WEST TEXAS, EAST AFRICA, or almost anywhere in between, access to water will likely be a growing problem for you and for your descendants. Nearly two years had passed since I promised the people of Mahiga to assist in a water solution at the primary school. And we hadn’t solved the problem yet. With Joseph Mutongu leading the effort, the community had received permission to drill a well. But when the hydrology study came in, the target depth for the water was 600 feet. That borehole would have cost $60,000, with no guarantee of success. Even 46

if we hit water, the cost to pump it from so deep in the ground would have been prohibitive. So the community turned its attention to the possibility of building a pipeline to the open water source the kids had been walking to, a plan that fell down under the weight of permissions, cost, water quality, and even the security of our pipe, which could easily have been cut up and hauled away for profit. There is no fundamental right more basic than water. Across the globe, more than a billion people lack access to clean water. But drinking water is just a small part of the water challenge, for the world is also facing a critical shortage of water for almost all uses. Rick Smalley had reminded me that 97 percent of the world’s water is in oceans and that another 2 percent is locked up in ice. Half of the remaining 1 percent that is considered fresh water is polluted, leaving a growing world population with a shrinking water supply. Wanting to see water solutions in action, I traveled to Ethiopia with A Glimmer of Hope, a nonprofit that has completed 3,000 water projects in one of the driest countries on earth. On two trips with Glimmer’s staff and its founders, I spent weeks on the dusty roads of Ethiopia, covering enough ground to see the southern, eastern, and northern borders of a country that is twice the size of Texas. In 2000, after selling his online stock-trading firm to Charles Schwab, Philip Berber and his wife, Donna, donated $100 million to fund A Glimmer of Hope. They also hired a dedicated Ethiopian public servant to run the organization, built a talented staff in Austin and in Ethiopia, and began a series of integrated development projects across Ethiopia. “Our model starts in the village, asking what it is they need and want,” Philip Berber told me as we bounced down a mountain road in the Tigray region. “And water is the fundamental need. A clean source of water in your community revolutionizes your life ... there, on after, and for every generation.” Near the border of Eritrea, an area that was devastated by the Eritrean War just 20 years before, we drove three hours on a dirt road to the remote community of Abenea. The Tigrinya-speaking people are the descendants of the ancient civilization of Axum, but for 1,300 years they have been the core of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to Ethiopia traditions, the church traces its ancestry to the legendary King Menelik, child of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, a royal lineage that would continue until the deposing of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The region is known for the incredible ruins of Axum, but in most areas there are no paved roads, no visible business activity other than farming, few schools, and no reliable sources of surface water.


The long road to Abenea crossed one set of mountains after another, passing down through rich valleys that seemed like a scene from the Bible, a holy land with green grass, tall corn, and shepherds with donkeys and sheep. “Come back in three months,” our driver, Eric, told me. “The green will be burned to brown by the sun, and you won’t believe it’s the same land.” As we drew close to the village, the tall mast of a drilling rig stood high like a church steeple. As we walked closer, I saw several hundred people gathered around the rig as if they were witnessing a revival. The rig had been brought here by A Glimmer of Hope and its partner group, Charity Water, but it was an Ethiopian drilling crew controlling the powerful engine that cranked the drill shaft into the ground. After 20 minutes, the big engine was revved down and the drill stem locked in place so that another length of drill pipe could be added to the column of steel that was already a hundred feet in the ground. The giant crowd had walked or ridden horses and donkeys from many miles all around to celebrate the arrival of clean water. Near the well site, the community’s elders were at the center of a giant rotating circle, surrounded by bands of the adults. Then in a wider circle, hand-in-hand, hundreds of kids rotated, chanted, and sang. A group of kids carried a sign that said, “Water Is Life.” Galloping around the entire mass was the local militia, dozens of riders on small mountain horses decorated in full Tigray regalia, with yellow harnesses and bright red plumes. In one hand they held their reins, in the other a gun. Some carried Russianmade Kalashnikovs. Others had old rifles or muskets that looked like they had been here since Ethiopia defeated the Italians more than a century ago. If the Eritrean army invaded again, this colorful militia would be the first line of defense.

BACK AT THE DRILLING rig, the crew had been working since midnight and was expecting to hit water at any moment. The crew had been joined by Charity Water’s founder, Scott Harrison, a rock star of the movement for clean water who had climbed onto the rig to shoot a video report that would soon be uploaded to the web and watched almost simultaneously by his supporters back home. Three years earlier, Harrison had been a burned-out nightclub promoter in New York. Looking for more satisfaction from his life, he asked friends to give him a special birthday present and make a contribution to drill a well in a community that needed clean water.


That first birthday well was the beginning of Charity Water’s annual September Campaign, which asks anyone with a birthday in September to do the same thing and fund a well. One well grew to 33 the second year, then to 333 by the third. With a goal of providing clean drinking water to every person on earth, Charity Water has now funded 4,000 water and sanitation projects across the developing world. “In Ethiopia, we can provide a long-term source of clean drinking water to a rural community for less than twenty dollars a head,” Glimmer’s Phillip Berber told me as we talked over the noise of the drilling rig. “Twenty dollars. And they’re not drinking parasites. They’re not drinking mud. They’re not making themselves sick. We’re avoiding one out of five children dying before the age of 5.” Suddenly the noise of the drilling shifted down a notch, and Harrison shouted that they were getting close. The crowd pressed forward, and as the driller injected compressed air to clean out the well, they could sense something happening beneath their feet. I was in a prime position, with my camera rolling, when a giant gusher of water came shooting out of the well, soaring 30 feet into the air. A roar went up from the crowd, then a huge wave of water showered down, soaking us all. Looking across the way to Philip Berber, I saw his arm clasped tightly around the shoulders of an old man. Both were smiling; both had water glistening on their faces. I couldn’t tell if it was water from the well or tears of joy. I don’t think they could either. I was so impressed by the work glimmer was doing that The Nobelity Project raised the funds for six more water projects in Ethiopia. Not all of the projects are boreholes. In many locations, a hand-dug well and an oldfashioned hand pump can access clean subterranean water. In others, a spring protection plan can tap an underground spring before it emerges to be polluted by cattle and people. A pipe from the spring can be channeled to multiple communities over a stretch of many miles. Rainwater collection is another time-tested solution. Purer than groundwater, which picks up the minerals around it, rainwater—falling pure and clear from the sky—has been collected and stored since the earliest days of humankind. In the Texas Hill Country west of Austin, where over-pumping of underground aquifers has caused many wells to go dry, rainwater systems are built on houses, garages, and on “rain barns,” whose sole purpose is to gather the rain. Rainwater collection had been one of my first suggestions at Mahiga, where the primary school had ten classrooms with metal roofs. Mutongu was convinced the school could build a system that could collect water from every one of them. Working with local plumber and electrical contractor Nicholas Chaga, the team came up with an ingenious and affordable system. Water from the roofs of all ten 49

classrooms would be channeled into twin 15,000-liter storage tanks. A small pump could be activated with a key to fill a 500-liter elevated tank, from which the water would pass through an ultraviolet light filter system, killing bacteria that might have gotten into the system from the roof. The elevated second tank was an important safeguard. If someone left the tap open, the water in the big tank would not be lost. The big tanks would fill with fewer than 2 inches of rainfall and ideally hold enough water to carry the school through the dry months between rainy seasons in the fall and the spring. The total cost, including the gutters, tanks, and purification system, was a little over $5,000, and I promised Mutongu that we would find the money as quickly as possible. Rewind to the premiere of Nobelity, where 12-year-old Julian Kunik heard me speak about the kids of Mahiga and their long walk for water. We had raised some of the funds for the water system when Julian and his mom, Anika, contacted me. Julian had been inspired by the film and wanted his Mitzvah project—the act of service or kindness that plays a key part of every Jewish child’s coming of age—to support the kids of Mahiga. I gave Julian a dream list of items the school had provided me, a list that began with clean drinking water. With support from family and friends—many of whom had also seen Nobelity—Julian raised $5,000 for the water system at Mahiga. For months to come, whenever I went out in Austin, people would introduce themselves to me and say they had donated to Julian’s List. That always put a big smile on my face, but before I could thank them, they got there first. “Thank you,” they told me. “Thank you.” One of the lessons I learned from Joseph Mutongu, Julian Kunik, Scott Harrison, and Philip Berber is that if you are willing to share your dream, people will be grateful for the opportunity to help make that dream into a reality. It’s something I tell people wherever I go, but I suspect that when I say it, I am primarily just reminding myself: “Don’t forget to share your dreams.”


C H A P T E R 10

Down the River

NOT LONG AFTER RICK SMALLEY SUCCUMBED TO leukemia in 2005, one of the most respected scientists in America announced that he was going to follow Smalley’s example and set climate change and energy as two of the main areas of study for his big team of scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. On a hilltop overlooking the University of California, Berkeley, I met Steve Chu to ask him a few questions about the interlocked challenges of climate change, energy, and water.


Whatever your concept of a brainiac scientist, Steve Chu is likely to exceed it. Raised in a family of overachieving Ph.D.s and M.D.s, Chu told me his mom had never been particularly impressed by his accomplishments. “When I called and told her I’d won the Nobel Prize,” Chu told me with a grin, “she said, ‘Yeah, yeah. When are you gonna come visit me?’ ” Chu and I had a long conversation about climate change, which I could summarize with alternate scenarios: Either we continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not real or not man-made, or we can listen to the 99 percent of scientists in the world who believe that it’s key to take action to mitigate global warming. We have all seen the news about the melting of the polar icecaps, but I wanted to know whether the shrinking glaciers on Mount Kenya and the rapid desertification of East Africa and many other areas of the world are related to global warming. “In terms of the dire consequences of climate change,” Chu told me, “there are certain things where a scientist might say there is a 50 percent probability or an 80 percent probability that these things may happen. As an example, the western United States will have severe water shortages, due to climate change and due to the fact that alpine forests are going to be threatened because a lot of the parasites won’t be killed by the frost. Let’s say the number is low, 50 percent probability that we will lose half our snowpack and forest.” A 50 percent probability of losing half our snowpack sounded plenty dire. “With trees dying after being invaded by parasites, we also end up with huge, uncontrollable wildfires that are fueled by dead wood, higher temps, and lower humidity than we’ve known before. But the effect on water is even more dramatic.” “If we lose much of the snowpack and forest,” I asked, “can we still make the water last through the year?” “No,” Chu told me. “We’ll get floods in the rainy seasons and more severe droughts at other times. When it comes to climate change, the rapid melting of the poles is bad news. It’s happening much faster than predicted. But the changes closer to the equator are even more disturbing because that’s viewed as a strong indication that this is forever, forever being hundreds or thousands of years of change. “For the long-term survivability of the world, you can’t be looking at this election cycle or that, or some short-term thing, and you’ve got to make decisions based on the long-term benefit of a country and the world.”

MY INTERVIEW WITH CHU WAS IN THE SPRING OF 2007. I couldn’t have known that within six months he would be named Secretary of Energy by President-elect


Barack Obama, but I was either wise enough or lucky enough to ask him a question that fit his coming role in government service. “What would you do if you were the Energy King for a Day?” “Put a price on carbon,” Chu told me. “That price is the real price of using carbonbased fuel, and it has to go up from where it is today. Twenty dollars a ton is not going to do it.” Steve Chu is now three years into his Energy King for a Day job, and it seems clear that both the current political climate and the economy have taken the carbon tax option off the table, at least for now. Instead, the Obama administration has used government incentives to develop green technology that can help reduce omissions. But without an energy policy that recognizes the long-term costs of burning carbon fuels, renewables will continue to face an uphill battle and unpredictable markets. Whatever your view of climate change, the scale of the problem is daunting because the world uses an incredible amount of energy and demand continues to grow at an alarming rate. Having sought the advice of two of the smartest men in the game, I came away with the sad realization that we may very well have moved from trying to stop climate change to simply having to deal with it. And the consequences are not going to be pretty. I was eager to get back to Kenya, but Steve Chu had me thinking about water issues that were closer to home. Seven states, 30 million people, and 7 million acres of cropland rely on the water coming through the Grand Canyon to keep them alive. Long-term weather cycles aggravated by global warming indicate that Lake Mead— 100 feet below capacity in 2008—will eventually fall low enough to cause drastic economic and environmental impact on agriculture and cities. I had always wanted to boat the Grand Canyon, but talking to Chu made me realize that, just like the children I had been meeting around the world, the river wouldn’t wait. In April 2009, I joined another film crew for a trip through the lower canyon in two large rafts and two aluminum-hulled camera boats. While annual flow in the river had declined more than 30 percent during the previous decade, you couldn’t tell from the front of the camera boat, where I held a camera just over the bow in a waterproof case. We were having a great ride, when a big standing wave threw the bow of the boat almost vertical and launched me into the air. Luckily, I landed in the boat. Unluckily, I had multiple compound fractures in my right leg and ankle. In essence, my leg was snapped very un-neatly in two. To add insult to injury, the boat was swamped with water and my camera was floating around inside recording my misery. Below the rapids, we pulled into shore and I realized that I was looking at the bottom of my foot.


Our crew had a satellite phone, but no signal reached the depths of the canyon. The next six hours would be the longest of my life. Our only option was to leave me in the boat and make the long trip downriver to Lake Mead. Several of our group later confessed they weren’t sure I was going to make it, but I wasn’t worried. If an infection from several hours of slow bleeding into the river didn’t kill me, Christy probably would. Christy had wisely thought the river trip was a distraction from the main focus of the film, and I knew I had blown it big time. Even with the medical insurance policy we carried, the cost of my foolishness was going to be a huge burden on our family. As I looked up from the bottom of the boat to the top of the tall canyon walls, the same thoughts kept rolling through my head. How was I going to finish filming One Peace at a Time? When would I return to Mahiga?


C H A P T E R 11

Back to Mahiga

WHEN MY BOATMEN FINALLY GOT ME TO THE DOCK at Lake Mead, the medivac crew loaded me on the gurney and we discovered I was too tall for the patient compartment of the chopper. The only choice was to wedge me in with my head tipped forward on the front bulkhead and my busted leg jammed against the other wall. It had been a long six hours without pain medication, and as the EMT gave me a shot of morphine, we lifted up into the blue sky and I gazed out at fluffy clouds that looked like commas and periods in sentences I didn’t know how to write.


Halfway to Vegas, the pain was worse so they hit me with the morphine again and my head started to spin. Soon we were flying down the Vegas strip. What a ride! I had spent the past year filming in locations from the Himalayas to the Amazon rainforest. If I was going to suffer a double compound fracture of my leg, I suppose the U.S. was a good place to do it. At the University Medical Center, I was wheeled into a giant trauma center, where X-ray machines on overhead tracks zoomed up and down the rows of patients, who seemed to be equally divided into gunshot wounds from drug deals on my right and inebriated daredevils on my left. Still flying on morphine, I gazed dully at the organized mayhem and laughed as I remembered an old joke. “What were the drunken redneck’s last words?” “Hey! Watch this!” When the nurses found out I had been injured in the canyon and that no guns or alcohol were involved, their sympathy level went up considerably. Less comforting was the fact that my clothes had been sliced away and my I.D. and health insurance card were duct-taped to my bare chest. The next morning when I woke up, Christy was in the chair by my bed. Having jumped on a plane from Austin, she had arrived before I was out of surgery and was the most welcome sight imaginable. I didn’t remember anything about the surgical options I had chosen the night before, but when the orthopedic surgeon came to check on me, he said I had asked for whatever treatment would get me on my feet the fastest. Instead of a cast on the outside of my leg, which would have been a six-month recovery, I now had a titanium rod inside the length of my tibia, a titanium plate alongside my ankle and an assortment of titanium screws holding me together. The trip home on the plane was worse than the trip down the river. Christy didn’t kill me, but during the weeks I was confined to our bed and then a wheelchair, she did refuse to make me a cocktail before 7 p.m., which I considered to be cruel and unusual punishment. Meanwhile, I discovered that a wheelchair makes a great camera dolly, at least when I had Lily to push it around. When I graduated from the wheelchair to crutches, I started rehab with the sports doctors at the University of Texas athletics facilities and eventually traded the crutches for a cane. Three months after I broke my leg—two months sooner than predicted and still on a cane—I hobbled onto the first of three flights that would carry me to Kenya.

MY FELLOW CAMERAMAN, MARK MIKS, AND I arrived in Mahiga to a tremendous welcome. It had been almost three years since my pledge to help build the 56

water system for the primary school. Mutongu and the community had searched patiently for the right solution, and Julian Kunik and other supporters had helped fund it. At the new water room, the community gathered around and we cut a ribbon and walked in to find that both 15,000-liter storage tanks were nearly full of rainwater. Mutongu showed me the pump and filter system, then a boy turned on the tap, filled the ceremonial first glass, and handed it to me. I want to make this part clear. I don’t drink the tap water in Africa, not even at a five-star hotel. But I took that glass, filled with cool, clear water, and drank it down in one long draught. I had never tasted anything so sweet. The kids at Mahiga Primary School would no longer be walking for water or drinking river water that made them sick. This was progress that had been slow in coming, but it was definitely progress. Slow but steady. Julian’s List had also played a part in the new computer lab at the school, where the stone walls and smooth interior plaster looked pretty sharp. Along with our video gear, Mark and I had brought 14 little laptop computers that had been donated by Dan Shine and AMD, partners in the OLPC/One Laptop Per Child program. The idea of a $100 laptop had captured the world’s imagination, but aggressive pricing competition from commercial computer makers had already made it clear that the program would not be sustainable in the long run. On the other hand, the computers made by OLPC had a wonderful design and were great for young students. Four years later, all but one of our original laptops are still functional. And we continue to add more when we can find them. On the outside wall of the computer lab, a shiny junction box brought electricity to power the computers and illuminate the dark classrooms of the school. Neat handpainted letters on the wall read, “Nobelity Project Computer Room.”

WHILE WE WERE MAKING THE TOUR, THE STUDENTS pulled the bench desks from the classrooms and made a giant circle in front of a temporary stage. The low clouds that were making the day chilly grew darker and turned to light rain, but no one seemed to mind. Rain meant more water in the tanks, and everyone was thanking me for bringing the rain. Parents, students, and teachers had gathered to express their thanks. The school choir danced forward, singing loudly. One by one, they led me, Mutongu, and Mark forward to dance with them. It was exhilarating, joyful beyond words.


Mark and I were not the only guests. Agnes Munuhe, the head of the Kieni West Education District, had heard about the changes at Mahiga and was making her first visit to the school. Agnes is a tall and powerful woman, and her voice—reminding me of the great Barbara Jordan’s—carried easily to every adult and child. “We witness ... what we are proud of!” she thundered. “Out of 49 schools in the Kieni West Education District, this is the first primary school with electricity and computer lessons!” That brought a big cheer from the crowd. The kids were more than a little excited about those computers. “I have a very big dream for this school,” Agnes continued. “Where we shall have St. Joseph Mahiga High School!” At this point, the place just went nuts. Women were ululating. Kids were cheering. Joseph Mutongu was wiping tears from his eyes. This was all news to me. I didn’t know that the nearest high school was so far away that most of these kids would never attend. But as I looked out on the hopeful faces of the older kids, it all became clear. With a high school, they wouldn’t have to drop out after the eighth grade. With a high school, they wouldn’t have to turn their backs on years of lessons only to end up in a field or hawking rides on public vans. With a high school, the girls wouldn’t be married and having children at age 16. “We just need to find a partner,” Agnes continued, “to help us realize our dream.” An even bigger cheer went up. And when the cheering stopped, I realized they were all looking at me.

I HAD RETURNED TO MAHIGA TO CELEBRATE AND document a job well done and to show how little it takes to make a big difference. But a high school sounded like a project for a big NGO or a government agency. After the celebration, I huddled with Mutongu, Agnes, and the district education officer, Samuel Mukundi. Samuel pointed out that the walking distance to the nearest secondary school in Mweiga—or the alternative of attending a more distant boarding school—now meant that most of these kids would never complete high school. With a local high school, all that could change. I was behind the curve on the Kenyan education system and asked them some basic questions about the kind of facilities required for a public high school. We would need four classrooms for grades 9 through 12 (Form 1 to Form 4, as they’re called in Kenya). The new computer lab had cost under $10,000 to build, so I figured we would need four times that amount, $40,000, to build four classrooms of 58

similar size. We would also need land, but Mutongu knew of a nearby tract that the owner might sell for fifteen grand. “What about teachers and staff?” I asked. Agnes said that while the education district had no money for high school construction, she had approval over admitting any new schools in the district. If The Nobelity Project partnered with the community to build the school, she would ensure that it was accepted into the Kieni West Education District and they would provide a principal and teachers. I looked from one eager face to the other and wondered what to say. Now, let me be clear again. This is the point when a smart guy would call his wife/ partner/ boss and start a conversation with her about the practicality of making a $55,000 commitment to a community 9,000 miles away that she has never seen. “Okay!” I said. “We’ll do it.” If you had seen Mutongu’s face at that moment, you would have been as happy as I was. His daughter and son had once attended St. Joseph Mahiga, but turmoil in the Kenyan education system had wreaked havoc with many public schools, and Mutongu and his wife had made the difficult decision to send their children to boarding schools. That was both an economic and an emotional hardship, but the Mutongus were determined that their kids receive an education. The tree-planting program he had started, the water system and computer lab—all of those had been for other people’s kids, not his own. That work had been for his community, and we seemed to share an unspoken bond that together we were making something special happen. With the eight-hour time difference, it was almost midnight in Texas when I called home. Christy answered the phone and sounded happy to hear my voice. “It was a perfect day,” I told her. “The water system is wonderful. The kids sang and danced, and they’re already learning how to use the computers.” She was so happy that it took me a while to tell her the rest. “Oh, yeah, one other thing. We’re going to build a high school.” There was a long pause from her end of the conversation, and I thought it better to wait for her to reply than to explain further. I couldn’t build a high school without a partner community in Kenya. And I couldn’t build one without Christy. Finally she said, “We must have a bad connection. It sounded like you said we’re going to build a high school.”


C H A P T E R 12

Knows and Know-Nots

EDUCATION AND LITERACY STATISTICS FOR KENYA are better than you might expect. Kenya’s adult literacy rate is 87 percent, higher than the global average of 78 percent and almost double the 46 percent rate in neighboring Ethiopia. The education ratio of girls to boys is another key standard. The movement for girls’ education, highlighted in a global campaign called The Girl Effect, is built around extensive data that shows that uneducated girls marry and have children at a young age, live isolated lives, are more vulnerable to HIV, and end up perpetuating the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families. 60

By contrast, an educated girl is more likely to stay healthy, to marry and have children when she’s able to care for them, and to raise the standard of living for herself, her family, and her community. In the decades since Wangari Maathai was the exception to the rule, Kenya has made great strides in the education of girls. Fifty years ago, half as many girls as boys attended Kenyan primary schools. Today they are almost equal. In some urban areas, those statistics are similar for high school, though stark exceptions occur in many rural areas, where simple challenges like a lack of sanitary pads or washing facilities make high school more challenging for girls. In the remote Turkana region of northern Kenya—an area of 30,000 square miles with a population of half a million—just 3,000 students attend high school, almost all of them boys. The progress that has been made during the past half century has not been slow and steady and, in fact, can be traced to specific decisions by the government of Kenya (decisions made on both good and bad advice from global institutions like the World Bank). Not surprisingly, the total number of students correlates almost directly with the education cost parents are required to pay. Enrollment soared in 1974, when the government eliminated primary tuition fees. But the introduction of a parent-government cost-sharing policy in 1989 had the opposite effect, and enrollment fell dramatically when the new plan required parents to pay for textbooks and school construction. To global bankers, the contribution levels from each family must have seemed small, but massive numbers of Kenyan families removed their children from school. The nineties were a bleak decade for education in Kenya, and it seems clear that many of the problems in Kenya today stem from policy decisions that failed millions of people. Things began to look up after the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were enacted in 2000. The MDG included free universal primary education as a goal for all countries by 2015. It took three years, but in 2003, primary school fees in Kenyan public schools were abolished and 1.3 million new students flooded into primary schools. Government spending on primary education and teacher training jumped by 360 percent. The following year, spending on primary education doubled again. Now, eight years later, those new students are ready for high school, but there is a critical shortage of space for them at the secondary level, a critical shortage of trained teachers, and a federal government with limited budget options. Considering the relatively equal level of women’s education and the overall literacy rate, Kenya’s young people could have a bright future in the global economy. While every community is waiting for more resources from the government, some 61

communities believe they can no longer wait and have to play a bigger role in creating opportunity for their children. Was real opportunity a possibility for the kids of Mahiga? That’s the question I kept asking myself. And the only answer I came up with was, “Not without a high school education.”

WHILE SHOOTING NOBELITY AND ONE PEACE AT A Time, I had visited schools on five continents. I wanted to see schools that worked despite their challenging circumstances, and I was inspired by what I found. Traveling in Ethiopia with Donna Berber, the co-founder of A Glimmer of Hope, I saw one remote school after another where Glimmer had partnered with a local development agency or community and built schools that were filled to the brim with eager students. Over and over, I met boys whose days tending animals were now spent tending lessons, and girls whose drudgery of hauling firewood and water had been replaced by the simple joy of learning. In the Dembi Dollo region of Western Ethiopia, the locals call Donna Berber by the name Gambesa, which means “my savior.” The pressure of that name seemed like a huge emotional burden. People doing development work are not holy saints. They are individuals with a calling and a talent (generally a bullheaded talent) to do work that is desperately needed. Generally speaking, that work also fills a need in them. It’s pretty simple, actually. There are two reasons why you do development work: because you can, and because you have to. Combining its generous endowment with additional fundraising that grows each year, A Glimmer of Hope has been able to build new schools in almost every part of the country. In Dembi Dollo, they built so many new schools and classrooms that they also built a teacher’s college and were turning out what I called “an army of teachers” to help shape the future of Ethiopia. At every school, I found kids who were excited about the opportunity to get an education. In villages where the first school ever had recently been built, I found 21year-olds finally able to attend the first grade, proudly learning to read next to 6-yearolds. I met kids who walked six hours a day to go to high school and often slept on the classroom floor. I met young kids who were reading and writing with careful skill in their native language and in English. Traveling with other Glimmer staffers in Tigray, we bounced down a mountain road then hiked into a deep valley for a celebration of a new well and hand pump that would serve several hundred villagers. Hiking back up the hill, we came to a school 62

made of thorns. In the middle of a field, 60 students were in an open-air classroom with walls made of thorn branches that protected them from wild animals but did little to shield them from the hot sun. I turned to Eric Schmidhausen of Glimmer and told him they had to build a real school here. He said their budget for the year was exhausted and this community would have to wait another year. I tried to think of a way to convince him, but before I even spoke, Eric changed his mind and said, “Okay, we’ll find a way to do it.” When it comes to great kids getting an education, it’s hard to say no. And it doesn’t matter where you go. They’re all great kids.

IN THE DELTAS OF BANGLADESH, I VISITED one-room primary schools built by Grameen Bank and local communities that were either predominantly Hindu or primarily Muslim. I couldn’t tell the difference without asking, and there were equal numbers of boys and girls in both. Whenever I saw Muslim girls in classrooms, I thought back to my conversations with Amartya Sen and how he lit up my brain with my own misconceptions. “I don’t take the view that women’s education is a doomed situation for a particular religious group,” Sen told me. “These cultural biases are overestimated. Every society is a diverse society, and any unifocal view of them is a great mistake. It is standard to read Muslim civilization in terms of only Islamic faith, but Muslims are not just concerned with their religion. In the Muslim world, there’s a tradition of public discussion, of math, science, and tolerance. “When an American mathematician does an algorithm, that work celebrates the name of an Arab mathematician of the ninth century, Al Kharazni, from whose name algorithm is derived. His book is the source of the name ‘Algebra.’ “There are also women who have played major parts in different periods of Muslim history. This alienating way of putting different cultures in hermetically sealed boxes misleads world history and the plurality of human beings.”

IN A SLUM IN NEW DELHI, I FILMED AT THE KATHA School, where privileged children attend a school in a slum with students who come from terrible poverty. That economic and culture mix results in a sharing of experiences and perspectives and in an entire body of high achievers who excel in a curriculum that ranges from the fundamentals to music, the arts, and the trades.


Outside the school gates, slum children who did not attend school played near open gutters flowing raw sewage. Inside the gates, the students of Katha were researching term papers on computers and rehearsing a school play. In another low-income Delhi neighborhood, I talked with young people who are educating themselves about the world by using the Hole in the Wall. Almost two decades ago, Indian technology guru Sugata Mitra cut a hole in the wall of his office that faced a poor neighborhood. Then he installed a computer screen and keyboard into the hole, both of them at a low level so that passing children would be encouraged to investigate that strange screen they had never seen before. The result was a successful demonstration of self-guided learning, and the Hole in the Wall has since expanded to many parts of the world. I met Sugata Mitra at his home in Calcutta and had long, wonderful conversations with him, partially because the monsoon rains and humidity had shut down my video camera. “We shall have a cup of tea,” Sugata told me as he pointed a hair dryer at my camera. “When we are finished with our tea, the camera will be ready.” “How can you be so sure?” I asked him. “Because I was part of the team that designed circuits for this type of camera,” he told me. Sure enough, when our tea was finished, my camera was once again operational. “Learning how to operate the computer and the Internet are things that that children can do anywhere,” Mitra told me. “If you put a computer in public, in an open space, like a playground, children in the age group 6 to 12 will learn how to use it on their own, irrespective of what language they speak, how much schooling they’ve done, and almost anything you can measure.” Mitra’s stories described the children’s arc of learning as they consult among themselves and move rapidly from keyboard and mouse operations to downloading Mp3s and playing computer games ranging from Disney to chess. “I asked a child,” said Mitra, “what is this character? He didn’t know it was called Mickey Mouse because he couldn’t read. He said it was a very nice game—it’s a rat game. To him Mickey Mouse was a friendly rat. “Finally the kids discover two things which make a big change for them, email and Google. First, the quality of their English changes because both of these media work on English. And secondly, Google changes everything. “We are moving from a world of haves and have-nots to a world of knows and know-nots,” Mitra told me. “And the equalizing forces will have to change.”


C H A P T E R 13

Game Changers

“SOLVING THE WORLD’S EDUCATION CHALLENGES IS the greatest bargain on Earth.” When I heard Queen Rania of Jordan say that at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York in September 2008, my first thought was that it can’t hurt to have one of the most beautiful women on Earth reminding some of the biggest decision makers that, when it comes to education, we still have a long way to go. Building a high school at Mahiga was just the kind of project Queen Rania was proposing, but we had already realized that four classrooms by themselves wouldn’t be 65

enough. The school would also need a kitchen and an expanded water and sanitation system, so my first $55,000 estimate had already jumped to $75,000. That still sounded like a bargain, but the only problem was, I didn’t have a clue how we were going to raise the money. Before we could get serious about building a high school, we needed land. Mutongu and I quickly learned that there were downsides to having announced our project to a cheering crowd before we had a plan. Building a secondary school near the primary school would enable the two schools to share some facilities like a library, a kitchen or a soccer field. But the great tract of nearby land Mutongu had mentioned was no longer available for $15,000. Once the owners heard that American partners would help build a high school, their asking price doubled. A similar increase occurred at other tracts. Just by being there, I had created a land rush. These small farms were the only property these families owned. The money from selling them would last them only so long while the land would be there forever. Without property, we couldn’t begin to raise money in the States, so the project was stuck in the starting gate. What we needed was a game changer. Luckily I knew one. In 2007, while I was beginning to shoot One Peace at a Time, my friend Dan Shine called to say he wanted to introduce me to someone. Shine was the head of the 50x15 Foundation, an NGO funded by the Austin-based chipmaker AMD. 50x15 was dedicated to the goal of 50 percent of the world’s people having Internet access by 2015. The organization had funded a number of computer labs in the developing world and had contributed the OLPC laptops for the primary school computer lab at Mahiga. Dan wanted me to meet Cameron Sinclair, the founder of Architecture for Humanity, an organization that was working on sustainable development projects in almost every corner of the world. The three of us had dinner in Austin, and I told Cam about the high school project and my idea for a building that would be at the center of the school. I called my dream structure the RainWater Court and envisioned it as a basketball court with a big roof that would collect and store rainwater that could be easily purified for a school. Cam seemed interested, but Dan had a more pressing agenda. 50x15 was sponsoring a global design challenge with Architecture for Humanity, and Dan wanted the three of us to document and evaluate the three finalists. A few weeks later, we were again having dinner but instead of meeting in downtown Austin, we were high in the Himalayan town of Achham, where the only restaurant was a table on the street in front of the owner’s home. There was some kind 66

of mysterious meat on the plate, and while I was eating, I was also filming a dog licking the cook’s cutting board. We were there to evaluate a proposal by another NGO, Nyaya Health, which wanted to build a clinic and telemedicine center in a region with a sky-high HIV infection rate and no doctors. Both beautiful and remote, Achham was either a two-day drive or a very long helicopter ride from Katmandu. We chose the latter, and our pilot had a grinning daredevil streak in him, which prompted him to buzz the mountaintop bases of the Maoist rebels who were fighting for control of the country. “They’re running to the anti-aircraft guns,” I blurted on the headset. The pilot just grinned again and said, “Yes, but they’re slow.” That night, while nearly freezing in a Himalayan hut, Dan, Cam, and I began referring to ourselves—perhaps as a result of altitude sickness—as the Three Monkeys. I was the monkey who was required to cover his mouth, possibly to stop my constant talking about the RainWater Court. From the Himalayas, the Three Monkeys flew to Quito, Ecuador, and drove over the Andes Mountains into the Amazon rainforest to meet the people of the Kallari Collective, a group of Kichwa Indian villages that wanted to build an organic chocolate factory. When you travel with Cameron Sinclair, you travel far and you travel fast. While the chocolate was grown in 27 different villages in the rainforest, the factory would be located at a higher elevation in the Andes, where cooler temperatures meant that no air-conditioning would be required. The remote Kallari villages were impressive, though I still haven’t quite forgotten the texture and taste of a giant raw beetle larvae that I ate one day during lunch. The third project on the Three Monkey tour was the SIDAREC community center in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi. SIDAREC was proposing to build a community center, library and radio station in the heart of that vast slum with a population of 300,000. With the recent Kenyan presidential election having been contested violently in the streets and Kenya’s reputation flagging, Cam and Dan felt the architectural award and accompanying money would do the most good here. In all three countries, I kept bugging Cameron about the RainWater Court, which seemed like a natural fit as an Architecture for Humanity project. Architecture for Humanity is committed to the power of good design. Tapping a global volunteer network of design professionals, AfH has implemented design and structural solutions in the wake of the conflict in Kosovo, Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and many more areas. BY THE TIME WE GOT TO KENYA, I HAD GIVEN CAM architectural sketches drawn up by Matt Garcia, a young Austin architect at my buddy Dick Clark’s 67

architecture firm. We had also made a formal application to another Architecture for Humanity design competition called The Nike GameChangers Award. Three winning programs would receive $60,000 each to build their projects. The RainWater Court was a perfect match, but the first winner, a skateboard park called Skatistan in Kabul, Afghanistan, had already been announced, and I knew we had to act fast. “Come to Mahiga!” I told Cam while we were in Nairobi. “It’s a three-hour drive, nothing compared to the 30 thousand miles we’ve already covered.” “I could go there in a few days,” Cam told me, “but we can’t fund this project if the community doesn’t have clear title to the land and the permission to build on it.” “No problem,” I lied. “We’ve got that covered.” The next morning I left Nairobi at dawn and headed to the mountains to meet with Mutongu and our school committee. By that time, The Nobelity Project was also working on a tree-planting program to reverse desertification at Lake Magadi, south of Nairobi, and our Kenyan partners had found me a deal on a car hire. The new driver was making me a little nervous on the highway to Nyeri, but when he turned onto the bad road to Mweiga, I really didn’t want to be in his vehicle. The road had gotten much worse since my last trip, and there seemed to be more potholes than there was pavement. Instead of steering between the holes at 20 kilometers an hour, my driver was trying to fly over them at three times the safe speed. Kenyan roads are plagued by a growing number of young men whose answer to no employment is to take out a loan and buy a cheap $600 Chinese or Indian-made motorcycle that is an illegal knockoff of legitimate companies. The bikes have hilarious brand names, like Fonda and Charlie Davidson, and the riders make a living by delivering goods and people to their destinations, often for a dollar a ride. There are few regulations or licenses required for these “boda-boda” operators, and accidents are frequent. Not only was my driver speeding, the boda-boda coming toward us was also going too fast and looked to be driven by someone who had limited hours in the saddle. Twenty yards before passing us, his front wheel hit a series of potholes and jerked right, left, then right again. The wheel was almost perpendicular when it struck the front of our vehicle at a combined speed of maybe 100 kilometers an hour. I threw my hands in front of my face and ducked just as the rider flew by my driver’s window. As the motorbike cart-wheeled down the highway, our car spun and felt like it was going to roll but stayed on all four wheels. Badly shaken, my driver looked at me and said, “Was that my fault?” I thought it was at least partially his fault, but I kept my mouth shut and resisted the urge to throttle him. Luckily the rider was not killed and within minutes had been 68

loaded into a passing van and was on his way to the hospital. The motorcycle was destroyed. After we stripped away the crumpled fender of our car, we were able to drive again. Feeling fortunate to have escaped unharmed, I sent my driver back to the hospital with $300 for the injured cyclist—all that I could spare—and made an important note to find a reliable driver. And that was all before lunch on my first full day back in Kenya. THINGS IMPROVED WHEN I MET WITH JOSEPH Mutongu, Samuel Mukundi and Agnes Munuhe at Mahiga. “We may have a funder for the RainWater Court,” I told them. The group already knew about my idea and, despite the fact that no one in the area played basketball, were very keen on it. We were standing on the sloping soccer field overlooking the primary school, and I knew this chance for big money wouldn’t come again soon. “To get funding for the RainWater Court, we need land for the high school,” I said as I kicked a little hole in the dirt and pointing in a line down the hill to an old termiteeaten classroom building. “What if we divide the primary school property in half?” The others buzzed amongst themselves and said they thought it could work. The original water room with the primary school rainwater tanks and purification system was close to the line, but Mutongu assured me they could manage the details. “Here’s the catch,” I told them. “We have to have an official survey, a land plat, and preliminary approval to build a school on it.” “That is not a problem,” Samuel assured me. “Within 48 hours,” I added. They all stared at me blankly for a moment, then Mutongu—and this is just one of many reasons that I love Joseph Mutongu—pulled out his cell phone and called a surveyor in Nyeri. “Bring your equipment, arrive in under an hour, and Turk says he’ll pay you in cash.” Covering the same road that I had just crashed on, the surveyor arrived with five minutes to spare.

I STILL DON’T KNOW HOW THEY PULLED IT OFF, but when Cam and Dan arrived two days later, the committee had a beautiful land plat for Mahiga Hope High School that was adorned with a lot of official-looking signatures. I should make it clear that Cameron Sinclair doesn’t just fly around with $60,000 in his pocket, but I knew we had a great shot at winning the award. Five minutes after he arrived, Cam was already entranced by the place and its residents. 69

After years of visiting this school, I still can’t explain what is so special about the community of Mahiga. Everyone I take or send there tells me that visiting Mahiga is one of the great experiences of their lives. And these are often people who have visited and worked at schools in multiple countries and on numerous continents. Dan and Cam were no different. We didn’t receive an all-singing, all-dancing celebration as I had with the first rainwater system, but it didn’t matter. In the months since I had promised to help build a high school, the primary school principal, Felix Kimani, had already begun the first ninth-grade classes in an abandoned classroom and had five girls and four boys enrolled. I had left a little cash for new textbooks, which were now lined up for our inspection. And I had brought a new Nike basketball and soccer ball from the States. The result was nine of the happiest students you ever met. Inside the old class-room, Cam picked up a piece of chalk and moved to the blackboard where he began teaching a mini course in architecture and community design. When we went back out to the schoolyard, Agnes Munuhe introduced the school committee, then Mutongu showed Cam the survey. As the sun broke through the clouds, Cameron said, “Looks like we have a community partner and you have the land, so we will do this. We’ll build the basket-ball court with rainwater collection.” That was about the 14th of 247 times that tears have come to my eyes at Mahiga. What can I say? I guess I’m just a sentimental old fool. Cameron Sinclair, on the other hand, is a game changer. And Mahiga Hope High School—with an enrollment of nine—was on its way.


C H A P T E R 14

Ground Level Design

MY DAD USED TO SAY, “YOU CAN’T BUILD A WALL by starting at the top.” That phrase was my mantra throughout the planning and the construction of Mahiga Hope High School. With Architecture for Humanity and Nike committed to funding the RainWater Court, we were in a position to aim a little higher than just a simple school with four classrooms.


“You have nine students now,” Agnes Munuhe told me the day I brought Cameron Sinclair to Mahiga. “But when construction ends and the school is fully open, there will be so many.” Agnes continued with a briefing on the public schools in the area. From Mahiga it’s a 12-mile round-trip on foot to the high school in Mweiga. Many kids would come to Mahiga, including most of the students from the Honi Primary School only one mile down the road. In the other direction, it was almost 30 miles to the nearest high school, a vast area of mostly open plains that now housed several IDP villages, with families living on marginal one-acre plots. Their children attended new primary schools, and few kids had been expected to have a chance at high school ... Until now. What Kenyans call a single-stream school would have one classroom per grade with 40 kids per class, or a total of 160 students. But a double stream school would accommodate 320 or more. Instead of four classrooms, we would need eight. On our piece of land, that would mean two stories and more of a construction challenge. To serve the students well and give them a decent shot at college, the school could also use a library and a computer lab. Before I knew it, our original budget had doubled and we were over $100,000, and that was on top of Architecture for Humanity’s funding for the RainWater Court.

IN ADDITION TO FUNDING FOR OUR LARGEST structure, the GameChangers Award had come with a resident Design Fellow to help build it. Greg Elsner was a recent graduate of the architecture department at the University of North Dakota and had a passion for community projects, including low-income housing he helped build during a three-month college residency in India. After giving a speech to the architecture department in Fargo, Cameron had invited the students to meet him for a beer. Racing home, Greg fetched his design portfolio of community structures, took it to the bar and opened it up for Cam. “A couple of months later,” Greg explains, “I was framing houses in Fargo and I checked my messages during lunch. It was Cam asking if I wanted to go to Kenya.” Soon after that surprise phone call, Greg and I met in San Francisco at the offices of Architecture for Humanity. I gave him a rundown on the community and what he could expect during his year in Kenya. AfH Design Fellows are involved in projects in many countries around the world. There’s no salary, just an expense stipend that has to cover housing, food, transportation and everything else. Greg arrived in Nairobi in September 2009 and made his way to Mahiga. Housing proved to be a challenge. Both the Aberdare Country Club and The Ark Lodge, where I 72

had met Mutongu, had been bought by Fairmont Hotels as part of a bigger deal to acquire more prestigious properties in the country. Fairmont wasn’t quite sure what to do with the classy but well-worn Country Club property so they hired a good manager and cut costs by eliminating positions like their staff naturalist, which meant Mutongu was now unemployed. Mutongu’s son and daughter were now in boarding school, but he and his wife, Esther, had a new baby girl, and jobs in rural Kenya are few and far between. We wouldn’t have been building this school without Mutongu, and I’m not sure we could build it without him, so we made the decision to hire Joseph Mutongu as our project manager. The salary was low, but he seemed happy to have it. I suspect he would have done the job without any salary. To keep track of the spreadsheets, email, and bank transfers, I carried a laptop to Kenya that Dell Computers had donated to the project and left it with him.

IN THE MEANTIME, MUTONGU WAS LOOKING without success for accommodations for Greg. The Country Club often provided me with a discount room as a way of supporting the school, but it couldn’t go low enough to accommodate Greg’s skinny stipend. There are no hotels, guest houses, or any other businesses in Mahiga, and the houses are modest, to say the least. No one had an extra room. There were a couple of $3-a-night guest houses several miles from the school in the highway town of Mweiga, but Greg would have been the town’s only mzungu, or white person. Greg is a big guy, 6 feet tall, close to 200 pounds, and with a thick beard. A little size was a good start against someone jacking with him for his phone or the shillings in his pocket, but the Mahiga School committee didn’t feel good about the high profile he would present. So Greg took a $7-a-night room at a hotel 30 miles away in the bustling city of Nyeri. I suspected he just liked the hotel’s name, Tickles. The first couple of months passed without many signs of progress, but there was more happening than I could see from Texas. Greg hosted a series of community design meetings with the school committee, parents and students. He also toured the area, looking at other long-span structures and worked on his designs for the court. No one in the Aberdares had built a structure with the metal truss challenges we faced. When Greg emailed me his final design, with its elevated wing on the downwind side—a feature that would also prevent rainwater from splashing or blowing over the gutter—the sheer beauty of the structure took my breath away. But how, I wondered, was he going to build it? 73

Greg’s official job was architect for the RainWater Court, but with me in the States, fundraising, he had also agreed to consult on the classroom building and other components of the high school. In the meantime, I was getting a crash course in Kenyan construction practices from Joseph Kagiri and Julius Gichohi of Multiplex Associates, the architects the school committee had hired to design the rest of the school. By the end of 2009, Multiplex had finalized its design of an eight-classroom twostory structure that would also house a library and computer lab. Reinforced concrete pillars and beams would support the upper floor, and the walls would be made of hand-cut local stone. I have been laying stone much of my adult life and have two hernia surgeries to show for it, neither of which did much to dissuade me from appreciating the strength and grace of a well-made stone wall. The older and sturdier buildings in the area—like the lodge at the Aberdare Country Club—were all made of stone, and I was happy to be using local materials that would withstand termites, wind, and rain and last for generations. After design, the next step for both the RainWater Court and the classroom building was for the architects to create a Bill of Quantities (BQ) detailing every aspect of the job, from foundation excavation to metal roofing. Each line item is laid out in a quantity—200 square meters of finished stonework, for instance—with an estimated price per square meter and a total in the right-hand column. The excavation and foundation section might have two dozen of those items, and likewise for the walls, windows and doors, the roof, mechanicals, and more. Each item’s rate is calculated according to linear, square, or cubic meters, or by tonnage, per unit, or other factors. The rates listed often include the materials, transportation, and labor, and the general figures are all taken from a national construction manual, with varying rates for Nairobi, other cities, and rural areas. Labor may be cheaper in the rural areas, but materials are higher. The first BQ for the classroom building arrived in January 2009 and seemed to be written in classified code. I spent many a long night trying to decipher it all, looking for errors and any ways to save money. By the end of the month, the BQs for both buildings were put to tender, with multiple contractors estimating their own prices and submitting a bid to do the job. For the RainWater Court, Greg chose the bid from Boslika Construction. The school committee chose Minorah Contractors for the classroom building. They asked me if I approved, and my response was that the school would belong to the community and it was up to the community to make those kinds of decisions. 74

In the meantime, certified engineers had undertaken their studies of both buildings. The Kenyan government takes its building standards seriously, and you don’t get to put up a school building just because you’re from the States and are willing to write a check. The earthquake in Haiti destroyed nearly every school in that country, so I appreciated that we had to satisfy rigorous structural requirements. The engineer for the RainWater Court had submitted his preliminary work, but when Greg tried to get the final details and the signature that comes with them, the engineer went missing. In mid-January, Greg sent me the first of numerous emails about the search for Nicholas. I had quite the adventure Wednesday tracking the structural engineer Nicholas down. I staked out his office for the morning, then ended up going on a manhunt with Joseph Kagiri from Multiplex, which led us to Nicholas’ neighborhood, where Joseph smooth-talked a shop keeper, who gave up a neighbor, who gave up word that Nicholas was in Gatundu ... off to Gatundu!

I KNEW THAT GATUNDU IS A REMOTE TOWN THAT’S higher in the Aberdare Mountains and several hours from Nyeri. But I didn’t know if Greg actually found the missing engineer. I tend to work long hours—writing, answering email, doing Nobelity Project business, whatever—and was finding that if I didn’t quit working before 1 a.m., the emails from Kenya would come in as everyone started work there. The eight-hour time difference meant that if I didn’t answer emails before I went to sleep, their workday would be over by the time I got back to my computer. Internet access isn’t easy or cheap at Mahiga, so many of the team would be online only every few days, and we had constant decisions to be made. Eventually I started silencing the ringer on my Blackberry but still kept it on the floor near my bed. I’d wake up every hour or two, see the red message light flashing, and sit up long enough to answer. My Blackberry typos-per-message count was a lot higher in the middle of the night. The next morning when I reviewed what I sent, I would wonder if Mutongu and Greg had been able to read my thumb gibberish.


C H A P T E R 15

A Thousand Voices for Hope

AS WE BEGAN TO TALK ABOUT MAHIGA HOPE High School in Austin, it seemed like everyone wanted to help. To spread the word and ramp up fundraising, The Nobelity Project launched a campaign called A Thousand Voices for Hope. The idea was to convince a thousand people to each donate a $100 to build Mahiga Hope High School. The first person we asked was Willie Nelson. Willie had appeared in One Peace at a Time, the two of us playing a game of chess while we talked about the homegrown biodiesel that fuels his bus and the other choices he makes in the way he lives his life. 76

“Right and wrong are not that hard,” Willie told me. “It’s what you choose to do that matters.” And then he took my queen. Willie and I had recently written a book that laid out his Zen cowboy Buddhist/ Baptist philosophy of life. Here’s one of my favorite passages from THE TAO OF WILLIE. Connections to those around you, to the world around us all, and to the universe that stretches into the great beyond are the things that define us. Each one of us is made of the same matter as the stars and everything else streaking out from the Big Bang that created the universe—which makes us an essential part in the endless cycle of birth and death, all of us just doing our damndest to finally get it right. When in doubt, I try to remind myself that the path to God is paved with love. The path to god is paved with love. It doesn’t get much better than that. Willie paved a path for us when he donated the first hundred bucks for A Thousand Voices for Hope. He handed me a hundred while we were playing another chess game. When the cameras aren’t rolling, we play for a hundred bucks a game. This time I won the first game and he had given me a hundred cash (It’s strictly a cash and carry game, but if Willie cleans me out, which is often, he’ll loan me the money back). The second game, he beat me with one of his vexing trick openings and won his hundred back. That would normally be the time for an epic tie-breaking game. Instead, Willie handed me the hundred and said, “Here’s to Hope.” There are advantages to living in Austin, which sells itself—fairly accurately, I think—as The Live Music Capital of the World. Christy and I have lived here for four decades, so it wasn’t hard to find more voices for our choir. Lyle Lovett contributed the next hundred. Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the original Dixie Chicks, tossed in theirs. And, of course, the value of all their names counted for much more. The Nobelity Project launched our Thousand Voices for Hope campaign with a short film that concluded with my saying, “Join the choir. Be one of a thousand voices for hope.” IT’S INCUMBENT ON NONPROFITS TO SPEND THEIR money purposefully and efficiently. One of the benefits of being a filmmaker and a photographer is that people who support the work have the opportunity to see the results and build a continuing bond with the community they’ve supported. Our films and photos show that the projects are completed and open, but they don’t guarantee that we work efficiently with the money, which is one of Christy’s main concerns in all our work. 77

Many charities work to achieve a high ratio of program spending to overhead and operations. A Glimmer of Hope and Charity Water are two organizations that use their endowments to cover all operational expenses and are able to make the rare guarantee that 100 percent of all donations go directly to those served. A high standard, and one The Nobelity Project works hard to achieve, is to spend 85 percent of donated funds on program services. To achieve that level of efficiency, like all nonprofits we have to make critical decisions about the best way to raise and spend the money. The highest efficiency is to take donations directly by check or on our website, but sometimes it’s important to reach out and find new support. is one of the principal online fundraising sites for international nonprofit work. We targeted the launch of A Thousand Voices for Hope to a GlobalGiving match day that added to every dollar donated and raised $15,000 on the first day of the campaign. That was a great start, but we had a long way to go.

TO GET OUR MESSAGE in front of people who cared, Christy and I began speaking to audiences wherever we could find them. I had spent years on stage as a comedian and as an actor, but we expected Christy would have to work a bit harder to get in her comfort zone with this added job. As it turns out, she was better at the job than me— another husband humbled by the natural abilities of his wife. The annual TED conference is somewhat of a global idea factory, with speakers from around the world. TED, which stands for Technology Entertainment and Design, had recently launched a series of regional gatherings called TEDx. I was a featured speaker at TEDxSMU in Dallas. “There’s a longstanding adage that all politics are local,” I told the jam-packed crowd. “But the world is shrinking, and we now live in a world where all politics are global. What we do in Dallas affects kids in Kenya and vice versa.” A couple of months later at the TEDxAustin conference, Christy and I tried something new for us, a two-person presentation. Walking onstage—as with everywhere we’ve gone together for the past 28 years—we were literally the long and the short of it. “We think we have the answer to the question on everyone’s mind,” said Christy. The crowd leaned forward to hear. “Six-seven,” I told them. “Five-one,” said Christy. The gist of our presentation was that—no matter our differences—each of us brings something needed to the table of human endeavor. The weaving of our talents, ideas,


and work are the fabric of human progress and the connections between every person on Earth. In short, each of us needs those kids in Kenya just as much as they need us. “Education shouldn’t end after the eighth-grade,” Christy said, as we projected a photo of a group of eighth-grade girls from Mahiga. “Not only did we agree to partner with this community and build a high school,” she concluded. “We agreed to do it in one year so that these girls aren’t told they have no options.”

WE WERE FIVE MONTHS INTO THAT YEAR AND feeling good about our progress until two problems arose. Our Kenyan architects, Joseph Kagiri and Julius Gichohi of Multiplex Associates, had been meeting with the community to get input on a site plan and the type of buildings the community wanted. I was fundraising in the States and missed all of those meetings, and when the site plan came in, the scope of the school had doubled once again. In addition to a two-story classroom and library building, there were three science labs, an expansive administration building, dormitories for boarding students, and houses for a principal and a vice principal. Yes, it would be great to have staff living on the property, but that was a luxury neither the community nor The Nobelity Project could afford. Neither of those positions had been filled yet, so it wasn’t an effort for someone to snag a free house. The community was just dreaming a little bigger than we felt we could achieve. Science labs, as it turned out, are considered to be an essential part of the infrastructure of a district-level secondary school, so Multiplex went back to the drawing board for a revised plan that would eliminate the houses and the large admin building and would repurpose one of the oldest classroom buildings from the primary school side, a structure that had conveniently been located on the high school side of the new dividing line. Even at this more practical scale, the double stream school, when we added in the cost of the RainWater Court, was closer to $250,000 than the $50,000 I had first envisioned. What had we gotten ourselves into?

The Nobelity Project is online at Our schools program is


C H A P T E R 16

Ground Breaking

ON MARCH 29, 2010, SIX MONTHS AFTER GREG Elsner arrived in Kenya, we were finally ready to break ground. I took my usual route from Texas—Austin/ Chicago/London/Nairobi—caught a few hours’ sleep, and left early in the morning for the Aberdares. Door-to-door from my house to Mahiga is a little over 40 hours. People ask me about jet lag, but I find the trip to be a nice break from a non-stop work schedule. A day and a night on the plane is 24 hours to read, watch a movie (or three), and catch a little sleep.


There are several nonprofits in Austin that work in Kenya, and I had gotten to know Sarah Evans, the founder of Well Aware. Not only was Sarah building much-needed water projects in East Africa, but she had found a great driver, Mike Mutuku, whom she nicknamed Mike the Bush Driver. Fifteen minutes after Mike picked me up at the Nairobi airport, I knew our team had grown by one more. Mike had spent 12 years in the Kenyan army and had been a U.N. peacekeeper in Kosovo. Then he traded in his white peacekeeper’s helmet for a white tour van and now specializes in driving for NGOs and nonprofits. On the way to the Aberdares, I showed him the spot where I had the collision with the motorcycle, and he shook his head when I told him how fast my driver had been going. The government was still repaving the highway from Nyeri to the turn to school, but they hadn’t gotten to that stretch. We were both guessing whether the school or the road would be finished first. It was groundbreaking day at the school, and workers were everywhere. Greg had ridden to Mahiga on his new motorcycle, and he was running from one work site to the other when he saw me getting out of the van. “Welcome to Mahiga Hope High School!” he told me, waving to the cleared land where the school would soon stand. In Africa, a dream or a vision can serve you equally well. The RainWater Court would occupy the highest part of the land, and its soaring roof would be visible for miles around. Long string lines stretched between survey stakes to indicate the outer foundation trenches of the court. “I can’t get over how big it is!” Greg told me. “It’s one thing to see it in the drawings, but...” His voice trailed off. He couldn’t put it into words. There were 40 workers on the site to excavate the trenches. They had walked from miles around, bringing shovels and picks, all of which had handles about half the length of similar tools in the States. The workers huddled with a foreman, who laid out the pay for the amount of work to be done. The trenches were marked with chalk into sections that were ten feet long and two feet wide (and would soon be four feet deep). It didn’t matter if it took you five hours or ten, dig out your 80 cubic feet of dirt, make the walls straight and the bottom flat, and you would earn $4. The workers grumbled, and the offer soon was up to $6. All 40 men nodded in approval, picked up their tools, and chose one of the sections. There was no starter’s whistle, but somehow they all managed to raise their picks and begin digging at the same time.


Just down the hill, another crew was pouring the foundation slab of the classroom building. The deep perimeter trenches had already been dug, and concrete and steel had been laid in the bottom of the trenches. The building was on a slope and the carpenters were still building wood forms for concrete on one end as the main crew prepared to start mixing and pouring a thousand wheelbarrows full of concrete. Concrete is made from a mix of powdered Portland cement, gravel, sand, and water. For a big slab in the States, a line of concrete trucks would have been parked on the road, and there might also be a pump truck that would pump the stuff from the trucks to the foundation. There are no concrete plants, trucks, or pump units in rural Kenya. We didn’t even have a mixer. In a land where labor is cheap and many people need jobs, there are advantages to doing things by hand. Near the foundation site was a stack of gravel, 2 feet high and 20 feet across. Tons of sand was already mixed in with the gravel, and 80-pound bags of Portland cement were scattered on the pile like a checkerboard. Nearby was a stone water tank the crew had built for this day. As a siphon hose carried the water from the tank to the pile, the men took their positions. Unlike the digging team, who were mostly locals, this was a professional concrete crew from Nairobi, and they had traveled much of the night to get an early start. Standing on the edge of the pile, three guys with shovels cracked open the first cement bags while another held the hose and soaked the Portland, sand and rocks at the edge of the pile. The top shovelers dug furiously, getting a rough mix of the ingredients before pushing them down the edge to two guys on the ground level, who gave it a thorough mixing then pushed it to a pair of workers who shoveled the mixed concrete into a wheelbarrow. As soon as the full wheelbarrow had been carted away, and empty one took its place. The wheelbarrows of concrete—weighing almost a hundred pounds, which I discovered when I took a shift and could barely lift one—were rolled up an inclined plank to the elevated slab and dumped in the far corner, where another team was leveling, filling, and troweling. Working furiously for an hour, the crew finished the first 14 feet of a 160-foot-long slab. I had never seen anyone work so hard or so fast, but some quick calculations showed me why. Even at this pace, it would take until dark to finish the job.

WHEN I WALKED BACK TO THE COURT FOUNDATION to check progress there, instead of furious work, I found all 40 of the crew sitting under a tree in the shade. “What’s up?” I asked Greg. 82

“They’re on strike,” he told me. “The foreman screwed up. He wasn’t supposed to pay them $6. When they heard their pay was being cut, they walked out.” That was the second blow of the day for Greg. When he had done the preliminary court designs during the fall school term, three of the boys in the first high school class had shared in the work. When he revealed his final renderings of the building, a closeup photo of the three smiling boys in the foreground gave it a joyful reality. But one of those boys wasn’t really interested in school. He screwed around, didn’t pay attention, missed class, got into trouble. The school put him on probation, and when he screwed up again, he dropped out of school before he finished the ninth grade. When the crew had first started digging, Greg pointed out the young man to me as he worked. “Classic story,” said Greg. “He dropped out of school, and instead of playing basketball on the court, he’s digging the ditch.” Only now, he wasn’t even digging the ditch.

THE DIGGING STOPPED FOR MORE THAN AN HOUR until Bosco, the owner of Boslika Construction, arrived at the site and negotiated a deal. His foreman had made the mistake, so Bosco agreed to pay the extra for today only. “Tomorrow, we go back to the standard rate,” he decreed. The crew shrugged and climbed back in the trenches. They had held on to the extra two dollars and didn’t feel they had been hoodwinked. Some worked faster than others, but most took eight hours to dig their respective sections. The site had more than four feet of slope from the highest corner to the lowest, so that meant some areas would have to be dug four feet deeper. That was more work for the next day. And after that would be more work again. Good jobs in the area are hard to find, and we were now the biggest employer for miles around. When I look back over the entire construction cycle, I take satisfaction in knowing that many of those who started the job on day one proved themselves to be hard workers and good learners who stayed on Bosco’s payroll until the end. Within months, they would acquire new construction skills working with concrete, stone, and steel. We often receive nice offers from people in the States who want to help build schools, but if you’re not already a construction professional, your time at a Kenyan school would probably be better spent tutoring kids, coaching soccer, teaching music and art, or reading books to preschoolers. Your time and knowledge could be an incredible gift for these kids.


THE START OF A NEW CALENDAR ALSO MEANS A new school year, and when our first group moved up to the tenth grade in January 2010, 25 new students took their places in the ninth. The joint campus now had almost 500 students. That included the preschool, where 50 students were all sharing one classroom with a dirt-floor and one very busy teacher. I looked at the decaying building and realized the little kids needed a new facility as much as the big ones, so I asked Teacher Tabby what she needed most. “Another classroom and a second teacher,” she told me. “One class for 4-year-olds, and one for the 5s.” Nike had donated athletic uniforms for the high-schoolers, and Crocs Shoes had sent a pallet of kid-sized Crocs to us in Austin. The little kids had ragged shoes that had been worn out by older siblings. For the groundbreaking day, I brought 50 pairs of Crocs in my suitcases and asked the high-schoolers to help us fit the preschoolers with new shoes. Some pairs had Disney logos with Cinderella and Mickey Mouse. Seeing a patient little boy getting fit with a pink pair, I walked over with a couple of other options and asked if he wanted to switch. But his smile was wide as he focused intensely on his new shoes and wiggled them around. Pink wasn’t a problem for him. He had new shoes! Soon all 50 of the little ones were chasing a ball across the field in their bright new Crocs. I went out to film them—my leg still wasn’t healed enough to run—and when I zoomed in with my camera I realized they were playing soccer with one of the new basketballs I brought. Whatever works.

BACK AT THE CLASSROOM BUILDING, THE STACK OF gravel, sand, and cement grew smaller and smaller, and the area of poured concrete grew larger. The crew was fueled by a cook who served tea and mukimo (a Kenyan staple of boiled potatoes and corn). It wasn’t close to Christmas, but she wore a red Santa cap and worked just as hard as the men. By 6 p.m., as dusk settled in, Greg and I marveled at the big rain clouds on the Aberdares to the west and Mount Kenya to the east and for once were grateful for the lack of rain. The foundation trenches at the RainWater Court were deep and straight, straighter than I would have thought could be dug by hand. Now we could see where the court and baskets would stand, the stage and changing rooms, and the mechanical room to hold the water systems. Greg was right. It looked big. 84

At the classroom building, the concrete guys were cleaning up their tools and loading their vans for a drive back to Nairobi and some other big job tomorrow. I never thought they would finish the job in a day, but I tested the newly poured slab, and found it already able to support me. I walked out on the slab, then I realized that I was standing in the middle of what would soon be a library full of books. We had asked folks back home to donate one book each to the new library through our Thousand Books for Hope campaign. We wanted their favorite book or one that had special meaning to them and had asked them to write their names and a personal note inside the front cover. The response had been fantastic, but we hadn’t negotiated the customs and shipping, so I brought the book I was donating with me. THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND tells the amazing story of William Kamkwamba, a kid from Malawi, in Southern Africa, who couldn’t afford to go to high school. Instead, William had spent his time in the tiny local library, where he read books on electricity and physics, and had come up with the idea of building a windmill and connecting it to a bicycle generator to make light so that he could read at night. William’s first windmill was like a miracle to his remote village, so he built a bigger one that would provide more electricity and more lights and could charge his neighbors’ cell phones. My copy of THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND had been given to me by William Kamkwamba and his co-author, Bryan Mealor. The book had been an inspiration for me, and I hoped it would be an inspiration for the students at Mahiga as well. Inside the front cover, I wrote, “This is the story of a boy who found knowledge in a library and was able to bring light and hope to his hometown—Turk Pipkin, Austin, Texas.” I had planned to visit William’s hometown in Malawi and film his windmills, but when I broke my leg I had to cancel the trip. One year later, William’s story had come to Mahiga as the beginning of a library. I thought that was pretty cool.


C H A P T E R 17

Feed the Peace

THE NOBELITY PROJECT HAD BEEN FOUNDED TO educate and inspire. Our goals were to use our films and the insights of great thinkers to shed a little light on global issues. Following the advice of Jody Williams and others, we quickly expanded that mission to include the critical step of taking action ourselves. Our films were seen at festivals, in theaters, on television, and on airplanes in several countries around the world. We had expanded that outreach through the Nobelity in Schools program, which put our short films and our features into


classrooms, engaging young people with the big issues that were going to shape their futures. In six years, we had made two features, which played a lot of festivals, and had modest theatrical distribution but good DVD releases. We also had partner projects in Ecuador, Morocco, Ethiopia, India, and Kenya. And now we were building a high school. Funding it all was a constant challenge. Screenings and DVD sales provide one of the nonprofit’s revenue streams, but not nearly enough to underwrite the education program and the partner projects and continue to make films about children’s rights and global issues. To meet those budgets, we needed to pull a rabbit out of our hat—which turned out to be a cowboy hat. If you’re willing to travel as much as Willie Nelson, you can see him perform at nearly 200 venues a year. You can spring for front row seats at The Hollywood Bowl or Radio City Music Hall and every show between, and you’ll hear lots of great music. But you won’t get to do what so many his fans would truly love to do. Have dinner with Willie. Christy had worked with Willie for years on his Cowboy TV Network and on music and film projects. I had made a few fun movies with him, and we played even more golf than chess. When it comes to friends, they don’t come any better than Willie. So Christy asked him if we could hold a “Dinner with Willie” fundraiser. Willie promised to stay at the dinner for an hour and ended up staying three. Twenty of us had a great evening with steaks and wine, funny jokes, and a roundtable talk about the environment, sustainability, politics and more. Our substantial fundraising total went up a good bit more when Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse picked up the tab for the dinner.

A YEAR LATER, WE TRIED TO THINK OF ANOTHER person who could generate the same excitement and realized that it would take almost every other Texas celeb put together to equal one Willie. So that’s what we did. We created an annual event—The Artists and Filmmakers Dinner—with 40 tables hosted by 40 great Texas musicians, filmmakers, and writers. We debuted the big bash in 2008 with our local Nobelist, Steven Weinberg, along with Lance Armstrong, Owen Wilson, and a host of other Texas greats. Oh, yeah, Willie was there too. Maybe it’s an Austin thing, but somehow the famous and the not so famous who paid to hang out with them all seemed to merge into one big group.


At one point, I looked over and the great Texas singer songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore was huddled with actor Owen Wilson. They talked for a long time, and then Jimmie Dale came over to me and said, “What a great guy! What’s his name?”

BY MARCH 2010, THE event had come full circle and was honoring Willie for his work on many fronts for a more peaceful and equitable world. When I filmed with Willie for One Peace at a Time, he reached back into his own Cherokee Indian heritage and told me a story about an old Indian who’s teaching his grandson. “There are two wolves that fight inside each of us. One wolf feeds on hate and envy and war, and the other feeds on love and compassion and peace.” “Which one wins?” the boy asks. “The one you feed,” Willie answered. “And that means?” I asked. “We have to feed the peace,” said Willie. “Feed the peace.” Now we were honoring Willie with the Feed the Peace Award. Standing onstage in front of hundreds of supporters and Willie fans, Christy handed Willie his award—a beautiful ceramic platter made by an Austin artist that read “Feed the Peace”—then we invited Nathan, Elise, and Sofie Kunik, otherwise known as the Kunik Triplets, to join us onstage. The younger siblings of Julian Kunik, the triplets presented us with a check for the funds they had raised through their own Mitzvah project. Their goal had been to top their big brother’s total of $5,000. Having done that and more, the triplets presented us with an over-sized check for $10,000. “I may be the smallest 13-year-old you’ve ever seen,” Elise Kunik told the crowd, “but I know I can make the biggest change. We raised enough money to build a new kitchen at Mahiga because, come on, who can learn on an empty stomach?” Rising as one, the crowd gave the kids a standing ovation that was even longer than the one Willie had received. Ten grand for a new kitchen was just the start of an amazing five minutes of fundraising. A few weeks earlier a man from Louisiana called me and said he was sick and had an uncertain prognosis. While he was still on this side of the grass, he wanted to have dinner with Willie Nelson. Mickey Bice bought Willie’s table at the dinner and contributed an additional $20,000 to build the chemistry lab at Mahiga. During the dinner, he also asked his girlfriend, Elizabeth, to marry him. “Pass me the ring,” Willie told him, “and I’ll hand it to her.” Mickey Bice and Willie have both got style. 88

As the Kunik Triplets left the stage, Willie thanked Mickey for his donation by signing a Gibson guitar to him. I was holding two more guitars and said Willie would sign them for whomever raised their hand to fund the other science labs. That took 30 seconds. The dining hall budget was split between two donors who each got a signed mandolin. The new preschool was split four ways, and they each got ukuleles, also signed by Willie. It was fabulous fun for the whole crowd, and in five minutes, we raised $80,000 for Mahiga. Fundraising is a lot easier if it’s fun, entertaining and exciting. A little celebrity power doesn’t hurt. But what we experienced that evening was something more. Inspired by the Kunik Triplets, by Mickey Bice, and by the images of the kids of Mahiga, our group became the angels of Mahiga Hope High School. Perhaps they saw what I have witnessed over and over again in people who are connected to the world around them. Our lives count for little without sharing with others. If you sometimes have the feeling that something is missing from your life, I urge you to look at the way Willie and so many other people who are deeply loved lead their lives, and to consider the words I heard from Desmond Tutu. “I need you to be you in order for me to be me,” Tutu told me. “We are all one family. The glory of man is in the way we interact with each other.”


C H A P T E R 18

Ground Shaking

THE MORNING AFTER THE ARTISTS AND FILMMAKERS Dinner, I was boarding an American Airlines flight and could hardly wait to get to Mahiga. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to Kenya. I was headed to Haiti. Two months earlier, Haiti had been struck by a catastrophic 9.0 earthquake. The quake lasted just 35 seconds, but hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were left homeless. Architecture for Humanity has mounted reconstruction campaigns at the site of disasters around the world. Cameron Sinclair says they are not the first responders to 90

arrive, but they are the often last to leave. By late March, AfH had a full team on the ground in Port-au-Prince that was doing structural inspections of damaged schools and devising a long-term plan on how they could best aid reconstruction. I was going to document the team’s work and search for locations and partner communities for school construction. The city was in crisis mode and, just as noticeably, in mourning. Two hundred thousand Haitians had died. The normally energetic streets where you would expect to hear music from every car and doorway were both chaotic and silent. There were shortages of everything, especially fuel. Architecture for Humanity had a vehicle, but our fuel was running low and we couldn’t find more diesel. Desperate to keep on mission, I gave our driver $200 and asked him to find fuel on the black market. An hour later he returned and said he had turned down a guy who offered to sell him two gallons ... for $200. We couldn’t inspect schools without a vehicle, so when we ran into Sean Penn, who was running a huge tent city for 10,000 dislocated Haitians, Cameron mentioned that I had brought a bottle of Patron Tequila from the duty-free store in Florida. “Find us ten gallons of diesel,” Cam told Sean, “and the Patron is yours.” Sean looked like he had been working 24 hours a day, and I’m sure his team would have loved a bottle of great tequila. But a couple of hours later, he called back to say he couldn’t find any fuel either. World Food Program vehicles were still moving around Port-au-Prince, so I sent an email to Charles Vincent, the head of the program in Switzerland. WFP had recently shown One Peace at a Time at its film festival in Geneva, and we had cut a fundraising video for the program as well. Charles emailed back to say the U.S. Army camp at the airport had diesel and we should tell them we were on the authorized vehicle list. With our last remaining fuel, we drove to the airport and found a checkpoint staffed by Haitian military. We could see the fuel depot from the gate, but the guard had a list of license plates and ours wasn’t on it. Eric Cesal, the country director for Architecture for Humanity, tapped our driver on the shoulder and said, “Drive on past.” “They have guns,” the driver whispered. “Drive on,” said Eric. “They won’t shoot us.” We drove onto the base, waiting for the sound of gunfire. At a portable building office, we convinced the American lieutenant in charge of the depot that our school mission was worthy of a few gallons. At the giant diesel tank, the soldier in charge was in heat distress from the humidity and 100-degree temps and was too tired to even stand. So we simply filled up. Thanks, Uncle Sam.


DAN SHINE HAD ALSO COME FROM AUSTIN, AND the Three Monkeys talked long and hard about the way to have the best impact. The more difficult the situation we looked at, the more appropriate our moniker seemed. It’s impossible not to feel a little like a monkey when you’re looking at circumstances as dire as in Haiti. To get things done over the long term, you sometimes have to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to immediate and sometimes heartbreaking concerns that are right in front of you. At the Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague Secondary School, where many of the country’s business and political leaders received their education, nearly every building was destroyed or critically damaged. We were greeted by Brother Joseph Bellanger, who was in the difficult position of being the headmaster of magnificent ruins and a large homeless population that was camped in a thousand tents on almost every square foot of the school grounds. Brother Joseph took us into the ruins of the Administration Building, where he had been when the quake started. We weren’t supposed to be inside. Giant cracks ran like spider webs through the remaining walls and ceilings, and a small aftershock could have dropped the whole thing. The floor was littered with broken cinderblocks that had fallen from the structural headers. “Many of the ‘crush’ injuries that resulted in leg and arm amputations were from falling cinderblocks built into support door lintels with too little rebar and concrete,” explained Eric Cesal. Many people had followed quake readiness instructions and huddled under the door headers, which then collapsed on them. Outside had been safer. My general survey of the city told me that one out of every two buildings had collapsed completely. Often they were side by side, one collapsed and one standing. Some of the difference may have been luck, but faulty construction techniques were a bigger factor. We were about to build a two-story stone structure in Kenya, and I was riding the ultimate learning curve. Between school tours, we stopped to speak with an amazing bundle of brains, love, and energy known as Father Rick Frechette. The director of St. Damien Hospital, which had mostly endured the quake and was already under way on major expansions, Father Rick seemed to be working miracles, particularly considering the acute shortage of building materials. As our group moved ahead with Father Rick to tour another ward, I stayed behind with a girl who was waiting to have a prosthesis fit on the stump of her leg. She asked me to take her picture, and when I showed it to her, she smiled and looked almost like a different person. I told her to keep smiling and took another photo. When she looked at that one, she said I could take a picture of her leg if I wanted to. 92

“I want to know what I look like,” she told me. Looking for my group, I entered a ward where a young American woman was leaning over a hospital bed toward a boy of 3 or 4, who was smiling up at her. The boy’s stomach and limbs were severely swollen, but she had a toy above his head and was singing a little song for him. He looked radiantly happy. After a moment, the woman glanced up and I recognized her, the actress Olivia Wilde, who has an extraordinary commitment to the kids of Haiti. Olivia smiled at me, and I got a small dose of why that boy seemed so happy in her company. I have developed a low tolerance for people who complain about Hollywood stars who dedicate their time, money and energy to help people in need. It’s easy to say that someone like Sean Penn or Bono is self-promoting but is particularly hypocritical if you haven’t stepped up and done your share for others. In Haiti, where much of the government function had been wiped out by the quake, groups like APJ (Artists for Peace and Justice) and Penn’s J/P HRO (Justice and Peace Haiti Relief Organization) were playing a substantial role in organizing and operating camps for tens of thousands of homeless people. They provided food, water, and medical care while building more permanent camps. I haven’t built a hospital in Haiti or spent 20 years fighting for African debt relief, but I do know that once you see children in desperate need of the basic necessities of life—or once you learn about the true nature of the world and the 2 billion people who struggle daily just to survive—you can never unlearn it. As I have connected with people who are less fortunate than I and done whatever bit I could to make a difference, I have discovered that I get as much out of that exchange as the person I have helped. And I think that is a fairly universal experience. Whether you are a big star or just have a small fire burning inside you, if you want to make a difference in the world, you have to choose your battles and your partners wisely. The Nobelity Project had raised funds to build a small school or classrooms in Haiti. I was particularly taken with the remote Sodo, or Saut d’Eau, area in the mountains of Port-au-Prince, where families fleeing the chaos and destruction of the capital had swelled the population of their home villages. Their children had also dramatically increased the number of students in those isolated rural schools, with almost every kid attending classes under tarps or temporary roofs made of straw. At the first school we came to, the community had organized temporary classrooms, a principal, teachers, and a few textbooks for 200 students. The youngest of those were wearing bright red jumpers hand-stitched with their names, and I found myself falling for bright-eyed Clifidus, smiling Louis Charles, and the lovely little girls Helena and Merci.


Echoing the title story of Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s inspiring book about Dr. Paul Farmer, one of those schools was a very long hike from the nearest road. As we climbed steep hills only to discover another steep hill ahead of us, Eric Cesal—despite being young and strong—was overcome by heat and we made the decision to leave him with water and someone to care for him as we proceeded further up the mountains of Haiti. To build a school at the end of that trail, every board and bag of cement, every roof panel and rainwater gutter would have to be carried up the trail by a crew or by donkeys. At the end of the trail, we came to a school, where 250 kids were huddled under straw roofs, copying lessons in French and English from homemade blackboards. My desire to “just do it” soon came up against additional barriers that were both frustrating and understandable. Permission to begin building schools was on an indefinite hold while what remained of the Haitian government worked to come to grips with what had gone wrong in public buildings and how they could prevent that catastrophe from happening again. The fuel shortage we witnessed was indicative of extreme shortages of every commodity in Haiti, especially building materials. Construction estimates during the weeks that followed my trip showed that classrooms similar to what we were building in Kenya for $10,000 would cost three times that amount in Haiti. And that’s assuming we could negotiate the necessary permissions to deem our structure earthquake-proof. In order to have the most impact in Haiti without losing focus on the high school in Kenya, we decided to throw in our lot with Architecture for Humanity. Just as they had helped us by funding the RainWater Court in an area where we had great partners, we added the funds we raised for Haiti to Architecture for Humanity’s school efforts there. Three years later, Architecture for Humanity’s Rebuilding Center is a valuable resource that coordinates and collaborates with local building professionals, schools, and other organizations as a one-stop shop for design and construction services, workforce training, and reconstruction bid and tender opportunities. From Port-au-Prince to Jacmel, Architecture for Humanity has eight new schools completed or under construction. I was happy the Nobelity Project was able to support the work, but I still think of the girl who lost her leg and wonder how she’s getting along, about Father Rick and the thousands of children under his care at St. Damien’s Hospital, and about the open-air schools of Saut-d’Eau and the kids with their names written on their red jumpers. How are you doing, Louis Charles Medina, Helena, and Merci? How are you doing, Clifidus? I am thinking of you. I want to come back and see you again, now that you 94

are a little older and, I hope, a little better fed. In my mind, I can see the porters carrying a school, piece by piece, up the long mountain trail so that we can build you a proper school.


C H A P T E R 19


Despite our fundraising successes in Austin and elsewhere, the high school budget was stretched in all directions. With the start of the new year, ninth grade/Form 1 students had moved up to Form 2, and Principal Felix Kimani had enrolled a larger group of new Form 1 students. In less than a year we had grown from 9 high school students to 60, all attending class in two crumbling primary school classrooms, and all of them needing textbooks, desks, chairs and more.


Felix had applied for admittance into the Kieni West Education District, but a good deal of paperwork and approvals were required and our ace in the hole, Agnes Munuhe, had been transferred to a different district. “I’ll still be available to help you,” Agnes had reassured me. But I also knew that the key decision to hire a full-time high school principal and pay our teachers was now up to a stranger who had never visited Mahiga. To save a round-trip airfare, I decided not to travel to Kenya until July, when Christy would accompany me and finally meet Joseph Mutongu, Felix Kimani, and the many kids she had seen in ten thousand pictures. That may sound like an exaggeration, but every trip to Kenya I shot 15 to 20 hours of video and around three thousand photos. Dealing with that mass of media was a constant challenge, and we were now beginning a full-time editing schedule on our film about the high school. I was spending several hours a day with our editors, Molly Conway and Matt Naylor, looking at footage and rough cuts. I was also trying to write edit notes for other parts of the movie so they wouldn’t have to wait on me. When I wasn’t sure how a particular segment would work, Molly or Matt usually figured it out. Three months was a long time to be away during a critical construction phase, especially when we were behind schedule. The biggest problem was weather. This year, the Long Rains started early and didn’t stop. The rain fell for weeks, turning the unpaved road to the school into an impassible mud hole 20 feet wide by 3 miles long. Trucks with building materials couldn’t get to the site, and construction stopped completely. Mutongu and Gerald Maina, the head of the school committee, petitioned the Minister of Parliament for the area to send the CDF grader and tons of rock to repair the road. The CDF, or Community Development Fund, is parceled to every MP to support projects in their communities. The theory is that the MP has the local contacts and knows what needs to be done. There’s another theory that judicious use of the CDF is the best way to get reelected. In any event, the CDF grader was committed elsewhere and there were no government funds for the marum, or crushed rock. I asked Mutongu how much rock we needed and what it would cost. The worst section of the road was the inclined stretch just before the high school entrance. That stretch needed 40 dump trucks of rock and a road-grader and operator, and it would have cost thousands of dollars to pay a professional road crew to do the work. I thought back to the Work for Food programs I had seen in Ethiopia and asked if the road paving could be done by volunteers on a community workday.


“If the community can bring tools and spread rock for a day,” I told Mutongu, “the Nobelity Project will pay for the rock and we’ll buy food for the school cooks to feed everyone.” It almost broke my heart to not be there. Greg and Mutongu both sent photos of men and women, some with babies strapped on their backs, as they spread 40 dump trucks of rock on the roads. I was beginning to wonder if the name Mahiga, which means rock in Kikuyu, referred to the land or the people. In one day, the parents’ work rescued our stalled schedule, and the very next day, materials began to arrive and construction began again. The classroom walls were going up in April and May, but the RainWater Court was not. The missing engineer still hadn’t turned up. Greg had looked everywhere and considered every possibility. Our leading theories were that he had run off with a girlfriend and was hiding from his wife, or that he was on the lam from some unpaid debt. This was all conjecture, though. He was missing, and we didn’t know why. Without his final signature on the engineering studies, court construction couldn’t proceed. Finally Greg gave up and began to search for another engineer in Nairobi. I was feeling pretty good about things in May, when I got what Christy and I would soon begin to refer to as “The Call.” This was the call I had hoped never to receive. I’m sure Greg’s parents in Minnesota felt even more strongly about that. After Greg had lived a few months at Tickles Hotel, Gerald Maina had learned that the main Catholic Church in Mweiga had an empty apartment. Gerald and Greg met with the Monsignor, and soon Greg was living 20 miles closer in what had once been the priest’s residence. He began to take his meals with the priests, and his rent was a negotiable barter situation. One month he paid his room and board in chickens. But not just any chickens. They had to be special laying hens from, of all places, Gatunda, the place where he had gone searching for the missing engineer. All was going well at the church, and Greg quickly became a recognizable member of the community. He shopped at the open-air market and stopped for beer at the local bar. The adults called him Maina, a common Kikuyu name, but the kids all called him by the nick-name Maish. Like most places with extreme poverty, Kenya has ongoing problems with gangs and robbers. Late one evening, when Greg was in his rooms at the church, he heard shouts of alarm outside in the courtyard. Moving to his front door, he closed the iron bars he called “the riot gate,” picked up a piece of wood for a club, and retreated to the corner of his room to await whatever came through the door.


Three men were attempting to rob the church. When the night watchman saw them, he shouted an alarm then tried to run away. When he fell, they set upon him with a billy club and a machete. Once inside the church buildings, the robbers found the cook and attacked him as well. Greg heard shouts and screaming but could not see what was happening. He didn’t know how many attackers there were or if they had guns. “It’s not like back home,” Greg told me later as he recounted the attack. “You can’t call 9-1-1. There’s no one coming.” We got the call at the same time as Architecture for Humanity. Greg was not physically injured in the attack, but it was unclear whether his friends at the church were going to survive. We conferred with the Architecture for Humanity staff, particularly Michael Jones, who was in charge of the project and had visited the school twice. Michael and I were both worried about Greg’s safety, but we were also concerned that he would pack it up and come home. He had been in Kenya for eight months, was making slow progress on the court, and was clearly shook up by the robbery. Until a decision could be made, Architecture for Humanity moved Greg to a secure hotel for some rest. Christy and I consulted with The Nobelity Project’s Board of Directors, and everyone had the same response. The best thing was for me to buy a ticket and get to Kenya as fast as I could.


C H A P T E R 20

The Big Pour

I ARRIVED IN KENYA ON MAY 29, 2010, AND WAS happy to see Mike the Bush Driver and Greg waiting for me at the airport. Greg had come to Nairobi to get a break after the attack, and I could hardly believe my eyes. The 200-pound North Dakota bear looked like he had lost 40 pounds. “You want the belt report?� Greg asked when I said he looked skinny. Pulling up his shirt, he showed me the long tongue of his belt, more than a foot of it extending past the buckle, with a long row of homemade notches.


“This was me when I went to India,” he said, pointing to the holes he added as he dropped the pounds. “This was me when I came to Kenya. And this is me now.” Greg was with our friend Isaac Mugumbule, an AfH design fellow from Uganda who was building FIFA’s Football for Hope project and the new SIDAREC community center, both in Nairobi. Ten months earlier, Cameron and I had made a wager on whether Mahiga or SIDAREC would be built first. We still weren’t sure who was winning, which was okay, because we also couldn’t remember what we had wagered. The next morning Mike drove us to the school, and we noted that the highway paving crew had finished working on the stretch where I had my accident. Greg had also been in an accident on that road. He was traveling in a matatu, a shared van that is the main form of public transportation in Kenya. Privately owned matatus run almost everywhere, with a sign indicating their destination. Need a ride? You stand by the road and flag one down, then climb in with 13 other passengers and all their belongings. It’s not a great ride, but it’s cheap and surprisingly fast. Greg was riding in a matutu that flipped over after a collision. No one was seriously hurt, but as he was crawling out, someone lifted his wallet, which is quick thinking for a pickpocket. The new pavement was getting close to Mweiga, making the drive safer and faster. As we drove from pavement onto an ungraded section, we passed one of the little Toyota pickups that are used all over Kenya to haul construction materials and other goods. Forty-foot sections of steel rebar had been bent in half and tied onto the roof and tailgate, and the ends of the rebar were dragging down the highway behind the truck. We laughed and figured the truck was going to Mahiga. Who else would be using so much steel this far from town? When we arrived, I was happy to see the classroom building was up to the second floor. But I hadn’t expected to see the school committee up there too. This was the first two-story structure in the community, and the parents and teachers wanted to understand what would hold up the second floor. Considering what I had seen in Haiti a few weeks earlier, that seemed like a wise question. OUR KENYAN ARCHITECTS, JOSEPH KAGIRI AND Julius Gichohi, were giving the committee a quick course in steel-reinforced concrete. When they were offered the job, Joseph and Julius volunteered to return half of their design fees to help fund construction, which knocked 3 percent off our over-all costs. That was a huge plus, but now we had a problem and it wasn’t with the school committee. We were about to pour the second floor platform, and the lower classrooms had dozens of temporary wooden poles holding up the forms for the concrete to be poured above. A group of us met in this maze of poles: Greg, Mutongu, Joseph and Julius, Kariuki (the owner of Minorah Contractors), the engineer, and me. 101

Above us, I could hear the parents and teachers walking on the plywood forms, shifting the support poles slightly as they moved around. When Julius did the original BQ for the classroom building, he estimated the amount of steel rebar needed for the second floor before the engineering evaluation was done. When the engineer came back with his quantities, Julius neglected to recalculate the BQ. Now we were significantly over budget on the amount of steel we were using. “Julius calculated two steel bars for each header,” Joseph Kagiri explained. Two was the same number of bars that had been in all the collapsed headers I had seen in Haiti. “Instead of two,” Joseph concluded, “the engineer recommended seven.” Greg laughed and shook his head. Seven steel rebars instead of two in every header was a pretty big discrepancy. “In shillings,” I asked, “how much of an increase are we talking about?” The answer? “250,000 shillings. About $3,000.” I could think of only one thing to say. “Bummer.” If we were short on steel, I thought to myself, we could be short on other areas as well—windows, doors, roof panels. As thorough as we tried to be, we were coming up short on details. As a budget safeguard, Gerald Maina, the head of the school committee, was documenting the actual quantities used and was counting every bar of steel and bag of cement that came to the school. Gerald was our lifeline. His family lived on their small farm near the school, and Gerald spent dawn until dark looking after every little construction detail. With Mutongu overseeing the big picture and Gerald overseeing the details, I still felt like we were in good hands.

A FEW DAYS LATER, WE WERE READY FOR THE BIG second floor pour. With twice as much concrete to mix this time, Kariuki had added a big power mixer and a motorized concrete hoist. The hoist was mounted on the upper floor, with a cantilevered arm that extended past the edge of the building so the bucket could go up and down. All day long the ground crew kept at their assigned jobs. Four teams from various angles dumped five-gallon buckets of sand, Portland, gravel and water into the mixer. The face of the guy carrying Portland cement was dusted as white as mine. We wouldn’t pass an OSHA safety inspection, but we had been accident-free since the beginning of construction.


When the batch was ready, the mixer was swung around and dumped onto the ground, where a crew shoveled 700 pounds of concrete into the lift bucket that powered it to the second floor and the usual wheel-barrow team. I never ceased to marvel at the organized-teamwork nature of the construction process, which seemed like a mirror for the parent’s involvement in the school. Had I just been lucky to stumble into this community, or would it be similar to this across rural Kenya or Africa as a whole? The answer, I realized, was both. While the crew worked through the long day, two women from the Kieni West Education District came to inspect the high school. Form 1 and 2 classes were being held in the primary school’s oldest building. Uneven dirt floors, rotten walls, and faded blackboards—it didn’t look too impressive. Felix took the ladies to the RainWater Court, where the unpoured foundation was half filled with the stacked rocks, or “hard core,” that would underlay the actual concrete court sometime after Greg found a new engineer. I saw Felix wave his hand in the air to indicate where the tall roof would be. The ladies looked up at the sky, then turned away. We called this place Mahiga Hope High School, but so far it was mostly a construction site that was behind schedule and over budget. With two teachers, a principal pulling double duty, and 60 boys and girls doing their best to learn under trying circumstances, it was more hope than High School. Gerald, Mutongu, and I joined Felix and the ladies from the school district for a meeting that I felt would determine the future of everything we had worked for. Being over budget meant we might not be able to keep paying teacher’s salaries, underwriting school fees for orphans, and doing all the other things it took to operate the modest school. Most of the kids’ parents were paying tuition, or at least were trying to. But most of their accounts were in arrears. We needed Ann and Sister Helen of the education district to waive the minimum rule of 80 students and make our school official. When we were part of the district, the government would provide a principal and additional teachers. When we were part of the district, we would be real and it would be forever. I showed Ann and Sister Helen the renderings of what the final buildings would look like and talked to them about our plans for chemistry and physics labs, a school garden, and more. We had a lot of plans. Slowly but surely, the ladies warmed up. After an hour, we were talking about a minimum of 80 students as more of a guideline than a rule. I didn’t know that Felix had invited a representative of the local Catholic diocese to join us. And I had never met the young priest who came into the meeting at the most


crucial moment. But the church had been supportive, and we were happy to bring him up to date on the conversation. We didn’t get far. “Eighty students is not a guideline,” the priest said flatly. “It’s a rule and can’t be broken.” I looked around the room and saw the air deflate from our soaring balloon. “We’re trying to build a great school with this community,” I explained to the priest. “We’re almost there, and we really need the school district to be the third part of this partnership. Do you have another suggestion for us?” What the priest wanted was for us to scratch one of the buildings from our plan, then give the money to the church so it could underwrite tuition for additional students. “Additional students who won’t have a school to attend,” I told him. And I got up and walked out. Mutongu had never seen me this mad. Actually, I don’t think he had ever seen me any kind of mad. But now I was mad at the priest. Mad at Felix for inviting him to the meeting. Madder still for not warning us. It was pretty clear to me that the priest wanted credit—for himself or for the church—from all the families whose children would be attending a half-finished school on charity. This wasn’t a charity. It was a community joining together with people who cared— in our case, with hundreds of donors in the U.S.—to make something wonderful, something that so much of the world takes completely for granted. It wasn’t about me, Felix, Greg, or Mutongu, and it certainly wasn’t about one ambitious priest or a global church. It was about the parents and students of Mahiga. “Go back in there and try to fix it,” I begged Mutongu. “Find a way to make it right.”


C H A P T E R 21

Friends in Kenya

CONSIDERING THE WEEKS OF RAIN AND MUD, THE missing engineer and the attack, no one would have blamed Greg if he had given up and gone home. A better plan, I thought, would be a little rest and relaxation to recharge his batteries. While the second floor concrete was curing, my plan was to take him on a short vacation to see some of our friends’ community programs and some of Kenya’s natural wonders as well.


He had a better idea—reinforcements. Greg’s girlfriend, Christina Tapper, was already planning to come to Mahiga for the summer, but after the attack on the church, she did the same thing I did, and came sooner. Christina is also an architect, and she was stepping in to design the new preschool at Mahiga and to help organize the new library that would serve preschool through adult literacy. The younger kids were taken with Christina’s blond hair and big smile. And with her there, the number of inappropriate marriage proposals Greg received dropped off considerably. At the church in Mweiga, Greg gave us both a more detailed breakdown on the robbery, and I got the sense that the scare was fading or that he wanted to play down the danger he’d been in. He was a member of the community now and didn’t want one bad day to overshadow all the good ones. He had also searched again for a better and safer place to live, but in the end he decided to stay at the church with the priests and the staff, who had become his friends. Greg, Christina and I walked through the open-air Mweiga street market, where vendors set up their wares in wooden stalls and sell everything from used tennies to food staples. The woman running the vegetable stall called Greg by his Kikuyu nickname, Maina, gave Christina a hug, and jokingly called her Mrs. Maina. As we moved down the street, Greg said, “Watch out. It’s the crazy fruit lady.” At that instant a woman with wild hair looked up, and her eyes and arms opened wide when she saw Maina. I didn’t understand a word she said, but her laugh was loud and fabulous, a high-pitched cackle that lofted over the market. Stocked up on fruit, we drove north on the highway toward Nyahururu, a mountain town at 8,000 feet in elevation, and the site of Thompson Falls, which plunge 800 feet to a deep canyon below. Those magnificent falls have long been a major tourist attraction, but as Kenya has grown warmer and drier in the past decade, the flow over the falls has been significantly reduced. Tourist shops that used to thrive seem desperate as fewer tourists come there with every passing year. We were headed to the Rift Valley city of Nakuru, which sits close to the boundaries of Lake Nakuru National Park, home to millions of East African pink flamingos. Lake Nakuru is one of a string of Eastern Rift Valley lakes that stretches from Lake Natron in Tanzania to Most of those lakes, Nakuru included, are fed by underground hot springs that come up through cracks deep in the Earth, where two tectonic plates are slowing pulling Africa in half. Come back in a million years, and the Rift Valley will have sunk and an ocean will separate two continents.


In the meantime, the high salt and mineral content in the water feeds vast quantities of plankton, which are eaten by the flamingos. The birds are born white. It’s the minerals in their diet that turn them pink. I had first come here in 2005 while filming for Nobelity. At the time, the shallow edges of the lake were covered by four million flamingos, and the sound they made was as extraordinary as the sight of their bright wings slicing through the air as they flew past me. I have returned many times to Nakuru and have also visited other flamingo lakes in the chain of Rift Valley lakes. Over the years, the flamingo population has seemed to get smaller and smaller. Locals would tell me the birds had moved temporarily to Bogoria or south to Magadi. But when I went to those lakes, I didn’t find any large numbers of birds there either. The Nobelity Project had funded a tree-planting project at Lake Magadi, a hot and dry area south of Nairobi. When Hemingway came to Magadi in the 1930s, he said it was the scariest place he had ever been in Africa because the forests were so big and the grasslands so tall. There were literally tunnels through the grass that the animals and people traveled through, and he wrote that the lions could come at you from anywhere. Seventy years after Hemingway, I made a trip to Magadi and found nothing but bare ground. “We’ve lost most of our forest, which was cut down to make charcoal for cooking fuel in Nairobi,” Kenyan conservationist Adam Tuller told me. “With that is going our rainfall. With that is going our rivers, our lakes, and most of the people’s livelihoods.” On our way to Magadi, Tuller and I drove through 90 kilometers of deforested grasslands that were now mostly dirt. The wildlife we saw, primarily wildebeests and zebras, looked as if they were about to fall over from thirst and starvation. We stopped along the way and spoke with nomadic Maasai families who were heading north with their emaciated herds in search of grass. The men were carrying the calves who were too weak to walk. They had come from Tanzania and would have to climb the hills almost to Nairobi to find anything green, and that land would be fiercely defended by the people who lived there. There are many causes of that environmental destruction and growing desertification. For thousands of years, the Maasai people have depended on the grasslands of East Africa to support their lives, and livelihoods. Deforestation, overgrazing, and a rapidly growing population combined with global warming is robbing the area of critical links in the water chain. A few weeks after my trip to Magadi, Adam Tuller and a local Maasai chief, Peter Tingai, reported to me that the nomadic Maasai people I had seen had been forced to 107

sell what little remained of their herds. Their way of life was over, and many of them would have to either expand the number of people who were illegally cutting trees to make charcoal or move to the city and further swell the slums of Nairobi. Lake Magadi is also the site of a large mine that is one of the world’s largest suppliers of soda ash, a principal ingredient in making glass. A new plant at Magadi is ten times the size of the one that’s been in operation for decades. Because the soda ash forms the bottom of the lake, long levies have been built across the lakebed to hold back what little water there is. Giant bulldozers crisscross the now dry lakebed, mining the ancient minerals with little regard for the effects on the flamingos. We were expecting to see four million flamingos, but what greeted us had Adam Tuller in shock. “I’ve been coming to Magadi for almost 40 years,” he said, “and this is the first time I’ve seen no flamingos.” That evaluation turned out to be incorrect. On our second day of searching, we found one group of 40 birds. If you hear someone wonder about the links between personal action and the world at large, you can point out that throwing glass bottles away instead of recycling them is pretty much the same as wringing the neck of a pink flamingo. At some point, humankind may come to understand that the earth’s resources are limited, and that to guarantee the future of all species, including our own, we have to recycle and reuse everything. I hope we get to that understanding before it’s too late. The only bright spot of the trip with Adam Tuller were the small forests of trees that had been planted by local Maasai women. Our little bit of funding had resulted in large plots of fast-growing acacia trees that were already tall enough to shade the thick green grass that grew around them. Across the low fence that protected the new trees and grass, there was nothing but dirt and vast herds of goats. “This is a good demonstration of what can be done,” Tuller told me. “By eliminating overgrazing and by planting tree cover, you’re reversing desertification. The tree planting also creates employment for women in tribal areas where women have never had paying jobs. The trees remove carbon from the air and create fuel, which can be sold.” Lake Magadi is the most extreme example, but all the Rift Valley lakes have fallen dramatically in the past decade. The flamingos at Nakuru are a huge tourist destination and a major source of revenue to help fund Kenya’s system of national parks. In 2009 the lake went almost completely dry, and the public outcry brought quick action from the government to open up diverted streams so that they again flowed into the lake. In early 2011 Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita were named World


Heritage sites by UNESCO, and that attention is already adding critical protection for the flamingos. Mike drove Greg, Christina and me though the park at Nakuru. The flamingo population was smaller than on my first trips to the lake but large enough to still be an amazing sight and to give me hope for the future of the birds. We also took hundreds of photos of lions, cape buffalo, and a pair of rhinos that were mating, an impressive act that can go on for hours.

FARTHER SOUTH IN the rift valley, we came to the town of Mai Mahiu, where a program called Comfort the Children partners with the community to address problems that are endemic to much of Kenya. CTC was founded by Zane Wilemon of Austin and Jeremiah Kuria of Kenya, and their work is a thing of beauty and love. Disabled children in Kenya are a rare sight, not because they don’t exist but because birth defects are considered by many to be a curse. It’s not uncommon for fathers of disabled kids to abandon them, forcing mothers to leave the kids hidden at home while they work to support them. Many children with autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida, and other disabilities spend their lives in literal darkness. CTC brings those children into the light, gives them love and care, teaches them to care for themselves, and in some cases, teaches them to walk and talk. “Disability does not mean inability,” says Jeremiah Kuria about his Malaika Kids. Malaika is a Swahili word that means angels. While the kids are in school, their moms work in CTC’s commercial sewing program. Trained by the American Sewing Guild and gradually moving from old foottreadle machines to modern commercial-grade sewing machines, the Malaika Moms make school uniforms for the Kenyan market and canvas shopping bags for the American market. That work earns them a fair salary in an economy where skilled jobs for women are hard to find. One of the ways tourists can support economies in the areas they visit is to buy locally made arts and crafts. But shopkeepers’ asking prices in Kenya are often so far out of line that I don’t have the time or energy to even begin bargaining. CTC’s gift shop on the main highway to the Maasai Mara offers a rare tourist service—beautiful goods and reasonable, fixed prices. Almost every trip to Kenya, I stop to spend a little time with the Malaika Kids and to buy paper bead necklaces made at the shop by a young woman named Jehan. Crafted from glossy magazine pages, the necklaces are beautiful and eco-friendly. I’ve carried suitcases of them back to the States, where they continue to generate funds to pay for desks, chairs, and textbooks for the high school at Mahiga. 109

Born with spina bifida, Jehan is a hard-working artist who continues to battle enormous challenges. After problems with her hip became more severe in 2011, circulation issues necessitated the amputation of one leg. She now makes her beautiful bead jewelry at home, and I wear one of her necklaces with pride.

HAVING STARTED THIS JOURNEY IN NAIROBI, WE completed our circle of the Aberdare Mountains and came back to the capital to check on progress at SIDAREC, where Isaac Mugumbule had been facing hurdles of his own. It had taken months to replace the open sewer ditches in front of the center with buried pipe, and many tons of unstable “black cotton” soil had to be trucked out of the site and replaced with stable base materials. Those obstacles had finally been overcome, and the walls were going up for the early childhood development center and the Internet cafe and community radio station. Mukuru is one of the newest and most dense of Nairobi’s many slum communities. Many of the residents are Somali refugees or are of Somali heritage from the eastern border of Kenya. As the walls of SIDAREC went up, I saw that large areas of old tin shacks in surrounding parts of the slum recently had been bulldozed and were being replaced with multistory apartment buildings with electricity and sewer service. That is slow but steady progress that should be celebrated. The big question for Mukuru and all of Nairobi’s slums is, what will happen with the masses of recent Somali refugees who have fled the terrible drought and the crushing rule of Al Shabab? Hundreds of thousands of those desperate people are currently in the Kenyan Daadab refugee camps, and it seems unlikely that they can live there indefinitely. With the population of Nairobi now approaching four million, I wonder how the city can absorb more people lacking education and skills. In the central city of Nairobi, work had been under way for more than a year on an ambitious new road plan that looks as if it might improve the city’s notorious traffic jams. Negotiating numerous detours, Mike took Greg and me to an important meeting that was the low-key but triumphant highlight of our Kenya tour. After Greg’s long search for a new engineer to replace his missing man, we met with Mike Gumbi, a Kenyan-certified structural engineer who looked over Greg’s plans and specs and said he could do the final evaluation within a week. Like the community center at SIDAREC, the RainWater Court was back on track.


C H A P T E R 22


FOR FIVE YEARS, CHRISTY HAD SEEN KENYA through my eyes. When I was there, I called when there was business to discuss, but mostly I emailed stories of what I had seen and learned. When I came home, I brought countless photos and hours of video. She learned the names and faces of many students and knew a great deal about the challenges the staff faced. But she had never met any of them. Five years earlier, when I told her we were going to build a water system at a place she hadn’t heard of, she never questioned it. But when I said we were going to build a high school, she thought I was nuts. 111

“What do we know about building a high school?” she asked. But it was a rhetorical question. She was just considering what we would have to learn. I don’t know many men in the great lottery called love who got luckier than me. We are almost perfectly matched. I’m a foot and a half taller; Christy is a foot and a half smarter. We intended for her to come to Mahiga sooner, but life intervened. After the breast cancer diagnosis in 2000, Christy had undergone surgery that was radical enough for the doctor to look her in the eye and say, “The one thing we know is that you’ll never have cancer in that breast again.” There was something about the pronouncement that made me uneasy. When someone beats cancer, you often hear about five years being some sort of magic number: Get to five years, and you’re home free. But we learned the hard way that five years is an arbitrary number. You’re cancer-free when you don’t have cancer. Otherwise you’re not. In Christy’s case, it was nine years. We got the bad news in December 2009. Contrary to what the surgeon had told us, not only did she have cancer in the same breast, but the lumps they found were in her skin in a circle around the puncture site of her first needle biopsy. It now seemed likely the biopsy had spread cancerous cells along the path of the needle as it was removed. A second round of surgery in 2009 was followed by pathology reports showing she needed both radiation and chemo. In the next five months while she was undergoing treatment, we still managed to finish editing One Peace at a Time and have another sold-out world premiere at the Paramount Theatre. Christy tried a wig to cover her bald head but decided she had nothing to hide. Either way, she was beautiful. Not long after she finished chemo, we celebrated 25 years of marriage by getting married again, this time in the rose garden of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. We didn’t have permission to marry there; we just walked in and did it. Our eldest daughter, Katie, officiated, with vows that she had written for her parents. May you continue to walk beside each other in this life despite hardship, despite sickness, despite mistakes, despite danger. May these obstacles never drive a wedge in your love but instead let it be strengthened as you face the world together and lend each other bravery. May you know that each of you is beautiful but the other is more beautiful than yourself. May you clasp hands in mad adoration but know, that when you walk the world forced far apart, though no tree can grow in the other’s shadow, their 112

roots drink from the same water and form a web, intertwined, that is more complex and more beautiful than every line of every constellation in the sky. And then we kissed.

WHETHER IT WAS BEING AN INCREDIBLE MOTHER and guiding light for our girls or building a high school in Kenya, as far as I was concerned, it was all about Christy. I’m just a guy who gets things done. Christy is one of those amazing human beings who connects with people on a heart-to-heart level. In the case of the students and staff at Mahiga, she had made those connections from afar. Five years after I began singing the praises of Kenya and its people, Christy stepped out of the terminal at Jomo Kenyatta Airport and was welcomed by a hug from Mike Mutuku, a.k.a. Mike the Bush Driver. She was in good company. I had cashed in my frequent flyer miles so that Katie and her sister, Lily, could come with us. When we got to Mahiga, the primary school was just letting out and the students launched into their usual greeting to me. “Pipkin! Pipkin!” they called. When they saw the girls, they rushed to us in a big group, and there were smiles and laughter as everyone exchanged their names. It soon became clear that the Mahiga kids thought that the three of them, Katie and Lily and Christy, were all my daughters. Christy loves that story. The story I loved was the description in her blog of seeing the school for the first time. Rising over the old metal roofs of the Mahiga Primary School was the new two-story stone classroom building with workers just installing its beautiful green roof. I thought back to a day when we’d received two envelopes from donors—one with $5,000 to underwrite a classroom, one with $5 from a retired teacher. I looked at the two checks and read the notes, and couldn’t decide which one made me happier. Both meant the world to me at the time, and even more as I stood in front of the beautiful and very real stone building that will soon house the new high school.

WHILE I CAUGHT UP ON CONSTRUCTION PROGRESS, Christy jumped into a series of school meetings On countless details related to student sponsorships, the shortage of furniture and 113

textbooks (which we could never seem to get ahead of), school uniforms, and the never-ending conversation on how to receive official recognition by the education district. Felix Kimani had made the official application, but the only response we had gotten was, “Not yet.” Christy had also arranged for us to bring girls’ sanitation kits from the Nairobi offices of Huru International. Every day across Africa, lack of sanitary pads forces tens of thousands of girls to miss school. Huru makes a reusable washable system that solves that problem, and we hoped it would keep our girls’ attendance levels as high as the boys’. The new library was almost finished, and Christy was working with Christina Tapper to organize an additional thousand books we had purchased in Kenya through the National School library catalog. She and Christina were also planning the search for a capable librarian to help the students learn to love books. I actually should say, “learn to love books MORE,” as a book here can be a treasured possession. A year earlier, I was walking down the road when two girls ran up to me excitedly. They wanted to show me what one of the girls was carrying, a piece of a book. She had about twenty pages of what had once been an entire book, and she told me proudly that this part of a book belonged to her. I turned on my video camera and asked her to read to me. I didn’t recognize the story, but she read it beautifully, almost perfectly. When she got to the bottom of the page and continued without a pause on the next, I realized that she had read it so many times she’d memorized the text. At our home in Austin—which also serves as the office and storage space for the Nobelity Project—we now had a pallet of donated books from our Thousand Books for Hope campaign. Actually there were well over a thousand books, but we still hadn’t managed to sort out the shipping and customs, so most of them were still sitting there. On this trip we had taken advantage of generous international baggage allowances, and the four Pipkins had filled several suitcases with books and the usual load of donated basketballs, soccer balls and uniforms from Nike. I have an environmentalist’s aversion to cut flowers that are air-freighted all over the world. Kenya is dotted with giant greenhouse operations that grow flowers for the European market. Not only do those greenhouses use water that could be used to grow food, but it seems ludicrous to use jumbo jets to fly flowers that will be thrown away a few hours after they meet their first vase. Not wanting to use flowers at the Artists and Filmmakers Dinner, we created table centerpieces from globes, basketballs and soccer balls. They looked great at the event, and you would be surprised how many deflated soccer balls fit into a suitcase. 114

Christy had also brought her donation to the library, NOW WE ARE SIX, by A. A. Milne, the author of WINNIE THE POOH. I loved the inscription she wrote inside the front cover. This is the first book I remember my mother reading to me when I was a little girl. And it was the last book I read to her before she died. Some books last a lifetime. CHRISTY PIPKIN, Austin, Texas, USA.

PEOPLE BACK HOME OFTEN ASK WHY WE DO THIS work, or simply say, “Why these kids?” “Why not these kids,” Christy replies. “We can’t help every community in need, but with these kids we can make a real difference.” If you are willing to acknowledge it and accept it, the act of giving is also an act of receiving, an equal exchange. Both Christy and I get just as much from working with the community of Mahiga as they get from working with us. That basic life view is found in ancient religious writings as diverse as the Old Testament, the Tao te Ching, and the Bhagavad Gita. “And in the end,” sang the Beatles, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” With my family in Mahiga, I was able to see the school and what it had meant to all of us in a new light. Katie Rose Pipkin is an artist, and she had the chance to teach a portrait class to the tenth graders. As Katie stood at the blackboard, I watched the eagerness on every student’s face as they took in her lesson. “The eyes are level with the ears,” Katie explained, diagramming the relative scale of her model, Christina. Drawing supplies are rare at Mahiga, and a new pencil is a luxury. I have carried hundreds of pencils from the U.S. to Kenya. Dan Shine, Cameron Sinclair, and I once stopped at the supermart outside of Nairobi and purchased two shopping carts full of workbooks, pencils, and other supplies for the school. Despite all that, the kids had continued to use little stubs of pencil. I was doubtful that our diligent Principal Felix had diverted the supplies elsewhere, but I finally went to his office and said, “Where are all the pencils I brought?” He took me to the storeroom, where, sure enough, there were hundreds of pencils. Conservation and saving are virtues, I suppose, and he was planning ahead so they wouldn’t run out in the future. Perhaps Felix knew what I didn’t want to admit, that I wouldn’t be able to bring supplies indefinitely. 115

“Pass them out,” I told him. “I’ll bring more.” That conservation of materials extends to paper as well. As Katie gave her lesson, I was photographing the kids drawing, and each of them was drawing Christina’s face in a postage stamp–sized corner of their new sheet of paper. The possibility of using a full sheet of paper to make a portrait didn’t even occur to them. As the lesson progressed, I also noticed that their natural drawing style was much like their handwriting, lovely and neat. The faces on their papers had more African features than Christina’s, but it was good work for beginning artists. Like the lessons learned by Sugata Mitra at the Hole in the Wall, I was beginning to think there wasn’t anything these kids couldn’t learn. Katie and lily are both photographers. While they were at Mahiga, we asked them to shoot school photos for a yearbook. From preschool through Form 2, that was almost 500 kids, no small task, and it would be the first time for most of the kids to have a solo portrait taken. There is something fundamentally wonderful about school photos. When you have your first school photo taken, it proves that you are part of something real, that you are somebody! The 4- and 5-year-olds ran excitedly across the school grounds to the computer lab for the photo session and could barely sit still as they waited their turns. One by one, the teachers wrote their names on the blackboard and they stepped up and were told to smile. “Deka!” I’d tell them, in my halting grasp of the Kikuyu language. Some of the squinched-up faces that resulted from trying to smile were sheer hilarity. One of the third-graders was standing crooked and his teacher tried to straighten his shoulders, though she made him only more crooked. Then she stepped back in and tilted his head to correct for his body. Twisted like a pretzel, he never let the frozen smile leave his face. We all cracked up, and I knew this would be another great moment in the film. The high school kids were even more into the photos and laughed at their friends, themselves, and especially their teachers. Finally, as all the Form 1 and Form 2 assembled for a group shot, Christy and I stood in the back of the room enjoying the scene. “It’s just like a high school,” Christy told me.

IT HAD ALL STARTED WITH A TREE, AT LEAST FOR ME. On our last day at the school, Joseph Mutongu took the Pipkins on a tour of some of the thousands of trees that have been planted at Mahiga since my first visit. It was great for my girls to see that first tree that I planted, which is now much taller than me. Many of the new trees 116

are 20 or 30 feet high and adorned by the beautiful hanging nests of weaver birds that have flocked to the restored natural habitat. Every official visitor to the school plants a tree. Katie and Lily planted the first trees in the high school’s new orchard. But Mutongu had something different in mind for Christy. Near the entrance to the high school, she planted an oak tree, one that will grow wide and tall and provide comfort and shade for generations of kids to come. As Christy washed the dirt from her hands and the water flowed down over the base of the tree, I thought back to the wedding vows Katie had written. The roots of the many trees that surround the school drink from the same water and form a web, intertwined, that is more complex and more beautiful than every line of every constellation in the sky. As we drove away from the school, Christy had tears in her eyes. The trip was expensive, and she didn’t know how long it would be before she could return. But I knew differently, that one way or another we would find that extra plane ticket. She would be back, for she had become a part of this place, and Mahiga had become a part of her. When we got back to Texas, Christy concluded her post on the Nobelity blog with the following: This trip was just a small part of this incredible journey we are all taking together. Thanks to everyone who has made a connection to these kids through your donations. We’re almost there, and your continued support will really make a difference in the lives of every kid who attends this beautiful new school. From Mahiga with love, Christy


C H A P T E R 23


A DAY AFTER WE ARRIVED BACK IN AUSTIN, CHRISTY and I received an email from architect Joseph Kagiri about the classroom building. Actually it was more about the budget than the building itself. We had made repeated tours of the building during our visit, and the work was looking great. The second-floor stone walls were complete, the green metal roof was being installed, and doors and windows were next. A welder was making the balcony rails and stair rails on site, and it appeared that the building was on track to be finished within weeks. 118

I loved watching and filming those crews at work, and I was particularly taken with the masons. Using rock that was pried from local mountainsides by hand, the craftsmen on site used a hammer and chisel to shape each stone into a near perfect rectangle, with carefully chipped edges that would extend in long, straight mortar lines. Each stone weighed more than 80 pounds, and the work to quarry, truck, shape, and carry them to the second floor of the classroom building was a substantial amount of labor. But stone by stone, the building had risen out of the ground and up to the sky, at which time the roof carpenters and the plaster crews had taken over. Once again, I had left Kenya feeling like our chief problems were behind us, but the email from Kagiri said otherwise. Much like the miscounting of the steel bars in the concrete, the number of windows and doors had been miscounted in the original Bill of Quantities. I pulled up the drawings and the BQ on my computer and came to the conclusion that Joseph and Julius had counted the number of windows on the front of the building but had forgotten to double the number for the ones on the back. How their roof panel calculation had come up 50 percent short was a mystery. So we did what we always did when there was a problem. We got up at dawn the next morning and phoned Greg. He didn’t answer, so we called Mutongu, then Kagiri, then Greg again. A couple of hours later, we tried everyone again. And again at the end of their day. Still no answer. “When the project budget goes up by $15,000,” I told Christy, “it’s amazing how no one wants to answer their phone.” We didn’t have an extra 15 grand. All the other structures at the school were now under construction, and I thought The Nobelity Project—and our donors—were tapped out.

WHILE WE WAITED FOR SOMEONE TO CALL BACK FROM Kenya, we laid out all the plans and budgets. In the year since the first building estimates, we’d adjusted as the scope of the project expanded but hadn’t planned on the cost of building materials skyrocketing in Kenya and across the globe. Minorah Contractors was making fast progress with the classroom building, but when we asked them to apply the same materials and labor rates to the new kitchen, dining hall, and science labs, Kariuki said he would have to raise his rates by 30 percent to reflect the higher cost of materials. As a compromise, we convinced him to hold the line on the kitchen and apply the increase to the labs. That would cut his profits to the bone, but like everyone else,


Kariuki was now emotionally attached to the school and agreed to terms that weren’t in his best interest. Also assisting on the kitchen budget was our plan to repurpose an old classroom building into a new kitchen and dining hall. Instead of tearing down the old building, which had mud floors and termite-eaten wood walls, we made a plan to save the wellbuilt rafters and metal roof. Oddly enough, this was the opposite of my dad’s saying— we were now building a structure by starting at the top. “What if we prop up the roof with temporary poles?” I suggested to our construction team. “Then rip out the rotten walls, pour a new foundation, then build stone walls up to the old roof?” Having eliminated framing and new roof panels, we would save a bundle. Kagiri agreed to give it a shot. The Kunik Triplets had raised $10,000 for a kitchen and by reusing some of what was there, that money would just cover it. The existing kitchen was an example of what is happening in much of rural Africa. Needing to cook enough food for 400 kids, the school had to buy the cheapest firewood available, which meant the small room with open fires was generally filled with thick, caustic smoke. Just going inside the Mahiga kitchen made my eyes sting and started me coughing. The cost of electricity or gas is prohibitively expensive across much of the developing world. That’s why the two principal cooking fuels are wood and charcoal (made by charring wood to remove the moisture and make it easier to transport). Smoke is a major health hazard for cooks, who have high incidences of severe smoke-induced lung disease and blindness. The two cooks at Mahiga always seemed to have a smile on their faces and tears in their eyes. On our trip to Lake Nakuru, Greg and I had stopped to inspect high-efficiency wood stoves made by a company called Botto Solar. Originally designed under funding from one of the Aga Khan’s foundations, these stoves are built on the site where they’ll be used and have a small firebox under big pots sitting in a round fire-brick collar with a heavy thermal mass. The result puts 50 percent more heat directly in the pots and sends 98 percent of the smoke up a chimney. To cook for the 800 kids of Mahiga Preschool, Primary, and Secondary, Botto recommended we buy four of the stoves. Each of them cost $1,500. We bought two, all that we could afford.

WHEN I FIRST CAME TO MAHIGA, EAST AFRICAN economic development was slipping. The African optimism of the sixties and seventies had slowly given way to a growing population and a global trade system that favored big nations and big corporations. 120

The nation’s biggest export was coffee, and plummeting global prices had devastated Kenya’s small-scale farmers. Even in good years, producing countries net only $5 billion of the $70 billion global coffee market, with growers getting less than $1 per pound for the coffee beans that may cost you $10 or more. That’s a nickel from your $4 latte that goes to the farmer who grows the trees and harvests the beans. By purchasing Fair Trade coffee, you support local cooperatives and are also likely to get coffee grown with fewer chemicals. Global trade rules are just one of the problems in the Kenyan economic sector. Governance that was dominated for three decades by the same party had proven to be ineffective and, in some cases, crooked. The lack of an educated workforce has also made it difficult for Kenya to develop a large tech service sector, as in India and other parts of the developing world. Those first kids at Mahiga who had touched my heart seemed so small, too small for their age. In America it is almost an assumption that kids will be taller than their parents. In Kenya the reverse had come to pass, and this generation of kids had grown shorter and smaller than their parents. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that there are one billion undernourished children in the world. That’s a billion, with a very big “B.” In addition to responding to emergency situations like the current famine in the Horn of Africa, WFP distributes food staples to 90 million people in 73 countries. In Kenya alone, combined efforts from WFP and the Kenyan Ministry of Education’s Home Grown School Feeding Programme feed 1.3 million preschool and primary school children. Once a month at Mahiga, a truck arrives and the school committee counts the heavy bags of beans and corn, weighing each one and opening them to guarantee they aren’t moldy or rotten. I asked School Chairman Gerald Githaiga to explain the national school nutrition rules system. “Early in the morning, the number of kids are counted and the food is weighed according to the number of kids who are present,” he said. “Each kid is supposed to get 40 grams of beans and 150 grams of maize.” The parents sometimes pay school fees with corn, dried beans, and fresh vegetables that they have raised, but the school feeding program fills the critical gap. By adding clean water to the partnership among parents, the education ministry, and the world’s largest global agency, the result is that the kids of Mahiga are no longer so skinny and undernourished. With improved nutrition, their bodies will grow taller and their brains will work better.


THE IDEA OF BUILDING four modest classrooms and calling them a high school had long been forgotten. In partnership with this community, we were trying to build a facility that could serve this area for decades and become a model school for rural Africa. If another community, another nonprofit, or another school district wants to repeat and ideally improve on what we have done, they are welcome to our architectural plans and budgets. Much of this information is available on AfH’s massive resource site, the Open Architecture Network. So one question began to trump all others: What would comprise a model school for a remote community? The original site plan had dormitories for boarding students, but Agnes Munuhe and others had assured us that there would be plenty of students within walking distance. Until I learned about the demanding Kenyan education curriculum, science labs had seemed like a luxury, but we now knew they were essential. We all agreed that a library and computer lab were also key. Kids need to learn more than how to simply read and write. Kenya has an excellent and challenging high school curriculum, but what students learn on their own is often of the most value. In the new Kenyan economy, computer skills may prove to be our graduate’s best ticket to employment. James, one of the first high school students, told me on the day we met that he wanted to be an accountant. If James can make himself into an Excel spreadsheet wizard, he may find good employment whether he makes it to a university or not. We had first thought that a dining and study hall were optional, but at an elevation close to 6,000 feet, the lunchtime weather at Mahiga is generally cloudy and cold or sunny and hot. The kids ate their lunches sitting on the ground, so a dining hall just seemed to make sense. We had two more rotting classrooms next to the kitchen and again decided to reuse the old roof. When that BQ came in higher than expected, we solved the problem by eliminating the interior wall that divided the rooms. The result would be a split level dining and study hall that would also serve as an auditorium. Add a small admin building, a rainwater system on every structure, and a garden and orchard, and we had our model school. Well, almost...

IT TOOK A DAY AND A half of dialing the Kenya team before Greg finally answered the phone, and he hadn’t come up with a solution either. We had asked Minorah to bid a building with half the windows it needed and with the world’s biggest skylight. If we wanted all the windows and a full roof, we would have to find the money.


Here’s the weird part: I wasn’t about to say it to Christy, but down deep inside I was glad the original BQ had been less than perfect. If the steel, windows and roof had all been calculated correctly, the original quotes from the contractors would have been $15,000 higher. That would have been far enough beyond our expectations that we might have scaled everything back. Maybe we would have cut the library or the computer lab. Or we might have shrunk the building and made all the rooms 20 percent smaller. We might have replaced some of the windows with stone, saving money but making the classrooms darker. I felt like a rookie for not having caught it. How hard is it to count the number of windows in an architectural drawing? But I was happy we were going to end up with the classroom building these kids deserved. We were still under $90,000 for the entire structure, less than one classroom would cost in the States.


C H A P T E R 24

Hoop Dreams

A DAY AFTER WE ARRIVED BACK IN AUSTIN, CHRISTY and I received an email from architect Joseph Kagiri about the classroom building. Actually it was more about the budget than the building itself. We had made repeated tours of the building during our visit, and the work was looking great. The second-floor stone walls were complete, the green metal roof was being installed, and doors and windows were next. A welder was making the balcony rails and stair rails on site, and it appeared that the building was on track to be finished within weeks. 124

I loved watching and filming those crews at work, and I was particularly taken with the masons. Using rock that was pried from local mountainsides by hand, the craftsmen on site used a hammer and chisel to shape each stone into a near perfect rectangle, with carefully chipped edges that would extend in long, straight mortar lines. Each stone weighed more than 80 pounds, and the work to quarry, truck, shape, and carry them to the second floor of the classroom building was a substantial amount of labor. But stone by stone, the building had risen out of the ground and up to the sky, at which time the roof carpenters and the plaster crews had taken over. Once again, I had left Kenya feeling like our chief problems were behind us, but the email from Kagiri said otherwise. Much like the miscounting of the steel bars in the concrete, the number of windows and doors had been miscounted in the original Bill of Quantities. I pulled up the drawings and the BQ on my computer and came to the conclusion that Joseph and Julius had counted the number of windows on the front of the building but had forgotten to double the number for the ones on the back. How their roof panel calculation had come up 50 percent short was a mystery. So we did what we always did when there was a problem. We got up at dawn the next morning and phoned Greg. He didn’t answer, so we called Mutongu, then Kagiri, then Greg again. A couple of hours later, we tried everyone again. And again at the end of their day. Still no answer. “When the project budget goes up by $15,000,” I told Christy, “it’s amazing how no one wants to answer their phone.” We didn’t have an extra 15 grand. All the other structures at the school were now under construction, and I thought The Nobelity Project—and our donors—were tapped out.

WHILE WE WAITED FOR SOMEONE TO CALL BACK FROM Kenya, we laid out all the plans and budgets. In the year since the first building estimates, we’d adjusted as the scope of the project expanded but hadn’t planned on the cost of building materials skyrocketing in Kenya and across the globe. Minorah Contractors was making fast progress with the classroom building, but when we asked them to apply the same materials and labor rates to the new kitchen, dining hall, and science labs, Kariuki said he would have to raise his rates by 30 percent to reflect the higher cost of materials. As a compromise, we convinced him to hold the line on the kitchen and apply the increase to the labs. That would cut his profits to the bone, but like everyone else,


Kariuki was now emotionally attached to the school and agreed to terms that weren’t in his best interest. Also assisting on the kitchen budget was our plan to repurpose an old classroom building into a new kitchen and dining hall. Instead of tearing down the old building, which had mud floors and termite-eaten wood walls, we made a plan to save the wellbuilt rafters and metal roof. Oddly enough, this was the opposite of my dad’s saying— we were now building a structure by starting at the top. “What if we prop up the roof with temporary poles?” I suggested to our construction team. “Then rip out the rotten walls, pour a new foundation, then build stone walls up to the old roof?” Having eliminated framing and new roof panels, we would save a bundle. Kagiri agreed to give it a shot. The Kunik Triplets had raised $10,000 for a kitchen and by reusing some of what was there, that money would just cover it. The existing kitchen was an example of what is happening in much of rural Africa. Needing to cook enough food for 400 kids, the school had to buy the cheapest firewood available, which meant the small room with open fires was generally filled with thick, caustic smoke. Just going inside the Mahiga kitchen made my eyes sting and started me coughing. The cost of electricity or gas is prohibitively expensive across much of the developing world. That’s why the two principal cooking fuels are wood and charcoal (made by charring wood to remove the moisture and make it easier to transport). Smoke is a major health hazard for cooks, who have high incidences of severe smoke-induced lung disease and blindness. The two cooks at Mahiga always seemed to have a smile on their faces and tears in their eyes. On our trip to Lake Nakuru, Greg and I had stopped to inspect high-efficiency wood stoves made by a company called Botto Solar. Originally designed under funding from one of the Aga Khan’s foundations, these stoves are built on the site where they’ll be used and have a small firebox under big pots sitting in a round fire-brick collar with a heavy thermal mass. The result puts 50 percent more heat directly in the pots and sends 98 percent of the smoke up a chimney. To cook for the 800 kids of Mahiga Preschool, Primary, and Secondary, Botto recommended we buy four of the stoves. Each of them cost $1,500. We bought two, all that we could afford.

WHEN I FIRST CAME TO MAHIGA, EAST AFRICAN economic development was slipping. The African optimism of the sixties and seventies had slowly given way to a growing population and a global trade system that favored big nations and big corporations. 126

The nation’s biggest export was coffee, and plummeting global prices had devastated Kenya’s small-scale farmers. Even in good years, producing countries net only $5 billion of the $70 billion global coffee market, with growers getting less than $1 per pound for the coffee beans that may cost you $10 or more. That’s a nickel from your $4 latte that goes to the farmer who grows the trees and harvests the beans. By purchasing Fair Trade coffee, you support local cooperatives and are also likely to get coffee grown with fewer chemicals. Global trade rules are just one of the problems in the Kenyan economic sector. Governance that was dominated for three decades by the same party had proven to be ineffective and, in some cases, crooked. The lack of an educated workforce has also made it difficult for Kenya to develop a large tech service sector, as in India and other parts of the developing world. Those first kids at Mahiga who had touched my heart seemed so small, too small for their age. In America it is almost an assumption that kids will be taller than their parents. In Kenya the reverse had come to pass, and this generation of kids had grown shorter and smaller than their parents. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that there are one billion undernourished children in the world. That’s a billion, with a very big “B.” In addition to responding to emergency situations like the current famine in the Horn of Africa, WFP distributes food staples to 90 million people in 73 countries. In Kenya alone, combined efforts from WFP and the Kenyan Ministry of Education’s Home Grown School Feeding Programme feed 1.3 million preschool and primary school children. Once a month at Mahiga, a truck arrives and the school committee counts the heavy bags of beans and corn, weighing each one and opening them to guarantee they aren’t moldy or rotten. I asked School Chairman Gerald Githaiga to explain the national school nutrition rules system. “Early in the morning, the number of kids are counted and the food is weighed according to the number of kids who are present,” he said. “Each kid is supposed to get 40 grams of beans and 150 grams of maize.” The parents sometimes pay school fees with corn, dried beans, and fresh vegetables that they have raised, but the school feeding program fills the critical gap. By adding clean water to the partnership among parents, the education ministry, and the world’s largest global agency, the result is that the kids of Mahiga are no longer so skinny and undernourished. With improved nutrition, their bodies will grow taller and their brains will work better.


THE IDEA OF BUILDING four modest classrooms and calling them a high school had long been forgotten. In partnership with this community, we were trying to build a facility that could serve this area for decades and become a model school for rural Africa. If another community, another nonprofit, or another school district wants to repeat and ideally improve on what we have done, they are welcome to our architectural plans and budgets. Much of this information is available on AfH’s massive resource site, the Open Architecture Network. So one question began to trump all others: What would comprise a model school for a remote community? The original site plan had dormitories for boarding students, but Agnes Munuhe and others had assured us that there would be plenty of students within walking distance. Until I learned about the demanding Kenyan education curriculum, science labs had seemed like a luxury, but we now knew they were essential. We all agreed that a library and computer lab were also key. Kids need to learn more than how to simply read and write. Kenya has an excellent and challenging high school curriculum, but what students learn on their own is often of the most value. In the new Kenyan economy, computer skills may prove to be our graduate’s best ticket to employment. James, one of the first high school students, told me on the day we met that he wanted to be an accountant. If James can make himself into an Excel spreadsheet wizard, he may find good employment whether he makes it to a university or not. We had first thought that a dining and study hall were optional, but at an elevation close to 6,000 feet, the lunchtime weather at Mahiga is generally cloudy and cold or sunny and hot. The kids ate their lunches sitting on the ground, so a dining hall just seemed to make sense. We had two more rotting classrooms next to the kitchen and again decided to reuse the old roof. When that BQ came in higher than expected, we solved the problem by eliminating the interior wall that divided the rooms. The result would be a split level dining and study hall that would also serve as an auditorium. Add a small admin building, a rainwater system on every structure, and a garden and orchard, and we had our model school. Well, almost...

IT TOOK A DAY AND A half of dialing the Kenya team before Greg finally answered the phone, and he hadn’t come up with a solution either. We had asked Minorah to bid a building with half the windows it needed and with the world’s biggest skylight. If we wanted all the windows and a full roof, we would have to find the money.


Here’s the weird part: I wasn’t about to say it to Christy, but down deep inside I was glad the original BQ had been less than perfect. If the steel, windows and roof had all been calculated correctly, the original quotes from the contractors would have been $15,000 higher. That would have been far enough beyond our expectations that we might have scaled everything back. Maybe we would have cut the library or the computer lab. Or we might have shrunk the building and made all the rooms 20 percent smaller. We might have replaced some of the windows with stone, saving money but making the classrooms darker. I felt like a rookie for not having caught it. How hard is it to count the number of windows in an architectural drawing? But I was happy we were going to end up with the classroom building these kids deserved. We were still under $90,000 for the entire structure, less than one classroom would cost in the States.


C H A P T E R 25

The Friends

AS THE FINISHING DETAILS WERE BEING WORKED out for each building and preparations began for the Grand Opening celebration, I began to think back on the amazing group of people who had created this school. The mzungus—Greg, Christina, Christy and the Human Q-tip—plus each donor to The Nobelity Project and every Kenyan who had carried road pavement, dug foundations, and hoisted elegant steel structures into the sky had earned the title Hero. Those heroes included our Principal Felix Kimani, a slender figure of a man who had started a high school while running a primary school, taking on the long hours and 130

challenging tasks of the second job without additional pay. As Mahiga Hope High School grew from an idea to a reality, it was Felix who hired every teacher, who met with every parent and enrolled every student, who had overseen a formal curriculum and purchased every textbook. Felix had to make the hard calls of firing a teacher with a drinking problem, of finding the appropriate response for the only two students who had broken the rules, with one leaving and one staying behind and ultimately proving the decision wise by studying hard to show his commitment. Gerald Maina, the head of the school committee who lived nearby, had three children at Mahiga, and had been there every day since construction began. Gerald counted every load of materials and represented the community in the day-to-day construction of each building, from the science labs to the RainWater Court. Greg had a high opinion of Gerald, and in July 2010, nearly a year after Greg arrived, I asked him how Gerald could afford to dedicate so much time to the project “I think the school pays him,” Greg told me. “They’d have to. He’s not a guy with money, and it’s the only way he could have devoted so much time.” I was relieved to hear it, but then I considered the tight line-by-line budgets for every building. There had never been a line for Gerald Maina. I found Gerald overseeing a group who was cleaning chipped rocks from the grounds and asked if, considering all the time he had dedicated to the project, the school had paid him. “No,” he told me. “I volunteered my time. It’s created some financial challenges for my family, but someone had to do it.” I was deeply touched by Gerald’s dedication, but there was another group of amazing people who had been responsible for Mahiga Hope High School, and I was beginning to see connections between them. Wangari Maathai, the first woman from East Africa to earn a doctorate degree, had not been destined for high school. There were many kids in the family, Wangari had told me in Paris, and when her parents decided her older brother should go to school, her brother had questioned their decision. “Wangari is smarter than I am,” he said. “I’m not going to secondary unless she does.” So her parents found a way to send both of them. “We should do our best for all our children,” Wangari had told me. “Because we never know which will be the best endowed.” Agnes Munuhe, the district education officer who had begun this effort by announcing her dream for a high school at Mahiga, had a story of her own. The 11th of 13 children in a polygamous family, Agnes had walked 24 kilometers round-trip to attend high school but dropped out when her elderly father could not afford the fees. 131

“Well-wishers helped me begin again and complete Form 4,” said Agnes. “From there I chose a teacher’s college to continue my education.” I had been impressed when architect Joseph Kagiri had donated half his fees to the school. He frequently made the three-hour drive from Nairobi in his well-worn car, and it was clear that he didn’t have deep resources. Kagiri had also invited me to visit the tiny mountaintop village of his childhood, where his father had two wives and a very large family. “I was the 22nd kid in my family,” Joseph told me when I finally made it to his little town of Mugaka. “And I was the first ever in my family to be educated. “Now I have a family in Nairobi with three kids. I have a covenant that I must bring back whatever little money I can from Nairobi ... bring it back to village level, so I can help these people.” But how did the 22nd child manage to be the first to go to high school and then university? Though he had excelled in primary school, the Kagiri family didn’t have money for him to take the national high school entrance exam, the dreaded KCPE that determines which rank of school a student is qualified to attend. Achieve the highest tier score, and you may be admitted to a high-achieving national high school, possibly on scholarship. To earn the funds to take the exam, 14-year-old Joseph hiked into the mountains, cut down a tree with a small ax, and dragged it down the mountain. Then he went back up and did it again and again. Hours before the deadline for exam registration, he managed to sell the logs and submit his application. When he took the test, his scores were off the chart and opportunity was his. Little remains of the forests near Mugaka, and I sometimes wonder if Joseph Kagiri feels guilty about cutting down those trees. If so, he has assuaged that sentiment by planting thousands of trees for every one he cut. One of the projects he has created is the Kieni Youth Million Tree program, which combines weekend football tournaments with tree-planting by young people. “Before you can kick a ball,” says Kagiri, “you have to plant a tree.” The Nobelity Project is now the principal financial sponsor of the program. On September 26, 2011, the anniversary of the death of our friend and mentor Wangari Maathai, we announced that the million new trees at our Kieni schools were dedicated to Wangari, who gave so much to Kenya and the world.

ONE DAY WHEN WE WERE PLANTING TREES AT Mugaka, my friend Auma Obama joined us. If the name sounds familiar, that is because Auma is the sister of President Barack Obama. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Auma works for CARE 132

International as a Global Coordinator and Technical Advisor on the use of sport as a tool and vehicle for positive behavior and social change in young people. Much of what I know about the challenges facing young people in Kenya I learned from Auma. A few months earlier, I’d traveled with her to visit the Obama family homeland in Alego, near Lake Victoria in far western Kenya. In addition to her youth sports programs in Nairobi, Auma had been working with a group of unemployed young people in Alego, helping them focus on how to solve the biggest problem facing the youth of Kenya, lack of opportunity and rural migration into what in most cased turned out to be urban slum existences. With a group of students at the Senator Obama Secondary School, we gathered in a large circle so the students could discuss their challenges, ideas and plans. “What are you doing to change your community?” Auma asked them. “What can you see in this community that can be changed to enable you all to have an income? You have to find a way to use what you have to get what you need. It’s important to find what works for you, but it’s also important to do what works for the community.” As the young people told her of their dreams and their challenges, Auma reminded them that though life in Alego seemed challenging, they would likely find the slums of Nairobi to be much worse. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What do I want?’ and ‘Am I willing to work to achieve it?’ ” she said. “If you end up living up in Kibera in a slum, you are basically living in squalor as opposed to living in this beautiful environment where you were born.” When the session ended, we walked to the home of Sarah Onyango, President Obama’s de facto grandmother, whom everyone calls Mama Sarah. Sarah welcomed us to her home and proudly showed me a photo of herself with young Barack on his first visit to Kenya a few years after he graduated from college. We enjoyed a traditional Luo lunch with Mama Sarah, then Auma began a second counseling session with a group of young people, mostly in their twenties, who were working together to create opportunities for themselves and also working for their community through theater performances to spread awareness about AIDS, conservation and other local issues. Amazed by Auma’s dedication to her community, I wondered how she had beat the odds and been able to attend high school and university and ultimately earn a Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. “I got help to complete my secondary school studies from a group of ladies who would meet regularly, drink tea together and raise small sums to help a child in Africa,” Auma told me. “I was the lucky recipient of such funds at a time when my father was struggling to pay my school fees for the last (and most critical) two years of school before university. I never got to know the women. They just sent the money and 133

wanted it to help. I have always wished I could have met them to thank them and let them know that I made something of my life with their help.”

THE PERSONAL STORIES OF WANGARI MAATHAI, Joseph Kagiri, Agnes Munuhe, and Auma Obama are an amazing testament to the potential that could be met by every child’s receiving a secondary education. Not every child will go on to earn a college degree or a Ph.D. or be awarded the Nobel Prize. But every one will be more able to repay that education through a lifetime of helping their communities and individuals wherever they go in fulfilling their own potentials. Auma’s work as a mentor to so many young people inspired us to begin a mentor program at Mahiga Hope High School. These mentors include our visiting basketball teacher, Esther Nyaga, and her father, Philip, who has pledged to guide students who want to enter the tourist service or hotel sector, a prime source of good jobs in Kenya. The school is also working to bring in many others, including representatives from Kenyan Wildlife Service, a government job with health insurance that requires a secondary school diploma, and mentors for basic life skills, such as a local banker who can help the students establish their first bank account to begin saving for their future. Though Wangari first brought me to Kenya, the one person without whom this school could not have been built was Joseph Mutongu. It was Mutongu who had first brought me to Mahiga, Mutongu who had begun the school’s tree-planting program, Mutongu who played the key role in turning an idea for a water system into a reality, and Mutongu who had taken the initiative on building a computer lab at a school that didn’t yet have electricity. As we moved into high school construction and planning, the size of Mutongu’s role had steadily increased. One evening Greg reminded me that it was Mutongu who had organized the community to pave the road and do other community work projects to support construction, Mutongu who had negotiated labor rates to ensure that local residents were paid a better than fair wage by the contractors while making that work within the budgets of Architecture for Humanity and The Nobelity Project, and Mutongu who had worked with government officials to muster support for the project. A trained naturalist, Mutongu had also become one of the school’s principal mentors. One of my greatest days at Mahiga was a high school field trip to the Aberdare Country Club for a game walk. The Kenyan government has created vast game preserves to protect the country’s wildlife. Revenue from tourism helps to protect the animals, but the fences also mean


that most of our Kenyan students had never seen the amazing animals that live just a few miles from their homes. Mutongu’s modest little house faces across a valley to Mount Kenya and is surrounded by a forest of native trees. He also has a one-acre farm plot, which in the Kikuyu tradition is primarily planted by his wife, Esther. Three years in a row, Esther had tilled the big field with a heavy hoe and planted a corn crop. Having timed the rains correctly, the Mutongus were blessed by a good crop all three years. But each year, having smelled their corn and their neighbors’ corn from far away, a herd of elephants broke down the fence at the National Park, came overland for miles, and entered their fields. The first time, Mutongu tried futilely to ward them off by banging pots and pans, but the elephants ignored him and destroyed the crop. The second year he was prepared with firecrackers and bottle rockets and raised the ire of a big bull, which threatened to charge his home and family. The third year Kenya Wildlife Service arrived in time to save some of the crop and to herd the elephants back to the national park. Conflict between the animals and humans has been one of the key issues in the development of Kenya. The system works best for the people when the animals stay in the parks, but elephants are long-lived and sense when it is time to migrate through areas that are now being farmed. Before the game walk, the high school kids were excited as they were welcomed by general manager Philip Nyaga to the game preserve. “Ladies and gentleman,” he addressed them. “We’re very happy to have you here. It’s essential that you learn about the animals. They are a gift that God has given to us, and you are lucky to have these animals here in your area. Please try to learn. When our senior warden retires, who is going to replace the senior warden? Who is going to care for these animals? It is you!” With Kenya’s wildlife helping attract more than a million tourists every year, the country’s future depends upon balancing opportunity for young people with a sustainable environment. What Philip knew was that the future of these natural wonders and the future of the nation’s economy are truly in these kids’ hands. Heading up Aberdare Hill, we soon came in sight of a tall male giraffe, and Mutongu explained about the beauty and the danger of that amazing animal. We moved on and Mutongu paused to point out a tree and explain the traditional medicinal uses of its leaves. The kids were listening closely. The want to know about the world they live in. Higher up the hill, Mutongu pointed out the school in the far distance and, closer below us, a dense collection of small farms that had not been there when I first came to the Aberdares. 135

“This valley below us has always been the migration route of the elephants from the Aberdares to Mount Kenya and back. Now it is occupied by settlers. We built a coalition of conservation groups and attempted to acquire land and build a game corridor through here, but we failed, and now I am afraid it’s too late. “This forest below us is gone, destroyed by the most dangerous animal. Do you know which one that is?” he asked. I n t h e b a c k , o n e o f t h e b o y s k n e w t h e a n s w e r. “ I s i t m a n ? ”
 “Exactly!” said Mutongu. I had talked many times to Mutongu about his work, but for the first time I saw the sadness that must come from loving the natural environment of Kenya and having to witness the loss of so much in your own lifetime. Mutongu has often told me that as a boy he used to spend long periods in the forest and fields, walking, observing, talking to people he met, learning. But I never knew the story of how he attended the Slimbridge naturalist program in England and was able to take his knowledge to another level.

IN EARLY 2010, I HAD CALLED MY FRIEND HARRY HOOK in London to ask him some questions about the film business. When I told Harry about our work in Kenya, he said, “You know that I’m from Kenya, yes?” It took me a moment. I had no idea. “So, where is the school you’re building?” he asked. I’m asked this a lot and it’s rare than anyone even knows the area, but I told him in the Aberdare Mountains. “Where in the Aberdares?” Harry asked. When I said, “Not far from Nyeri,” he said, “Which way?” In one of the most uncanny coincidences of my life, my British friend Harry Hook had grown up with my Kenyan friend Joseph Mutongu. Joseph was two years younger, and Joseph’s parents had worked on Sangare Ranch, where Harry lived. “When Joseph was around 15, he began to work at Sangare as well,” Harry told me. “He was charming and intelligent, and he had a passion and a self-taught knowledge of African birds.” Joseph might have continued working at Sangare his whole life, but his dream was to be a naturalist. Seeing Joseph’s potential, Harry’s mother made it possible for Joseph to travel to England and study at the Slimbridge Wild Bird Sanctuary. “Joseph embraced the opportunity,” Harry told me, “and when he returned to Kenya, he was able to secure a prestigious job as the naturalist at The Ark in the Aberdares.” 136

Not having seen his old friend in years, and now having heard about the new school, Harry Hook soon found himself back in Kenya and making a special trip to find Joseph Mutongu and see Mahiga Hope High School. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Harry told me the next time we talked. “The school was so beautiful, and it wasn’t even finished. What you and Joseph have done will change this community forever.”


C H A P T E R 26

A Dream Come True

THE DAY BEFORE THE OCTOBER 2010 GRAND OPENING celebration, Christy and I arrived at Mahiga and were astounded by the changes that had taken place and by the number of details left to be completed in just a few hours. At the top of the hill, the RainWater Court stood tall and graceful, looking exactly like Greg’s drawings but a thousand times better. Greg dribbled a ball onto the concrete floor and joined some of the boys who were practicing at 138

one end. They were dribbling and passing but not shooting, because there were no backboards or rims. “Fourteen months to build a basketball court and four hours left to build backboards,” I said. “We’ll make it,” Greg told me. The classroom building was finished and the students had moved their new desks and chairs from the old primary classrooms to their new ones. The library looked fantastic. After months of effort, the Thousand Books for Hope had finally arrived. Comfort the Children had helped us clear them through customs after one of their team waited in line for three days until his number was called. Now the books were all in the library—the thousand books we had shipped, hundreds more we had carried in checked bags during our trips, and a thousand more we had purchased in Kenya. Considering the hassle, expense and carbon emissions of shipping books, we decided to shift from donated books to the idea of supporters donating enough money to purchase a book in Kenya. If they wanted to personalize it, the donors could sign a bookplate with a note and their name. We asked donors to give us $5 or $10 to purchase a book, and a middle school had raised more than $5,000 for that effort. The money was used to buy English and Swahili-language books in Kenya, supporting the country’s book business and still allowing us to make a personal connection through the signed bookplates. And while we had plenty of classics, from Dante and Shakespeare to J. K. Rowling and Steinbeck, we also had lots of great books by Kenyan and other African authors that we wouldn’t have found in the States. “Not many schools have a library,” one of the primary school teachers told me. “It’s like a dream come true.” What the library didn’t have was a sign on the door. We had a sign. We had a drill and wood screws, but we didn’t have a drill bit. The problem was solved when Mutongu snapped the head off a nail with a pair of pliers, then used the nail shaft as a drill bit. I’ve been building things almost my whole life, including two houses that I built from the ground up, and it had never occurred to me that you could use a nail as a drill bit. 139

Just upstairs from the library, the computer lab tables sat empty, but not for long, because Mike’s van was full of Dell computers, which the students carried inside. Our computer teacher, Gibson Githaiga, soon had the Dells set up and working. We also had clone computer cases and power supplies from a computer store in Nairobi, and I had carried processors and memory from Texas that had been donated by AMD. Watching Gibson do the complicated assembly made me nervous, but he pulled it off and before long we had 14 PCs ready to boot. There was one problem. We had no power. The water system at the RainWater Court was powered by a single solar panel, but the rest of the high school still needed an electrical hookup. Mutongu and team had tried to convince Kenya Light and Power to give us the three-phase connection we needed. The day was always said to be just around the corner, but we had been waiting for months. When I had told people we were building a school in Africa, their usual response was something about the graft and bribes we must be subjected to. But during the entire construction period, we had never paid or been asked to pay a single bribe. Desperate for power before the Grand Opening, the school committee had finally authorized one of its members to invite a man from KLP’s scheduling office to lunch. At lunch, the two discussed Mahiga Hope High School and the KLP officer said he hadn’t realized what a wonderful effort was under way. Within a week, he promised, the lineman would show up to make the connection. And so we paid our first bribe, the cost of lunch, $3. At the last possible moment, the lineman finally climbed the waiting power pole next to the classroom building and began to connect the heavy cables. I took his photo and looked at it on my camera. Zooming in to check the focus, I noticed something printed on his shirt. The words were “Hope Electric.”

THERE WAS SO MUCH more to see. Smoke was coming out of the chimneys of the new kitchen, and the cooks were happily cooking on their new stoves. Outside the kitchen, the kids were lined up, cleaning the lunch bowls in the washbasins, then refilling them with clear, cool water and drinking it 140

down. At the far end of the new soccer field, Christina was eager to show me the new preschool, which was almost but not quite finished. “We are very much admiring to come here,” Teacher Tabby said of the school. Finally she was going to have separate classrooms for the two grades of preschool and a second preschool teacher to help the kids learn. The walls of the two classrooms were up and the roof would be on within weeks but, sadly, not before Greg and Christina had gone home. She was just going to miss seeing her beautiful design filled with smiling little kids. But while she was still here, I needed her help laying out a playground that was going to be named in honor of a friend from Austin. Ten years earlier, Christy had been diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time as our friend Karen Webber. They had both gone through surgeries and treatment. Christy had recovered twice, but Karen had just continued to fight one battle after another. While we were building the high school, Karen fought the last of those battles. At her memorial, her husband, Eric, and her two sons had requested in lieu of flowers that friends and family make donations to build the Karen Webber Playground at the Mahiga preschool. The gifts poured in, a testament to so many friends who loved Karen and wanted to honor her love with something joyful in a small corner of the world that she had never even seen. Now Bosco, Christina, and I had a chance to walk among the tall trees on the borders of the school and plan locations for a slide, a see-saw, climbing bars, and a merry-go-round that would carry Karen’s name to generations of kids who would never know her.

CHRISTY SEEMED TO BE EVERYWHERE. SHE HAD thought her first trip to Mahiga would be her last, but I couldn’t do it all without her. I couldn’t even do half without her. She was now on her third trip to Mahiga, and we knew she would return again and again. After going over the celebration details with Felix, I came out of his office and found Christy sitting in the schoolyard with a dozen eighth-grade girls who were threshing corn, using the strong tips of their fingers to strip the kernels from the cobs. 141

“Join us!” they called to Christy. “These are my new friends,” she told me as they showed her how to do the work. I had never seen her happier. I thought back to all the 15-hour days Christy had spent on fundraising, organization, email, and a thousand other things that had made this school possible. Had Mahiga made her battle against cancer harder? We didn’t know. Maybe Mahiga had helped to make her well.


C H A P T E R 27

The Grand Opening

AFTER ALL THE WORK AND ANTICIPATION, IT’S NO surprise that the Grand Opening lasted two days. One day just wasn’t enough to fit it all in. We were drinking it all in like water, and we just couldn’t get enough. It was fitting that Saturday’s main ceremony was on the stage of the RainWater Court. From my earliest ideas for the court through Matt Garcia’s GameChangers submission to Greg’s final design, the community meeting and performance space had always been a key element. 143

For the big day, Greg and Gibson had hired Mweiga’s hottest (and only) DJ, a guy named Rastaman with a giant stack of hair and a big sound system that was as impressive-looking as it was defective. As we waited for the last of the dignitaries to arrive, Rastaman was playing tunes at a deafening level through an old speaker with a cracked cone that amplified everything in an indiscriminate and painful fashion. The kids didn’t care. The music was loud, it had a beat, and they were dancing with joy. Little ones in their finest clothes, middle-school girls in their brightly printed kangas, and high-schoolers in their green uniforms were all getting down in a giant Mahiga mosh pit. It was beautiful! Every kid in Kenya has his own patented dance moves, and Michael Jackson’s moon-walk had nothing on any of these guys and girls. Look this way and you see wobbly knees. Over here is a backwards slide, with the whole sea of kids swirling round the court. We were already an hour behind our start time, but no one seemed to mind. As the little kids danced, the big kids brought every chair and bench from the classrooms. The front row seats were occupied by local dignitaries, school staff, and the lead construction crew; the rest were filled with the school committee, teachers, and whoever felt they had earned one of 200 or 300 places of honor. Several hundred kids were soon seated on the court floor. Farther out, the hill around the upper side of the court was occupied by the same parents and kids who had spent weeks digging and shaping the hillside to form natural bleachers. Perhaps in honor of how well our relationship with the Diocese had progressed since that first failed meeting, the Monsignor was there in full white robes to say the blessing. After an opening song by the choir from St. Mary’s High School in Mweiga, a group of Mahiga Hope High School students took the stage to perform a poem they had written for us. “Teachers, parents, and all my fellow students,” the group spoke in unison. “On the stage is Mahiga Hope High School. The opportunity has arrived. It’s now! Now or never. For now we will get educated. It’s now! Now or never.” I was seated in the front row of the audience during the school song, but as usual I was filming. Suddenly I realized that Mutongu was introducing me, and it was my turn to speak. 144

There was so much I could have said, but I thought any words would pale in comparison to the joy of these kids and the beauty and promise of these school buildings. So I decided to say the thing that concerned me most. “I’m happy to be here for the ribbon-cutting of this RainWater Court,” I told the community. “More than a thousand individual donors joined hands to help build this great school. Now it’s up to all of you to hold it up.” Christy was both more eloquent and more emotional. “This school was built by thousands of people who truly believe education is not a privilege, it is a basic right for all our children. People say there’s poverty here,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “And there may be financial poverty here. But I see that you are very rich in courage, strength and spirit. I am inspired by your community and thank you for letting me be a part of it.” For three years, Felix Kimani had been assembling a high school from nothing but desire. While Christy and I had focused on fundraising and planning, and Greg and our architects had overcome physical challenges, Felix had found nine students who wanted a high school education and had built that enrollment into ninth and tenth grade classes with 60 kids. Now Felix brought the school committee and me to the stage and opened a simple folder, pulled out a formal certificate, and announced that Mahiga Hope High School had been accepted as an official four-year high school in the Kieni West Education District. “I hand the four-year high school registration papers to Mr. Turk,” said Felix as the crowd cheered. And I handed them directly to Gerald and the school committee. “This doesn’t belong to me,” I reminded them. “It belongs to all of you.”

IT WAS QUITE A DAY, FILLED WITH MUSIC, DANCE, applause and laughter. Whether we were addressing the crowd or being led forward to dance with the kids, Greg always received the biggest response. The locals knew how much he had given them, and I also knew he felt the same way about them.


So the next part puzzled me. As a traditional Kikuyu elder’s three-legged stool was carried to the stage, I suspected that Greg was about to receive a special honor. Instead, Christy was invited to the stage. Agnes and women from the school committee began to drape her in a long bolt of brown tribal cloth, and Christy was made an honorary Kikuyu woman and given a Kikuyu name, Au Mahiga, or “Of the Rock.” I was next, with the ladies making me a Kikuyu elder, presenting me with the wooden stool and an elder’s cane. My new name was Keamu, “He Who Works Miracles.” I didn’t know if that was because the school was such a miracle—which was clearly the working of a lot more people than just me— or if it was connected to the coincidence that it always seemed to rain when I came to Mahiga. When I heard the translation, my first thought was, “Miracle worker—great, no pressure there.” But why give me this honor, and not Greg? Greg had spent 15 months working side by side with the people of Mahiga. Christina had come to his assistance and been there four months herself. They were both about to leave Kenya, and with their student loans having accrued interest in their absence, it was unlikely that they would have the money to return for quite some time. That’s when I realized that Greg hadn’t told anyone but Christy and me that he was leaving. And then it was time for Greg to speak. “Moriega!” he told them in Kikuyu, a language few of them had heard him speak. “Numba ya mai a kishoggi kia Mahiga.” In translation, “Welcome to the House of Rain for the community of Mahiga.” The community of Mahiga erupted in cheers. He was a true native son. “That’s about all the Kikuyu I have today,” Greg continued. “When I arrived, all that was here was a dirt field, and I came as a stranger. I’m standing here now, we’re in this beautiful space, and I’m no longer a stranger... I’m part of the community with all of you. It’s really the community that built this project, and we built it together.” The crowd was still cheering when Mutongu, Kariuki, Michael Jones, and I joined Greg on stage. I didn’t have a Nobel Prize medal to hang around their 146

necks, but I did have bright chrome coach’s whistles that were engraved with the words Mahiga RainWater Court. I draped one whistle around each of their necks, then we blew them in unison. Let the games begin.

I UNDERSTAND THERE WAS A GREAT BASKETBALL scrimmage on Saturday, but I missed all of it as we cut ribbons across the doorways of the library, computer lab, and classrooms. I shook a hundred hands and shared a hundred hugs and realized I was just getting started. Everywhere I looked, the school grounds were filled with people. Parents were admiring the smooth plaster floors of the classrooms and watching their kids display what they had learned on shiny blackboards. I took half an hour with my favorite fifth-grader, Moses, to look through different books in the library and make some recommendations for him. When I left, he had a stack of books on a chair in the corner and was reading the one on top, eating up the words in the same fashion that everyone else was eating the Mahiga Hope High School celebration cakes we had just cut. A number of mothers had joined the school cooks in the new kitchen and turned out food for more than a thousand people. The giant cook pots were full to the brim with githeri and ugali. Platters of fresh sliced onions and carrots brought from local gardens were on the serving buffet. I looked it over and knew there was way, way too much food. Christina had coordinated this gargantuan feast with the local ladies who had also persuaded us to buy a thousand loaves of bread. A thousand loaves, it occurred to me, was proof positive that I was no miracle worker. An hour later, every bite was gone. In short, it was one of the greatest days of my life, and I think that was a common sentiment for many in attendance. The amazing part was we had another day of celebration to go. Around dark, a group of us stopped at the local bar in Nyeri. If you were a passing American tourist and happened to find this place, which would be nearly impossible, and you were thirsty enough to make it past the long dark passageway on the main floor and up the dark stairs to the second floor, when 147

you came to the main barroom on a Saturday afternoon, you would be greeted by the surprised faces of 200 men occupying every square inch of the floor space as they watched a soccer game on TV. As I appeared in the doorway and surveyed for a place to sit or a way through to the balcony, all 200 faces turned to look at me in surprise as if Mahatma Gandhi had walked in wearing his robes or maybe Idi Amin in his military badges. Then Greg appeared at my side, and they all let out a breath of recognition. “Maina!” I heard several call to him. No matter that I had been there before. The important thing was that I was with Maina. On the balcony we toasted the day with warm Guinness and Tusker Malts and discussed the great things that had happened on day one of the celebration. I asked Greg what he thought about going home after so long in Kenya, and he said, “I’ve been here 15 months, am about to leave, and don’t know what to think. One year ago yesterday, I was down in the bottom of our soil test hole. That’s all we had, a six-foot-deep hole.” And now he was on top of the world. I dimly recall that we also had dinner that evening on the lawn at the Aberdare Country Club, but after a couple of beers and a day of nonstop adrenalin rushes, I was so tired that the conversation was a gentle haze, much like the Kenyan night that surrounded us. I do remember that Christy and I asked Greg if he had told Mutongu or Gerald that he and Christina were about to leave Kenya. He didn’t give me a definitive answer, and it occurred to me that Greg had become so close to his friends in Mahiga that he didn’t know how to tell them. I wasn’t even sure if he knew how to tell himself.


C H A P T E R 28

The Miracle of Mahiga

SUNDAY MORNING DAWNED CLEAR AND COOL. Mount Kenya was “awake,” as the locals say during those rare times when the clouds have not enveloped the 18,000-foot summit. During her entire first month in Mahiga, Christina hadn’t seen the mountain once. But the dry season had since set in with a vengeance, and now the jagged peak was a daily reminder of it. Grass that was lush and green in April and May was either cooked or grazed down to nubs. Joseph and Esther Mutongu didn’t have to worry about the elephants 149

coming down from the mountains to steal their corn crop, because like everyone else’s, their crop had failed. The one person I felt was missing on Saturday was our basketball mentor, Esther Nyaga. Unable to make the first day of festivities, Esther had arranged something very special for day two. Her professional woman’s basketball team, the Sprite Spirits, and their partner men’s team, The Coca-Cola Storms, were driving from Nairobi for an exhibition game with Team Mahiga. We all knew that a group of boys and girls who had been playing for only a year—and who had never played on concrete—couldn’t compete against the pros, but no one really cared about that. The point was that they could play. When I arrived at school, our kids were already practicing and they looked sharp. Both the girls and the boys were dressed in the long black basketball shorts and deep green jerseys that Nike had donated to the school. Like most American players my age, I had grown up playing in Converse All-Stars. Lucky for us, Converse had a distributor in Kenya and had donated 50 pairs of new basketball shoes for the school. So the first business of the day was to fit every boy and girl in new All-Stars. I was concerned that with the ribbon-cuttings behind us—and without another giant meal—the community wouldn’t turn out for the game, but as with most of my worries, Mahiga proved me wrong. The high school team from St. Mary’s Secondary Boys School in Nyeri had also come to play and were looking smart in their red uniforms. St. Mary’s is our proof that basketball can be a viable sport in the area, and it consistently ranks as one of Kenya’s top teams. At the opposite end of the court, I was warming up with Team Mahiga. Almost 18 months since I had broken my leg in the Grand Canyon, I could run—a little—and was going through layup drills and other exercises with the boys. On the dirt, we never had a proper free-throw line, so that was one more new challenge to overcome. With two teams on the court, the Mahiga girls were mostly watching, as was a big crowd who were explaining the game to one another. Right on schedule, a rented matatu van drove into the schoolyard, and out poured two entire basketball teams, 15 or 16 big men and women who had been jammed inside the van like circus clowns for the three-hour drive. They 150

had given up their Sunday to be here, and though they were pros, they weren’t receiving a shilling for their appearance. They were here because they love the game and because they loved the idea of these students in the middle of nowhere playing it. As the day progressed, each one of them would eventually pull me aside and thank me for inviting them. Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about this school was that whenever it was time for me to thank someone, they always beat me to it and thanked me first. Coach Ben, the head of the pro teams and Esther Nyaga’s mentor, gathered the players from the two pro teams and the high schools in a large circle. “I am Coach Ben,” he said, moving into the middle of the circle. “I coach the Storms. And I also coach life. We play in the Kenya national league, and Angie is the captain of the Kenya ladies’ national team.” Angie took the hands of the high school girls on each side of her, and the circle of 40 players followed suit, all holding hands. “Open up our mind even as we try to learn new things,” Ben said in prayer. “We thank you for the people who’ve come all the way to make this facility for us. We hope it will enhance this school and this community. Amen.” “Amen!” said the group. Then Ben looked up with a smile and said, “Let’s play ball.” The St. Mary’s team had to be back in Nyeri soon, so we started with a warm-up scrimmage between the Nyeri boys and the Nairobi Storms, a quick game to 20 points. As the two teams huddled for strategy, I heard Coach Ben tell his players, “They’re just high school kids, so take it easy.” Those words would prove to haunt him. Within ten minutes, the St. Mary’s team was up 16–10 over the pros. One kid was so fast that absolutely no one could defend him on a fast break. That was both humbling and exciting for Coach Ben and his team. Soon those high-schoolers would be playing in Nairobi, possibly for the Storms. The warm-up game was tied 18–18, when St. Mary’s ran yet another fast break, a three-on-two that caught everyone flat-footed and scored a winning basket for them.


In a couple of months, Mahiga would have to play St. Mary’s in an official district game, and we all knew what the results would be. Before the team left, the captain came over to shake my hand. “Coach,” he told me, “we love this court. We’ll keep coming back and work with your team.” Touched, I was just about to say thanks, but he beat me to it. The warm-up scrimmage had done the same thing for the crowd. Most had never seen a game, but now they knew what to cheer for. After a short break to catch their breath, the Storms again took the court, this time in the official game against the Mahiga boys team. Having had their self-respect handed to them in a hoop, the men either forgot or didn’t know that the Mahiga boys had never played a full-court game. Within two minutes the pros scored five baskets. The local crowd was dead silent. On the smooth plaster wall at the back of the stage, a scorekeeper was marking the baskets in chalk and there was nothing under Team Mahiga’s column. After a couple more baskets I went to Coach Ben and asked him why his guys were full-court pressing a bunch of rookies. He looked a little sheepish and called off the press, but Team Mahiga still couldn’t penetrate the Storms’ defense. I guess I had known getting skunked was a possibility, but now I saw what a disappointment that would be for the boys and their local crowd. Christy had absolutely forbidden me from playing in this game, reminding me that I had my partially mended broken leg that still hurt most of the time, that I couldn’t run a hundred yards to save my life, and that if I reinjured my leg in Africa, the hospitals here might not be able to deal with all my titanium implants. She was absolutely right. But I went in anyway. My entrance in the game got an actual cheer from the crowd. At that point, even an old 6-foot-7 player looked good. Of course, they had never heard the phrase “White men can’t jump,” but I was about to demonstrate it to them. Defending our basket, the Storms came rushing at me two on one, and much to my surprise, I managed to block a shot. Kevin recovered the ball for Team Mahiga, passed to George, and they moved the ball down court with the crowd urging them on. I nearly caught up, but when Kevin’s shot rimmed out I wasn’t there for the rebound, and I wasn’t quite back to the other end when 152

The Storms scored again. I wanted so badly to help the guys score, but when I took myself out of the game after half a dozen limping dashes up and down the court, we still didn’t have a basket. But something else had happened. Samuel had taken charge. He was calling plays. George was moving on the outside. Kevin was circling under the basket. They had seen me hobbling around their schoolyard on a cane. If I could run, they could run harder. They were becoming a team. The crowd was getting into the game, but something was still missing. Standing by the stage, the Mahiga girls were all suited up but hadn’t touched a ball. Esther and I talked it over, and she called Coach Ben to the sideline and suggested we switch things up. The scorekeeper didn’t know what to do when the men’s and boys’ teams left the court and were replaced by the women and girls. But the crowd knew, and they started to cheer louder. This was still far from a heads-up match, but I always thought the girls at Mahiga were natural athletes and they showed their skills now. The girls came flying down court on their first possession. Breaking for the basket, Margaret took a pass, pulled up, and took a shot that bounced once then dropped through the rim. The crowd went wild. What could be better? A girl had scored the first basket for Mahiga Hope High School. It was a wonderful afternoon of basketball. Men switched for women, boys for girls, the pros switched with the high school players and even Coach Ben took a turn. The local crowd started by cheering only for their home team and ended up cheering for every pass and every shot. Filled with joy and a little overcome with emotion, I walked away from the court to see this scene from farther away. Passing through the upper gates of the school, I walked up the road to the top of the hill, where I could see the RainWater Court and the crowd. Down the hill past the court, a group of younger kids was lined up for a drink of water at the fountains outside the kitchen. Parents were coming in and out of classrooms and the library. A gust of wind came across the soccer field and kicked up a cloud of dust that circled through it all. I began to feel what I knew Greg had been feeling. How could I possibly say goodbye? 153

And then I heard, from far across the dry plains behind me, something that hadn’t been heard here for several months: a long, deep roll of thunder. Turning around, I saw that the sky at the horizon was growing dark. It thundered again, and by the time I walked back to the court, I could see lightning in the distance. The crowd had heard it too. Within minutes, most of them had left for home. I grabbed my video camera for a little more basketball footage, and George came over to talk to me, to give his journalist’s report. “This is the first game on the RainWater Court,” he said to camera. “It’s been two months since it rained last. The gutters have just been finished, and the rain is coming and this game may be ended by the tanks filling up.” The thunder grew louder, and the pro teams headed for their van to get back to the highway ahead of the storm. “We love it here,” Coach Ben told me before he climbed in. “We’d like to come back.” “The kids would like that,” I told him. And then he thanked me.

GREG AND MUTONGU WERE ALMOST BESIDE themselves as the first drops hit the roof. A few drops turned into many, and within minutes the black cloud and heavy rain rolled in on top of us, with loud thunder and a deafening roar of huge, cold drops hitting the big roof. Soon water was coming down in sheets. The gutters ran full, then overflowed. At first we all ran out to dance in the rain, but it was too much, too cold, and we ran for cover. Sheltered beneath the RainWater Court, I turned and saw Christy walking through the rain toward me, her face lit up with joy. She came under the roof and pulled her short hair—finally growing back from her chemo—into wet spikes. The Mahiga kids looked to be dribbling and tossing the balls around, but if you looked closely, it was obvious that they weren’t playing basketball. They were dancing.


C H A P T E R 29

A Better Way

THE BEST PART OF THE STORY OF MAHIGA HOPE High School is that there is no end. The desire to learn is one of humankind’s most fundamental traits and one of our highest callings. Whether a student in Africa or a writer in the U.S., when you learn, you are alive. When you cease to learn, you begin to die ... literally, from the head down. It’s impossible for us to predict what will become of the students at Mahiga, but I do know that the school enrollment is growing at a rapid pace. 155

From the first nine students in 2009, the school swelled to an enrollment of 200 at the beginning of the 2012 school year, with many more to come. Add 350 primary schoolers and 60 preschoolers, and you have a dynamic and busy campus. Jane Wainaina, the official new government principal, is optimistic about the future of the school and the kids. “I’m happy to be the first principal of this school,” Jane told us recently. “In our language, Mahiga means stones, and stones are obstacles most of the time. This is a school that has so many obstacles, but it has hope. Now that we have good science labs, the grades will go up. I believe come next year, when we have our pioneers sitting for KCSC—that’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education—we’ll get good grades and some of our students will join universities... and others college. That’s our prayer.”

GREG AND CHRISTINA LEFT MAHIGA SOON AFTER the Grand Opening. Saying their goodbyes, they climbed onto Greg’s motorcycle and gave us all one last wave. My camera was rolling, and I got a wonderful shot of them circling in front of the new kitchen and dining hall, past the RainWater Court, then moving down the lane to the main gate, where they disappeared into the sunset. When I saw Greg back in the States, where he is currently framing houses and doing community architecture design for projects in India and elsewhere. I told him how beautiful that final shot was. He laughed and confessed that just after they passed through the gate and out of sight, he turned his head back to Christina and said, “I’ll bet that looked cool.” And that’s when the motorcycle hit a bump and dumped both of them in the ditch.

OUR FILM BUILDING HOPE PREMIERED AT THE 2011 SXSW Film Festival in Austin. The film does a good job capturing the moving experience of building the school, and we were thrilled to win the SXSW Lone Star Audience Award. Whether the good reviews and festival awards will help the 156

movie find an audience remains to be seen, but the nature of filmmaking is much like the reality of working for good things in the world. There are no guarantees. The work is the reward, and if that’s not enough, you may need to consider a more conventional endeavor. I’ve cut my trips to Kenya down from six to three times a year. On Christy’s and my most recent trip in the summer of 2011, the final details on the dining room and assembly hall had been completed and a movie screen at one end now makes it possible for the full high school to assemble for a matinee. We were excited for the kids to see themselves on the not-so-big screen in the Mahiga premiere of Building Hope. As the opening notes began, the room was completely silent. As the first kids appeared onscreen, laughter and cheers erupted, only to be replaced by rapt attention to every word. Then something really extraordinary happened ... again. In a quiet moment, I heard something in the distance. It wasn’t on the movie soundtrack; it was coming from outside our little theater. And then it came again. Thunder. Once again, as at the Grand Opening six months earlier, rain was on its way to Mahiga. As Greg cut the ribbon of the RainWater Court in the film, drops of rain began to fall on the roof above us. The rain came harder, and I had to turn up the audio, then turn it up again. By the time it was raining on screen, the rain on the roof was deafening, an incredible downpour that ended only as the credits began to roll and the students saw the final credit shots—their own photos taken for the high school yearbook. There was George, Purity, and James, from the Mahiga Hope High School Class of 2012. And Jackline, Joseph, and Regina from the classes of 2013 and 2014. They were followed by younger and younger kids from graduating classes to come, their little brothers and sisters, their neighbors, the kids who walked to school with them. Not only were our high-schoolers following in the footsteps of Mutongu, Kagiri, and others who came before them, they were laying the path for those who follow.

WE HAD STARTED WITH A SIMPLE PREMISE, THAT education shouldn’t end after the eighth grade. As a team of Kenyans and Americans 157

with a shared mission, we had provided the essentials for a rural secondary school: sturdy classrooms, clean water, good food, science labs, a library. We had tried to do it affordably and give this community and these kids a real chance in life. The purpose of the film—and this book—is to inspire other communities and other organizations to do the same. The Nobelity Project is still engaged with the community of Mahiga, but the school belongs to them. Our principal work in Kenya at this point is an ongoing Kenya Schools Fund that is building classrooms, libraries, water systems and more at schools across rural Kenya, from the Maasai Mara to the Aberdares and beyond to the Turkana areas of Isiolo. Kenya and many other countries in the developing world have a goal of achieving universal secondary education. But the gaps are large. There are gaps in the distances between schools that make it impossible for kids to attend. There are gaps in the number of qualified teachers, gaps in the ability of parents to pay school tuition, and gaps in the provision of clean water. Whether it’s done by communities, NGOs, governments, or international alliances, whether it’s done by people like you and me, it’s essential to close the gaps. As I’ve learned more about the Kenyan education system, I’ve come to appreciate the high standards and curriculum that hold it up, but I frequently wonder how the children of rural families who have their own education challenges can make the grade. I have also come across an astounding statistic: Among the top 125 countries in the world, Kenya spends the largest portion of total federal revenue on education—more than 20 percent. Kenya is Number One. But if you look at country rankings in per capita spending on education, Kenya is at the very bottom, number 125. How can that be? The problem is not that Kenya doesn’t care. The problem is too little government revenue to continue expanding an education system that it has worked hard to broaden throughout the past decade. Slow and steady works in the long run, but it may not be enough. Time won’t wait for these kids. The world as a whole desperately needs to join hands to put every child in every nation on track to a high school education.


It’s naive to think the world’s problems can be solved without this commitment. SO WHAT DID IT COST? When all the bills were paid, we had spent $300,000 building Mahiga Hope High School, the RainWater Court, a new soccer pitch and the new preschool, and rebuilding the primary school classrooms. If you multiply that cost by an estimated 1,000 communities across East Africa where a high school is needed, you’re up to $300 million. That sounds like a lot, but it is just one-hundredth of 1 percent (.0001) of the $3 trillion that Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calculates as the long-term cost to America for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the mad, mad world we live in, one devastating war equals a million schools. Instead of a cluster bomb that might kill hundreds of kids, we could use the same money to build a school to educate them. “Shouldn’t there be a balance,” Jody Williams had told me, “between what we spend on education and however many billions we spend on weapons and war?”

FOR ME, IT ALL STARTED WITH A TREE. THAT TREE IS now much taller than me, and one of 7,000 new trees that ring the school. When Joseph Mutongu first brought me to Mahiga, his youngest daughter, Miriam, wasn’t even born. For the past four years, I had watched her grow from a bright-eyed infant into a beautiful little girl who lights up every time she sees me. I try to bring her a small picture book on every visit. The morning of the Grand Opening, I had given her a board-book with words and simple sentences, and read it to her. She repeated the words, and when we were finished, she turned to the first page and started again. I didn’t know if she’d memorized it all, or if she’d suddenly learned to read, but with very little prompting she read the book out loud. As she read, Mutongu watched with a beaming smile.


“Mahiga is my school,” she told us when she finished the book. “This is where I’ll be going to school.” Four years old, Miriam has now begun preschool. She and her fellow students are the Mahiga Hope High School class of 2025.


Building Hope - the Trailer (click to watch)

Our feature docs One Peace at a Time and Building Hope are available on the iTunes store. The Nobelity Project is online at 161

“Like the film, this books is a testament to how happy and decent we humans can be at our best.” Joe Klein, columnist, Time magazine

About The Author & The Nobelity Project Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkins is the cofounder of The Nobelity Project and director of three feature documentaries, Nobelity, One Peace at at Time, and Building Hope. Pipkin is also the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestseller, The Tao of Willie, co-authored with Willie Nelson. He has also worked as an actor and writer in numerous films and television shows, including a recurring role in HBO’s The Sopranos.

The Nobelity Project is a 501c3 nonprofit that works with Nobel laureates and other leaders to advocate basic rights for children everywhere. Through feature films, the Nobelity in Schools program and partner projects around the world, we are working for a better way. Proceeds from the book and movie Building Hope support the Kenya Schools Fund—building classrooms, water systems, libraries and computer labs at schools across rural Kenya.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project at


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