Writing for good
CM Exclusive excerpt: Turk Pipkin puts Building Hope on the page and on DVD
“When you learn what the world is like, good and bad — and there’s a lot of good things that go on in these communities, too — you can’t unlearn it.”
Turk Pipkin dedicated six years of his life to teaching that lesson. His film, Building Hope, about the construction of Mahiga Hope High School in Mahiga, Kenya, premiered at SXSW last April, winning the Lone Star audience award. Since then the film is garnering rave reviews on the Film Festival circuit — Maui, Aspen, San Diego, Nairobi, Napa.
Now he's releasing the DVD along with a new book, describing his experiences in Africa.
“The film is paid for and the high school is paid for. Selling the books with the DVD funds our education work in Kenya, which is the Kenya Schools Fund and back here it funds our education work, [Nobelity in Schools,] with teachers and students in the U.S.”
Pipkin shares this exerpt from chapter one of his book, for CultureMap readers.
Building Hope — The Story of Mahiga Hope High School and The Nobelity Project
Chapter One — 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.
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 a group of kids is 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 fourwheel drive van sliding over into an erosion 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 Kenyanstyle, 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 it.
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.
You can purchase Pipkin's book and the Building Hope DVD on the Nobelity Project website.