Aspen Times Weekly cover story: The water tank and Mr. Mathiu |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: The water tank and Mr. Mathiu

Ryan Slabaugh
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoCover design by Afton Groepper

They poured from the schoolhouses, not just the drops of rain that fell during the wet season but the children themselves, pouring from the door and next to the sides of the slowly rolling vans, the last barrier to be broken between the two worlds about to unite.

Notwithstanding the negative attachments to the term “nation building,” this was just that – it was about building a country with a new constitution, one where having AIDS is still more common than having an education, one where orphans still outnumber teachers, one where drinkable water is still rare, but one also where its strongest citizens will tell you about a new Kenya and invite you inside to help change it. Eventually the van wheels stopped, and the students, dressed in uniform and singing, continued their traditional welcome for their visitors. This time Aspenites Debbie Welden, the Rev. Jane Keener-Quiat and Andy Quiat were the strangers to step out and onto the unfamiliar dirt. They took in the celebration in the grassy schoolyard where they stood, and soon the classes were escorting the newcomers down a path, away from the vans. As they walked, the students continued their chorus, almost to a scream, and took their guests behind the school buildings, closer to the dust and heat and bush surrounding them.

For the cheering students, many of whom walk miles every day to get the Rwanyange Primary School a few kilometers outside Meru, the country’s sixth-largest city, the visitors were a nice interruption, as their arrival meant an eventual end to a long, tiresome, rural tradition. Without a source to store water, around noon every day, students and teachers line up and walk the one kilometer to a nearby river. There, they collect water in small buckets and then make the long march back. Back in the classroom, half the students would store the water for drinking. The other half of the students would pour out the water on the ground – but not to waste it. Instead, the water settled the schoolroom’s dusty dirt floor and kept the chiggers at bay, at least temporarily. After the lunch hour, with dust and bugs drowning for a while, the students could focus, concentrate a bit and try to learn.

The smiling visitors followed the lines of students behind the building. When the Aspen visitors turned the corner, they saw dozens of locals standing, smiling. Many of them leaned on their shovels, ready to work an empty field where they stood. This ground, soon to be sacred, was where the two groups would focus their attention for the next several days. Together, they were creating a path to a new, healthier way of life. And to begin, they would need to build a water storage tank.

The celebration, and the idea for the project at Rwanyange, was a culmination of years of hard work mixed with a touch of fate. Between 2008 and 2010, two activities occurring simultaneously could not have been more opposite in scale nor more crucial to the construction of the school’s water tank. The first, brilliantly complicated act involved the creation of a new Kenyan Constitution, one that decreased its government’s executive power, established a Parliament, guaranteed rights for its citizens and included an establishment for anti-corruption measures and environmental protections. It led to the arrest of several corrupt judges, and now, the laws Parliament is passing are focused on equity, rights and reform.

The constitution, passed in 2010, also encouraged foreign investment in its natural-resource development, and while China took the international lead on drilling and mining industries, the United States has provided security and political support since Kenya’s democratic transition in 2002, meaning international influence is suddenly not so uncommon to its residents, no matter how rural.

That influence is being credited for triggering a lot of the country’s reform. Projects such as Rwanyange’s water tank are happening much more frequently and have expanded to include advances in energy, transportation and, perhaps most importantly, agriculture. And for the most part, the real progress is happening at the grassroots level. One Kenyan activist, a man named Lawrence Mathiu, a preacher, teacher and farmer, is using the newfound freedoms to create a system of sustainable farms in rural areas, with goals that reach much wider than just providing these communities better nourishment. Good food leads to good health, Mathiu says, and this is the first step in fighting the country’s terrible AIDS epidemic.

“It is about showing our leaders what can be done,” he said.

More than 1.5 million people in Kenya are reported by international agencies to have AIDS, with more than 1.2 million orphans being the result. Mathiu said new laws under consideration by its Parliament would create standards for public health for the first time in the country. Outside groups are not helping set those standards, he said, as much as they are bringing in the technology and resources to allow such standards to be set.

“Results cannot be given, but we are very, very positive,” he said. “We see great change, which is giving us great optimism.”

The other activity happening at the same time as the writing of the Kenyan Constitution was a little smaller in scale – almost microscopic. It involved two sentences on a Sunday church bulletin in 2008 at Aspen Community Church. There, Jane Keener-Quiat had included a question asking if anyone might be interested in a service project to a few different countries, including Kenya.

Before long, a small group of interested church members started a committee, as church groups tend to do. Once organized, members reached out to the Kenyan Methodist Church – the country is majority Christian – and to a man named Bishop Miuriuki, who as it so happened was studying for a graduate degree at Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota. The bishop first worked with them on a library construction project, and soon after that was completed, he inspired them with a story about the Rwanyange Primary School, its need for water and how other groups – including a company in Fort Collins that built less toxic cooking tools for rural kitchens – were on the ground helping.

“Immediately, I knew,” Welden said.

She confirmed to the bishop that they had a team, and a plan in place, to help with the school’s water tank.

“He said, ‘I will not be there when you want to be, but I know who I want you to work with,'” Welden said. “He told me, ‘His name is Lawrence Mathiu.'”

Mathiu carries a small, slender figure and perfect posture, is gracious and trusting, and speaks with a well-rooted confidence. His wife, Doris, is the head mistress at the Rwanyange Primary School, and they have twin 23-year-old daughters. Both are college graduates – Grace studied statistics, while Faith is working on her medical doctorate – and like most Americans in the same position, they are busy looking for work.

Mathiu has spent most of his life close to home as a teacher (agriculture and religion) and as a community lay preacher. He had never left the country before this month, when he got on a plane with plans to travel to Colorado, Nebraska and Texas to get ideas about energy, the church and agriculture. Along the way, he saw his first snowstorm in Fort Collins and spoke April 10 to a crowd at Aspen Community Church. His message, not only about water and farming, also included his mission to connect people.

And this is where Mathiu reminds us that humanity, not technology, leads true change. Unlike most contemporaries, when Mathiu uses the word “connection,” he does not mean Twitter or Facebook. He means physically reaching out and finding one another. He lives a life filled with this type of outreach as a school counselor and as a community member who holds several volunteer positions with the church. Being “life-changing,” as one group member put it, seemed to be his trigger words.

“We are all people looking for the same thing,” he said, going into a story about what he has learned about Americans during his trip. In Fort Collins, Mathiu spent a day volunteering at a soup kitchen, the opposite scene from what is usually portrayed in Kenya media about “normal” Americans – the beer-drinking, BWM-driving sunbathers that we are. Instead, in Colorado, he saw well-behaved Americans giving to others in need, and it reminded him of his home, days after the vans arrived, when those 400 local residents finished digging the pit and putting up the tank. What he saw in both places was humans helping one another.

“We share many things, one of which is we live on the same planet,” Mathiu said. “Your people do care about what happens in Africa, that the mission you are under will also help your country. You are a caring nation, and we need to reciprocate that.

“We live at a time when we have to be committed to change. If we are to redefine life for the young so that they will realize their potential and trust that we will not exploit them, they will change society for the better. That is my passion. And that is the plan.”

First, he noted, his country had to improve its residents’ quality of living and the basics such as education and health. But there is new hope – and a lot of it – and he tends to credit it back to his country’s better leadership and new constitution, which not only allow him to do this work but are encouraging him, as well.

Andy Quiat, a local attorney and one of the church members who were in the van and saw the celebration, also saw the volume of work to be done. Yet, he said, “It’s working.” After the community built the tank, he says it instantly got put to use. Rainfall poured from the skies, down the gutters and into the reservoir. Buckets of river water were hauled in. Special devices were provided for residents to remove health hazards such as pathogens and waterborne diseases. In most cases, when residents now need water, they fill a bucket and take it down to the filter house, where they run it through a public, granulated filter and get a fresh, potable drink.

Mathiu agrees with Andy Quiat – it is working, which is now one of the reasons he talks with excitement about “retirement,” about a chance to really become an advocate for change in Kenya. He laughs heartily when talking about it, and the laughter seems oddly timed – most likely from the daunting tasks at hand. He’s nervous about making promises, as it was only a few years ago when his countrymen were being thrown in prison or killed for calling loudly for reform – and here he is talking about communities being fueled and fed by sustainable agriculture.

History aside, Mathiu does not hesitate to outline the immediate steps to take. There’s momentum now, and in these post-constitution days, he’s also learned that no small task is a waste of time. While widespread change such as a new government was imperative, since its creation he also has built his confidence that the little things – a water tank, a water filter and two sentences in a church bulletin – also can change the world. Since the water tank was built, he sees attendance at Rwanyange Primary School increasing and local illnesses decreasing. He sees the community members acting more spirited, and with more resources at hand, he sees all this as just a start.

Now, Mathiu can turn his focus to his agriculture project – the next evolution in Kenya’s modernization. To start, he already has sold two cows to buy a hectare of land, which he plans to turn into a demonstration farm. He recently bought a pump to get water from the nearby river to the tank and from the tank to his farm. Those two tools, a water tank and a water pump – not cheap nor readily available at this point – gave him the ability to build a farm and show others how it can be done.

“We do not have learning facilities in all our communities, things like schools and colleges,” he said. “I will have to go get people and bring them here and show them, but I hope they will come and they will learn and they will take the idea back to their homes.”

As with Mathiu, the work is not quite done for Jane Keener-Quiat and her team. The experience touched her, the church and the individuals on the mission, and along the way, they became friends with the people they were helping.

“I notice all the work done around the world for peace and justice, and I wonder, ‘How are we going to get anything done if we do not know each other first?'” Jane Keener-Quiat said. “We see countries that live in such oppression. Syria, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan … we really can’t imagine what that’s like. That’s why we go there.”

As she spoke, Mathiu listened intently, sitting in the middle of Aspen Community Church. After politely letting her finish, he put his hands on the table and spoke confidently.

“This is not just about Kenya. We are here for one planet,” he said, leaning forward. “We can all be a big part of it.”