We landed in Nairobi last night after over a day of travel. Our delegation has twelve members, all young Montreal Jewish leaders, plus a diplomat from the Israeli foreign service. Including me, there are five Temple members on our trip.

Today was a remarkable start. We began the morning at the Gatoto school (www.gatoto.org – check it out!). The school has 1082 kids between the ages of 4 and 13… and a staff of just 40, with fewer than 30 teachers. Class sizes range between 50 and 70 students. The school started out in a one-room church in the adjacent slum (which we drove through to reach the school in its current location). The kids come from the neighbourhood, and most live with their families in small shacks. I can only imagine the challenges of getting into their uniforms in the morning and going to school ready to learn. The educators in our group were especially impressed, and engaged with what we saw.

The head of school, an incredibly dedicated woman named Betty Nyagoha, has been with the school since its beginning, in 1994. She shared some of the significant challenges she faced in her life, including childhood rape, an abusive marriage, and a near miss with HIV infection. She told us about her experience as a child of feeling small and alone, and how, in her words, “I wanted to do something… I wanted to be a person.” It was very moving to see how she has created a place of safety and confidence for over a thousand children. The school provides what is, for many, their only meal of the day, and the students come early and stay late to have a place to learn and play. The leadership is working on expanding their mission to support their graduates in going on to high school and university, and to support their students’ families so they can remain in school.

The children sang and recited poetry with great force and feeling (The three poems were: “Give to the world the best you have,” “Stick to our names,” and “I lost my tablet!”). They were then treated to a concert by an Israeli jazz ensemble, the Hazelnuts, who were here for the annual Nairobi Jazz Festival and stayed longer to perform for the school. The Israeli government also has helped provide computers and books for the school, and Betty is hoping that they can help negotiate with the Kenyan government for a safer access road.

It was a joy to interact with the kids. They were confident and curious, marvelling at photos of snowy Canadian streets, asking about our government and our families, volunteering to sing their school and national anthems, and asking to hear our own.

We then went to the Israeli embassy, which was opened by Golda Meir as minister of foreign affairs in 1963. Israel has 102 embassies and consulates around the world, including 11 in Africa. The one in Kenya is also responsible for Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Seychelles. We learned about how Israel had a significant presence in almost every African country in the 1950s and 60s; from early on, the idea was to build mutually beneficial relationships, and share in the work of development. All these missions were closed in the 1970s because of pressure from the Arab League, but relationships are now being rebuilt. Israel’s development agency, Mashav, focused on capacity-building, especially in education, agriculture, and women’s empowerment – all of which we will see on this trip. At the same time, we are learning about the complexity of Kenyan society, which has multiple languages, 49 official tribes, and religious diversity (more on that later this week!).

I am intrigued by the prospect of trilateral projects – namely, the possibility of building relationships between diaspora Jewish communities, Israeli development agencies, and African institutions. We have only been here a day, and it’s clear we have a lot to learn from each other.