On Thursday night, Dec 10, Doug and I attended a dinner for the families of EARTH University graduates at EARTH President Jose Zaglul’s home in Guacimo, Costa Rica. It was hard to believe that just three years and 11 months ago, I had been present at a similar dinner at Jose’s house for the same group of students who would represent the class of 2010, including John Lomurut and Robert Lechipan, the first students from Kenya to attend EARTH University. Back then, John and Robert were thin and anxious. When we stood in the reception line in which they would meet Jose for the first time, they were shaking with nervousness. As we reached Jose and his gracious wife, Rosario, I introduced John and Robert. Jose gave them one of his characteristic big hugs. “Welcome to EARTH!” Jose said as John and Robert stepped back with shocked looks on their faces.
“Mama Rungu, in Kenya only rarely would professors shake our hands,” John said to me. “And the Chancellor of a University, no way would he hug a student. This is a very different place. “
Consequently, this dinner for graduates and their families at Jose’s house was very special. At our table we had a Costa Rican student, Jose Luiz Orlich, and his elegantly dressed parents. John sat between Doug and me, looking very handsome in his new blazer and tie. I could not be prouder of John. With a bachelor of science in agronomy, in addition to four valuable years that included field experience running his own business and daily dialogues about leadership and ethics, John is a true Agent of Change. About all of this, John is humble and thoughtful. There is no question that he feels the weight of responsibility that will greet him when he returns to Kenya. But John is also a scientist with an intense interest in the study of soil science. So he wants to try and secure a full scholarship to graduate school so that he can further his knowledge before he returns home. He does this with our blessing because we know that John is committed to bringing creative solutions to the challenges of food security, energy and water in northern Kenya, while also using those solutions to create jobs. “Imagine the day, Mama Rungu,” John told me, “when we will have all these graduates of EARTH in northern Kenya. We will be able to do so much.”
At the conclusion of the dinner for graduates and their families, Jose spoke. He told the students, “We offered you admission to this school because of your dreams. Now it is time for you to return home and and create a more prosperous and just world.”
Students and parents were then invited to step forward to speak a few words. The father of a young Mexican woman that would graduate the next day brought tears to my eyes. He said, “I want to thank the donors who made my child’s education possible. I now have a daughter who has the skills to lead us out of poverty. She is a woman who will care for the environment and for this, there are no words that I can give you to express my gratitude.” One after another, confident young people, from 16 countries around the world, including Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil and devastated countries like Haiti, came forward to express their gratitude and confidence in their ability to make this world a better place. Tonight, the promises they made to us were real.
And though she did not speak, I closely watched a young woman from Nicaragua who had stood up at the dinner for new students almost four years ago. No one will forget her fierce declaration, with tears running down her face, as she told us that she was the daughter of a maid, and she had never dreamed that she would be anything but a maid like her mother. “People always told me that I am nothing, and that I will never amount to anything. “Now,” she said, “I know I am going to be something.” With unstoppable determination, she graduated as one of the top students in her class and at graduation was given a $5000 prize in sustainability for her graduation project in waste water management.
The next day, graduates and faculty assembled on the steps of the school plaza for pictures. The flags of all the nations represented at EARTH fluttered behind them in the warm tropical breeze. We were then transported to the open air gymnasium for the ceremony. An EARTH graduation is an inspiring event, and three years ago, Doug and I attended the EARTH University graduation where the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the micro-loan Grameen Bank, was the commencement speaker. He was joined on the stage by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, another Nobel Peace Prize laureate. At any other setting, their soaring rhetoric would have sounded like impossible dreams. But at EARTH, an institution that vibrates with purpose and energy, everything seems possible. President Arias told us “wherever there is an EARTH graduate, no matter where, there will be hope, hope for peace.”
On Friday, December 11, BOMA graduated their first Agent of Change from EARTH University. At times when I reflect upon our work in northern Kenya, it sometimes seems like we are soldiers in a battle against poverty, social injustice, exploitation and ignorance. In that battle our most important weapons are the tools of education and economic empowerment. There are days when that work is hard. But not today. Today we graduated an Agent of Change. Today we graduated a force to be reckoned with. Today we graduated a champion who can liberate those that are vulnerable. Today, poverty, corruption, negligence, manipulation and exploitation lost.
The ceremony concluded with a singing of the EARTH University school anthem, whose, source, appropriately, is a protest song. With a message of solidarity and of individual and social responsibility, I was proud to stand on the stage, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow board members and the incredible faculty of EARTH University as we sang the school anthem. 80 young graduates from 16 different countries will now go forth, carrying this song in their heart.
As soon as I returned home to Vermont, I looked up President Oscar Arias’ inspiring speech. It concluded with this: “I would like to leave you with the words once written by the poet Rabindranath Tagore: ‘Don’t allow me to pray for refuge from danger, rather to not fear danger when I confront it. Don’t allow me to beg for my pain to be alleviated, rather for the heart to conquer my pain. Don’t allow me to seek alliances in the battlefield of life, rather to seek my own strength. Don’t allow me to flee.’ My brave young people, don’t allow yourselves to flee. Before you are your paths, and before you are also footsteps. Dare to walk your path. “
God bless us all. God bless EARTH.
PS. Robert Lechipan will graduate from EARTH in December 2011, along with Christopher Sanya Lengodo and Lucy Lekidayo, of northern Kenya.
PSS. Kura, BOMA’s Operations Director, and his wife are now the proud parents of a baby girl, Sarah.
PSS. Many thanks for all the well-wishes and concerns about my health and the tropical malady I picked up. Not 100% recovered yet, but on the mend.
The BOMA Nomad blog will continue when I return to northern Kenya in January.