A graduation trip to Kenya in East Africa changed the path of one man’s life. Gabriel Teo, founder of Tana River Life Foundation in Kenya, was then a former ASEAN scholar who had bright prospects and a promising career paved for him. But he chose to give this up to improve the quality of life of the Kenyan people living in rural communities. Read about this man’s learning journey.
Tell us about your first time in Kenya.
While travelling through Kenya, I met a group of young medical missionaries. They were a bunch of young women who were professional nurses working in the remote areas of the country. I was very impressed then that young people could choose to do that. Water was a scarcity there, and at that age, I did not know that water could be a scarcity. I was so geared for my career.
My programme changed when I met them. I made friends and stayed with them for nine months to better understand problems in the developing world. I could see that there was quite a lot to be done in terms of community development. However, because I was a former scholar, I had to repay my bond. I returned and worked in Singapore for five years as a tax accountant, during which I went back to Kenya four times on my own.
Why did you go back?
I had questions I had to answer. I needed these answers for myself. After seeing the conditions in Kenya for the first time, I constantly asked myself what I could do, whether there was something that I was supposed to do, if this was a movie, etc. I tried to get my answers by doing well at my career and enjoying my life as a yuppie here in Singapore, but after five years, something was still missing. And the only way for me to get these answers was to go back to Kenya to understand more.
There was something that was not enough, that was beyond tax. I felt that I could live more. I felt that no matter how successful and happy I was here, there was something just hanging above my head and outside my heart that I could not see or grasp yet knew it was there. Then I decided to withdraw all my savings and resigned. I was 30 years old then.
Was getting TRLF up and running an arduous process?
The first year was the toughest. I had to start all over again, be humble and relearn a lot of things. When you start again from zero, you must be willing to listen. Listen to the inner voice and how things are supposed to be done.
Things got better, as I constantly re-evaluated myself and learned from my mistakes. The learning never stops even until today. It was tough not because of physical conditions or even mental challenges, it was tough because deep inside it was like having to empty myself and start afresh with an empty cup, without the certainty of what was accumulated in the past 30 years.
I registered the foundation in Kenya seven years ago. It has not been easy, but it is definitely very fulfilling. I started with my own savings, which ran out in three years. Subsequently, I applied to the Central Provident Fund Board Singapore and withdrew everything in there to fund my work. That also ran out. I then registered TRLF as a private trust and subsequently as a NGO six years ago.
Registering TRLF was very fast but we started from nothing. I wanted to have everything in order and a proper structure. Only recently did we start to get paid a salary or allowance, and applied for tax exemption status in Kenya. Step by step, we try to be fully compliant and well structured. This helps when we eventually become bigger and have to do more.
The government in Kenya relies on non-government organisations to complement their work. TRLF is the biggest education stakeholder in Tana Delta working together with Kenya’s Ministry of Education.
What is your daily life in Tana Delta like?
Twice a week, I go to the farm. On other days, I have meetings at the school, conduct site visits to the construction sites, handle administrative office work, etc. Sometimes I host the people who come to visit, and I run and oversee a lot of projects. I do not have a fixed schedule and work seven days a week, but recently we try to take Sundays off.
It is a full-time commitment here. It is not a question of working hours anymore. My career before, it was not part of me. Now, what I do is based on my deeper convictions, so it is not about meeting targets or anything like that, but more about doing what must be done because I know deep down that it is right and just.
Do you speak Swahili?
I learnt Swahili on the ground and practised a lot when I was there. When I want to speak fast, however, I will use English to communicate. The people at Tana Delta speak and understand English. They learn it in school. Although they may not be as fluent or conversant because of a lack of practice, their comprehension skills are nevertheless competent.
What are the Kenyans like? How do you think they are different from Singaporeans and Malaysians?
Kenyans differ across the different regions in the country. Where I am at (the coastal strip along the Indian Ocean), the Kenyans are very similar to Asians – by that I am referring to South East Asians – in the sense that they are both very gentle, mild, and not rough. They are also friendly, hospitable and kind to strangers.
However, unlike Kenyans in the upcountry areas, coastal Kenyans are less savvy. I found this good and bad because even though it makes them genuinely kind and honest, they are also easily manipulated. Once you are easily manipulated, it is very hard to go forward.
You have been living in Kenya for several years now. How has your experience been so far? Could you compare that to your life in Singapore and Malaysia before?
It is a very rural environment there but I like it, since I love nature. I find it less stressful, even though sometimes I find the pace very slow and wished that things could be faster. It is just all a matter of balance. Living in Tana Delta is good when you do not want to get lost in the details.
In fact, I would only be able to stay in Singapore for a short period of time, because I find that it takes away a lot of energy from me. In Tana Delta, however, it is a different kind of fatigue. It is not the stressed type of fatigue like in Singapore, so it is more refreshing in a sense. I could stay there for a longer time.
To me, the infrastructure, the language [barriers], the food and the lifestyle were not the biggest issues. But it was whether, at the end of the day, I have done something of value or not. I had a big grand plan that would not have been sustainable had I not learned to listen and respond to the needs of the people instead of my ideals, or my goals, or my ego. It was very challenging, but I have no doubts about what I have done, as everything was done in good faith and humility.
Share some similarities and differences between Singapore and Kenya in terms of housing, infrastructure, public transportation, sanitation, water, etc.
Eddy, a Kenyan and an ex-beneficiary of TRLF who is now working for TRLF, tells us how different he thinks Singapore is from the Delta.
There is a big difference. Most of our houses use local materials such as iron sheets. Some houses have roofs made out of grass thatch and walls made from clay mud or bricks. Here in Singapore, walls are made mostly of bricks.
Transportation wise, there are not many public buses in Tana Delta like in Singapore. Buses travel long distances, mainly between cities, and can last for four to five hours. We use vans to travel within the Delta. For short distances, for example to get to school, most of us take the motorbike or the bicycle. It is about a 10-kilometre ride to school.
In my village, where there are about 2,000 people (the biggest in Tana Delta district), there are less than five cars I think, maybe only three.
In some villages, there are toilet huts or pit toilets. Even though we are poor, we have clean toilets. We dig a deep hole and lay tree logs inside and around the circumference to secure it. The hole is left in the ground and when it is filled, we cover it with mud and build a new one.
This alleviates the problem of water shortage. If we had a toilet like those in Singapore, we would have to pump water in to operate a flush system. Once there is a power blackout, water would not be able to be pumped and we would have to fetch water from the river. It is less sustainable and would end up being more unhygienic.
More on Gabriel’s life in Tana Delta next week! You can find out more about the Tana River Life Foundation on their Facebook page.