A graduation trip to Kenya in East Africa changed the path of one man’s life. Gabriel Teo is now the proud founder of Tana River Life Foundation. Read more about his learning journey while living in Tana Delta in part two of his story here. For Part I, click here.
How did you assimilate into the new environment in Kenya?
The toilets and all that took some getting used to. But I cannot remember how uncomfortable it was, because it was so long ago. And back then, I was much younger and more adventurous.
I always try to emphasize that we have good hygiene, even though we use the pit latrines. When it is full, we close it up and dig another pit. We use this same method for our school, where we build a twin-pit. Two holes are dug in an inverted V-shape in the ground. When one pit is full, we close it up and use the other hole. It takes three years for a fully filled pit to become ready and safe for use again.
There is no odour at all and these latrines are very hygienic, because it is not the flush system. It is much easier to maintain in the event of a power or water shortage. Furthermore, it saves water. We use two 300-400ml bottles worth of water each time at most.
Share with us some cultural similarities and differences between Kenya and Singapore.
There is a closer similarity between their culture and the Asian culture, than with the European’s. They have a similar way of greeting and calling relatives like the Chinese. For example, in Hokkien, there are different names for our paternal and maternal grandparents, as well as First and Second Aunt or Uncle. They have that too.
Personal hygiene to them (people living in the Delta) is very important. They may be poor, but they are clean, neat and presentable. That is something that is very Asian too, I think.
Like Asians, they are also hospitable and open to visitors but are only welcoming to a certain level. Going beyond that comfort zone and barrier will be difficult and needs time. I felt this too was pretty similar to Asians.
Initially, when Eddy first saw me, he adopted a wait-and-see approach. I am considered ‘white’ to him! (laughs)
To them, white equates to foreigners. Anyone who is not African is white. There are only the Africans and the non-Africans, which comprise the Chinese, Indians and whites because there are only Chinese and Indians there.
How’s the weather like over there?
It is hot and dry in Tana Delta. Usually, temperatures can go up to 34 degree Celsius, but between July and August it is about 26 degree Celsius in the day, while at night, it may be 17 or 18 degree Celsius at night. It is actually very comfortable when you stand in the shade and the wind blows. Mombasa, however, is by the coast and is hot and humid.
What is a typical Kenyan dish?
We eat a lot of maize cornmeal, something like lontong rice flour, and rice over there. Kale is also very common. Beans substitute for proteins and we take a lot of river fish, such as mudfish, catfish and tilapia. These fishes are caught by the boys at our foundation, or by boys who fish and then sell it to the women at the village, who then cut to pieces, sun dry it for a few hours, deep fry it and then sell them in the market. Some fishes are from our own farm.
Do you see any economic opportunities, such as industry gaps or employment, in Kenya?
Kenyan’s IT and mobile phone industry is booming. The market there is huge and demand is high for IT mobile applications, equipment, satellite, etc.
Another unexploited industry is the tourism industry. It is a big money spinner. When people think of Africa, they think mostly of Egypt and South Africa. But Kenya has better safaris, everyone speaks English because it is a former British colony and travelling there can even work out to be cheaper than South Africa, because we are there and can provide some help in getting more localized prices for domestic airfares and accommodation.
The education sector is growing too. Because the upper class Kenyans are increasing, demand in the city for good quality education is also growing. Singapore can definitely tap on this and export her brand of education, since she is well-known for that.
Does TRLF actively seek volunteers?
We would like to have volunteers and that is why we are building a community centre and hostel. Our teachers at the schools are Kenyans. In the future, we hope to conduct training courses, where volunteers pass on their knowledge and expertise to our staff and beneficiaries. I think, things will become more sustainable this way.
What is your plan for TRLF? Do you see yourself living in Kenya for the rest of your life?
I don’t know yet. But I hope the foundation will evolve such that young people who have been assisted can grow up into adults of integrity and continue this work that we have started – building communities and lives, and creating hope. Methods can evolve to suit the changing reality, but the more leaders of integrity formed, the better it will be for the community.
I hope the young people that I am helping will prove the world wrong, because there is this preconceived notion that they can only do this much. And it is worse because they come from a rural society, so they start off with a huge handicap. With integrity and their natural talent, they can do more than they dream about. However, it is entirely up to them whether they attain that or not.
What do you think is a common misconception about Kenya?
Like I mentioned, there are different parts of the country so I cannot speak for the other regions except for Tana Delta. My friends who have visited comment that the young people they see at our place do not fit the images they see on television. They are used to seeing kids with bloated stomachs, but the Kenyans they see (at our area) are happy and healthy and there is generally a positive outlook. It has surprised a lot of them.
Another thing is, at Delta, my youths come across as friendly and non-threatening, and they are presentable too.
What do you think is something most people do not know about Kenya?
Tourism. They do not know that it is a good place to travel and explore. They also do not know that it is a modern economy that can support modern businesses and is regulated. There is also sufficient high-tech infrastructure and is quite a good place for investments.
Having said that, it is nevertheless always good to do your homework. Understand the local context and get first-hand information. The government here is open to foreign businesses, things are regulated and have a clear tax regime too.
What is your advice for someone who hopes to do what you did?
It is important to always try to understand the local situation better first and go without preconceived notions. For example, when I first brought some of my youths from the foundation over to Singapore, they felt that Singaporeans eat a lot all the time because they would always see them at the restaurants and the hawker centres. But it could be that less Singaporeans have the time to cook at home. Most of the time, a lot of people do not observe enough before they form judgments.
To be honest, when I first got to Kenya, I thought how nice and good everything was. Over time, you will realise that there are both strengths and weaknesses in any community and society. Then you learn to be balanced, and understand and know what can or cannot be changed.
Through my foundation, there has been more interaction between Kenya and Singapore. Some of my youths are studying in a Malaysian university and have managed to get in touch with a lot of young people in Singapore at the college level. Eddy has already been here (Singapore) four times. But this interaction does not happen overnight. It can take many years before things become clearer.