Plans are underway to start a "sister communities" network linking organizations in Mason with those in a rural village in western Kenya. The "Mason-Mitua Connection" will encourage schools, church groups and service organizations in both communities to reach across the globe for the purposes of mutual exchange, education and support.
Last month, Mason residents Tom Titus, Scott Zesch and Tony Plutino traveled to Brigadia Village, Mitua Sublocation, to meet with African civic leaders and identify groups in the region that might benefit from partnering with organizations in Mason. On Sunday, February 28 at 7:00 P.M., they will show photographs of the village and lead a discussion at the Mason High School auditorium. Everyone who is interested in learning more about life in Africa is encouraged to attend.
Following the program, the presenters will solicit suggestions from the audience on various types of exchange that might benefit the people of both Mason and Mitua. They especially hope that Mason’s students will be interested in sharing ideas with their African counterparts. As Mason mayor Brent Hinckley remarked, "We as a community are broadly enriched any time we learn new things and whenever we open our arms in friendship to new and different people and experiences."
The visitors from Mason toured two secondary schools in the Kenyan village. Rose Murunga, principal of Mitua Girls Secondary School, told them that she believed communication with foreigners would help remove her students’ "local" mentality and encourage them to think globally. According to Titus Kilongi, another Kenyan educator who welcomed the Mason delegation, "The fact that someone from the United States visits these students makes them feel that they are not so isolated and can go out into the world themselves."
The Mason team also saw several agricultural projects initiated by the Mitua Maziwa Women Group, a self-help organization engaged in the production of commercial fodder, poultry and vegetables. In addition, this group operates a local savings and loan program. Wilson Wafula, a government extension worker who instructs the women in improved farming methods, praised the group’s progress since its formation in 2008 and explained some of the challenges its members face, including the lack of irrigation equipment and storage facilities for produce. He described many of the members as "vulnerable" or disadvantaged people, such as widows and those caring for AIDS orphans.
The trip revealed some surprises about the mix of tradition and technology in twenty-first-century Africa. For instance, although the mud-walled houses in the remote village had no electric power, plumbing or refrigeration, cell phone service there was significantly better than in Mason County.
Two years ago, western Kenya suffered immensely from a wave of ethnic violence following a disputed presidential election. Only 25 miles from Mitua in the town of Eldoret, 36 people, including many children, were hacked or burned to death in a church where they had taken refuge on New Years Day 2008. Afterward, many Kenyans fled northwest to the region around Mitua, which remained peaceful during the turmoil. Although it was formerly inhabited almost exclusively by the Bukusu people, Mitua has increased in both population density and ethnic diversity as a result of strife elsewhere in the country. The closest major town, Kitale, has also gained a reputation for stability and inter-ethnic tolerance. Consequently, it has seen a large influx of people in recent years.
Mitua civic leader Bernard Bifwoli hosted the Mason delegation at his farm and arranged the meetings with the organizations in Brigadia Village. Bifwoli was formerly the treasurer of the Nzoia County Council in Kitale and currently serves as chairman of the Kitale Branch of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He introduced the visitors from Mason to the district commissioner, mayor and city council in Kitale. The mayor of Kitale sent a letter of friendship to Mason.
Mason’s connection with Mitua goes back 27 years. In 1983, Scott Zesch was a Peace Corps teacher in a local secondary school that Bernard Bifwoli chaired. During that time, Zesch occasionally wrote letters from the village that appeared in the Mason County News.
In response to one of those articles, the late Mason author and teacher Stella Gipson Polk observed in her newspaper column: "To me, the greatest prison for most of us is to enclose ourselves in our little way of life, expecting the whole world to see as we see. So often when I taught about China, the children would say, ‘Aren’t they funny in China; they do everything backward.’ Then I would ask, ‘Are they doing everything backward or could it be we who do everything backward?’"
Zesch, who previously visited Mitua in 1987 and 1996, was pleased to see that living conditions there have improved steadily since he first arrived in 1983. Brigadia Village now has a thriving commercial district, better water supplies through the introduction of bore holes, and many more brick and concrete houses with iron-sheet roofs. Nonetheless, families there still struggle daily with the realities of poverty, making it hard for them to educate their children and plan for the future.
Tom Titus came up with the idea for the Mason-Mitua Connection last fall when he learned about Zesch’s impending trip back to the village. They hope that other Mason residents will want to visit Mitua in the future.
As mayor Brent Hinckley summed up, "Any time we learn something outside of our comfort zone or beyond the regular boundaries of our life, we have a foundation for understanding the broader world around us and the vastness of people and lifestyles in the global community."
Anyone who is interested in participating in the Mason-Mitua Connection but who cannot attend the program on February 28 is encouraged to contact Tom Titus, (325) 347-0345 or email@example.com, or Scott Zesch, (325) 347-6291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.