In this series overview, we set the scene of a story with close ties to Evansville that has affected the lives of thousands in East Africa.
Lynn Renne: “We leave the hustle and bustle of Nairobi and we stop at the overlook at the Rift Valley, which is just so historical and so important in geology. I’ve read that people say they like traveling there because it’s kind of like you’re going home, because that’s where our ancestors did come from. But, it’s just a beautiful view.”
Retired Aldersgate pastor Lynn Renne is talking about the road trip from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to the village of Ekerenyo in Southwestern Kenya. Still going strong at age 74, Lynn has made nineteen trips to Kenya in support of the Amani Center project.
There are two phrases you hear a lot when you talk with the people who have been closely involved with the project over the years. One is “Peter had a dream”, the other is Lynn Renne’s response to any challenge which is, “Let me see what I can do”. Two simple phrases that, better than anything else, explain the meaningful and sustaining bond between Evansville and the people of Kenya.
Lynn: “Really, it looks a lot like Indiana, with the corn fields and flat lands. And then, in the far distance you can see the hills. To me, just looking at the hills that are coming up, it’s just a really happy feeling, because I know that we’re going to be up in the villages and the tea country and in the places where all the delicious fruits and vegetables are grown. We get closer and closer and finally start the trek up the hills.”
Those nineteen trips and the Amani Center project almost never happened. An unlikely meeting between Lynn Renne and Peter Mageto Maiko on a frigid day in Chicago in February of 2003 is where this story begins.
Peter said that before he met with Lynn, “Personally, I will say I had already given up. I had tried all these different conferences, none is opening up for me. I was giving up.”
Peter Mageto, as he’s widely known in Evansville, shared his dream of building a library in Ekerenyo with students at Signature School. The Amani Reading Center, built with funds raised by the students, was dedicated in 2006. Fourteen years later, Signature School students are still involved in the Amani Center project.
Lynn continues the road trip: “It’s all green and on your left and on your right, you see hills with the tea growing and little huts up along the hillside. It’s very beautiful.”
Evansville physician David Moore is one of the original group of Signature School students who raised money for the project. “I think that kind of 'nothing is impossible' attitude that we had in our youth is infectious and that’s what we’re hearing from the current Signature students. It’s kind of refreshing. I anticipate back in the day, that’s what folks were hearing from us.”
With Lynn’s help during the pandemic shutdown, we managed to get all the Signature students who have managed the project over the years together on a couple of Zoom conference calls. They were fun and wide ranging discussions. You’ll get a chance to hear why the current students, who have never met Peter Mageto are still inspired by his dream.
Grace Higgins is one of the later students who have worked on the project. “It became the thing that I always talked about at my college interviews. They would ask about my public service, or what I was passionate about and I would say, ‘Let me tell you about this project that I’ve been working on for so long, and love so much.' I think it got me into college to be honest with you. And I didn’t want to let something like that go.”
Lynn finished her description of the road trip: “So we have just been driving about six hours or so from Nairobi and we’re driving down the main road with all the traffic and we find ourselves at the Ekerenyo marketplace. And, there’s our turn to go off to the compound.
The feeling you get when you turn off the main road and you take a left and find yourself on the little red dirt road. You pull up the hill and you take a right and you go past the buildings that you’re familiar with and all the beautiful plantings along the road. You see the kids running by you and waving as you’re driving and see the folks walking with stuff on their backs.
You pull up to our gate and you see the Amani Learning Center sign on our building and you turn off. Somebody’s there to open the gate for you. It opens up and you just drive in and you feel like, this is my second home, my special place.”
The compound housing the library now also has a medical center. The project has left a deep and lasting impact on the entire region, bringing learning and medical care to thousands.
But perhaps most importantly, the knowledge and expertise gained by the Kenyan people is prompting a cultural shift toward sustainability that is being felt well beyond Ekerenyo and Nyamira County. In this series, we’ll get that story from a Kenyan perspective, thanks to a partnership with the folks at the Youth Cafe in Nairobi, who loaned us the services of producer Angela Noi and intern Rehema Shaban for this reporting project.
Angela related one of the discussions she had at the Amani Center while reporting for the project. “I went there and when they said this was a project done by Signature School, I thought they meant the managers or the school administrators. Then I heard Steve say something about students, and everyone just stopped and said, ‘Did you say students?’”
We’ll air this series each Tuesday and Friday on WNIN-FM, but if you don’t want to wait, we’re releasing each segment the day before, along with images and video right now on our website and on social media. Follow us on Twitter @wninnews and on Facebook.