Alumna Builds a Miracle in the Bush of Tanzania

Cheryl Kyle BS ’62

Cheryl Kyle BS ’62

When Cheryl Kyle BS ’62 graduated from USC’s School of Education, she never dreamed she would have an extraordinary two-decade-long relationship with the Maasai people. It began in 1992, when she and her late husband Pete left their corporate careers at an international architecture firm and IBM, respectively, to spend three years living as missionaries in Arusha, Tanzania.

They taught business skills to the local bishop of the Anglican Diocese; trained women in animal husbandry; and built rainwater harvesting tanks for isolated, arid communities where access to clean water was a seven-mile journey by donkey. Even in the most remote regions, a small room would be packed with hundreds of Maasai men and women, with dozens more peering through windows, to hear the Kyles explain the fundamentals of geography, baseball, and life beyond the bush.

After the three-year stay, they moved to Honduras to manage El Hogar Projects, a project to educate, house and feed homeless street boys. It was there that Kyle’s husband fell ill and later passed away: “After that, I felt really called to come back to Tanzania,” she said.

She returned several months each year to nurture the partnership, often sitting for hours with the Maasai elders under an acacia tree discussing matters of the community and planning future projects together. Kyle said she believed key ingredients to any project with the Maasai, one of the 128 officially recognized tribes in Tanzania, were her long-term relationship with the tribe and accountability. “When I work in Tanzania, it cannot be my project,” she said. “It always belongs to the Maasai.”

In 2008, the Costa Mesa resident and mother of three was leading a trip back into the bush, known as the Maasai Steppe, when Tolito, the young guard who had once patrolled her home, approached her. “He now had three wives and 11 children, and he said, ‘Mama, our kids aren’t getting educated,’” Kyle said. “’The government won’t provide it, and it’s too far for most NGOs…Will you build us a school?’”

At first, she balked at the enormity of the effort, but after successfully fundraising for the project, Kyle had the first classroom built within a month: “Of course, I thought I was done…then, 98 children showed up.” Before Endupoto Primary School was built, children had to undergo an eight-mile trek to get an education, and only a handful made that journey.

Today, Kyle calls the bright yellow school located near the 10-foot termite mound “the miracle in the bush,” and is preparing to build its fifth classroom in 2013. There are now seven teachers educating 239 Maasai children, and demand continues to grow.

The proud Trojan said she is also eager to partner with USC Rossier, and the high-quality teachers the school prepares, to improve practices at the school. Her adventures in Tanzania have given her a greater respect for the teaching profession than ever before. “I’ve always had a passion for learning and teaching…It started when I went to ‘SC, and was influenced by traveling and living outside of my bubble, and embracing other cultures without trying to change them,” said Kyle, who recently attended her 50th reunion for the Class of ’62.

“Rossier is teaching the future generations of the world, not just America, and future teachers are developing skills at Rossier that will benefit them for a lifetime,” said Kyle, who supports the school’s Annual Fund. “The gift of education is for everyone, everywhere. Rossier supports my passion for giving teachers and their students a vision of the entire world.”

Her work in Tanzania exemplifies the school’s mission to improve education not just locally and nationally, but on a global scale. And Kyle found that, even in the most inconspicuous places, there is a thirst for learning. She had not expected that the pastoral people of the Maasai Steppe, whose economy relies almost entirely on cows, would be so eager to educate their children.

“As a Westerner, I am not telling them they need an education,” she said. “They are telling me they want their kids educated, and what can they do to make it happen?”

Each classroom costs about $15,000 in charitable donations. The Tanzanian government pays the salaries of three of the seven teachers, and the Maasai have the desks and benches built, and supply the uniforms on their own. They are also resourceful, using soda pop caps to teach math skills, for instance.

To ensure sustainability, Kyle said the school follows government guidelines for construction, books and curriculum, but she sees room for improvement in instruction, which largely involves writing on the blackboard.

“You can’t just jump in and say, ‘You’re teaching all wrong, you can’t do it all rote, and you need to interact with the kids,’” Kyle explained. “When I go there, I bring educators with me and we divide up and work with the classes and the teachers. So we’re not saying, ‘You should do it like this,’ but ‘Would you consider this?’”

Kyle said she hopes to bring more educators to the school to observe teaching practices there, and provide feedback and advice for how they might improve instructional practices.

Students currently begin in preschool, and then ascend to standards one, two, and three. This year, the school will start standard four. The Tanzanian government guidelines recommend education up to standard six, which is equivalent to sixth grade. But Kyle hopes to inspire some students to aim even higher.

“My goal is to have the students that are doing really well to move on to form one, which is like junior high and high school combined,” she said.

In 2009, Kyle was with the elders under the acacia tree when a young man named Jackson who had been sitting quietly among them for the past two years spoke up in English, rather than Swahili. Kyle was stunned, and learned he was the only educated person in the village to have gone through form four. “I said to him, ‘Why don’t we start a literacy class for the mothers and fathers after the kids go home?’” she remembered.

For the following two years, the women and men of the village were taught reading in separate classrooms at the school site. The literacy program was a success, but Jackson left to advance his own education, saving from his $80 per month teaching salary, and with financial aid from Kyle’s Bicycle Club of Irvine, to pay for teachers college.

Kyle said that he is now in his final year of the program, and she hopes he returns and shares his newfound pedagogical knowledge with the other teachers, and helps them to improve their practice.

She said the perspective she gained from working in this barren region of Tanzania, where there is no electricity or running water, and the universe is completely black at 6:00 p.m. sunset, has been invaluable. “We live in a very privileged place,” Kyle said. “Even places that are not as privileged in America cannot compare to the lack of privilege over there.
For instance, when they have one pencil, and that’s all they have, they cherish that pencil.”

She wants the Maasai to have ownership of their projects, but she has lent her organizational skills to the effort. In addition to an education committee and a water committee, she and the elders have established a tree committee, which has already planted 410 trees to reduce the violent, swirling dust storms that plague the dry, flat region. Rainwater is also captured from the roofs of the classrooms and teachers’ houses into 20,000-liter rainwater harvesting tanks.

“My goal is to sit under the acacia tree once again with all of the elders, and with their blessing, talk about how we can slowly turn Endupoto Primary School completely over to the government,” she said.

In October, Kyle received an honorary doctorate from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University for her transformative work in the rural villages of Tanzania.

Now the grandmother of seven, Kyle reflected on how her life seems to have come full circle – from studying education and teaching in her early career to fundraising and organizing to build schools and improve education globally today.

“This school is my total passion. I love knowing these Maasai kids are receiving an education,” she exclaimed. “When I visit and a little girl or little boy stands up and reads, that is a miracle, because they would never have otherwise had the opportunity to learn to read!”

—  Andrea Bennett

This article was featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Rossier’s Futures in Urban Ed magazine.

Click here to see more articles from that issue and click here to download a PDF of the magazine.