Once upon a time in Kenya
By Alejandro Castano on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012
You couldn’t get further from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania than the northern Kenyan town of Marsabit. That’s precisely where Russell Morgan, born and raised in Pennsylvania, taught for three years starting in 1966. At the time he was the only Peace Corps teacher at a new school in a heavily politicized area. Among his students was Mohamud Said, a talented and ambitious young man.
For three years Morgan prepared students in his school for the Cambridge style university entrance examination. The British had only left a few years before the school was established, and the colonial education structure, system and standards, lingered.
Said and his classmates liked Morgan. He was one of the only white teachers they had. The other teachers were of African or Asian descent, with one Brit. They also really liked that he taught science – it meant they got to work in a laboratory. Morgan did indeed dedicate his time to scientific topics, teaching Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. He remembers how challenging and rewarding it was to teach concepts to children that had sometimes never experienced them. One of them was magnetism, which he demonstrated by moving a magnet under a table with pieces of metal fragments on top. As the fragments moved, it seemed like magic! Another, which just seemed ludicrous at the time, was snow. He remembers how the school’s electric generator was itself a scientific marvel. “Some of the students had never used a light switch.”
“It takes levity to work in that sort of environment” he said of the difficulties faced by the students. “It also takes a lot of perseverance by the kids.” Morgan remembered how the generator would sometimes fail in the evenings, but the students, eager to learn, would continue reading by flashlight or candlelight. One of his students got Malaria, but persevered – such was the drive to learn.
The first graduating class did very well. Most of them got into the University system and continued to very successful careers. Mahamud Said personifies this success. He left Marsabit for University and did very well. He earned himself a scholarship to study medicine in Russia. “It was fun,” he jokes about having to learn the Slavic language, “we saw it as an adventure.” Once he was able to generate a little bit of income, he would travel to Western Europe. “You could do that on a Kenyan Passport in those days.” He even studied in Sweden for a while before returning to Kenya, to pay his debt to his country, working for the government.
There was no way Russell Morgan could have known that his student, though obviously talented, would achieve so much. Not only did Said become an entrepreneur, now owning a private hospital, pharmacy, and nursery, he also became an important actor in the international civil society. He is the President of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, an organization that advocates on behalf of torture survivors.
Said was in Washington DC in February, participating in a conference hosted by American University on the subject of torture. One of his aims is having the Istanbul Protocol adopted, which would normalize ways of using forensic evidence to document cases of torture. This standardization would help survivors in judicial battles.
Dr. Mahamud Said MD HSC is also the First Deputy Governor of the Red Cross in Kenya and oversees the operation of some of the largest refugee camps in the world.
The Humbling Peace Corps Experience
Russell Morgan came back into Said’s life in 2007, nearly 40 years after their first encounter. The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer had gone back to Marsabit as part of his role as Chairman of the Board of Directors, National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) / Encore International Service Corps. It was then through serendipitous circumstances that he was able to track down his former student through a teacher there, who remembered them both.
When asked how the Peace Corps influenced his life, Dr. Said mentioned the importance of his one-on-one interactions with his teachers and how their values created a sense of personal optimism and communal responsibility. “Many of my peers have all grown up to be philanthropists as a result.”
After Dr. Morgan’s departure, no Peace Corps Volunteers returned to the area for almost 40 years because of security concerns. When asked whether he could have predicted his student’s success he concluded: “Seeing people achieve their potential, it really makes you humble. You can’t possibly imagine what people can do with access to education.” Seeing his students’ potential come out, particularly when faced with adversity, is his favorite memory of the Peace Corps.
Find out more about the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims
Find out more about the International Red Cross in Kenya