14 October 2011

Kenya: Couple Gives Poor Students a Lifeline

Upon retiring from the Royal British Army, Col Harry Vialou Clark came to Kenya - the land of his birth - and got a job as a bursar at an international school in Gilgil.

The school, Pembroke Preparatory School, which stands on 140 acres next to Gilgil Golf Club and most of whose students are of European origin, contrasts greatly with other educational institutions in Gilgil.

Its kei apple fence is usually green and well trimmed to retain its striking look and its lawns are mowed to a perfect set.

The school offers the British curriculum and has some structures built by the colonial government in 1927 when it was established.

The former Army man, who also trained as a civil engineer, recalls the events that led him to live in the country he left back in 1953.

"My heart was in Kenya, where I was born, and, looking at the (school's) hedge, I could see prettiness but, over its boundaries, there was nothing but poverty," he said.

Help children

"Then I came to ask myself the question: should I continue to live in my own paradise?"

That was in 1992 and Mr Clark, fondly referred to as Mr VC, decided to start a charity to help poor children access education.

That year, many families arrived in Gilgil fleeing clashes in some parts of the Rift Valley. Misery, he recalls, was all over as parents sought schools for their children after escaping the politically instigated violence.

"How else would I help these people? I decided that education would be the best way to get them out of poverty," says Mr Clark, who adds that he has an emotional attachment to his country of birth.

But it took years of fundraising from his friends in England for Mr Clark to establish two charitable organisations - Langalanga Scholarship Fund and Kariandusi School Trust - which have transformed the lives of poor families in Gilgil.

The fund, which has been in existence for 11 years, provides scholarships to bright students from poor families and, so far, at least 220 children have benefited.

The latter has helped construct classrooms, office blocks, staff houses and water tanks in nine public primary schools in Gilgil. The latest project is Woodard Langanga Secondary School.

"We decided to put up a secondary school after building enough primary schools," says Kariandusi Trust's project manager Mathenge Nderitu.

Mr Clark says the scholarships have had a great impact in the area. "I have given out 220 scholarships to bright students from poor families and we try to get those who have completed their university education jobs," he says.

At first Mr Clark started a football team to keep young men in Gilgil busy. Then he started collecting money from his relatives in England with which he built Komothai Primary School between 1993 and 1995.

Students from Mr Clark's alma mater, Ardingly College in Sussex, England, usually volunteer to teach pupils from schools built under Kariandusi School Trust after completing their Form Six.

One of the beneficiaries of the scholarships from the Langalanga fund is Nicholas Maina Wanjiku, a Form One student at Koelel High School.

"I would not have joined high school since my mother could not have afforded school fees for me. The scholarship does not only pay my fees it also pays Sh2,000 every term as my pocket money," said the boy who was the best pupil at Ndogo Primary School in last year's Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam.

Watching Mr Clark and his wife Alison Vialou walk around villages in Gilgil one might mistake them for missionaries. But they are philanthropists whose aim is to help the poor improve their lot.

"I always say don't give a hungry man fish, give him the fishing rod and teach him how to fish and he will not be hungry any more," Mr Clark says.

Mr Clark was born on October 1, 1939 in Nairobi. He went to Kilimani Primary School before transferring to St Mary's School where he completed his primary education.

"I left Kenya in 1953 to start my secondary education in England. It is my father who had insisted that I proceed with my secondary education in the UK," he recalls.

His father, Harry Vialou Snr, who died before he joined Ardingly College had arrived in Kenya in 1914 to join his father.

"My grandfather had come to Kenya in 1910 after his entire business burned down in South Africa. He had gone there to do business and we were told that after the fire incident, he became a pauper overnight," Mr Clark says.

Mr Clark speaks Kiswahili, which he says he was taught by a Mr Nyaga who worked for the family during his childhood.

"He was such a wonderful man who influenced my life to an extent that I can't forget Kenya," says the former soldier who trained as civil engineer at London University.

He says he has to forgo some luxury to give needy children an education.

"I feel so bad because I don't want to go and play golf when Kenyan children are suffering," he told parents and teachers at Karunga Primary School recently during the hand-over ceremony. The school is one of the beneficiaries of Kariandusi School Trust.

While working for the Royal British Army he had visited Kenya twice. "First it was in 1975 when I was a major in the British Army and I led a team of other soldiers to design the Songor-Tinderet road in Nandi.

"I came back in 1988 when I was already a colonel commanding all qualified engineers in the British Army and we did a lot of projects, including building Mariakani shooting range and building Tana River Bridge."

Mr Clark says he had been recommended for the position of brigadier but opted to resign from the military. It is after resigning that he came to Kenya and joined Pembroke Preparatory School.

Mr Clark says he and his wife are quite at home in Kenya. "The people I meet in Kenya are charming and I make them laugh, but I can't do this in England," he says.

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