A decade ago, fifth-graders at the Amichai Religious School in Kvutzat Yavne started a novel project that has continued until today. They began exchanging letters with peers at an Amaf School in Kenya, a program that continued into the sixth grade.
Ten years later, the pen pal program has proven a phenomenal success, not only in facilitating the creation of friendships between Israeli and Kenyan students but also in enabling an organic education of another culture.
Additionally, the program helps the children learn English, as that is the common language they use to write to one another.
Furthermore, leaning on one another to help them learn and grow has long been an integral part of the Israeli-Kenyan relationship, and last week, the longstanding ties between the two countries were reaffirmed by a visit by Kenyan Ambassador Samuel Thuita to the school and the kibbutz.
The ambassador joined the school’s students for a sponsored walk to celebrate not only the close relationship between the two countries but the friendship between the two schools as well.
The Amichai school has put a lot of effort into helping its students better understand Kenya.
“We show them movies about Kenya, we learn about the culture, we learn about the food they eat there, the flag, everything... about the country itself, its history, its people. The kids continue to write letters throughout the year,” explains Adrienne Assouline, the teacher who first established the connection between the schools.
The students often enjoy sharing the details of what life is like in their respective countries with their foreign peers, frequently going so far as to include pictures and even sometimes little presents along with their letters.
The proceeds from the walk will be put towards books, supplies and food for students at the Kenyan school.
Upon arriving at the school, Thuita immediately encountered an electric reception by students and staff, including Assouline and Amichai Headmaster Yaniv Araki.
As he strolled past the Israeli and Kenyan flags flying at the gate of the school, the children beamed, brandishing little Israeli and Kenyan flags and calling out greetings.
They flanked each side of the red carpet the school had rolled out for the ambassador and continued their ecstatic welcome as Thuita passed by, grinning and waving. “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” blared from the speakers, and children called out, hoping to attract a moment of personal acknowledgment from the Kenyan diplomat. He obliged many of them.
Along with Thuita, former Israeli ambassador to Kenya and current Foreign Ministry Chief of State Protocol Gil Haskel came to visit the school.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, a similar ceremony was taking place at the Amaf School with Israeli Deputy Ambassador to Kenya Dvora Dorsman Yarkoni making an appearance there.
Shortly before the Kenyan ambassador arrived at the Amichai school, the children spoke with their Kenyan counterparts on Zoom. Assouline explained that the students have had various calls with their Kenyan friends on Zoom and WhatsApp.
“And that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about friendship... two schools that have come together, and a lot of it is because of ambassador Gil Haskel,” Assouline remarked. “Because of him, we’re continuing the [relations], and he has helped the [Kenyan] school [tremendously].”
“Because of him, we’re continuing the [relations], and he has helped the [Kenyan] school [tremendously].”Adrienne Assouline
Also at the ceremony were Yavne District Regional Council head Moshe Liber, Teachers Union representatives Gabi Shimon and Yossi Amar, Education Ministry Chief Inspector of English Studies Nicole Broder and Central District Inspector Galit Yona.
‘Part of the school’
Haskel has been actively involved in the school’s Kenya project for a long time. Early on in Amichai’s connection with Amaf, Assouline contacted the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi and asked Haskel, who was serving as ambassador, if they could visit the Kenyan school.
At the same time, Assouline also approached the Kenyan Embassy in Tel Aviv and invited then-Kenyan ambassador to the school for their first sponsored walk.
Haskel even arranged for the headmaster of the Amaf School, Peter Lalo Outa, to be flown to Israel for an all-expense paid three-week trip to Israel, during which he visited the Amichai school.
Still, as the bond between the two schools grew stronger, it retained certain logistical challenges. For instance, it could take months to deliver letters from one school to the other. Unfazed, Assouline enlisted the help of the Foreign Ministry.
“A few times, they actually brought the letters over for us, which really helped out,” she said.
Assouline also contacted the vendor that provides Amichai with books and asked if they would provide books to Amaf, which it subsequently did.
Due to the efforts of people such as Assouline, Haskel and others, the Amaf School has been able to acquire equipment such as a water tank and furniture.
The school’s fraternal relationship with its Kenyan counterpart has grown to be an integral part of the school’s ethos.
“It’s part of the life of the school here now. The children know that when they get into fifth grade, they start the project on Kenya,” Assouline explained.
When the new embassy delegation took over, Assouline reached out to newly appointed Ambassador Thuita and Deputy Ambassador Isaac Parashina, the latter of whom visited the Amichai school with his children shortly thereafter.
Thuita has been the chief Kenyan diplomat to Israel since 2019 at the behest of then-president Uhuru Kenyatta. While he says he doesn’t know why the president selected him to represent Kenya’s interests in Israel, it’s an appointment that he declares has made him “the happiest man in the world.” And it wasn’t long after he first arrived in Israel when he initially heard from the Amichai school.
“I came to Israel in February 2019, at the request of the president, and I recall that before the year ended, I had already received a communication from a very passionate [person],” Thuita said, referring to Assouline. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the ambassador’s visit to the Israeli school was delayed. Finally, however, years later, an opportunity to take a trip to the school finally came about.
“I have to say that this is an event I really looked forward to because of the passion by which you communicated [with me], but even more so, [I’m] appreciating [what] they are doing with that school in Kenya.”
While there are fine schools in Kenya, the one the Amichai school has developed such close ties with is one of those that is among the most critically underfunded and underserved.
After an assembly in the school’s gymnasium where the students received the ambassador with songs, dances and words of welcome, the sponsored walk to help the Amaf School began.
Walking side by side with Assouline and Araki, Thuita led a column of hundreds of students down the side of the street.
The orderly fashion of the walk, however, did not last. As the walk concluded, teachers attempted to direct the students back into the building to continue their classes. The students, however, would not be deterred as they ran up to the ambassador, in their dozens, to deliver a personal greeting or shake his hand.
It seems that although the pen pal initiative was organized by the school’s staff, the passion for the program is equally shared by the students. Indeed, the letters between the Israeli and Kenyan children reveal an unshakably firm bond of friendship.
During the ambassador’s visit, a new batch of letters from Kenya arrived. One of the letters from a Kenyan student declared to her Israeli pen pal, “I love you so much,” in big letters. Another read, “I am so happy to reply [to] this letter and you are my first best friend.”
The Amichai students, as they swarmed the ambassador, apparently did not want to pass up the opportunity to engage in some way with the country that they’ve cultivated such a curiosity and care for through the pen pal program.
The ambassador, for his part, took it in stride, and in fact, seemed delighted to shake every hand that came his way.
“There’s just something about being in the midst of children,” Thuita remarked with a smile as soon as the staff finally corralled the students back inside the school building.
If the children were any indication of the future of the Israeli-Kenyan relationship, it seems set to further strengthen the already warm national relationship that dates even prior to Kenya’s 1963 independence.
The ambassador’s visit was a celebration of so much more than the bilateral relations between the two countries. Ultimately, it was about recognizing the bond and the development of a kinship and mutual understanding between children of two different nations.
Assouline reflected, “What we were trying to do [was] to open the world of our kids and to show them another culture and another way of life between the two places.”