Walking into Lauren’s Restaurant in downtown Boonville, a brightlighter would be forgiven for wondering why all the considerable display space was featuring art and craft goods from western Kenya. In fact, many locals might also wonder. It all goes back more than nine years when Keevan Labowitz, a local Anderson Valley High School graduate (class of 2003), launched into what was supposed to be an eight week internship in Kisumu, Kenya tied to his Masters of Conflict and Dispute Resolution coursework at the University of Oregon Law School.
Turned out that the organization he was assigned to as an intern was a scam. It seems likely he would have figured that out eventually, but less than ten days after his arrival, a near-fatal motorcycle accident sent the scam leader to the hospital and gave the locals he had met the opening to explain to Keevan what was really going on. After getting to know him a bit, they asked Keevan for assistance in forming a legitimate youth group. By the time Keevan returned to the US nine months later, the Manyatta Youth Resource Centre (MYRC) had been launched.
From the very humble beginnings of a few soccer teams and a small group of performing artists, the MYRC now fields a wide range of programs that have served hundreds of young people. Soccer includes two girls teams, a full array of youth teams, and a senior team, made up of youth who came through the MYRC programs, which just placed first in the County League for the second year in a row. Performing Arts has expanded to a range of arts offerings, including audio and video recording, drama teams, photography, and most recently a YouTube mini-series called Anita, that dramatizes issues facing young people in the manyatta slums of Kisumu, which is the third largest city in Kenya, located on Lake Victoria. Anita was created by MYRC-affiliated director Ramsey, and coordinated by MYRC Performing Arts Director Malique. The story and script were developed, written and acted by local young people, and the first season DVD is now burned and being distributed.
Health education is also a fundamental feature of the MYRC program in Kisumu, where one in five people have HIV/AIDS and malaria is endemic. Non-violent alternatives and peace building are also bedrock to the MYRC programs. Vicious ethnic bloodshed had racked Kisumu after the 2007 election and Keevan’s earlier experience in Germany and Serbia gave him insight into the importance of providing young people with skills and alternatives to avoid becoming part of a violent wave.
It soon became clear that financial support for the costs of attending school needed to be part of the program.
Although Primary School is theoretically free in Kenya, the cost of books, uniforms, pencils, paper, and shoes can be prohibitive in a community where 50% of the people are struggling along on incomes of less than $1 per day. Secondary School is even worse, with school tuition fees added on top of the other costs. And if a family has to make a choice in providing education for their children, girls often lose. So now it is a MYRC goal to keep every program participant in school to graduation.
After returning to the US nine years ago, Keevan and Meghan Chambers, a student from the University of Montana who had come to Kisumu to put her high-level soccer skills to good use and who was also key in forming the MYRC, created Equip Manyatta as a US 501(c)3 non-profit to support the work in Kenya. Thanks to a campaign a few years later led by teachers at Anderson Valley Junior-Senior High School, Equip Manyatta is part of the well-known charity giving site, Global Giving (globalgiving.org/projects/equip-manyatta/). Since then, Keevan has taught at a number of levels at AVUSD, and is currently teaching sixth grade.
Since that original journey almost ten years ago, Keevan has returned repeatedly to Kisumu, often for long periods of time. He has many friends there who paint and create other kinds of art, and an association with small businesses that make jewelry and fabric goods, which he buys and resells here to support Equip Manyatta.
And thanks to the generosity of Lauren’s Restaurant, that’s why you will find a wide array of fine arts and crafts for sale through the remainder of this year and into the next in downtown Boonville. Come by, have a meal, enjoy the art! And if you feel moved, point us toward possible grants or donors, make a donation yourself, or purchase something to help keep Equip Manyatta and the Manyatta Youth Resource Centre, its programs, and its people, nourished as well.