Samuel Olando’s parents raised him with a love of his community. And now he wants to give back.
A resident of Lawrence for the past nine years, Olando and his wife, Sophie, have made the decision to spend the upcoming school year in Usula, the Kenyan village where Olando was born and raised. They will spend the nine months there with their four daughters.
“I’ve always wanted go back,” says Olando, who lived in Usula until his high school years. “If I go back, I can be able to help.”
Olando’s main goal is to invest in farming. Most of Usula’s residents currently practice subsistence farming, planting mainly corn—as Olando says, “a Kenyan meal is not a meal if it has no corn in it.” Because of this, many people do not have enough leftover to trade or sell.
Even though there is a long dry season from December to March, very few farmers use irrigation. Olando wants to encourage irrigation by using the swamp in the area to create a pond that can be used as a reservoir for farming. According to Olando, the problem is not really that there is not enough water, but rather there is no control or organization of the water. He also hopes to encourage the growth of tomatoes, kale, onions and yams in order to provide nutritional variety to the local diet.
Currently, the residents of Usula obtain water from local streams or by collecting rainwater, which can become a challenge during dry season. Olando plans to invest in a borehole pump that will tap into a groundwater source and make it easier for the town to collect fresh water. This way, while the reservoir water will be intended for farming use, the water from the borehole can be used for daily life.
‘We’re going into a challenge. Opportunities are limited. But you know what? You have to take risks in life.’
Olando is not an advocate of just handing out donations, but he makes an exception for feminine hygiene products, which are difficult to come by in rural Kenya. “A good percentage of girls are really suffering. My wife said nobody taught her anything,” Olando says, explaining that many girls panic and think something is wrong with them when they first begin to menstruate. “You realize that when people are poor, they ignore so many things, which determines a lot in somebody’s thinking and decision-making.”
He hopes to alleviate the pressure for at least a handful of girls by giving them the supplies they need so they do not have to worry.
“Let’s say we have 10 girls we’re dealing with,” he said. “We can tell them, ‘Girls, your problem is solved. We want you to focus.’”
In order to establish trust between himself and the community, Olando hopes to organize informal sporting events for children, like soccer games or races, so that they are not idle and can experience teamwork, discipline and responsibility. Olando also plans to use Usula’s Anglican church, which was built on land donated by his parents when he was a child. With that connection, he hopes to set up a basic library and computer lab in the church with one or two desktops to expose the local children to new technology and information. He will also use the church to distribute Bibles and Christian literature.
Having spent all of his childhood and adolescence in Usula, Olando is an expert on his hometown. In comparison to the way Mercer County townships bleed into one another, Usula is an isolated village located a half hour from Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, and seven to eight hours by car from Nairobi. The village consists of around 5000 inhabitants, most of whom practice subsistence farming with little or no irrigation methods or try their luck in the over-fished Lake Victoria.
Olando says that the food situation in Usula has recently worsened due to many reasons: drought, antiquated ways of farming and overdependence on aid. He explains that many residents of his community depend on donations to the point where they neglect farming. Then, when there is a year with fewer donations, they are unprepared and do not have functioning farms to fall back on because they have become accustomed to aid.
Olando, now 42 years old, was born in Usula and lived there throughout his childhood and adolescence. He was the second to last of seven children. After high school, he moved to Nairobi to find work. Over the years, he worked many finance and accounting jobs, including positions at organizations such as World Vision and Unilever.
‘My future is not there [in Usula], but I can be part of a change. Even if I won’t change much, I might change one life.’
In 2006, he completed the equivalent of an associate’s degree in accounting. He married Sophie in 2002, whom he had met in Nairobi and who came from a village on the other side of Kenya. Together they had three daughters: Blessed, 14, Favourlynn, 11 and Trufosa, 9. Sophie worked in life insurance before she had her first child. She operated a small hotel that she and Olando opened together from 2003 to 2005. All the while, Olando dreamed of coming to the United States.
“I was very confident that one day that door would open. It did open, after almost five years,” Olando says. His original plan was to procure a green card and settle in the U.S. by himself, later bringing his family to join him once he had found a job and a house. After four years of failed visa applications, Olando tried a different tactic: he had Sophie apply for a family green card. She got it on her first try. It took almost another two years to fill out all the necessary paperwork.
“In 2008, we came here,” he said. “It wasn’t a good time to come—the election and the recession and everything. I remember, some friends were like, ‘Man, are you sure you’re going to leave your job and go somewhere you don’t know?’”
The family lived with Olando’s sister and brother-in-law for two months, who were living and studying in Princeton. As Olando was searching for daycare services for his children, a new Princeton friend told him about HomeFront, a Trenton-based non-profit that helps families break the cycle of poverty by providing temporary housing and job preparation, among other services. Olando used HomeFront to secure a house in Trenton for his family and a job at Michael’s Arts and Crafts. He was so grateful to the organization that he eventually started working at HomeFront in 2009, first as a counselor for almost two years and then with the operations department.
“I did that for a long time, and that allowed me to really know Mercer County well,” he said. “I became now part of the community, doing exactly what I came here to do.”
Olando eventually earned a degree in accounting from Thomas Edison State University. Last year, he transitioned to Mercer County’s finance department. In the meantime, he and Sophie had another daughter, Angima, who is now 7 years old—the only one of the four girls to be born in the U.S. Last year, Sophie earned an associate’s degree in hotel management at Mercer County Community College and started work at a Marriot Hotel in Hamilton.
During that time, nearly 10 years, Olando did not forget Usula.
“I went two years ago when my mom passed away, and I just saw poverty. It’s not poverty of money, but poverty of ideas,” Olando said. “I’ll tell you from experience, if you come out from America and you go to Kenya, they think you’re rich, so they tend to be beggars. All they want is that you give them something. I’m not coming to give you anything, I’m coming so we can learn better ways. Where did I learn that from? HomeFront.”
Olando plans on using what he learned from the non-profit, both as a receiver of aid and as an employee, to help him give the appropriate amount of guidance while still placing responsibility on Usula’s residents.
“We want to make it look like we’re just coming home,” Olando said. He will be living on his parents’ farm, both of whom have passed away, his father in 1993 and his mother in 2015, and will farm for income just like almost every other Usula native.
“It’s a lot, because you’re talking about me leaving my job, and my wife also,” Olando says. “It’s not that we are going into a comfortable environment, we’re going into a challenge. Opportunities are limited. But you know what? You have to take risks in life. Not just to make money, but to be part of the community.”
Olando is also wary of the Aug. 8 presidential and parliamentary elections that have resulted in some protests and violence in Kenya’s major cities.
How have Olando’s daughters responded to their father’s plan? The four girls already stayed in Usula for a month and a half two summers ago. It was Fefe—Favourlynn’s nickname—who first started voicing a desire to spend a year with her aunts in Usula. One of Olando’s brothers and his wife live in Usula permanently, while another brother and wife have a house there that they regularly visit. (The rest of Olando’s siblings, four sisters, live in Nairobi or Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city.)
When the Olando family discussed the possibility of spending the next nine months in Kenya, the girls responded positively.”They, for some reason, told everyone at school that they won’t be there next year. So I started saying, ‘I’m going to have to figure this thing out,’” Olando said. “This is the time, before Blessed goes to high school, before the other ones grow up. We think it is wise to take them.” The girls will be homeschooled, and the oldest two may go to Nairobi for schooling so they are not behind when they return to the U.S.
Olando is calling his project Okokafrika, which comes from the Swahili word “okoka,” meaning “to save.” More information about the trip can be learned about his trip on okokafrika.com or facebook.com/SASOBLEFETRUANG (which is a combination of the first syllable of each family member’s first name: SAmuel, SOphie, BLEssed, FEfe, TRUfosa, ANGima). Sophie and her daughters will travel to Usula in the first week of September, and Olando will join them in the first week of October after more fundraising. They will all return next June.
“I’ll be back,” Olando said. “I love Lawrence. This is my home. My future is not there [in Usula], but I can be part of a change. Even if I won’t change much, I might change one life.”