Shaping minds under a Serengeti sky

Ten years ago Kellie Lala ’89 embarked on an African safari through the plains of the Serengeti, something she’d always wanted to do—and unbeknownst at the time—something that would change her life forever.

Modest Hello Bayo, a local man from the village of Karatu, led the small group of camera-clad tourists that day. Lala, an avid traveler who loves to immerse herself in world cultures, didn’t hesitate to visit with her guide.

“I said to him, ‘Tell me what you do when you’re not guiding; tell me about your life and your family.’ He said, ‘I just started a school a year ago in my personal home. I believe education is the key to a successful future, and I want to educate the children of my home village.’”

As a boy Bayo had yearned for knowledge, but in a culture that based school-readiness on characteristics like height, he was deemed too short to attend school.

Kellie Lala '89
Kellie Lala ’89

“He wasn’t going to let that deter him,” said Lala. “His friend would sneak him into the classroom; he would crawl through a window. He was such a determined little boy.”

Bayo carried that determination into adulthood.

He and his wife Lightness opened a school in their home in 2004. Seventeen 5-year-olds made up the first class. Only a year later, the school had grown to 75 children and nine boarding students—all educated in a small building the Bayos had constructed to accommodate their growing student population.

Intrigued by her guide’s ardent passion for education, Lala asked to see this home-turned-school. He obliged and there, down a road in Tanzania, stood the fledgling Tumaini Junior School, largely supported by Bayo’s job as a safari guide. What she saw inside moved her to tears.

“I remember a little boy had a teeny-tiny pencil, no more than an inch, and he was gripping it in his little hand,” Lala recalled. “I thought, gosh, in the United States we’d have thrown that pencil away long before now. How precious even a pencil is to those children.”

School is a privilege in Africa, and the children were genuinely thankful to simply be in the classroom. However, Lala, a senior account manager for KZIA and KGYM in Cedar Rapids, wanted to help the Tumaini students have the tools they needed to excel in the classroom and become successful adults.

“They, by our standards, live in poverty, but they’re always happy and smiling. They are so grateful for every little thing. They really touched my heart, and I realized I can help these people.”

She couldn’t move to Africa to volunteer, but she could raise funds at home.

Modest Bayo stops for a photograph outside the school.
Modest Bayo stops for a photograph outside the school.

Since that serendipitous meeting ten years ago, she has raised well over $50,000 for Tumaini’s children. Through her church and network of friends, Lala has organized a bi-annual soy candle sale, a benefit concert and dessert reception, and an annual art sale and silent auction—all to benefit Tumaini’s mission to “mold the child’s mind in feeling, willing and thinking.”

Those dollars have supported a variety of resources and projects at Tumaini from textbooks to buildings. In 2013, Lala’s Tumaini fund purchased three solar water heaters so boarding students could bathe in hot water.

Lala smiled, “Bayo said when they first got the water heaters installed, he would hear the kids in the showers, and they’d say, ‘Thank you, Kellie Lala!’ They love saying my name because it has a ring to it.”

Over the years, Tumaini has grown to educate children from preschool through 7th grade. They are now the top school in their district with 717 students and 252 boarders—including orphaned children and those with nomadic families. Tumaini has blossomed from a small building to a four-tiered facility with a library, computer lab and dormitories. Lala’s fundraising efforts have helped turn Bayo’s dream to educate Africa’s children into a flourishing reality.

Lala stands with Tumaini graduates in 2014. Students received Mount Mercy backpacks as gifts.

In 2011, Tumaini celebrated their first graduating class with Lala in attendance to cheer them on. Those graduates are nearly adults now. Many have gone on to high school. Some have not. Next year Bayo hopes to open a secondary school to give more children a chance to graduate through 12th grade.

Lala, a member of the Mount Mercy Alumni Board and 2009 Misericordiae Award winner, returned to Africa in September 2014 to speak at Tumaini’s graduation. This time, she took a piece of Mount Mercy University with her. Each of the 54 graduates received a Mount Mercy bag filled with trinkets, including a key chain engraved with inspirational scripture.

“My long-term goal is to semi-retire there and live there several months out of each year,” Lala said. “I really want to be a part of the work at the Tumaini Junior School on a more permanent basis.”

In the meantime, she’ll continue to do what she considers God’s calling—raising money for Africa’s young learners.

Lala’s third annual Arts for Africa fundraiser will feature a silent auction and art show with a portion of proceeds going to the children of the Tumaini Junior School. The event will take place April 25 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. at Noelridge Christian Church in Cedar Rapids.

Written by Kelli Sanders