On the edge of Iten, Kenya, near the old dirt track, hundreds of runners pass by the red-roofed buildings, the white gate, and vegetable plots of Simbolei Academy. While the architecture and rural setting are common enough, the school is not.
Kenya’s Rift Valley is the home of champions—Olympians, world record holders, major marathon winners. But as of 2017, one-third of primary students in the Rift Valley did not go on to high school, either because they couldn’t afford the fees or the schools were too far away. Girls especially often skip high school and are steered toward early marriages. The well known St. Patrick’s High School in Iten, that has churned out a bumper crop of running stars, is boys-only. There has never been a parallel school for girls, or any quality high school for girls in Iten. Until now.
Just opened in May of this year, Simbolei Girls’ Preparatory Academy is the fruit, not of a deep-pocketed organization, but of one hardworking couple. Richard Kaitany, who grew up on a farm near Iten, and his wife Andrea, a native Iowan, are driven to provide the same world of opportunities they found through education to girls in this rural community.
“I thought, what am I going to leave for my community, for posterity, so others can benefit now and in the future? In Kenya, the best thing is to set up a school.” Richard said via WhatsApp.
Like a lot of kids from Iten, he used running as a means to education and a connection to the rest of the world. But his path has been shaped by an overriding sense of community. After 42 years in the U.S., his love of learning has come full circle.
Richard was noted as a good runner in primary school but didn’t intend to run when he entered St. Patrick’s High School. He wanted to focus on academics. But when he was one of the first to return from a six-mile run, the athletics coach encouraged him. That was 1974, when running for a U.S. university was starting to be a viable pathway to higher education for Kenyan kids. In fact, St. Patrick's had already established successful connections with running programs at University of Texas El Paso, University of Washington, and Oklahoma, and more U.S. coaches sent brochures every day. St. Patrick’s coach at the time, Norm Thomson, a Peace Corps volunteer, sent Richard’s times and final exam scores to Iowa State University, where he was offered a track and cross country scholarship.
Of course, getting to Ames was his own problem. That’s where his community stepped in. Though they may have questioned why anyone would need to go all that way and spend time and money to sit in a classroom, the people of Richard’s village—farmers and small business owners—scraped together the money for his airfare. He matriculated at Iowa State in 1978, listing plant pathology as his major.
His university experience involved far more than going to classes. Washing machines, for example. “Another guy was showing me how this washing machine worked. I didn’t trust him, I thought he was tricking me,” Richard laughed. “I made him put his clothes in first.” Understanding professors was another challenge—”People speak English in so many different ways.”
Running, though, was universal. In the company of an increasingly international roster, he came away with All-American honors in cross country in 1980 and 1981, and led the Cyclones to a conference championship in 1981. That same year, he helped the track team to a conference championship outdoors, and capped his college career with a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships, clocking 13:39 for 5,000 meters.
After graduation Richard stayed in Ames working for a seed company. And he met Andrea, an English Literature major and book-loving soul mate, though they’d grown up continents apart.
“We both grew up in rural communities where, to be honest, both of our parents were sort of mocked for wasting money sending their kids to school,” Andrea said. “My family had eight kids, but my parents were adamant there was more to life than farming. We always had a lot of books—I knew I wanted more out of life than living on a farm in Iowa.”
The two married in 1984, the same year Richard took a swing at marathoning. In a big way. He hung with the lead pack at the Chicago Marathon through halfway before realizing the race was long and the pace too hot. Eventual winner Steve Jones set the world record that day in 2:08:05; a wiser Richard finished 11th.
After three years at the seed company, running once again presented itself as a way to fund a Master’s degree. He set his sights on the 1988 Chicago Marathon, where he placed third in 2:09. “That was the first money I used to pay for graduate school,” he said. Five months later, he won the Houston Marathon in 2:10:04, earning a hefty prize purse but missing the $10,000 bonus by 4 seconds. Nonetheless, the family finances were bolstered, and they moved to Michigan where Andrea entered graduate school. Dogged by persistent injuries, the call of the classroom was a pleasant option—Richard decided to get his PhD too.
With four children, Andrea’s job teaching English composition and Richard’s as a plant pathologist with the Department of Agriculture, life in Michigan was full. They were living their dreams, raising a family, working in professional jobs, but already they were making plans for a second act—more of a calling than a job.
“We always knew we would go back to Kenya eventually,” Andrea said. The idea for Simbolei came on a return visit in 1998. What they heard from parents and teachers was the pressing need for a secondary school for girls. “I wasn't sure it was a good idea. I thought maybe we could build something small,” Andrea said, ”but Richard doesn't do small things.” Simbolei was planned with capacity for 300 students.
In 2006, a seven-acre plot of land on the outskirts of Iten came on the market. “We refinanced our house in Michigan and bought the land,” Andrea said. “We got private donations from friends and family that amounted to about 20 percent. The rest was just whatever we could afford. We definitely did without a lot of things. And it took from 2006 to 2020 to have anything to show.”
In those years, Richard took his annual month’s vacation in December to return to Kenya to work on construction. Andrea made the trip in the summers, teaching literacy programs in primary schools (normally in Kenya, school is year round with the months of April, August, and December off. Covid has forced a May-December schedule this year).
She’s clear about the situation in the Rift Valley—there are public secondary schools, but they’re so overcrowded the education is of limited value. And despite being public, they’re not free. Students pay the equivalent of $400 to $600 per year, and have to buy their own uniforms and books. “There is a big demand for private education,” Andrea said.
St. Patrick’s and others have answered that need, for boys. Of course, everyone in the community has heard the undeniable economic and social benefits of educating girls. “But there’s still a concern with parents that maybe they’re throwing money away,” Andrea said. “A girl could get pregnant, she could decide to get married. When push comes to shove, boys get the lion’s share of the resources. All of our students are high achievers, really smart kids, but some of their parents would not have sent them to school.”
All 19 students in Simbolei’s first class are on scholarship—ten donated by Belgian-based health and fitness giant Golazo (CEO Bob Verbeeck was an ISU teammate of Richard’s), eight awarded by the school, and one more deeply discounted. Full tuition is 120,000 Kenya shillings (about $1,023), an amount that allows them to break even on costs. The living wage in the area is 150,000, though Andrea says, running—both local champions and others coming to Iten to train—has created a wealthier class whose standard of living is much higher. They eventually hope to balance scholarship and tuition-paying students.
As Simbolei’s first formers reach graduation, Richard and Andrea said they will definitely encourage them to seek scholarships to U.S. universities, either through academics or athletics. Right now, academics is the school’s priority. “I know some of the girls are interested in running, but some don't have proper shoes,” Andrea said. “One girl came in sandals. We’re trying to get more shoes for them.” Once the school is more established, Richard said he was more than happy to add athletics coach to his varied roles.
Richard, 66, and Andrea, 58, have been going flat out, finishing construction, hiring teachers and staff, equipping science and computer labs, setting up classrooms and library and kitchen and dormitories (the girls board at the school). It’s a monumental task for two people who could, at this point, be enjoying a comfortable retirement.
Why work so hard, again?
“I guess I see myself in these kids, and Richard does even more so,” Andrea said. “We can show them you can do things with your life. You don't have to limit yourself to what others are doing.”
Richard agreed. He knows many successful runners invest in hotels and other businesses, letting their money work for them, but he seemed supremely satisfied laying bricks, growing the school’s food, doing the day-to-day that keeps the school running. “It’s a lot of work, and I knew I was not going to make money, but I like it. I enjoy seeing kids happy. Going to school, that was my happiest time as a young person.”
Donations to Simbolei Academy can be made via PayPal at Simboleiacademy.org.