Vitalis suggested a meeting (a ‘conflab’) with the village elder, Philip Malimu Tosi, so later that day Vitalis, Philip, headmaster Mr Bondi, Olive and I sat on the newly bought plastic chairs in the dusty school playground accompanied by the chatter of afternoon lessons coming from the classrooms.
The first thing Philip did was take out his son’s laminated school report. ‘This is why I am selling the land,’ he said. His teenage son was a gifted student, and it was clear that his exam performance and the promised place at university was a big deal, not only to Philip but also to the village of Irovo more generally.
Then we walked about 250 metres from the ‘road’ down a footpath to the piece of land that he was prepared to sell to raise the university fees. It was an idyllic setting in the middle of the scattered village: a cow grazed and maize rustled on the hillside. Vitalis said it was perfect.
The land was divided into two plots: 1263 and 1264, each 0.6 of a hectare. Vitalis had already been to the Land Registry to check on the title deeds, which showed that Philip owned both plots and both were ‘clean’. In other words, nobody had any claims to the land. In Kenya, inherited land must be inherited by the next generation. Crucially this was not inherited land, but land that Philip bought in 1978 as an investment. It looked like a fitting time to call in that investment.
The two plots were contiguous and started flattish before running down a slope to a river (where three men were panning for gold!). Philip suggested that the school would be better placed on the flatter parts of the two plots, i.e. the top half of each. We all walked around the perimeter of the proposed piece of land and agreed from which tree it should begin, and which footpath it should end on all four sides. It was necessarily a rather primitive process, but by pacing out the land and taking photographs, it was clear to everybody what was involved. (Even so, I could have used the talents of Preston surveyor Andy Jones at this point!)
At this stage you might think that Philip was calculating how much he could squeeze out of the mzungus, but he took a surprising tack. He told us, both in English and through translation, that he had often thought of building a school for the village. He was now an old man (actually, only 67), and had always wanted to do something for which God would bless him. Our arrival had rekindled that ambition.
‘If I didn’t need money for the school fees,’ he said, ‘I might have given you the land.’
That surprised everyone. But I still needed to know the price.
‘O point six,’ he said. [600,000 shillings.]
I will spare you the negotiations. Essentially, my tack was that the more we paid for the land, the less we would have for the construction of the school buildings, and the less likely our shared dream would become reality. Then there was the professional fees to pay for the solicitor, surveyor, stamp duty, etc.
‘I have never used lawyers,’ said Philip. ‘There is no need. I am a trusted man here.’
I didn’t doubt that, but we were representing a lot of people who had made donations to the school and it had to be done right. He finally came around to the idea of using professionals.
‘We both want the same thing,’ I said. ‘A village school to be proud of.’
I explained that I was not buying the land for myself, but for the school. Forever. He liked the idea that we were in process of registering a trust, so I asked him to be on the board. That seemed to tip the balance.
We shook hands on 450,000 shillings [£3,000], which everyone, even our stroppy lawyer, thinks is a great deal. And, rather neatly, the money goes towards the education of one of the village’s brightest stars.
This is a great step towards the education of the children of Irovo. It’s not the one we expected, but then when has anything gone according to plan in Africa? It also means that we are probably tied to the project until at least some of the school classrooms are built. Olive and I are not complaining. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.