When the ambitious Mama Sarah Obama Foundation finally takes shape in Kogelo, the birth place of US President Barack Obama’s father, the state of art complex will incorporate, among other projects, a primary school, a secondary school, a kindergarten, a library, dormitories and many more.
The foundation will be the first architectural work in Kenya and East Africa by Burkinabe architect Diebedo Francis Kere, respected worldwide for designing buildings ecologically and socially adequate to their environment, an art that has earned him awards galore and lecture stints at leading universities including Harvard.
Kere, 48, was recently in Kenya to witness the launch of the Kogelo project. He is an immensely humble individual whose build, comportment and all betray little about his special qualities that saw him walk from the poverty and deprivation of a rural village leaked by the Sahel in Burkina Faso to fame and glory in the architectural world. “I am the first African architect to win double gold,” he unpretentiously told me as we chatted away at an upmarket Nairobi hotel.
No interpreter sat between us during the chat, his spoken English language surprisingly flawless for a Francophone who never got into contact with the language before adulthood. “I never sat in a formal classroom to learn it,” he said, flashing a broad smile that smoothed the traditional scarifications on one side of his face. He was later to explain at my prodding that only his father and him as first-born son of the family wear the traditional marks.
Where did he learn English? “It all started as I prepared to travel to India to receive the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that I had won. I spoke only French, Bissa (mother tongue) and Mor, the most widely spoken language in Burkina Faso. I had a good command of German too, from my sojourn in Germany. But I had to give a speech in English, a tongue that I had never spoken in my life. It was a quandary I had to overcome by all means.
“Always ready to take challenges head on, I shrugged the idea of an interpreter thrust at me and obtained an English translation of what I was to say. I committed it to memory even as the plane carrying me to the event glided across the skies. I landed whispering it and went up the stage with it hot on my tongue. By the time I was through with my speech, everybody including His Highness The Aga Khan and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, were clapping. I was over the moon with happiness.
“From that time in 2004, I embarked on a programme to build my English language vocabulary through reading and listening to the extent that by the time I landed a lecturing opportunity at Harvard in 2012, I was an articulate speaker.”
Kere is enormously proud of his father, Chief Bouri Kere Bomaba who took him to school at a time education was no big deal in rural Burkina Faso where he was born. “It came accidentally when my father, a traditional chief, received a letter from the government and put it side for days, waiting to get someone who could read it for him. It was too late for the intended purpose by the time it was read. “I was seven years old at the time. Stung by the inconvenience the delay in reading the letter had caused him, my father decided to dispatch me, his first and only son to school 40 kilometres away where I was to live with relatives. There was no school in our village then.
“The stay away from home was not easy because I had to do lots of manual work including fetching water from a river and collecting firewood before and after school. It was a blessing. I worked hard to escape the punishing labour in future life.
“I was the best student by the time I finished the education available at my uncle’s village school after which I qualified to train as a carpenter. Again, I excelled and was nominated for a carpentry scholarship to train in Germany, courtesy of the Carl Duisberg Society of Germany. That is how I ended up in Europe to the disbelief of my entire Gando village. From then on, I knew that the sky was the limit for me.
“Midway through my carpentry studies, I felt that the knowledge I had acquired was enough for Burkina Faso where trees to practice the trade are hard to come by. I thought ‘why not try to raise money and go back home to build a school for children of my village?’ I formed a society that helped me raise some money and by 2001, halted my studies temporarily. I returned home and started building the first school in my village while still a student.
Determined to pursue higher studies, Kere says he combined his carpentry course with evening classes for a high school degree that he received after two years.
“I had my eyes on Architecture that I knew would better benefit my people back home in Burkina Faso. The degree served as a convenient springboard to the school of Architecture. While there, I continued raising money and expanding the school I had initiated at home; now armed with requisite skills to create a conducive learning atmosphere out of extreme heat conditions prevailing in Burkina Faso.
Shortly before he would graduate as an architect from the Technical University of Berlin, Kere was in 2004, surprisingly nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that he was to receive in India.
He reminisces: “I decided to go with my father as a gesture of appreciation for the long, winding road he had walked with me from a remote village. It was fun to see him on an aircraft for the first time, answer his many questions about mundane things that befuddled him such as the packets of food served to passengers and exotic drinks, and simply relish his company at such a great moment in my life.
“At the end of it all, my father said to me, ‘I now appreciate education the more. I want to discover more about this world before I die’”.
Back to Gando: After Kere put up the village’s first school in 2001 to accommodate 120 pupils, it soon became small as more children sought education. That prompted him to seek more funds using his ‘Schulbausteine fur Gando’ (building blocks for Gando), an association he had formed years earlier for the purpose of funding schools in his village.
He embarked on constructing a new school building in 2005 complete with classrooms, a school kitchen, a library and a football, pitch. He says more than 700 pupils attend the school today.
Says Kere: “Construction of the school’s extension was designed to suit the hot climate and to make use of resources available locally. Every morning, for a year, the children of Gando brought a stone each to the site for the foundation as their contribution to the project. That way, they took the project as their own.
He says of his projects: “All are done with emphasis on locally available materials, resources and labour except where cement, steel or other material is needed for fortification purposes.
“Where climate is hot as is the case back home in Burkina Faso, a big overhanging tin roof protects clay walls fortified with cement from sun and rain. That way, the air between the ceiling and the roof gets pretty hot, forcing it to rise and draw cooler air from beneath. Thus the combination of solar and thermal energy enhances air circulation, yielding a pleasant cooling effect for the classrooms.
Kere , the second born of three boys and two girls, lives in Berlin, Germany. He has won the Global Award for Architecture and the Global Holcim Award Gold in addition to the Aga Khan Award for Literature. He is married to Christiane, and the couple is blessed with a young daughter.