Worlds Apart – Shabbona to Kenya

September 19, 2023

TechLit Africa & Ag in the Classroom collaborate

When Cindi Cinnamon first stepped inside a classroom in rural Kenya she had flashbacks to the past, reminiscent of classrooms in America over a century ago.

“It was a throwback to the past,” said Cindi. “Chalk writing on the blackboard. Homemade desks, mostly bench-style desks. Hardly any books.”

It was obvious to Cindi, of Shabbona, that the African school which her son and daughter-in-law have invested their time and energy was so different than the American classrooms where she spent her career teaching.

Nelly Cheboi is swarmed by children who
appreciate all she has done to help better educate them in rural Kenya.

“We take for granted what we have here,” said Cindi, who taught for 35 years in the Malta and DeKalb school districts. She emphasizes how fortunate we are to have modern schools and technology in the United States.

Cindi and her husband, Mark, and other Shabbona Farm Bureau families traveled to Africa to visit the native village of Mogotio, where Nelly Cheboi and her husband Tyler Cinnamon dedicate their time in the school that Nelly built. Joining them in their travels were Wendy and Doug Schnorr, and Tracey and Lilly Sanderson.

The group of friends have common bonds of teaching experience and ties to agriculture. So naturally they spent four days in the classroom teaching the young students using lesson plans and supplies provided by DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Ag Literacy Program.

Wendy Schnorr (above) leads an Ag in the Classroom lesson on water cycles.

Wendy Schnorr, who taught for 30 years at Ashton-Franklin Center schools, said the African students are used to “learning by echoing” what their teacher says. Wendy, Cindi and Tracey offered hands-on learning, which was something new for them.

“The students were thrilled with hands-on learning,” said Wendy. “They were very well-behaved students and were anxious to learn.” The three teachers showed students how to make ice cream and create water cycle and circle of the earth bracelets, among other hands-on lessons.

“It was a place of reflection for me,” said Tracey Sanderson, “being in the old style of classrooms.” Tracey currently teaches agriculture classes at Hinckley-Big Rock High School.

“And it was an investment for years to come for my daughter, Lilly. She played with the children and helped us with lessons. She saw everything from poverty in the villages to nice resorts during the Kenya-area trip.”

The poverty was simply heartwrenching for the group to see in the underdeveloped villages. Wendy described the natives living in plastic covered huts or shacks. “They have no running water. No electricity. No refrigeration. They live near a dried up river in East Africa with water and food being their biggest need.”

Cindi Cinnamon assists students with making bracelets to represent the hydrologic cycle.

“It tears your heart out, knowing that we are sleeping in a warm bed and have a lot to be thankful for,” said Wendy.

Their travel experience was unique in that visitors are uncommon to the little village of Mogotio, Kenya. So as you can imagine the natives embraced them with open hearts. They were called “Tylers” by the children, referencing Tyler’s connection to his parents and friends from his hometown. Cindi and Mark were called “Mama and Papa Tyler.”

“In Kenya they have so very little. “Nelly came from very little. Each child there is another Nelly,” Cindi stated.

Nelly Cheboi helped build a new school and set up computer labs in her native community of Mogotio.

From Poverty to the CEO of TechLit Africa

Nelly Cheboi grew up in poverty in rural Kenya. Her family struggled to make ends meet. But her mother worked tirelessly in order to educate her daughters. On many occasions Nelly was sent home from school until she could come up with tuition to pay for high school.

“I worked really hard in school because I knew education would give me a chance at a better life,” explained Nelly. She was one of the top students and aspired to go to a university in America.

“I would tell everyone: My name is Nelly and I got an A. I applied to 20 schools in the U.S. and was accepted to Augustana, on a scholarship,” she said. “The problem was I didn’t have a passport or money to get there.”

So, Nelly went around her village and said, “My name is Nelly and I got an A. I need a passport and money!”

She met a prominent person who gave her a loan to help with expenses at Augustana, in Rock Island, Illinois in 2012. While in college she worked a janitorial job to pay back her loan and send money to her family in Africa. She eventually raised enough money to move her mother and sisters into a house.

But Nelly wanted to do more for her home community so she built a school in Mogotia during her senior year. She graduated from Augustana with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and got a job as a data analyst. Tyler was a computer software engineer for the same company.

They quit their corporate jobs and went to Africa in 2019 to set up computer labs in schools and teach children computer skills. Nelly started TechLit Africa which upcycles old computers to teach digital skills in primary schools.

Tracey and Lilly Sanderson interact with Nelly Cheboi and students and lead outdoor activities during a few school days in Kenya.

Together, Nelly and Tyler train teachers to teach the children computer skills. They reach about 600 students each week in their computer lab.

“Our goal is to have students graduating from high school computer trained to secure jobs,” said Nelly, TechLit Africa CEO. “We are building relationships with companies to provide jobs for these students.”

Nelly and Tyler Cinnamon have set up computer labs in Kenya area schools to help children learn computer skills and provide opportunities and jobs for the students.

Two years ago, TechLit Africa began computer classes in 10 primary schools in Mogotio and Mombasa, Kenya to bring computer lessons to 4,000 students. They now are expanding to 100 schools across all of rural Kenya to reach another 40,000 students.

Nelly’s drive to leverage the digital economy and provide more opportunities for rural Africans is making a difference in the young lives of so many. Because of her efforts, she was named CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2022 and also is on Forbes 30 under 30 list.

(Above) Children really enjoyed making ice cream and then eating it in their Mogotio school. Cindi and Mark Cinnamon and Wendy Schnorr are shown helping students make the ice cream using the Ag in the Classroom lesson. Students also were introduced to the Bitmoji Farm Shop and Ag Science Lab
as they explored online links to ag videos and web pages.

Nelly’s accomplishments also came with some special speaking engagements. She was the keynote speaker at Augustana’s Commencement in May 2023 and has spoken to the World Trade Organization, at the Geneva Summit, as one of the leaders of Africa.

“Nelly is a big deal in Kenya and here in the U.S., too,” said Cindy.

Nelly recently completed her citizenship in the U.S. and attended the immigration ceremony held in Rockford. She also got a new passport and returned to Kenya just in time to host her Shabbona, Illinois family and friends.