In April, 2005, Dr. Gillian Laprairie visited Langley Fine Arts School to share her experiences as a primatologist at the Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy in the East Laikipia region of Kenya. In 1995, Dr. Laprairie was working at the Jane Goodall chimpanzee orphanage in Burundi. A civil war put the chimps in danger so Dr. Laprairie and a team of primatologists translocated the animals to the Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy.
During her seven year stay in Kenya, Dr. Laprairie worked as a Wildlife Consultant and Community Development Organizer. She got to know the people living on the border of the Conservancy and discovered that many were struggling to support their families and could not afford to send their children to school. The villagers, she found out, were not supportive of the Conservancy because the animals often broke through the fences and destroyed their crops. More troubling were the poachers, many of whom came from the community, who received as much as $15,000 for killing a rhino; each rhino horn fetches as much as $60,000/ kilogram on the Asian market. Dr. Laprairie soon realized that working with wildlife in isolation was not the answer; she needed to involve the community in protecting their heritage.
When Dr. Laprairie introduced the idea of “sistering” Canadian schools with Kenyan schools to a group of teachers and students at the Langley Fine Arts School, they enthusiastically embraced the idea, initially naming the project, Project Kenya Sister Schools (PKSS). In 2014, the project was re-named PA-MOJA, meaning “together” in Swahili.
The initial goal of founding members, Neil Bryson, Penny Carnrite, Silvia Knittel, Jim Sparks, and Donna Usher, was to raise money to help educate children in the communities surrounding the Conservancy. The project initially focused on building classrooms, buying uniforms and providing bursaries for families who could not afford school fees.
PA-MOJA hoped that by working with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, they could provide financial and cultural support which would strengthen the goodwill between the conservancy and the community members.
The result has been stronger local support for wildlife; the locals are less likely to poach animals such as elephants and rhinos when they see that the conservancy is building classrooms and their children are receiving bursaries to attend school.
With the Ol Pejeta Conservancy acting as an intermediary for PA-MOJA, staff and students at Langley Fine Arts Schools began fundraising for the project, raising $17,000 in their first year. A second sister school, North Poplar, joined in September, 2006. Headed by teachers, Sheridan Tochkin and Brittney Wallace, they committed to supporting the organization for ten years. The same year, LFAS teacher, Donna Usher, created the project’s first website which attracted a number of new schools. In January, 2008, LFAS teachers Neil Bryson and Jim Sparks flew to Kenya to meet Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in order to solidify a working relationship.
In July, 2008, LFAS teacher, Silvia Knittel, visited Kenya in order to implement the first cultural exchange with Langley Fine Art School’s sister school, Irura Primary. PA-MOJA was officially registered as a non-profit society in that same year.
In 2009, Dr. Alison Stuart became the Communications Director of PA-MOJA, bringing her expertise as a wildlife biologist to the project. Every summer a team of volunteers, led by Silvia Knittel and Alison Stuart, visit Kenya to oversee the project. Since 2009, dozens of North American PA-MOJA volunteers (teachers, students and community members) have visited Kenya to engage with the students and teachers at their sister schools as well as the wildlife they are helping to protect. This hands-on experience has become a critical part of the growth of the organization; by taking students, PA-MOJA is already training the next generation of leaders.
The organization has grown to include fourteen sister schools in North America, including three in the United States, and has raised close to $400,000. PA-MOJA has built multiple classrooms, libraries, biogas stations and continues to provide uniforms and bursaries for hundreds of Kenyan children. Keeping girls in school helps them avoid early marriages and childhood pregnancies. Boys and girls who graduate have fewer children and go on to have better jobs. By supporting the community, which in turn supports the bordering wildlife conservancy, PA-MOJA fulfills its mandate to help both people and wildlife.