Gabriel Teo lends a helping hand to the needy
Former tax accountant Gabriel Teo gave up the comforts of a stable life to engage in charitable work in Kenya’s poverty-stricken Tana River District, but the Malacca native says he has gained much more by lending a hand to the needy.
GABRIEL Teo was only 22 when he embarked on a journey that would change his life forever. The Malacca boy had just completed an accountancy course in the United States when he decided to head to Kenya in East Africa.
Like most youngsters his age, Teo thirsted for adventure and plunged headlong into touristy activities such as the famed safari rides of the East African nation. However, a chance meeting with a group of young medical missionaries in Turkana, one of the poorest districts in Kenya, reshaped his destiny.
“I was deeply impressed when I saw how these young people (then in their late 20s) were committed to providing primary healthcare for the impoverished folks in the area. They lacked basic necessities such as clean water. Locals had to walk up to 5km just to get a pail of water. And you see children being born in the open. It was simply shocking. I never knew such conditions existed until I saw it for myself,” Teo recalls.
Teo stayed on for nine months, during which he went as far as Tana River district, an area populated mostly by pastoralists and subsistence farmers. There, he noted that most of Idsowe’s (a village in the district) youths rarely went beyond primary school level due to poverty, cultural inhibitions and general ignorance.
Invariably, the men were expected to take care of cattle, while the women were supposed to cook, clean and bear children. Early marriages also made it difficult to break out of the poverty circle, resulting in a community that was lagging behind in human development and social mobility.
“What I saw there really hit me; it made me wonder if there was anything I could do to make things a little better for these people,” Teo shares.
However, the young man did not immediately put his thoughts into action. “I had a job lined up for me straight out of university,” explains Teo, who went on to work as a tax accountant in Singapore, where he enjoyed a thriving career over the next five years.
“I was doing very well as an accountant but in that five years, I was never quite fulfilled and I never stopped asking questions after what I saw in Kenya. During that period, I went back four times just to have another look and to understand the situation better,” says Teo.
At the end of it, Teo decided that he needed to do something to help improve the lives of the people. “I knew I had the talent and the ability to help them. So I decided to resign and go to Kenya to serve the community.”
That was 17 years ago. Today, at 47, Teo is the proud founder of the Tana River Life Foundation (TRLF), a Kenya-based charity organisation which supports rural communities by promoting affordable education for all, sustainable agricultural systems and development opportunities for women and young people. Set up in 2006, the foundation, which derives its name from the Tana River District in Kenya, operates from Idsowe village.
“Our mission is to nurture the talents and potential of those in the community so that they can live in dignity,” says Teo. He adds that education is the key to helping the marginalised community.
“We want to help them get a more complete education so that they will be able to make choices later in life. These choices will in turn help to build their lives and those of others in their community.”
TRLF is now focusing on enhancing existing public educational infrastructures to accommodate a larger number of students. It is in the midst of building an integrated community centre on a 5-ha plot of land donated by the local community. The centre will house a nursery and primary school, a library, an IT facility, a mini auditorium, cafeteria, hostels, sports facilities and an entrepreneurship centre for youths.
TRLF also provides various educational opportunities under its Youth Formation and Youth Entrepreneurship programmes, to assist in character-building and to reinforce moral values. It also conducts courses such as hairdressing, tailoring and mechanics.
Under the Youth Formation programme, students who excel academically are also awarded scholarships for degree studies at UTAR, a private university in Malaysia.
“We have about five students studying at the Kampar (Ipoh) campus at the moment, and they are doing courses such as electrical engineering, business information systems, and accountancy. A student who will enrol in the next batch wants to take up psychology,” says Teo.
Another of the foundation’s key projects is mitumba or reused goods. This involves selling donated goods like clothes, shoes and bags to the neediest women at a nominal sum, so that they can re-sell them at a higher price and keep the profit.
Teo explains that it is a micro-credit scheme aimed at promoting self-reliance among women and mothers, who play a big role in the early formation and education of their children.
TRLF is also carrying out long-term integrated human development programmes that include promoting sustainable agriculture.
“The sustainable Agriculture Project is aimed at enhancing the quality of life for rural families using economically viable and environmentally sustainable methods,” Teo says.
“We are trying to bring in techniques that are new, more effective but still affordable so that the farmers here can better cultivate and get a larger income and more food from the land and maybe be a model to other farmers.”
Teo hopes the foundation’s efforts will help prepare villages for the rapid urbanisation that is setting in. “They have to move forward but can they do it without losing their deeper qualities. They are a rural community with a very deep sense of sharing and caring. To retain that while moving forward is a big challenge.”
A bachelor, Teo says he plays father figure to the children he helps and finds joy in their ordinary day-to-day lives.
“They’ve given me a lot of white hair, though,” he says jokingly.
His own father had not been supportive of his career change. “He was very disappointed, at first. Of course, right? He’s Chinese,” Teo says with a laugh. “I had a scholarship, I went to university, did accountancy and I got a very good salary and he would tell all his friends in church that his son was doing very well and suddenly I said I was leaving for Kenya. He couldn’t understand it at first.”
But then my dad fell ill with cancer and towards the end, he came to understand my pursuits better and he did tell me before he passed away that he thought I was doing the right thing,” he says.
“My mum and my siblings, on the other hand, have always been very supportive. Mum is now my local secretary in Malaysia. She fixes appointments for me to meet with donors and arranges for meetings, so she is very much involved.”
He says his former colleagues and friends from college are also with him. “I gave them up when I left for Kenya but after 17 years, I gained them back in a much deeper way, as real friends who are journeying on the same path,” he says.
“The most rewarding thing is watching some of those I’ve helped grow up and make something of their own. Some of the girls, for example, have now given birth. Seeing these changes make me really happy.”
Teo says that over 2,000 children have benefited from the foundation so far. “Last year alone, we sponsored the school fees of about 600 secondary and college students.”
Among the youths who have benefited from the foundation is 27-year-old Eddy Zilot Adison. The Idsowe native was first sponsored at age 19 and has since completed a college degree in sustainable agriculture. Adison, who has four other siblings, now works for the TRLF and says he is happy that he is able to provide for his family.
“Our living conditions have improved a lot,” he says with a smile. Before this, they had only been able to afford three basic meals a day from selling fried fish in the village.
“Now we are able to get more food and toiletries. I am very happy about it,” says Adison, who speaks Pokomo (his tribe’s language), Kiswahili (Kenya’s official language) and English.
He is also getting married soon. His future wife, he says, has also been helped by the foundation. “She did a course in tailoring and now has her own tailoring business.”
He explains that most of the other 250 to 300 families in the village have benefited from the foundation. “If not for TRLF, I would probably be just going around the village and doing things like unloading lorries. Now, I can support myself.”