AFCLC Outreach Team
Staring into the eyes of more than a dozen children at Mogra Children’s Centre and orphanage, Second Lieutenant Levi Mburu realized his life had come full circle—from Kenya to the United States and back to his homeland again. Once a young Kenyan boy, he was now a man and was at the orphanage representing the United States Air Force. As a respected officer, he wanted to use his story to make a lasting impression; shaping children who looked like him, who grew up in his hometown, and who had dreams beyond the city of Nairobi.
“I just told them that I grew up here too and to be able to share my story with them was an amazing opportunity,” Mburu said, “LEAP gave me that opportunity to return home, to improve my language skills, and to work with the first African Partnership Flight. It’s something that I will never forget”.
Mburu, the middle child of three brothers, was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and moved to the U.S. in 2009 after winning the Green Card Lottery. At 26, he joined the Air Force and a few years later, the LEAP program. The native Kenyan applied for the Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) to enhance his language skills. Managed at Air Force Culture and Language Center, LEAP uses a two-part education system. Through the program, Mburu sustained and improved his Swahili proficiency by taking online courses, eMentor classes, and going on a Language Intensive Training Event (LITE).
“English was the official language growing up. In fact, we used to get punished in school for speaking Swahili, except for one day a week (Thursday) where we would freely speak Swahili without any consequences,” Mburu said, “so, my language skills were mostly street and slang Swahili-called ‘Sheng’. I noticed my skills began to improve immediately after taking my first eMentor course”.
Mburu took his first eMentor course while he was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation FREEDOM’s SENTINEL as a Budget NCO. A Staff Sergeant at the time, he knew all that was left to do to be awarded the Special Experience Identifier was to complete a 16 hour eMentor class over an 11 week period (almost half of his deployment). Taking eMentor classes in Afghanistan was not easy and came with a few challenges. Among them, the most frustrating one was the slow internet connection, coordinating a class schedule that worked for him and the instructor. The time difference, at times, forced him to take classes at 1AM. Despite the challenges, Mburu overcame them and was awarded the Swahili SEI in October 2015 while still deployed.
“When I see people not taking up on opportunities to further themselves professionally, whether taking college classes or eMentor classes, one question I normally ask, is ‘how bad do you want it?’ I wanted to take the advantage of my time while deployed to complete both college and eMentor classes, and I did it, and I’m very proud I never looked for an excuse for not taking those classes.”
A year later, he would put his enriched language abilities to the test on his first LITE to Kenya for the African Partnership Flight. The multilateral partnership had two main objectives: train the East African nations on personnel recovery and assist the medical outreach program.
“I was assigned to the field training where I was able to relay classroom instruction and information in Swahili for both the Kenyan and Ugandan Forces. I felt like this was a great way to apply my language skills and directly support the Air Force mission,” Mburu said.
For the medical outreach portion of the partnership, Mburu and the team traveled to the remote village of Lukusero. The drive included long stretches of unpaved roads, incredible views of Mount Kenya, and wild animals, like zebras and elephants.
“There were no real roads at all and the village was very isolated,” Lt Mburu said, “it was more like a safari than a journey”.
When they finally arrived in Lukusero, the service members realized the community did not have a clean water treatment system. Men and women would walk for miles in the scorching sun to get water from a well that they shared with animals. Cattle and elephants were often seen drinking from the same water supply. The medical outreach team immediately jumped into action developing a sanitary water system and treating more than 1,400 patients in the village.
“We rehabilitated a well for a population of 5, 000,” Lt Mburu said. “The new well had an overflow system and a runoff water with chlorination. I also had the opportunity to help patients complete a health screening questionnaire before they could be seen by the medical providers…this was a chance to practice using medical terms in Swahili.”
Once the well was finished and patients were treated, the service members met a group of Kenyan school children for an impromptu soccer game and some mentorship. Standing in the field near the Lukusero Primary School house, Lt Mburu watched as a white Airman chatted with the kids in Swahili. The children, in their colorful school uniforms, stood in awe watching this man, an American, speaking their language. Two very different worlds, Lt Mburu’s homeland and his Air Force community, joined in harmony in Kenya.
“When we talk about breaking cultural barriers, this is it,” Lt Mburu said, “LEAP and all of these experiences have collectively prepared me to be an effective international Airman. I am fully aware the Air Force will utilize my language skills to meet both present and future operational needs including OCONUS assignments”.