An Interview of Gabriel Teo by Rocco Hu

Gabriel being interviewed

Gabriel being interviewed

Question > How long has it been since you started working with the people of the Tana River area?

Gabriel > If I’m not mistaken, I was here from around 1995 onwards.

Question > What were the circumstances that motivated you to begin your work here?

Gabriel > I first came to Kenya after university on holiday and felt a sense that there were many things that I didn’t know upon seeing a whole new world. And this whole new world made me ask many questions about my direction in life. I then spent 5 years as a tax accountant. Over the five years I was there I was doing well, but I always felt that something was missing. It certainly wasn’t a feeling of emptiness, but just that what I was doing wasn’t enough. At that point I thought I’d come back and do something related to community development. I was not sure exactly how that would work but at that age you don’t think so much. But yeah, that was the idea.

Question > Did you set out intending to create the organization as it is now, or was it something that was conceived of one step at a time?

Gabriel > The latter. Everything you see now was conceived one step at a time. It evolved over the years. Every year we try to improve on it, make it more effective. Even the Mitumba project is still evolving. There is no textbook, so there was the issue of having the intention, but not the method needed to achieve it, the direction but not the means of getting there.  That may not be a bad thing. When you admit that you don’t really know what you‘re doing, you learn the most. You become more open to new answers, self-evaluation, how to do things better.

Question > If you had to break down the development of the organization into distinct steps, what would they be?

Gabriel > This first would be centered around the vague term called “helping people”. I saw someone being sent home from school because of a lack of fees. And so education came up high on the priority list early. Then came the part where we did a lot of soul searching on what it means to be educated, what an education is for. We then began agricultural activities. That gained importance as we felt that a healthier and better-nourished mind can learn better. After that it was focused on helping people to become more independent rather than dependent, through community self-help and entrepreneurship; helping people cope with challenges of rural businesses. Also, I felt that at the end of the day, if you have men and women who are not honest, who don’t have integrity, whatever we do might end up not amounting to much. But if you help people become better husbands, better wives, better parents, to become people with character and values, the community will develop in a sustainable way. Thus youth development also came up as a central concern of our organisation.

Question > Where do you see the TRLF headed in the next 5, 10 years?

Gabriel > I hope it will be focused on empowering the young people to mature and be reliable. So this becomes less of a one man show and becomes more of a community-based endeavour. Other important goals include becoming self-sufficient in terms of operating costs, as well as getting more donor funding for the right things. Seeing how the assistance can be replicated to cover a wider area in a cost-effective way.

Question > I can see that the students and villagers in general trust you a lot. Was it hard obtaining that trust? What was the process like? Was there any particular turning point in obtaining their trust?

Gabriel > It’s still an ongoing process. Some people trust more, some less. It’s like any other human relationship but harder because of the need to overcome cultural barriers and a fear of the unknown. What I found very important to this was to show that you can back your words up with action. Last year between August and September when there were ethnic clashes that resulted in villages being burnt and people killed, many people expected me to leave to Mombasa and wait out the violence. But I didn’t feel compelled to do so. What’s the point of going away when all you’ve been saying is that you want to be responsible to them. I think that is false. I had to bear some risk that any other locals had to bear, but I felt the right thing would be to remain there unless we could close the whole house and bring everyone out. I think after that the level of trust went up.

Question > What were the main obstacles you faced in setting up and running the organization?

Gabriel > Compliance, lack of staff and a lack of experience. The learning curve was and still is very steep. There’s also not enough time, not enough man hours. I hope in the future administrative tasks will be lesser and lesser. Working on new projects and the day-to-day administrative work related to the organization take up more than all of one’s time.

Question > Were you always such an altruistic person? What were you like as a student or fresh uni grad?

Gabriel > I was very ambitious and competitive, and a little vain and proud. But that said, I was a person who felt a lot, who thought a lot; someone who always wanted and still wanted to understand the meaning of love and how to live by it.

Question > Youth in Singapore have the benefit of growing up in a relatively affluent country. Based on your perspective, do you have any words of advice for us?

Gabriel > They should realize that the world is not what it seems, that it’s not as complete it seems; their world is not the entire world. They should look outside their windows at the world so that they can see more, and become more. This is important so they don’t become shaped by factory settings, by factory defaults. They should make a leap to live.

Question > What words of advice do you have for people who want to help disadvantaged peoples and communities but don’t know how to start?

Gabriel > It’s very important to make recce trips. Trips that would help you understand the people and situation that you want to improve. Knowing one’s own intentions for doing the work that you want to do is also very crucial. Helping others should not be an escape from the present. Let it be a real path that you want to follow. Not because you’re doing poorly in the old path, but that the old path is going well but not good enough. I can only say that on my own experience.

Question > If readers want make a contribution to the Foundation, how can they do so at this point of time?

Gabriel > Get to know us. Email us at We have two representatives in Singapore, Iris and Karen. Meet us, tell us what they’d like to know and what they can do, and we can take it from there. I don’t think it’s necessary or right to take money for the sake of getting a donation. What I would like is to build partnerships, form connections with people who are walking the same journey. I think that makes sense, and is more honest, more real. If it’s just a matter of raising funds from anonymous faces, I’ve never done it that way.

“Recently released from the army, Rocco spends his time reading, watching plays and volunteering. He also writes fiction, drama and journalism sporadically. He is currently studying the liberal arts at the Yale-NUS College.

He first found out about the Foundation through an information session at his godmother’s place. After listening to Gabriel speak about the organization and its work, and interacting with David and Eddie, two youth volunteers, he decided that he wanted to be part of this wonderful project. This led to him to travel to Kenya between the 1st and 26th of May 2013, where he assisted with installing and implementing library software, and gathered materials for articles to be used in the foundation’s publication material. He hopes to head back to Kenya soon”