Communal Living and Youth Formation Programs

Dear Friends

At the outset, I would like to express our sincere thanks and gratitude to all of you who have taken the time to meet with me and my student Salati during my first trip to Singapore. Your continued support and help are very much appreciated. I am now back in Singapore for a second stay until 20th May 2023 and look forward to meeting up with more of you.

Allow me to provide you a brief update on two of our programmes – both of which are aimed at empowering our students and youth with more than just academic opportunities. The Communal Living and Youth Formation programmes also build character and nurture good values, while developing skills and competencies of the young people being assisted.

Communal Living for secondary school students and youth volunteers

The TRLF Community in Idsowe has grown over the years. We now have 55 fully sponsored secondary school students living together with 15 youth volunteers, for whom I act as guardian.

The TRLF Hostel to permanently house the Idsowe Community is under construction and is scheduled for completion by December 2023. The Hostel will also house the guest rooms for visitors.

Over the years, the older youth and students living at the TRLF community home in Idsowe have matured to become responsible mentors and role models. This has enabled us to increase the number of students we can accept into our community each year.

Youth Formation Programme

In January 2023, we welcomed 15 youth to this 2-year full-time live-in formation programme, which provides the path to full tertiary level sponsorship commencing January 2025.

Besides the different skills they learn from their varied tasks, e.g. house management, catering, financial literacy and project management, the youth also internalize values and good work ethics, such as diligence, focus, planning, target-setting and time management. They also learn how to engage respectfully and empathize with the communities we assist, crossing barriers of tribe and religion.

In carrying out their income generating projects, such as vegetable farming, livestock keeping, fish farming, bee-keeping and moringa oil production, the youth are encouraged to blend ancient wisdom with new knowledge.

The exposure they get from all these tasks helps them to learn how to give adequate and just responses to difficulties and challenges faced by communities around them, while sensitizing them to the importance of maximizing the impact of donor funds.

At the end of the day, the formation they receive helps the youth become more complete persons, maturing into capable and caring young men and women who are able and willing to look after, and to look out for those who come after them.

Aside from these programs, the foundation supports secondary school students through two other programmes, i.e. General Bursaries and Tana Delta Merit Scholarships. We will be sending out a separate report on the Secondary School Programmes.

Your kind support enables us to carry out all these works and we thank you. God bless.

Gabriel Teo Kian Chong

Singapore, 20th May 2023

Whatsapp / Telegram : +254723521774

Email :

Easter Message from Gabriel

Jambo! (Swahili for Hello!) to all our friends from all of us here in Tana River. I am very happy to inform you that I plan to visit Malaysia and Singapore again in June and July together with one or two of our youth. It’s been a long absence and I am so looking forward to seeing all of you once again. Dates are being finalized and I will send them out as soon as they are confirmed.

Dear friends, although we will NOT be organizing any collection of Mitumba (used clothes/shoes etc) this year; we will be making a special appeal for used school furniture for which our village schools here in Tana Delta are in dire need of.

Specifically, we are appealing for:

(1) Classroom desks and chairs,

(2) Metal cabinets,

(3) Canteen tables and benches and

(4) Teacher’s tables.

One of Tana River Life Foundation’s (TRLF) core tenets is in education, both academic as well as in values formation. This is our key method in realizing our stated objectives of building individual lives and thereby entire communities.

Today, TRLF is a major development partner of the Tana Delta Sub County Education Department in Kenya, helping to provide quality, affordable education for many reaching even the most rural villages. We assist all the 72 public primary schools and 17 public secondary schools in the Delta. The furniture that we receive and ship to Tana Delta goes to help furnish these public schools.

I am accompanying this short note with some photos portraying our recent activities. We hope to have our annual report ready for distribution by the middle of the year. Thank you once again for journeying with us, and to all our Christian friends, we wish you the hope and great joy of the Easter resurrection.

May God continue to bless and protect us all.

Gabriel Teo
16th April, 2022

Click here if you’d like to download the letter to forward to your friends.

2020 Updates from TRLF

Dear Friends

Warm greetings from the Tana Delta in Kenya. I hope this message finds you and your families safe. It is a challenging time for all, and from here in Tana, we continue to be united with you in prayers. Kenya started reporting cases of Covid-19 recently, with closures and curfews nationwide, although there are no cases reported here in Tana Delta to date.

I was to leave for Asia by mid-April, but have postponed my trip indefinitely. As such, we will NOT be having a Mitumba collection this year. However, if we are able to travel later this year, we hope to proceed with our collection of school furniture and study aids.

Grade 6 pupils from Onwardei Primary School gladly transporting classroom chairs from Singapore to their school across the River Tana using a traditional dugout canoe.

Since we are not likely to meet anytime soon, I have prepared two reports to give an insight into what we were able to do with your support last year.
Please click here for the 2019 Tana River Life Foundation Annual Report
If you are reading this on a mobile phone or on any low bandwidth platform, you may access the compressed version here.
For details on the 2019 Tana River Life Foundation Activities and Achievements, please click here
If you are reading this on a mobile phone or on any low bandwidth platform, you may access the compressed version here.
On behalf of the many young people and their families, and entire communities here in Tana Delta, that have benefited in one way or another from your assistance last year, we thank you very much.

We hope you will continue to journey with us in 2020, as we strive to build lives of greater dignity, freedom and integrity for many.

May God bless and protect you and your families.

Gabriel Teo Kian Chong
15th April 2020

P/S : Please add to your address book so that our emails will not be blocked by your Spam filter.

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TRLF Mitumba 2016

Dear friends

I hope this note finds you and your families well.

I am now tying up matters over here in Tana as I prepare to make my trip to Asia at the end of March. It has been extra hectic because of the on-going construction of the new school ( Emmaus Centre Project Phase 1) which restarted late last year and also because we expanded our bursary programme to assist students from Term 1, especially those who performed well in the primary school leaving exams and were not able to continue to secondary school because of financial limitations. Thank you very much once again for your support for our work here in Tana Delta.

Classroom North Elevation

I expect to be at my mum’s place in JB by 1st April and in Singapore by the evening of 3rd April. I hope we can meet up sometime in April or May. I will be in Singapore the whole of April and again in the last two weeks of May. I will be in Malaysia during the first two weeks of May as well as the first two weeks of June before returning to Kenya by mid-June.

We will have our Mitumba Project collections again this year from 8 – 16 April at Nativity Church Kindergarten, the same venue as last year. Collection details and wishlist are available for download here.

In the last year, together with a few volunteer friends from Singapore and Malaysia, we registered Tana River Life Foundation Pte Ltd. One of its activities is the sale of Kenyan handicrafts in Singapore & Malaysia, with all profits going to support TRLF projects in Kenya. Soapstone carvings featuring safari animals and Christmas figurines have been the first products. If you would like to view or find out more, please contact Iris Tay at

When in Asia, I will be contactable at +65-98338401 (Singapore) / +6012-6237040 (Malaysia) or Whatsapp to +254723521774. I look forward to meeting you during our time in Asia.

Until then, may God bless you and your families.

5th March 2016
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Happy New Year from the Tana Delta – a note from Gabriel

Dear Friends

I pray that you and your loved ones are well, and wish all of you a belated Christmas and a very Happy New Year 2016. May God bless you with grace, joy, peace and inner strength in the year ahead.

It has been really hot over here in Tana for the entire month of December, despite the heavy rains. Thankfully the weather has cooled down this week and we are hoping that the hottest period has passed. The river broke its banks as a result of the heavy rains upcountry and some villages along the Tana River were flooded. Our village was not affected though our farm and many others along the river were flooded causing some loss of crops. Nevertheless, it was not as bad as we were expecting with all the dire predictions of El Nino in the press since September.

We continued extending our reach to the most interior villages this year, giving a lot of students opportunities they would otherwise not have. We managed to organize the first Tana Delta Secondary School Debate sanctioned by the Ministry of Education. We held it at Kitere Secondary School, the most remote school in the Delta. The entire school comprises a single building with 3 classrooms, one of which is used as staff room cum principal’s room cum store.

Kitere Secondary School is situated in Ndera Location. It is the most remote secondary school in the Tana Delta

It takes two hours to get there during the dry season and even longer during the rains, if at all the roads are passable. Normally such events are held in schools situated closer to the tarmac road, and at most just a few student representatives from the interior schools are able to travel to attend such functions due to lack of means.

Every debate participant received a dictionary donated by St. Theresa’s Convent in Singapore
Every debate participant received a dictionary donated by St. Theresa’s Convent in Singapore

Holding the event at Kitere Secondary School gave that entire school population a truly unforgettable experience. It also enabled students from the less remote areas who participated in the debate to appreciate the challenges students in the remote areas face.

TRLF – improving Child Literacy Skills in the Tana Delta
TRLF – improving Literacy Skills in the Tana Delta

Our school, Delta Mustard Seed Academy had an enrolment of over 150 students this year. Our children are able to read from the time they are 5 years old, whereas the norm in the Delta has always been that kids even as old as 9 struggle to read simple words. We would like to assist more children develop in this way and have identified 6 primary schools in the most outlying locations for special assistance. We are developing a program together with the school teachers from these schools for implementation in 2016.

 School Building under construction; Community Centre in the background
School Building under construction; Community Centre in the background

Work restarted on construction of the school building of the Emmaus Centre Project (ECP) in late November. The delay was because the contractor Mr. Li was tying up another project in Ethiopia and was unable to release his site manager until mid-November. The site manager Mr Yang is a very skilled and dedicated builder and his service is worth the wait. He undertook the community centre construction and completed that with utmost professionalism and much passion. The school is expected to be completed by May 2016.

The community centre building is complete with the exception of the internet connection. We are working on getting the external works completed, i.e. waste disposal, water supply and storage etc. All such works are expected to be completed by mid-2016.

TRLF youth, Nancy an Esther explaining the use of reusable sanitary napkins to students from Kitere
TRLF youth, Nancy and Esther explaining the use of reusable sanitary napkins to students from Kitere

We continue nurturing our youth, both at secondary school level as well as post-secondary level, helping them form and internalize moral values. We also involve them in all the community work we do so that they become more integrated in the real lives of their own communities and neighbours. Many of them mature to become more passionate and aware of the needs of others and of their responsibilities to assist.

TRLF donated desks, chairs and textbooks to Oda, Buyani and Kitere secondary schools in 2015
TRLF donated desks, chairs and textbooks to Oda, Buyani and Kitere secondary schools in 2015

As we leave the gift of 2015 behind, and look forward in wonder and faith to 2016, I thank you very much for journeying with us as we build individual lives, and thereby entire communities. You are remembered in our prayers today and I ask that you too keep us in yours. Once again, Happy New Year 2016, be blessed.

Idsowe Village – Tana Delta, Kenya
1st January 2016

Reaching out to Schools in Singapore

Gabriel and team were invited to his alma mater Raffles Institution on 16th April as part of Heartware 2014, organized by the Community Advocates of the school.

He spoke on the work of the foundation and helped Rafflesians understand how their efforts in collecting used shoes contribute to the community in Idsowe, Kenya through the Mitumba project.

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Here’s an extract of the article by Joyce Er, Marcus Tan, Christine Saw and Martin Lim :

That same day, a talk was also held to help establish the right attitude towards the final instalment of Heartware, Feel It! No Shoes Day. Over the past two years, this has been held alongside the Shoe Collection Drive that CA holds in partnership with the Tana River Life Foundation (TRLF). This is a charitable organisation situated in Kenya, which aims to provide dignified aid to marginalised locals. The talk was conducted by Rafflesian alumnus and TRLF founder, Mr Gabriel Teo, about his organisation’s schemes and the ethics he believes should underpin any acts of social service. He was accompanied by three Kenyan youth beneficiaries of TRLF’s programmes, including the Mitumba Project which the Heartware shoe collection drive is contributing towards.

Mr Teo began with a preamble on the principles underpinning his work. He warned against heroism and ‘creating dependency’ or a culture of slacktivism, which he characterised as ‘playing with people’s lives for your own ego’. Passionately decrying shortsighted, one-off welfare projects that fail to prioritise human lives, he said, “Community is understanding that it is not about output or numbers you generate, it’s about outcomes, and how are lives changed for the better.”
After touching on schemes geared towards subsidizing education for Delta students, Mr Teo provided detailed information about the Mitumba Project, which is behind Heartware’s Shoe Collection Drive. Mitumba, or ‘recycled goods’ in Swahili, is a microfinance scheme set up in 2004 and one of TRLF’s entrepreneurship courses. In addition to shoes, Mitumba also collects clothes and bags, which are then sorted and either sold or used for the course.
The microloan scheme, essentially a form of repackaged financial assistance, operates over 4-5 months. In the first month, 100 pieces of clothing and 20-30 pairs of shoes are loaned on good faith to interview-selected applicants, mostly women with dependents such as children studying in secondary school or with chronic disease. Participants market and sell their wares to locals for about 400-500% profit. The sale of all their shoe stock, with a pair going for approximately $4.20, can pay for about a term’s school fees. In the subsequent months, they repay their loans and purchase more stock to sell. Participants must remain accountable, presenting monthly receipts accounting for their income and expenditure.

In response to a question about the sustainability of a scheme in which TRLF still provided the shoe stock, Mr Teo clarified that Mitumba ‘is not intended to be a major source of assistance’, and practically only ‘gives them a boost’. The real intention, Mr Teo stressed, was to ‘preserve dignity as you assist, through dignified giving and dignified receiving’, as opposed to a condescending ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ attitude on this end, or a sense of passive dependence on the other.
Since the overwhelming majority of students in attendance were CA members or Councillors, the outreach for this talk was admittedly seriously limited. This was unfortunate, as the talk did have important messages to share. Especially in light of Acta Non Verba, those in attendance found the talk useful in clarifying exactly how the Mitumba project works, and understood TRLF’s guiding mindsets of aid with dignity in relation to No Shoes Day. Lum Qian Wei, a Y5 member of CA, succinctly summed up her takeaways, “I found it useful. The TRLF emphasises self-reliance and preserves the dignity of the beneficiaries as ultimately, beneficiaries have to put in their own effort to run the businesses. I think No Shoes Day serves to remind us how fortunate we are, and helps us empathise with the poor; this ties in nicely with the TRLF’s principle of treating everyone with respect regardless of his background or status, and not slipping into condescension.”

The complete article is available on

Letter from Gabriel – Feb 2014

Dear Friends,

I hope this letter finds all of you in the best of health and blessed with a good start to 2014. This letter is long overdue, and I sincerely apologize for the delay. It has been an eventful year with a lot of unforeseen challenges. I am grateful however, because it was also a year of much growth in faith and inner strength.

It is now a year since the ethnic clashes in the Tana Delta ended as abruptly as it started and life has slowly returned to normal. TRLF was invited to be part of the Tana Delta Peace Forum set up by the Deputy County Commissioner’s office, aimed at conflict resolution. I believe that our human development initiatives can bring about not merely periods of normalcy but long term peace and sustainable development for the people of Tana Delta. The following report elaborates on this conviction:

As part of our efforts to support the areas most affected by the conflict, we started a mobile library this month, initially serving two schools in the delta, including Buyani Secondary School which was vandalized and forced to stop operating for almost a year as a result of the clashes. Our school The Delta Mustard Seed Academy is now registered with the Ministry of Education as a Private Nursery and Primary School, with an enrolment of 115 children from all the delta tribes. You can read more about these and our other educational initiatives at :

We terminated the services of the contractor responsible for constructing Phase 1 of the Emmaus Centre (i.e. the school building) in the middle of last year on grounds of non-performance. We were unable to proceed as planned as he refused to return the original building plans to us. The case is currently pending a court decision with a ruling date set for 17th March. Meanwhile, construction of Phase 2 of the Emmaus Centre (i.e. the Community Centre housing the library, computer room, meeting room, auditorium and cafeteria) will begin this month under a new contractor. This phase is expected to be completed by August. Details about the ECP are available at:

To better manage these new initiatives, I have delayed my annual trip to Asia. I will arrive in Singapore on 21st March. Collections for the Mitumba Project (i.e. sale of recycled goods to improve rural livelihoods) will start on Saturday 22nd March and run through to Saturday 29th March. The venue remains the same as last year, i.e. the Nativity Church Kindergarten at Hougang Ave 8 (opposite Punggol Park). I look forward to your support once again. Full details can be obtained from :

This project, with your generous support, benefited over 50 families last year. I write about this and other entrepreneurship programs at:

The farm project has progressed very well in spite of being partially destroyed during the floods that hit the delta in May and June last year. More information on this is available at:

This was largely due to the efforts of the present group of youth under formation who are also the farm managers. They have matured tremendously in the past year, and are very responsible and honest. I explain more about the youth formation project in the following write-up:

We were blessed with many visitors last year. A compilation of photos of 2013 visitors is available at:

I am grateful for these visits, as it enriches the life experiences of our youth. I trust that every one of our visitors were also enriched in some way, and I welcome more such visits in the coming years.

I am very grateful to all who have helped us in one way or another, making possible so many initiatives last year. May you be blessed abundantly for your generous spirit.  Below is an acknowledgment of the help we received in 2013, and I apologize if I have inadvertently missed mentioning anyone:

Highlights of our 2013 initiatives can be downloaded at:

The complete 2013 Annual Report comprising all the above sections is available at:

We have made major changes to the administration of our school fees sponsorship programme with the aim of assisting the most marginalized students from every location in the Tana Delta. This and all our other plans for 2014 are outlined in the following report:

I hope you will be encouraged to continue to journey with us this year as we work towards a more complete humanity for all.

I created a new email address for the foundation:, and will be sending all future reports through that address. Please save that email address in your contacts list/address book to prevent our future reports from inadvertently being sent to your spam folder.

Lastly, I look forward to meeting you during my stay in Singapore and Malaysia from the end of March until the middle of May. I will be contactable at both +65-98338401 (Singapore) and +6012-6237040 (Malaysia) from 21st March. Please note my new permanent mobile number in Singapore.

Thank you once again, and I wish you all a year of peace and fulfillment. God bless.

Gabriel Teo Kian Chong

Idsowe – Tana Delta

February 2014

Getting an Education at the Tana Delta – by Rocco Hu

Increasing access to quality education is one of the central goals of the Tana River Life Foundation. From providing bursaries and lodging to capable but underprivileged rural students to assisting local schools’ by providing furniture, facilities, transport and technology, the Foundation seeks to support students in the Tana River area by tackling the main problems facing rural education.

It is night in Idsowe village. Most of the light comes from kerosene lamps peering out from thatched huts, the occasional torch, the moon and stars, and the few houses with Kenya Power. Near the heart of the village however, burns a steady light, visible from kilometers away. Approaching it from across the sandy path, one sees that behind the dusty metal gates of the Foundation house is seated a handful of students on foldable metal chairs, school materials on dark blue MOE desks in front of them. Heads are bowed in concentration under large electric lamps.

Getting help with homework

Getting help with homework

A student raises his hand, evidently stuck on a mathematics question. John Keller, a participant in the Youth Formation Program steps forward and shows the student how to work out a logarithmic expression on pen and paper-the old school way. As he returns to a seat near the corner of the garage I ask him if he’s usually helping here. Giving a characteristically light smile, he nods in the affirmative.

Parents applying for busaries for their children

Parents waiting to apply for busaries for their children

From as early as 6am, students and their parents began passing through the entrance to the Tana River Life Foundation’s Idsowe house, forming a crowd several hundred strong. Among the assembled were members of Idsowe village as well as those who had to travel through the night from more remote areas.

At the start of every semester, students from the area gather to apply for bursaries with the Foundation. According to Gabriel Teo, the founder of the organization, “We (The foundation) consider both merit and need when we give out the bursaries”. Students have to provide a copy of their academic transcripts to apply, and any parent wishing to appeal for a bursary based on extenuating circumstances can do so in the weeks ahead.

For many in the impoverished Tana River area, the bursaries are a lifeline. According to Hamara Said, a Form 1 (Sec 3 equivalent) student at the nearby Tarasaa High, “it is difficult (for me) to be in school without the bursary.” For Hamara, whose agriculturalist parents are determined to keep all of their six children in school, the $3,500KSH (approximately $41 USD) bursary he got last year gives him a sense of empowerment. “When I get this bursary, I feel that I can really achieve what I want.”

Bursaries are not the only form of assistance rendered during the session. After the applicants have filled and handed in their forms, and refreshed themselves with tea brewed by our youth volunteers, several senior members of the foundation took turns to address the crowd.

Bendecto Komora, employee of the organization and an alumnus of the first batch of students assisted by the foundation took to the floor first. In Swahili and English, he encouraged students and parents to keep striving in the face of failure and adversity if they are to become empowered to shape their own lives.

Gabriel Teo concurs. Referring to the political roots of the pre-election ethnic violence last year, he exhorted the importance of education to “protecting people against manipulation”. In impassioned Swahili, he pointed out that the disruption caused by the violence led the county to be ranked last in the nation’s annual academic ranking exercise. “We cannot let this set the whole area back. Education is the key to transforming the Tana River area.”

Students boarding the foundation bus

Students boarding the foundation bus

In addition to providing bursaries and studying and living facilities to students, the Foundation also works closely with government schools in the area.

The road to Garsen High School is long and dusty. Many students and staff take the buses the Foundation provides from Garsen town and the surrounding villages to school. After ten minutes of travel on a dirt track off the main road, bush and sand dunes give way to a large clearing where a cluster of lightly painted buildings stand.

As we approach the principal’s office, temporarily housed in a small building with the sign “Girls’ Dormitory”, we pass a baying goat tied to a small tree out in the porch. According to Keller, that’s school fees.

In the building we were greeted by Mr Benjamin Sholo, the head teacher of the school that has the highest enrolment, charges the lowest fees, and the highest academic standing of all the high schools in the area.

Mr Sholo greeted us with a warm smile and invited us to sit. After exchanging pleasantries, he shared with us that the enrolment of the school has grown from 200 in 2007 to the current 528.

When asked about the other reasons behind the relative success of the school, Mr Sholo said: “Some of the policies that have been good include the lunch program in school. Needless to say, the help given from the Tana River Life Foundation has also been invaluable.”

Mr Sholo said that the Foundation currently provides 200 of its students with some form of financial assistance and transports the bulk of its student body to and fro school with its buses. According to him, the Foundation has also helped provide technology and furniture crucial to the running of the school. Gesturing towards the desktop computer that sits atop his desk, Mr Sholo added that that was one of the ten computers donated by the foundation.

According to Mr Sholo, before the school instituted the food program, “You see the numbers (of students) slowly get reduced through the day. By 10a.m you have a certain number, by the afternoon its lower, and by evening its even lower.” But after making free breakfast and lunch part and parcel of the school, many more students attend and remain in school. “Now, even if the students want to play truant, they still show up at the break times to have food”, joked Mr Sholo. On a more serious note, he explains that most of the students here come from disadvantaged families that struggle to make 3 meals a day. Having food on campus makes it possible for the students to attend school, and ultimately benefits the marginalized the most.

As we toured the school compound, surveying the newly built science labs and classrooms filled with the white-and-brown uniforms of Garsen students, Mr Sholo shared with us his belief in education for girls.

“I have a softer spot for girls when they apply for a place here at Garsen . A mother who is educated will push for better education for her children, and when she makes her family it will be a better family. Sometimes if the family is not willing or able to pay for a girls’ education we can liase with Gabriel to see how the foundation can support her.”

We rounded the last school building where a class of Form 1 (or Secondary 3) students sat in neat rows, listening with rapt attention to a Biology lesson.

Mr Sholo rounded off our visit by thanking us for our time, and closed off with his broader vision for education in Garsen. He believes in a “Prosper thy neighbor” approach to development-that improving economic conditions through access to education is crucial to eliminating the social ills that threaten peace in the area. The ethnically diverse High School which enrolls children from both the Pokomo and Orma tribes and has teachers from different parts of Kenya, served as a safe haven during last year’s ethnic clashes. “We don’t stand on one side”, Mr Sholo said. He added that the school’s enrolment increased after the clashes died down and news of its reputation spread.

Getting around using the Tana River Life Foundation bus

Getting around using the Tana River Life Foundation bus

The rumbling approach of the Foundation bus interrupted the chorus of cicadas. It was getting late, and time for us Singaporean visitors’ to return back to our lodge. We said our goodbyes to the students and to Gabriel and boarded the bus. When we were at the edge of the village I turned around and noticed that the light from the garage was still shining, and thought that Joseph Keller was probably still sitting there, watching over scribbling students determined to be authors of their own fates.

Across the country in the cities of Mombasa, Nairobi and Eldoret, in small, modest houses rented by the Foundation, bright, ardent lights hum and glow into the night.

“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”

Gabriel Teo Guest of Honour at UTAR Convocation 2013

Gabriel Teo, founder of Tana River Life Foundation, was invited to be the guest of honour at the UTAR Convocation in August 2013.

He addressed the graduating students and offered them insights into his world. Here’s a selection of press coverage of the event.

Star Article on Gabriel — UTAR Convo

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Venue of UTAR Convo

Gabriel addressing the UTAR Convo

Gabriel, students and Tun Ling at UTAR Convo


Gabriel with students

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”