Ordinary People: Phil
Written By Heidi Thulin
Photography By Nicole Owens
I’m sort of like a caboose on a train,” Phil Manning tells me as we sit on a sunny front porch at Rift Valley Academy (RVA) in Kijabe, Kenya. “I have no idea what our next step is. I just follow where the Lord leads and realize that it’s going to be a great adventure.” It’s clear that the Mannings’ life has indeed been one great, sometimes unexpected, adventure. Phil and his wife, Mari, first moved to Africa in 1990, were evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo shortly afterward, lived in Mali for eight years where he worked with radio communications and became a father of three, served for six years for the Ministry of Health in Mauritania, and then moved to RVA to first be a school counselor and then a dorm parent and French teacher.
And it’s perhaps that carefree spirit that makes them so well-suited to taking care of ten rambunctious seventh-grade boys, students who represent six different nationalities and whose parents serve in six different African countries. “It’s a good fit for me especially,” Phil smiles, “because they’re the only ones who laugh at my jokes! I just have so much fun with those guys. We’re like a big family.”
Knowing their children are cared for in such a loving and wholistic way makes it a bit easier for parents to drop off their boys at the beginning of each three-month term. “It’s an amazing amount of trust these parents are putting into us,” Phil says. “Mari and I take it very seriously.” One way Phil extends his positive influence on the boys is by settling into his chair at the end of the hallway every night and cracking open a book to read out loud. “I read a little bit of everything,” Phil explains. “Some spiritual stuff, some just for fun, some books the boys recommend. They really look forward to it; they get each other to be quiet so I can begin. And the books often lead to interesting discussions and teaching moments.”
The dormitory itself also exemplifies the Mannings’ playful and loving attitude: a ping pong table, wrestling mats, a very busy kitchen (“They can always eat more!”), and the wood and metal shop just outside. “I’m very happy to help the students get new experiences,” Phil says.“I teach robotics club, and we go to competitions. I manage the school’s 3D printer and teach kids how to use that. And in our wood and metal shops, we’ve got stacks of supplies, just so they have what they need whenever they’re ready to build or weld something. Helping them have different experiences like that, learning how to use tools and have fun building stuff and being creative, that’s what I really like.”
The Mannings are now wrapping up their seventh year at RVA, and about one-fourth of the boys on campus today have passed through their dorm. Phil and Mari continue to have good relationships with many of them. “One boy gave his testimony before being baptized,” Phil says. ”He told everyone that his dorm dad taught him how to pray himself to sleep and that it really helped him. I didn’t think a lot about that moment, but to him it was important. Just by living together, doing normal life together, things are rubbing off on these boys that we don’t even know. It’s a good kind of pressure, good accountability, and we really love every moment of it.”