He’s also a pastor: On Sundays he preaches to a small group of regulars who sing spirituals in Navajo, English, Spanish and Swahili.
Ndolo’s students, most of them Navajo, have grown up under the most difficult circumstances. Up to 40 percent of Navajo households — as many as 54,000 people — have no running water, federal reports say. They have no safe drinkable water from a tap; no clean water to wash hands, cook food, shower or wash clothes.
Some students grew up sleeping on blankets on the floor, in ramshackle houses shared with 13 or more relatives. Many people drive for miles to haul water; some get their supply from unregulated wells or livestock tanks that can be contaminated with fecal matter, bacteria, viruses, uranium or arsenic.
A high school equivalency diploma represents a milestone for any graduate. But at the house in Gamerco, students say it represents something much larger. They want their GED to help their children lead better lives and lift the entire family.
That’s Ndolo’s goal, as well. “Come on, guys,’ he exhorts. “Don’t think, ‘Oh no, I’m from the rez, I can’t do it, I’m just from Gamerco.’ No! Don’t think inside Gamerco. Be thinking outside. Think big!”
Eddy, who dropped out of ninth grade when she became pregnant, enrolled in part to honor the memory of her mother, who died recently of alcohol-related causes. “I miss her so much,” she says. “My being here would make her happy.”
She also is here to support her brother Nathaniel. On a recent day he comes in late, his shoulders hunched in exhaustion, face hidden in a gray hoodie. He occasionally jots answers to Ndolo’s grammar questions on a crumpled piece of paper, but he never volunteers an answer.
“I haven’t been the same since my mom died,” Nathaniel, 18, says, when pressed. “I don’t feel like talking.”
It’s not easy for anyone to sit on a hard chair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. three days a week for months, driving up to 30 miles to stare at reflexive pronouns. It’s especially hard for those who live on the Navajo Nation. Of its 14,220 miles of roadways, more than 75 percent are unpaved dirt, rock and washboard, with potholes that could swallow a wheel. Rain and snow can turn them into gumbo.
Few of the students can afford cars. They take buses, beg rides or sometimes hitchhike to the class in Gamerco. Most of them are parents who have to arrange childcare. People with jobs sacrifice their work hours to show up.
“Benson is a real nice man. He makes you feel comfortable,” offers Gerold Yazzie, 40, a contractor from Window Rock, 25 miles north.
“It’s inspiring to be here,” says Shalylah Carmona, 19. “It feels like home.”
‘We need to be proud’
In the traditional sense, home on the Navajo Nation is the ancestral land within the boundaries of the four sacred mountains. It is a 16-million-acre palette of high plains and plateaus, mesas and desert, piñon and juniper. The reservation is the largest in the country — the size of West Virginia, but with only 170,000 residents.