70 children and the corrugated iron shed: tales of teaching from the Kenyan slums
This was no ordinary African holiday. In early 2014 I was offered an incredible opportunity to go on a trip to Kenya organised by the University of Southampton and a volunteer travel organisation, African Adventures. The purpose of the trip was to take a group of PGCE students (trainee teachers) to experience teaching in an entirely different setting, with myself, a colleague from my school and another teacher from the city acting as their mentors. I suppose the idea was that throwing them into the deep end would bring out their natural teaching skills and help them to develop their understanding of teaching English as an additional language (EAL). Eight weeks later we were flown to Kenya, preparing to deliver lessons to the great unknown!
Tired after a long and delayed journey, we hauled our luggage, including the ton of donations we’d brought from back home, onto the cramped minibus at Nairobi’s airport for a bumpy journey to Nakuru, Kenya’s forth largest city and one of its poorest, four hours to the north east of the capital. None of us really knew what to expect from the trip, the information and itinerary had been practically non-existent until we arrived at our destination. I was just as excited to discover the country’s culture as I was teaching in the schools. I made a point of soaking up the cityscapes of Nairobi – fairly built up with a few skyscrapers but nothing like the capitals I’d seen in Central America. There were no blazing billboards ticking past every couple of seconds, commercialisation obviously hadn’t spread as far here yet. Out of the city, despite nodding off every 10 minutes, I did manage to glimpse zebras and gazelles dotted along the fields lining the road, just as casually as you’d see cows and sheep back home. We stopped at The Great Rift Valley viewpoint to gaze out onto the plains of Africa. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to start singing Can You Feel the Love Tonight?
Again we knew very little of what our digs would be like for our stay in Nakuru. Julie, one of our group leaders had tried to explain that it was a “westernised accommodation complex” which to be honest didn’t sound all that appealing. But when we arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find Kivu, a retreat of basic but comfortable chalets surrounded by well kept miniature gardens. I shared with Alice, a teacher from a different Southampton school who has since become a good mate, and David, my friend and co-worker staying in the adjoining room: a perfect set-up for daily debriefs! The place even had its own gym and swimming pool which we were keen to make the most of. It didn’t take us long to find the bar either and try out Kenya’s own brew – Tusker lager. I could very quickly see where our evenings would be spent diary writing and lesson planning.
A moment for food. Meals here were a pretty simple affair in a small meeting room that had been set aside for our group. Dinner usually consisted of rice and beans which to be honest I loved because it was so wholesome and tasty. Breakfast was basically a rotation of different components that could be easily preserved; frankfurter style sausages, boiled eggs, sweet white bread, Kenyan “pancakes” (these were basically doughnuts), weak tea with UHT milk and bananas, bananas, bananas! Let’s just say that after four days my body was desperate for fibre. I eventually resorted to buying weetabix from the huge supermarket in town and eating them like biscuits. The whole point of this set-up however was to be cost effective and convenient. All of our meals were prepared at Alex’s house, a pastor in Nakuru who helped to coordinate the African Adventures projects and worked closely with the three schools we would be teaching in.
Our first proper day in Nakuru was spent visiting the schools. It was such a relief to be able to get a feel for the environment ahead of doing any actual teaching. Trundling along narrow roads teeming with locals going about their everyday business, cyclists carrying everything but the kitchen sink and goats roaming freely, we arrived at St Trizah’s where David and I would be spending our time. It is hard to convey what happened when we rolled up to the wooden fences lining the schoolyard: noise, jumping, smiling faces, chanting, waving, crowds, handshakes, singing, clapping, praying, hello’s and how are you’s. I think this video does a better job…
Incredibly, when I showed this clip in an assembly back home, that lunchtime I heard a commotion coming from the playground and looked out of the window to see half of year 6 chanting and dancing around like loons – the dinner ladies didn’t know what to do! Apparently African spirit is quite infectious.
Located in Ronda, one of Nakuru’s poorest slum areas, St Trizah’s is a charity funded school which fundamentally acts as a feeding platform for approximately 500 of the local children (ages 7 – 16) whose families exist on as little as 60p a day. The Kenyan government has pledged to provide free education, however this does not always include funding for uniforms, stationary, books and other learning essentials, which people in these areas simply cannot afford. Through the hard work of African Adventures and volunteers from the local community, this school like many others in the area, is able to deliver nourishment and education to the most needy.
When all the children were back in their classrooms (lessons got interrupted a lot for welcoming volunteer groups), we were shown around the school buildings which were made out of corrugated iron sheets, providing basic shelter from the sun and afternoon downpours. The playground was a muddy red stretch of land with two make-shift football goals (a daily hobby there for both boys and girls). At the opposite end of the school there was a large brick building which enclosed the staffroom, head teacher’s office and also an orphanage. For around 30 of the children, St Trizah’s was their home.
Warm welcomes are a very important part of Kenyan culture and Yuvenalis, the founder and head teacher of St Trizah’s, made sure that we were not short of them here. Before leaving to visit the other schools, we were taken into each classroom to say further hello’s. The rooms were pretty small with as many as 70 children crammed into one: they just about managed to squeeze into the rows of wobbly wooden desks and benches. We introduced ourselves individually to the resounding sound of cheers and applause, a process which happened at least five times. After a while this got a little overwhelming as it became an integral to our everyday experience.
Feeling a little bowled over by everything I’d witnessed in such a short space of time, we bundled back into our minivan and headed to the other two schools where the rest our group would be stationed. Mercy Njeri, the secondary school which catered for children from 13 – 16, was next. This was a much calmer and quieter visit but again we were taken around to introduce ourselves to the staff and all of the classes. It was here that I first started to get the impression that not all of the local teachers were particularly impressed to have us there. Did they see us as imposters? I’m not sure how I would have felt if a bunch of foreign teachers turned up and started telling us how to do our jobs.
The next school was The Walk, an infant school for children from 3 – 7. This was secretly my favourite visit of the morning. Nothing will pull on your heartstrings more than dozens of beautiful little African children racing up to you, grabbing your hand and wanting their photos taken with you. It was probably the closest that any of us will ever get to celebrity status! They literally couldn’t get enough of us. It was very sweet but a real eye-opener to their attitudes towards white people. We could have been anybody and yet they were treating us like royalty.
Still buzzing from our welcomes we walked a short distance to Alex’s house, the pastor who had founded The Walk. We saw where all of our meals were prepared by a fantastic team in his small kitchen. His house was a modest family home, but in comparison to the other nearby dwellings, it may as well have been a mansion. A central figure of the local community, he devoted his life to it. We sat down in the cool relief of his living room and tucked into an unusual meal of spaghetti bolognese with a side of cabbage (East Africa’s favourite veg). Over lunch we reflected on the barrage of experiences we’d had in our first few hours in this new environment.
Feeling rejuvenated we headed back into the afternoon heat to explore the surrounding locality. I’d been told about Nakuru’s dump but again it was far too removed from anything I’d seen before so I had few expectations. Around the corner from The Walk school lay the town’s rubbish tip. Ironically this location is known as Hilton and the wider area is called London! We entered a vast site of waste spanning hundreds of metres all around. A few pigs were happily rummaging through the filth and rolling around in the occasional mud puddle whilst stray dogs and lone children wandered aimlessly on the periphery of this heart-stopping landscape. Here we were presented with fascinating contrasts; extreme poverty of the near homeless living in tiny tin shacks built amongst the piles and stacks of faded rubbish, the developing world’s expansive backdrop of power plants and factories, and the awesome panorama of the valley and mountains gifted by mother nature beyond. At one point we were guided into one of the shelters to meet two women, one of whom who had a baby clutched to her breast. They had nothing but the the clothes on their backs and a few possessions they’d salvaged from the dump. I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo. We were all speechless. It was no tourist hangout but something that no one should visit these places without witnessing. A little further on we found a few old women selling produce made from recycled materials straight off the dump. Of course they were very happy to see us. I bought an ingenious pencil case made from folded and woven plastic bags – four days worth of work for 500 Kenyan shillings (about £3.50). Minds opened, we took a slow, thoughtful stroll back to the minivan to head back to our luxury retreat…
That evening sat in the bar we spent time putting the world to rights before getting stuck into planning for our first day of teaching. David and I would be working with five of the primary students. We decided to take it in turns mentoring and teaching so that we could have a go at delivering lessons as well as guiding the trainees.
Teaching at St Trizah’s
Raring to go we headed to St Trizah’s for a 9am start. The children actually arrived at 6.30am everyday to have breakfast before their lessons started at 7am. We were greeted by Yuvenalis who welcomed us into his office where we met with all of his teachers (the children were left unattended). He gave another speech to show his gratitude and said a prayer for us. The looks on the staff’s faces didn’t seem particularly earnest. I wasn’t sure if this was normal – passive expressions in meetings – or if they actually didn’t want us there. I felt determined to get to know them better and not judge on first impressions, but it was all very difficult in such a new setting.
I was acting as a mentor today with two of the girls. We were shown a selection of classes we could essentially choose from. We placed ourselves in a packed classroom of at least 60 children, most of whom were about nine years old. The oldest pupil was actually 14; if a child fails their end of year exams they get held back and if someone joins the school late they have to go into the youngest class regardless of their age. As soon as we got inside, their class teacher disappeared. I was starting to think that maybe the staff just wanted some time off, they were voluntary after all!
It was pretty much chaos to start off with; the children were so overwhelmed by us being there. We attempted to initiate a discussion with some getting to know you questions, choosing our vocabulary carefully and trying to speak slowly. English is the official language of Kenya alongside Swahili, although its quality was limited here due to the background of the children and staff. We asked them to share their answers first with a partner (something we do all the time in our normal teaching) but they looked completely lost, they were more interested in staring at us than talking to each other (not usually a problem we have back home!). After we taught them some songs to get the class more involved the trainees tried out some column addition on the blackboard based on what the kids had been learning the previous day, but it soon became clear that the methods they’d been taught had no basic knowledge underpinning their understanding and that their number skills were largely based on rote learning. It was also was a struggle to keep the whole class engaged (no change there): some of the kids were crammed into the floor space at the back and couldn’t even see, a few of them obviously weren’t used to having strict expectations set for their behaviour, and one little boy was even fast asleep (we later found out that he had a sleeping sickness having been bitten by a tsetse fly). We had a serious challenge on our hands!
At breaktime we had a quick regroup, cool down and water refuel (I felt this had to be done in private as the kids can’t just swig from their water bottles whenever they feel like it). We headed into the playground for more swarming of children. I met a confident young lady called Diana who sang me Diamonds by Rihanna, it was beautiful. The children and teenagers here are so much more outgoing than at home!
When the children went back to class I left the girls to it and headed over to see how the boys were getting on. They were teaching over in the infant section of the school (known as “the babies”) and when I arrived they were still playing outside. I got a few kids in a circle to sing some songs. Bad idea. Over 100 children instantly rushed from nowhere to join in with the fun. My plan to teach them the hokey cokey went out the window. To my amazement, a five year old girl ran into the middle and started stamping her feet which signalled a call and response routine from the whole gang. She kept them going for ages! I couldn’t believe how confident she was. It seemed that from the word go here children learn how to assert themselves and perform for the sheer joy of it. Back in class the guys did some story telling and I taught them some songs from home that they could use with the kids.
Lunchtime arrived and we ate our delivered food in the head teacher’s office. I was keen to see what the kids were eating but we were told we wouldn’t want to have what they were having: ugale. The thick porridge made from maize flour is a common form of stodge across East Africa and was cooked up in the school kitchen every morning for breakfast and lunch to keep the kids’ tummies as full as possible. Completely flavourless, sometimes it was served with a heavily seasoned helping of sukuma wiki, a type of vegetable which is a bit like kale or cabbage. Jessica the school cook lived in the orphanage in exchange for preparing breakfast and lunch everyday. This allowed her to support herself as well as her three daughters who were pupils there. The orphan girls often helped out in the kitchen too – it was a big job cooking for 500 children twice a day! She wrote me a touching letter when I left asking for “help”, as did some of the children. If only it were that simple.
Back in class with the girls in the afternoon we battled through some more story telling and maths work that the teacher wanted us to do. By this point I was getting really frustrated because I could see that the maths she’d set was way beyond their understanding but that didn’t seem to matter here. So long as you could spoon feed them what they needed to know, rather than getting them to understand the learning step by step, that was good enough. I needed some time to think…
That evening we realised that we had a very short amount of time to feel like we were going to have any lasting impact on the quality of teaching at St Trizah’s. We set ourselves what we thought were three achievable targets for our remaining four days; partner talk, pupil interaction and teaching the children how to use number squares, a fairly sustainable maths resource we had brought with us from home to help with their number skills. The week continued with varying degrees of success in each. Partner talk, despite our best efforts, was not something the kids ever really got the hang of. Their whole learning culture was based on “please the teacher” so even when we wanted them to discuss their ideas with someone else, they were only ever repeating what we’d asked them to say rather than developing any real communication and half the time they just looked at us in hope of praise and repeated the phrase over and over again. On the other hand pupil interaction was more of a success. For the first time the children were invited up to the front of the class to tell a story, answer a question on the board or sing a song. This is something that all of these children have imbedded in their culture, but they’re just not given the opportunity to use these wonderful skills in class, probably because it doesn’t fit with the antiquated education system their teachers are used to working in. Of course this is principally our fault as colonisers. The British style of teaching used to be very similar yet ours has come on leaps and bounds in the modern world, leaving the developing countries that we once ruled to go figure. As for the number squares, we saw glimmers of hope in some of the children as they used the resource successfully to facilitate their understanding of addition and subtraction. I think if we’d had more time with them they definitely would have got into the swing of this. All we could do was leave the resource with the teacher, who fortunately had seen us use them in class, and hope for the best.
Whilst trying to implement our three key ideas in the classroom, we had a blast teaching the kids and interacting with them in the playground. We brought in paints for them to use for the first time ever: it was utterly incredible witnessing their amazement at creating their own paintings, and they did a great job too. In a science lesson we used inflatables to teach them the names of the planets which caused quite a stir! Even simple things like using bubbles at breaktimes got them unbelievably excited. All of these things we take for granted they’d just never seen before. By the end of the week we’d shared some unforgettable experiences and I was left with a lot to process.
People have often asked me since my return whether I felt like I’d made a difference. Honestly, in the longterm, not really. A big part of me felt has slightly jaded as I came home wishing I could have spent more time discussing teaching and learning theory with the teachers themselves, rather than scratching the surface in the classroom. On reflection of what we originally set out to achieve, I have even questioned whether we were appropriate in our aims. Is it right to try to implement our own teaching styles in an environment that is so different to our own? Would it not have been better to take into account the state of the current culture in their classrooms and work with what we’d been given? At the end of the day we did what we thought was best at the time and I am sure in some small way we have set the ball rolling for improvements at St Trizah’s. I at least have come home with an incredible awareness of the complexities of what it is to try to help a developing nation, and who knows, maybe one day in the distant future I may dip my toe into the intricacies of education policy in a country like Kenya.
People are amazing. It’s been important to think critically about my experiences at St Trizah’s, but there are many positives to take from our time there, and this is largely down to the overwhelming spirit of the Kenyans. The children were so incredibly happy to see us, talk to us, ask us questions, learn from us, and many of them had such drive and passion to create a brighter future for themselves and their community, something which I genuinely believe they will achieve. I hope that with the right opportunities, they will prosper.
As for the staff, my initial trepidations faded as we got to know each other better. By the end of our time there we were laughing and joking together and they became more willing to learn from us. What they took from our teaching was more simple than I could ever have imagined. One teacher explained that she now understood the importance of going over something again if the children didn’t understand it the first time as well as allowing children opportunities for active learning inside and outside the classroom through games and singing. It was a relief to see that any original negativity had either worn off or had perhaps been misinterpreted as slight intimidation. It was hard to accept but there was definitely an element of white people being seen as the “all knowing”, even by the older generation. This was made very clear when a new group of young volunteers turned up, not much older than 14, who had come to help in any way that they could. There must have been some miscommunication at some point because many of them ended up stood in front of a class with a piece of chalk in their hand with an expectation that they could teach based purely on their skin colour and ability to speak English! The whole supremacy thing felt very awkward at times and completely incorrect – there was so much we learnt from their culture.
Ultimately, they just get on with life. The strength of the community clearly had an impact on how they cared for each other, congregating at the weekends for church, weddings and celebrations. Religion was a key part of their lives that acted as a bond to keep them together through all of their difficulties. Their resilience was so inspiring. A number of them spoke very openly about how their mother or father had “passed”. This was just a fact of life to them. There were no tears on the playground. Incidents blew over quickly as no one fussed over disagreements that arose between the kids, they were just left to sort it out for themselves. The emotional literacy support that is increasingly widespread in our schools in the UK was non-existent. Could it be that we panda too much to our children? Or are we just responding to our own societal issues?
Really I have only revealed a fraction of my life-changing time at St Trizah’s. The corrupt examination system, the visit to the slums of the children and the elaborate farewell ceremonies will have to wait for another chapter. Essentially it all boils down to two intertwining factors: education development and cultural sensitivity. The lowest level of the school system is Kenya and certainly in other parts of Africa still has a long way to go to provide all children with the equal opportunities that they deserve. This a complex issue which needs lots of time and careful support from all those involved in order to move forward. With the invaluable qualities of family and community deeply rooted in their society, an element so often lacking in our own, it is vital that this is acknowledged and considered as the nation builds a brighter future for its young people.
Some of the lasting memories from St Trizah’s…
The Tourist Stuff
We were lucky that at the weekend we were able to have a well needed brain break from the intensity of the culture shock in school. Saturday morning we were picked up by safari vans and whizzed around the corner to Lake Nakuru National Park to finally take in some of the stunning natural landscapes and wildlife.
Safari at Lake Nakuru National Park
In the afternoon we headed to Thompson Falls crossing the equator line on the way…
On the way back to Nakuru the buses pulled over to the front of a tea and coffee farm so that one of the drivers could buy his regular tea. I think this was a bit of a ploy though to let his mates sell us their produce. We all ended up buying some as it was clearly decent stuff. The problem was that nearby there was a huge group of children surrounding the buses begging for money or food. One of the guys on the bus gave out some bread and biscuits which resulted in a frenzy of kids fighting over it like ducks. It was really quite sad to see. It’s always so tempting to give out to people in that way but generally speaking you only end up promoting begging as they learn it’s a way for them to sustain their livelihood.
My Kenyan Church Experience
After a boozy night in the bar blowing off steam, I awoke with a minor hangover to get myself up for an unmissable cultural experience. A small group of us travelled to the church linked to The Walk school where Alex was the main pastor. I’d been told church in Kenya was a long service and that it was basically lots of singing and dancing – three hours was pushing it and the singing and dancing lasted about 10 minutes. The entire mid-section of the service was literally an over-enthusiastic almost aggressive man shouting into a poorly amped microphone repetitively about something to do with harvest and seasons. I think it is safe to say that at that point I was wandering what on earth I was doing sat in a converted warehouse filled with patio chairs and about 100 deeply religious Kenyans instead of lounging around by the pool like the sensible members of the group. Having said that, on later reflection I was glad I’d attended the service as it was interesting to see the popular “Free House” form of Christian worship and get a feel for how important this Sunday ritual was in their lives, even if it did mean missing out on vital tanning time!
Not exactly feeling refreshed after three hours in church, we stopped off at Kivu for a quick lunch before getting back in the bus for another drive to the Menengai Crater which was basically a huge extinct volcano filled with vegetation a couple of remaining sulphuric spouty bits smoking away in the distance. It was a lot bigger than expected but not that easily identifiable as a volcano. It did make for some pretty photos though.
The following Monday we were back in school for our last day before a farewell meal which gave us an opportunity to thank all the wonderful people who had helped to make the trip possible. We got to bed early that night as we were up at 5.30am the next morning. Our final day was spent in Nairobi to hit some tourist hotspots before flying home that evening.
Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi
Giraffe Centre, Nairobi
Having ticked the tourist boxes, we had a very long wait ahead of us in the airport. Our flight wasn’t until midnight, but the drivers had to drop us off early as they were avoiding driving curfews in Nairobi and had to be out of the city before dark. This was the perfect opportunity to do some serious catching up in the journal. Keeping on top of it was harder than ever here with so much to write about!
My time in Kenya was a whirlwind. I still can’t believe how much I learnt in such a short space of time and I know I will continue to learn from those experiences. I got more out of this trip than I had ever imagined. If you are tempted by volunteering in a place like Kenya, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You might not change the world, but you will make a difference to someone, and you will change more than you ever thought possible.