Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 8 - It's Another Day in the Neighborhood!

I awake early (5 a.m.), as usual, and to all the usual sounds: roosters crowing nearby, dogs barking in the hotel yard, a TV blaring somewhere, trucks and cars and cycles loudly driving past on the road that is a few steps away, all manner of horn honking near and far, loud speakers blaring from town with music or prayers or preaching, a motorcycle cranking up just outside my window, oh, and birds making all sorts of sounds I don’t recognize. Just another day in rural Kenya where the day starts early. (“Monte’s not at the Hilton any more!”)

It’s Saturday—no school, no plans, just a relaxed day in rural Africa. So I take a walk down the road toward Kisumu, which soon turns from tarmac to dirt to mud. I still cannot believe the beauty of the lush green landscape. It reminds me of Kauai in its vivid green vegetation, the huts beside banana trees and corn fields. A man catches up with me and tells me how hard he’s working on his fish farm but he needs some capital and I explain that I’m working for Achungo, trying to get help for the orphans and their school and currently don’t even have any funds for that. Partly to avoid any more of that conversation, I quickly turn into the compound of a government school: Nderu Primary.

What a mistake that is! I immediately turn envious – Nderu is on acres of flat land with enough buildings for a full primary and then some, and a huge, grass soccer field and play area –maybe 150 yards of flat grass. By comparison, Achungo is on a tiny, cramped, sloping stretch of dirt and the nearby land is also on a slope unfit for a soccer field. Oh if only Nderu Primary were falling out of use and looking for a buyer! Some of the class rooms are in serious disrepair, but it looks like other buildings are under construction. And then there’s that latrine that is sinking into its pit! Oh well, the best I can do is turn my visit into a study of latrine and classroom construction methods. One latrine building is very unusual – built up about 4 feet with metal doors that lead underneath – I guess for cleanouts!!? I also notice the classrooms have their blackboards painted onto the cement walls. Hmm – that does make for a much smoother blackboard than the very rough plywood in use at Achungo.

A while after my return, Michael comes to my room, we cover some of my latest research questions, and then go down to the hotel restaurant for lunch. (It's the only thing one could call a restaurant anywhere in the area) We order and then he disappears for a few minutes and returns with another man who joins us (Who is he? I know I’ve met him before, but….). I ask if he also wants to order some food and he does so. The two of them talk for a while in Luo and although I can’t understand anything else, I do hear them mention the word “Board” and it slowly dawns on me that this is Lawrence, the chairman of Michael’s local Board. OK, he’s an old friend and I just didn’t remember. Then Michael reverts to English and mentions that Lawrence had provided posts to help with the construction of the temporary schoolhouse. (And at that point I sincerely hope Michael hasn’t been reading my mind as I wondered who he was and why he had joined our lunch! This man helps Michael regularly and is his primary supporter. Glad to be able to share lunch with him. Glad I kept my mouth shut)

After lunch we head down to the school. Saturdays at 2pm is computer lab for the 3rd and 4th graders and Richard had invited me to join him if I could. We get there at almost 2:30 and I’m a little anxious at being late, but, nothing we could do about it, we had waited almost an hour to be served our lunch. No worries, turns out we’re all on Africa time! When we get there, there’s no Richard and kids are just playing in the yard. After a while I ask Michael if I should just get started (although I have no clue what they’re covering in “computer lab”) and he agrees. So I set up in the Teacher’s Lounge with my laptop on the desk and about 10 students in plastic chairs and a bench jammed in front of the screen trying to see. And some 5 more join us over the next 20 minutes. I talk about the parts of the computer but give up after a vain attempt to describe the tiny wiring inside – how do I describe a motherboard to children who have little experience of electricity? I know Richard has shown them cut/paste in Word so I start with “what is a word processor...what is a spreadsheet” and then we try a little cut and paste and basic formatting (bold, underline, italics). This is so far out of the realm of their experience and having no hands-on opportunities, they have so little sense of it, that it just doesn’t seem productive. I bring up a game that might help—it's a simple memory game, and I invite them to take turns selecting 2 cards on the screen by clicking on them to find matches. At least it gets them excited about computers and getting a brief feel for cursor and mouse. Finally, I show them my promotional movie of Achungo and some of the pictures I've taken and we wrap just as a rainstorm hits. Maybe someday we will bring out a handful of outdated desktops so they can have a real computer lab!

We hang out a bit longer before they head for home and some of the students teach me a few more words in “matha tongue” (Luo) and I note that they are becoming more familiar with me, especially the girls and the younger boys. They feel my hair (it is so different from theirs) and are fascinated with the skin on my arms (seems translucent to them). I am essentially an albino in terms of how strange I appear to them. I am "mzungu" ("the white guy").

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Day 7 -- I’m a Teacher

“Can I help with some more teaching?”

Mr. Richard is glad to oblige and gives me my teaching schedule. I’ll teach 3 classes plus help with PE for Grades 1& 2. Woops, looks like I’ve already hung out too long with the other teachers in the Teachers’ Lounge and missed my first period. No problem, we’re on Africa-time: “just start the same schedule with 2nd period”. “Where do I find the lessons?” Mr. Richard then finds me the course books and explains that with exams next week they are just doing “revision” (i.e., review). “What do you suggest for English 3?” As I query him on each class, he provides the rookie with suggestions.

Grade 3 – English

With the 3rd graders we review articles (“a” vs. “an”), discuss vowels vs. consonants, use of “some” vs. “any”, examples of opposites ….then I give them a short quiz on the blackboard with 4 problems out of the course book (“which word doesn’t belong in this list”). They bring their exercise books up to me for correction as they finish. A few get them all correct and are so excited. But by the end the class is in a bit of an uproar. I have utterly flunked the correction process. I put red checkmarks by incorrect answers. Afterward the teachers explain to me that a red “x” means “incorrect”, a red check goes next to each correct answer. Then the score is written at the top along with the date and a word of encouragement (“excellent”, “good”, “average”). Well, I can learn, too.

Next period -- Science for Grade 2

With the second graders I read from their course book about health issues (when and how to wash hands, wash meat, how to cook meat, etc.), identification of animals (domesticated vs. wild, which are harmful and why), then I test them from book questions on filtration. Many of them are so diligent as to rewrite their incorrect answers and resubmit them to me. I’m beginning to think I’m getting this down!

Next up: 4th Grade CRE

Our lesson is about “Abilities and Responsibility” and is based on the parable of the 3 servants and their different investment schemes (2 doubled their master’s money and the 3rd just buried it). We talked about how each of us is special and important, none are more important before God. “Each of us has skills, abilities, talents – what are some of yours?” The students mention praying, biking, reading, washing clothes and acknowledge each of them. We talk about how each skill is important and should be developed and can be used to help others. (I like the character-building in this government religious ethics curriculum.) I close with a quiz.

PE? Hmm! I never did figure out when, where or how I was to do PE, but it is obviously not worrying anyone.

As the school day ends, Michael is sitting in 4th Grade and has the students telling stories.

“The Mangoes”

“I saw a mango tree and I wanted very much to get a mango off that tree, but there was a dog and a cat guarding that tree and in the house, 2 men sitting by the window. A little ways beyond the tree was the river. What to do?

I knew the dog’s name was “gubabalu” so I picked up a stone and threw it in the river. It made the sound “gubabalu” and the dog heard it and ran toward the river. I was afraid the cat would cry if I went to the tree that that the cry would bring the dog back, so I threw another stone into the window of the house. When the window broke, the men went “tsk, tsk, tsk” and the cat thought they were calling it and ran toward the house. Now I could get my mango.”

“The River Crossing”

“I had to carry 3 things across the river: a goat, a hyena and a bag of potatoes, but I had to be careful that the hyena didn’t eat the goat or the goat eat the potatoes, so…

1. I carried the goat across first. The hyena was not going to eat any potatoes.

2. Then, I carried the potatoes over but brought back the goat so he wouldn’t eat any.

3. Next, I carried over the hyena (quickly, so he didn't bother the goat), leaving him with the potatoes

4. Finally, I could carry over the goat and continue on my way.”

Often as the school day ends, the third or fourth grade students are asked to sweep out all of the rooms of the office building and school rooms and today they also wet down the new school room floors (they are made of a mix of dirt and sand called marram). They do so as a team, diligently, without any hesitation or complaining. Maybe we should incorporate chores into our school day in the U.S. -- could be character-building!?

And then it’s time for the closing assembly: Mr. Richard gathers all the students under the shade tree and exhorts them to be ready for exams and to be at school on-time, and encourages them that if they work hard they will all be Achievers.

Day 6 -- Field Trip

Today Michael and I have planned a trip to nearby Homa Bay, mostly to check out the market (their market day is Wednesday). I want to survey nearby markets for a couple of reasons. First, to help me understand some of Achungo’s costs; and secondly, to learn about possible opportunities for us to earn some income (are there agricultural projects that would be worth our while?). I’m also interested to see if there are any handicrafts sold – anything that might be attractive to buyers in the U.S.

But something has come up to delay our trip. After I arrive at the school, Michael calls me outside the office, introduces me to 2 men, and tells me that the water tank has some holes that need fixing. When he learned that these men were nearby and doing plastic patching of water tanks, he jumped at the chance. There’s a small hole about halfway up the tank and Michael is worried that the leaking mineral salts will erode the cement and masonry of the water tower. The larger hole is at the top of the tank and although we can try to avoid filling it that high, Michael said bees get in during the dry season and drown and cause the children much distress when they come out the water taps. When I probe a bit, he tells me that when Living Waters, Nairobi installed the tank, they actually dropped it and that might have caused that tear at the top. All eyes are on me – I guess it’s up to me, especially since I’m the only one who can pay for it.

He tell me they want 2,500 shillings to fix it. I put on my “due diligence” hat and ask them some basic questions: Where else have they done similar repairs? How long will the fix last? Aside, I ask Michael what he thinks of the price and he says Ksh 2,000 should be enough. I tell him it is up to him, seems worth doing as long as he is confident in these men. Outside he talks to the man a bit more, negotiates him down to Ksh 2000. Soon he turns to me and says it is time to head out to Homa Bay that that we will pay the men ½ now and ½ tomorrow after we are sure the leaks are fixed. I give him the money as covertly as possible, he gives it to Headmaster Paul and off we go to Homa Bay. This experience is just one of many that give me a lot of confidence in Michael, as opposed to some of what I’ve heard about “working with Africans.”

A few more surprises are in store before Homa Bay. Michael had mentioned a friend with a garden as well as a CBO ("Community-Based Organization") that we might want to visit and I soon realize that he means today. The friend, George, has a daughter (Peggy) at Achungo and he has been doing some experimental gardening over the past 3 years. He shows us his “nursery” for ornamentals – hibiscus and coleus-type plants that he is growing from cuttings off of a few plants he purchased (he sells them to hotels, schools), also passion fruit and pawpaw (papaya) that he’s grown from seed (he sells the seedlings). He tells us pawpaw produces after the first year and he has a 6-footer with big fruit that he said is 1.5 years old. He has purchased a fan palm to see if he can get it to seed. He’s growing bananas and some sugar cane and plans to get more land as he develops sprouts from these plants. Michael has brought me because he knows I’m investigating possible enterprises for Achungo. Maybe we should think about a nursery?

George also shows us his vegetable garden: beans, butternut squash, onions, tomatoes, kale, maize (a drought-resistant variety). He’s cross-bred his Brahma bull to get a faster growing, stronger hybrid. Seems quite the entrepreneur. Michael likes his hard work and creativity (tells me that unfortunately a lot of people aren’t willing to work hard enough to be successful).

Our next surprise stop: Ogande Primary. The government school has 500 students and nearby, associated secondary schools: “Ogande High Girls” (800) and “Ogande Mixed” (i.e., coed with 300 students). I’m wondering why we’re here when Michael introduces me to the Old Mockers Youth Group – an “Organization of Self-Help Group” CBO with 20 members between 18 and 35 founded in 2006 when a group of them decided that rather than just talking about how bad things were they should try to do something. They show their CBO certificate from the Ministry of Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services – Department of Social Services, Homa Bay. (I’m not making any of this up)

After introductions, their Secretary shares with us that their goals are to engage in activities related to HIV/AIDS, poverty eradication and community development, with a secondary purpose of empowering orphans. But they haven’t begun activities yet on that last one. I’m starting to wonder how much of this is boilerplate. Their primary activities are training and fundraising and they are raising dairy goats and kale and pineapple for income and also hold seminars and are looking at other businesses. Next he explains that they need funds and are especially interested in starting work on their project to "empower orphans". (Now I wonder if I’ve been set up)

Michael speaks next, introduces me and my role and explains that he thought I might be interested in what they are doing and that I also talk with various NGO’s. He tells them he is pleased to see a group willing to take some action and not just talk. And I guess it’s my turn –no use stalling any longer. I try to encourage them, tell them I’m impressed with their efforts to help others, that it is much more rewarding when we are not just living for ourselves. I tell them the NGOs I’ve talked with are only looking for handicrafts that are already in production and that I have no funding myself for Achungo’s orphans. In the end they ask about “youth groups” in U.S. and if any might correspond with them or visit them, so I invite them to send me a detailed description of their group, activities and interests and I’d see what I can do.

Soon we make our goodbyes and finally head toward Homa Bay. Turns out it’s very close to Rodi, maybe 6 kilometers (4 miles), but the tarmac road is so torn up for the last few miles that you’re essentially driving in and out of potholes constantly at about 5 mph. It is the nearest town directly on Lake Victoria and has a trade on the lake – small pole boats (20-footers) that ply the lake shore. The shoreline is an overgrown bog filling up with hyacinths, so the boats just pole their way between villages. There are 3 unloading/loading while we are down at the “docks”. One is carrying mattresses among other things. One would-be passenger convinces the boatman that he isn’t going to mess up his shoes and clothes wading through the bog and the boatman picks him up in his arms and carries him to the boat as an extra service.

Homa Bay open market area is larger than Rodi's, but pricing seems about the same. A grain-seller explains to us that prices have dropped precipitously in past month as new harvest becomes available. I want to price printers and cartridges, so we stop at the local “internet cafĂ©.” It’s a tiny shop that has 4 cubicles with desktop computers but the power is down! Cost? Ksh1 per minute or about $.75/hr.

We get back to Achungo as the school day is ending. Richard has asked me to give the teachers some computer training, so I stick around after the children have left and spend an hour and a half talking through an overview of computer hardware, configuration, OS, applications, and then a briefing on Microsft Office applications. Just glad I can be helpful.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Day 5 – It’s the education, stupid

Pardon the sarcastic political reference in the title, but today was focused on the classroom experience which is certainly core to Achungo. I sat in on a number of the classes with the purpose of understanding what the teachers and the students are experiencing and what their potential needs are.

Appropriately enough, I started in the combined “Baby Class”/”Middle Class” – sat on the floor in the back and observed. These are all the pre-schoolers -- 2 -5 year-olds. This is not babysitting or playtime – I’m impressed at the level of the classwork. In order to advance to Pre-Unit (Kindergarten), they must be able to count, know their letters, even sound out and write a few basic words. The little ones are coloring, and learning to match shapes, numbers and letters and are listening in as the older ones recite their numbers (counting) and letters. The older ones are writing simple words (‘cat’, ‘dog’). All of the training even in this class is in English, sometimes with explanations in Swahili or Luo (the local language).

The day starts with going over homework and Madam Nancy calls up each group to wait in line for her to correct their exercise books where she’s handwritten (yes, really!) the assignments for each of them the day prior. I’m amazed at how quietly the little ones sit as they wait though the process.

  • (Is there anything I could do to help?) What if they had a way to copy off the exercise sheets? But how would they attach them to the exercise books? These little ones have a hard time keeping track of their one little exercise book and not returning to class with it torn up. Impressive enough that they have any homework!
  • What if we got them coloring books? That would give them something to do during quiet times in class.
  • Hmm. This class is covered with posters--almost all handmade (!). I wonder if we could find them some laminated posters with the same content.

After some time, I promote myself to Primary and sit in/ look in on the other classes.

  • Kenya’s educational system has an 8-grade Primary (Kindergarten, called “Pre-unit” and then “Standards” 1 through 8). At the end of 8th grade is a national qualification exam that determines their next step. Place highly and you may get a government scholarship to Secondary (High School – called “Forms” 1 through 4). Otherwise, your academics may be over unless you can pay for a vocational school/college (typically 2 years of study).
  • Government syllabus for the Standard grades include Social Studies, Math, Reading and Writing in English and Swahili, Science, and CRE (Christian Religious Ed – yes, as part of the government curriculum; there’s also a Moslem curriculum if your school has Moslems).

As I look in on the Pre-unit (Kindergarten), they are practicing simple arithmetic problems (addition, subtraction) and sentence completion.

In 1st Grade, as part of social studies, they are reciting and recording (in their exercise booklets) the “class rules”:

  1. Not to make noise in the classroom
  2. To keep our classroom clean
  3. To ask for permission when you go out
  4. To obey our teachers and prefect
  5. To put up our hands before answering questions
  6. To take care of each other’s items
  7. To be in class in time
  8. To be neat and tidy

3rd Grade has fill-in-the-blanks in CRE

  • Who was the father of Jesus?
  • Joseph’s _________ sold him to Egypt
  • Moses was given the _________ commandments on Mt Sinai
  • Christians pray in _________ (mosque/churches)

In 4th Grade Science, Mr. Eliakim is quizzing the class on some physics basics:

  • Which of the following floats and which will sink…a pin on a sheet of paper or a pin on its own?
  • Next he describes an experiment to determine the effect of water depth on pressure (the behavior of water leaking through holes at various heights in the side of a tank). He holds the only textbook, so on the very rough blackboard he draws out its pictures of the example experiments as he describes them. [And I think: "that would be a lot easier if each child had a textbook to refer to"]

The African teaching style tends towards the Ferris Bueller’s Ben Stein-method of verbal “finish my sentence” ("...anyone? anyone?") with either the entire class chiming in or the teacher asking “who can tell me” and students respond by raising their hands and clamoring to be called on (“teachah,teachah, teachah”). Much is rote style, especially in the earlier grades with the entire class reading the board together or reciting a poster or repeating after the teacher.

Grades 3 and 4 gather for PE in a big circle around the trash pit (there’s no room elsewhere in the yard) and seem to be doing a “follow-my-moves” with first the teacher leading a variety of steps and motions and then one of the students. Looks like great fun. (And there may not be much else they can do in the current space and considering the entirety of their athletic equipment is one under-inflated, soccer ball and a few jump ropes.)

Later that afternoon was my big debut! Mr. Richard let me teach Standard 4 (4th grade) a lesson in CRE. The government-issued (“Kenyatta Foundation”) course book contains simple Bible story lessons followed by key points and then a few fill-in questions. Our lesson was “Choosing to Belong” and it struck me how different the context might be in U.S. for the same lesson. I covered two stories -- Adam and Eve punished for disobeying God, and the story of Abraham willing to obey and sacrifice his son if necessary, and how God honored them both as a result.

The main message was that we would be blessed if we always make the right choices and obey God and our teachers and our parents or guardians, and included a discussion of how to ask God for strength to find and follow the right choices. It occurs to me that in the U.S. that would be a lesson to individuals about individual choice, but here that context is merely an element of a greater value, that of belonging. Being in community as a value is well-understood here. Perhaps Western culture could benefit from thinking about our behaviors, our choices as impacting our connection with our community rather than limiting our view to ourselves as individuals.

The engagement of the children here is at a level unimaginable in the U.S. and towards the end of the school day I see that learning continues even after class. The preschoolers (“Baby Class” / “Middle Class”) sit outside as they wait for the closing assembly. They play quietly in the dirt with their hands or sticks (there’s nothing else to play with) until one starts reciting in English: “1, 2, 3…” and the whole crowd chimes in to recite their counting (“…108,109, 1000, 1001... 1008, 1009, one million”). (Yes, they skipped a few, but it’s a start!) Then they recite the colors (“cala red, cala blue…”), then the alphabet…and it strikes me that rote learning has given these children a number of very valuable tools:

  • Their mind when idle will revert to what they’ve been repeating over and over, giving them effortless educational reinforcement.
  • The classroom rote is a community-building activity. Learning is done together, it’s a shared process, one where you may depend on each other. As such it both reinforces the social value of education and the educational value of their social group (i.e., adds to how attentive they are, because this is something that is important to everyone).

It has certainly been a day of learning for me!