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!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day 4 – It’s about each, individual child

It’s Monday – school day and I get to spend my first full day at the school!

School day begins at 7:45-ish with an assembly around the flagpole – children cluster in their class groups and are very orderly. First up is inspection by the teacher-in-charge:

· Does everyone have clean necks?

· Socks on and clean?

· Proper shoes (no plastic boots, at least unless it’s a muddy day)?

· Generally clean and orderly uniform (though many are quite torn or ill-fitting)?

Those who miss the mark are called up to stand before the group and be scolded.

That accomplished, it’s time for the flag raising in military style (a little marching of the “scouts” -- the flag brigade that has various ages among the 8 members) accompanied by everyone singing the national anthem.

Next up, Headmaster Paul has a few words of greeting and encouragement and Mr. Richard (or Mr. Eliakim, if it’s his turn), leads the children in a devotional song and recited prayer (with hands over faces). And the children are off to their classes.

For a few hours this morning, Mr. Richard helps me take individual pictures of each of the students present (97 present, today). Then, I take lunch with the teachers. We eat the same food as the children once all the children have been served. Today is red beans atop a mountain of white rice and we eat with spoons. Below is the typical week’s menu (no spoon on ugali days).


Rice and beans


Kale, Ughali, sometimes tiny herring


Githeri : Maize and Bean Succotash


Rice and Cabbage


Kale, Ugali and meat

Ugali is the polenta-like standard starch of East Africa -- typically made from maize, sometimes with some dried cassava mixed in, or the brown variety is from millet and sorghum (and is highly nutritious).

After lunch Michael and I looked at some nearby land whose owner he says is motivated to sell (has one of his children at Achungo!). The only land we own right now is way too small; there’s no way we could add grades or showers or anything else, and very little land for the children to play even. These 3 other lots add up to about triple the current lot and sound very reasonable in price – maybe totalling about what we paid for the current lot (sounds like a 70% discount?)!!

I began to see a God-sized vision for Achungo with the possibilities that could be opened up with this added land. This would make all the difference for these kids and transform Achungo from a few years of schooling and care to a real start in life that gets them through 8th grade—the critical milestone that could put higher education within reach and give them the opportunity to leap ahead economically. Hmmm!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 3 - It's Sunday

Today, Michael takes me to his home church to attend services. He has attended here since he was small. We drive up the gravel drive to Kager Vision Center and into a grassy compound with a sizable brick chapel (maybe seating for 150 about 90 attending), a stucco and rock community center building and a stucco clinic (built by an NGO). The African style of worship is not unlike a rousing Southern Baptist service with lots of singing along with the preaching and teaching. As I’ve noticed elsewhere here, there were always 2 speakers as there is constant translation (here the dual service was Luo and English).

We sing a while, with the worship leader and 3 women chorists taking turns leading, and 2 keyboardists accomplanying. Then the dance team shows up. The four eight-year-old girls file in and stay up front and for the 15 minutes of that song, dance to the music in unison. It is just delightful – those girls have all the moves, frequently varying their dance, sometimes executing turns, sometimes back-to-back, always in unison.

The Guest teacher speaks on how to pray (importance of silence before God, separation from distraction, etc.) and later on how to worship with all our heart/soul/mind/strength --worshiping in truth (accurate to scripture), with real (heartfelt), thoughtful and practical (not just ritualized) worship.

And it seems to me that "worshiping with all our strength" suggests that it should cost us something, should involve some sacrifice, if we’re really putting our lives in His hands. For a little while recently, my road seemed particularly difficult and humbling, but in general I am thrilled with my work with Achungo. It seems like nothing but a gift.

Halfway into the service, visitors are invited to introduce themselves and many come up to the stage for a brief word. Michael speaks briefly, introduces me and I briefly express my greetings, appreciation of the unity of believers world-wide, and sense of call to join Michael in his important work at Achungo. Pastor Henry closes the service sharing his recent travels to develop the ministry and visit colleagues and parishioners, as well as upcoming program plans. After the service, during greetings, I tell him how much of a blessing it is for me to work with Michael, that I consider him my role model. (I hope his church is very proud of Michael!)

It is close to 2pm when Michael drives me back to Rodi. I remark on his introduction of me as having left a big job to fill the position of Mama Achungo (i.e., Exec Director) and I tell him that I was much more impressed with how he has left his new career for Achungo. He is a very remarkable man.

He joins me for lunch at the Tausi Hotel and we talked about all the things we want to do during my visit. I am pleased to hear him say that 3 weeks might not be enough for all we want to do. I had begun to worry that it would be a burden to him but his excitement is all the encouragement I need.

After Michael heads for home and after a brief rainstorm and thunder-boomer had blown through, I take a walk down the road past town, and past the rich, green countryside and fields of maize and banana farms. I seem to be a big celebrity --I'm incessantly greeted from nearly all those I pass. Little children called out “mzungu” (“hey white person”) and grownups offered greetings of “how odd you?” and I learned the proper reply is “fine, thank you, how odd you? A very friendly place.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 2 - Down on the Farm

Today Michael takes me to his village, Kager, to view the Achungo farm plots. The farming now takes up a lot of Michael’s time and is our key to moving toward some level of self-sufficiency. The current Samaritan’s Purse funding (the only funded project going on right now) provides for the costs for these plots with the objective of providing the majority of the food for the children and staff of Achungo.

There are 5 plots, 2 are on a hill, today we walk the 3 that are in the lowland. Michael and 6 hired hands cultivated the plots and seeded and fertilized maize and beans some 3 weeks prior and the corn is more than knee high. They’ve been weeding it, as grass and weeds grow very fast during the rainy season, and are now applying fertilizer topically (“top-dressing”) as a second application. They’ve dug ditches through the fields to carry away rain runoff that otherwise would wash out the crop. Their methods have resulted in fields that look far more productive (denser and in better health) than neighboring fields.

Afterward, Michael takes me back to his family compound – where he grew up and where some of his family still live. Families in rural Kenya that have any land build their homes in clusters that kind of radiate out from the parents hut. We passed the house of one of Michael’s brothers and he called a greeting over the bleating of his several young goats. Further up we entered the family’s main area where Michael’s house sits next to his mother’s and his grandmother’s. Once small mud huts, they are now stuccoed, 3-room homes with tin roofs (as opposed to thatch). It is an idyllic setting, with large, open areas of verdant wild grass that looks like a well-kept lawn and many shade and fruit trees. The mango tree was full of fruit that would be ripe in another month and behind the houses was a small stand of banana trees.

After we greet his mother (his grandmother is not at home), we greet Beatrice, who was outside washing clothes in a large bucket. Michael invites me inside for lunch and we talk as Beatrice prepares and serves a lunch of rice and chicken.

We talk about the farming and then about other ways we might develop projects to help with food or provide some self-funding. After lunch, Michael invites his oldest brother to talk to us about various cash crops that he might suggest. He also invites over an “mzee”, an older neighbor who has been chicken farming, to talk to us about his methods, costs and market prices. Finally, we end our agri-project ruminations by visiting a nearby greenhouse funded by an American group and viewing its impressive vegetables.

On our way back to Rodi, Michael stops at the “village blacksmith” and we watch a while as he hammers iron hoe blades. His forge (coal fire-pit) has a people-powered blower (hooked up to a bike wheel with a handle for manual turning). I had noticed the metal plow sitting in Michael’s yard -- with a team of oxen, he had gotten very familiar with that plow just a month prior. I could imagine that it came from that same local smithy, his forge and his hammer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Day 1 - First day in Kenya

Although I actually just got back from my 20-day trip to Achungo as of this writing, I couldn't blog while there. I had virtually no internet access. There's no wifi -- a few times I borrowed someone's laptop with their 3G internet service (Safaricom!) So I now recreate those 20 days, Day 1 being Oct. 29.

This is the day I finally get to meet Michael, his wife Beatrice, and the school staff and children and it turns out to be a gorgeous, clear, 85-degree day. Of course this is equatorial Africa, so maybe when it's not raining, it's always a gorgeous, clear, 85-degree day!?

Michael Nyangi is the founder and Director of Achungo. He meets me at the Kisumu airport with Beatrice, his wife, and with George, a Marketing consultant who is on his Kenyan board. His Kenyan board consists of a group of local supporters formed in 2008 of friends, his past teachers and others and who meet when issues arise or at least monthly. When officials recently told him the school would have to close unless he had more classroom space and desks, it was his board who found him 50 used metal sheets as a start for materials for the new building. They have helped him and encouraged him in a ton of ways.

Hoping to organize group trips next year, I want to check out prices on school supplies, etc. in the big city of Kisumu (biggest we'll see this trip). We stop at the “mega-mart” (one of the few shopping centers here) and I buy lots of water as I check out what else they have. The Nakumatt a.k.a. MegaCity is a warehouse-sized, modern shopping mall that includes a Walmart-type store—very clean, well-lit, well-stocked and virtually empty of people at 9:30 a.m. though what I saw of the small parking lot seemed fairly full.

Next, after dropping George off, we drive through lush green countryside studded with small plots of bananas and maize, even some rice, as the road turns from tarmac to serious potholes to dirt, and we slow down accordingly, before we make it to Rodi Kopany and arrive at Achungo Children’s Center.

The rest of the day I spend at the school getting acquainted with the teachers and the students.

First I'm introduced to the teachers in the Teachers' Lounge (that's what I call the 8x15 room that serves as their office. Michael kicks things off in this somewhat formal meeting and speaks of how important Achungo is and that sometimes we have to be patient and wait on God's timing when we’re in His hands—I think less a reference to my joining Achungo than to his personal pain that he cannot pay the teachers (one has just left when he found an opportunity to be paid). Next up, introductions by headmaster Paul (a retired teacher) and a short speech by me (my journey and how my experiences indicate to me how important Achungo is and that it is my privilege to be able to work with them). I tell them that much of what I will do during my 3 weeks will be to learn from them how I could best serve them as Executive Director. I also recounted Kim Golter’s advice on running a non-profit: essentially, put God first and He will make sure everything else happens. Michael closes with words acknowledging me and my comments.

After introductions and sharing with the teachers, the children gather and sing welcome songs (“everybody come, we gonna welcome, our visitor at Achungo…”) and recite some homegrown poems.

Then in a classic African scene , everyone gathers under the shade tree. First Michael quizzes the children on random questions and then Richard invites them to tell stories and several stand in turn and tell seemingly ad hoc short stories. Each begins with an interactive preface -- something like “story, story” and all the children respond in unison “tell us a story”.

After the ceremonial lowering of the Kenyan flag, the school day is over and the children file out the gate for their walks home. I join a group of them and talk a bit with Madame Nancy (Akoko—the younger) as we walk past another small private school (Midland Vision Academy) and some rental units (some with 10x10 single rooms in long tin buildings, others upscale brick with TV antennas. As we get into town, I leave the children and Nancy to their various homeward paths and head to the open market – it’s Friday, Market Day! Rodi is not much more than a few blocks of shops clustered around a junction, but it really comes to life on Friday.

Picture a supermarket after a tornado has thrown away the roof and walls and cast all the goods all over the ground! The vendors mostly have their wares on tarps (old sack material, etc.) laid out on the ground with virtually no organization and little room left to walk. OK, there are some discernable “departments” -- a group of proximate vendors selling used shoes and some selling used clothing of all sorts, the group of charcoal sellers, of fishmongers, sellers of hammered tin pans, of maize, of greens, and of other produce vendors.

Lots of friendly banter, some aimed at me: some “karibu’s” (“welcome/come in”) and “Hello’s” along with the various communications of “wouldn’t you like some…” During the hour I stroll, taking notes and pictures, a few men pester me for money and I turn to them and say “I don’t speak Swahili” (in Swahili) and leave them to ponder that as I make my exit.

I walk back to the Tausi Hotel (Motel 6 caliber but the nicest by far in town and very adequate), order the “fish stew and ugali” – a whole Tilapia that seems like it’d been fried a while and then cooked in a mild tomato sauce, on separate plate the big lump of maize ugali (polenta-style) and in a separate bowl the sauce from the fish. Tasty and filling, at least after I get all the bones out of the way. ($3 for the food and $.40 for a small soda (240 Kenya shillings / 30 Ksh). Guess I won't go broke this trip! I hear the jetlag calling and once they bring me the wash basin to clean up after my sup, it's time to catch some z's.