Sunday, January 2, 2011

Final Days of My Stay: Exams and Family Visits

Madam Dorcas
Madam Dorcas and M. Nancy
As one of my last days at Achungo winds down, I walk home with Venezyl and Madam Nancy Odhiambo (the younger teacher Nancy) to visit Madam Dorcas, who is at home with a 3-week-old baby she has inherited from her brother-in-law’s wife who apparently died in childbirth.  Madam Dorcas was one of the first teachers at Achungo and would be teaching but for the newborn.  (Women teachers are shown respect with the title “Madam” as men teachers are called “Mister”)  She is nursing when we get there, but soon after, leaves the Baby with M. Nancy and heads out the door with empty soda bottles.  After 10 minutes she is back with sodas for her company (us).

She lives in a traditional mud-daub hut but in the updated rectangular style with corrugated tin roof (as opposed to old-fashioned round mud hut with thatch roof).  The outside is patchy in places, needing some new mud (and has the laundry drying on the roof), but inside she has some reasonably modern furniture.  There is a mud partition and curtain that separates the sitting room from her other room (kitchen/pantry/bedroom).
The family compound

While we visit with her in her sitting room, she frequently darts into the other room, tending to the baby or whatever.  This is African hospitality -- anyone is welcome to drop in any time, but entertaining may be interrupted with household activities in a way that is casual and accepting.  Sure enough, the neighbors drop in to see who’s visiting.  Because she lives in a cluster of the huts of relatives (actually, her husband’s family:  mother, grandmother, brother), and as they noticed us walking in, they soon drop by for a spell.  (Her own family lives some ways away near Kisumu, with a sister in Mombasa and some family in Nairobi.)  The kids are also in and out:  Venezyl is oldest (about 4 ½) then there’s Momzi, Bebe and Denis (2 girls and a boy).  
With M. Dorcas in her sitting room

Madam Dorcas started teaching when her now-deceased husband was working away from home and she wanted something to keep herself busy.  She’d been invited to teach by Madam Nancy (Akoko, the older teacher Nancy), who knew her from the local Seventh Day Adventist church (that Richard also attends).  It was Nancy and Dorcas who began the school.

After a while, it is time to go and I walk back to the road with all of them.  Venezyl wants to walk me to the hotel gate but M Dorcas heads in the other direction to pick up her posho (maize meal) from the miller and Venezyl is torn and cries in frustration.  I wait on her but she finally heads back to her mother.

Final Exams
On these final school days of the term, we (as in "we, the teaching staff of Achungo"!) finish all the recording of exam scores:
  • scoring the 6 or 8 tests (depending on grade level) for each of the 110 students, 
  • entering them all in Excel, 
  • calculating student totals and class subject totals and averages,
  • sorting them by student totals to get the class position for each student, 
  • then recording, on a government form for each student, their midterm and final exam scores plus year-end review comments.   
Whew!  A multi-day process that we’ve shortened by maybe ½-day as I help them use Excel for all the initial calculation of score totals, individual and subject averages, class placement, etc.

Richard had sent 2 kids home when they first showed up.  They had not attended classes for nearly the entire term but just came in time for exams.  He told them they couldn’t take the exams unless they brought their guardians to school to explain why they weren’t attending.   He says some guardians will keep the kids home to do chores (guard the drying maize from chickens, keep the ants off the bean flowers, hauling water, whatever).  He thinks the kids are not particularly motivated but especially worries that the guardians prefer them to be home helping out and he wants to counteract that.  Even though the guardians may be elderly and may need the help, they need to support the children's education as critical for bettering their lives.

Room to Play
While we do the scoring, the students have nothing to do and are getting a bit restless, as they are still spending the class periods in their rooms in their seats, even the 2-year-olds!  After a while, someone has the idea to invite the kids (at least grades 1-4) to go the other lot to play for a while.  This is an empty lot a short walk away that we leased before our new school building.  (Kenyan officials told us in October that we had to leave that leased building because it was too small and decrepit, so we had to rush-build a temporary building on the owned parcel)  Michael and I have begun talking to the owner about possibly purchasing this lot plus two adjoining lots.    

The children immediately spread out over this considerable space:  in one area boys get a soccer game going, elsewhere mixed groups are playing dodge ball, jumping rope, and engaging in other games.  As I take it in, I realize the current lot is oppressively small for a play area.  We simply must obtain this additional land as soon as possible.  We have new buildings to put up (a granary, classrooms, showers, latrine and more, whenever we get funding), and some are needed right away, but we will need this land before we can start any additional building.  Somehow we must make it happen!

Some of the girls are asking about my departure, telling me they’ll cry, asking if they can come with me, asking when I’ll be back.  My sadness only grows as I learn I’ll miss Friday’s end-of-school-year ceremonies and graduations.

The Home of a Guardian
Grandma's kitchen
Mid-afternoon Richard leads me with B on a visit to B's grandmother’s place – across the street and past some fields in a compound of huts that include her deceased husbands other wife(s).  B’s grandmother is the only adult survivor of her immediate family and has 3 of his cousins also under her care.  She is very old (early 80's?) but seems very active.  Apart from their gardens, Achungo is their only provider of food and school supplies and at times provides supplies for the cousins as well.  B is HIV positive. 

I tell her it is a wonderful thing that she is doing and she gives God all the credit.  That faith has no doubt sustained her through hardship and grief that I cannot comprehend.  Her hut, although similar outside to Madam Dorcas', is not holding up as well and has very little furniture of any sort.  But she is surviving and giving B a family.

Home With Silvia
Back to school for closing assembly and some devotional songs.  Then, on my way home, I see Silvia waiting for me.  She invites me to visit her home near my hotel.  She lives in a single room with her aunt (she was taken in after her parents died) behind a tiny shop that her aunt runs.  This room is shared with her aunt's 2 other children and new baby (and I guess, husband).

Silvia's family
Her mother (aunt) tells me that Silvia wants to go to America with me (and I tell Silvia that her education must come first--I really don't know how else to answer her!).  Her mother asks her a few times if she’s last in the class again and is going to be held back.  Silvia doesn’t know yet.  However, I've been working on scores so I have seen her results.  It turns out she is a very poor student (Richard thinks she has limited ability) and actually is last in her class and won’t be promoted, but I figure that news will come soon enough without my help.  When her mother asks me about my family and especially my wife, Kathy, I get a chance to talk about her work with learning disabilities, just in case understanding the normalcy of LD helps those present to understand Silvia's situation.

She also tells me that Sylvia wants me to stay for tea and sends Sylvia out for some ears of roasted maize.  When she returns, I have something to chew on for quite a while (tough maize)!  They are all very gracious and pleasant, including her oldest daughter (7th grade), 2 yr-old son, George William, and the Baby, improbably named Joe Biden!  After a good while, I bid them adieu and head to the main drag to buy some water. 

Why stop visiting now?  In town I run into George, Michael’s friend with the experimental farm who tells me that I promised to come back to visit... "what happened?”  (I’m getting way too used to this “you promised” con.  When someone wants something it comes out as "you promised."  Shades of childhood manipulation.)  We chat for a while and in the course of our conversation, I give him a few new ideas (he’s definitely the idea man).  I suggest he try pepper spray for the bugs on his plants.  And I talk to him about beekeeping--my "ton" of honey from 5 hives in Arizona.  It would be great if I could really add value here in some way, but I wonder if my experiences are so separate from the context of their lives that it is pointless!?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Notes on Orphanage Care

As if I needed it, I got further acknowledgement of the various and real benefits of the model that Michael created in Achungo.    I finished reading a book called “The Urban Halo” by Craig Greenfield about his experience helping HIV/AIDS orphans in Cambodia.  Craig did a lot of research (UNICEF, UNAIDS, USAID, Yale University study, study by Yule and Raynes, research by John Bowlby and work by several other psychiatrists and psychologists) and came to the conclusion that the advantages of community-based care for orphans are overwhelming as compared to institutionalization.   
In his words, children/orphans are better off even in “bad” homes than they are in group homes.
  • Children in the community, whether living with family members or with others within their home community, experience significant social development and personal development gains over children from group homes.
  • They tend to experience fewer emotional and behavioral problems and are generally better adjusted
  • They tend to be happier with their lives  (for example, they don’t feel locked up or prevented from leaving as can be the case with children in group care situations.
  • Community-based care is far less expensive than group homes (various estimates are that it is anywhere from 6 times to 100 times less expensive)
  • Children in group homes are not prepared for reintegration into society and in many ways lack the life skills for coping with reality when they age out and are released from the group home.  Children in community-based care have the advantages of living within a family unit and within the community, so do not need to “reintegrate”
  • The group home breeds dependency and fosters loss of independence. 
  • Abuse is less likely in community-based care, especially because there is more community support and more of a sense of belonging.
I’ve been impressed see with Achungo’s community-based care and this book only reinforced my appreciation for Achungo as a very impressive model compared to many other orphanages I’ve seen or heard about.  As opposed to a western organization with US or European management and western-style buildings and programs, Michael’s Achungo is very African, run by local Kenyans with a structure, program and even buildings that fit into the local culture.

In Ethiopia we saw a very western orphanage – as well-intentioned as it certainly was,  it seemed very out of place and could not help but emphasize the difficulty their children would have re-integrating into their society.
Billy and his grandmother/guardian

Achungo could hardly be in a more rural environment and that definitely makes it easier to provide community-based care than it would be in a very urban location.  The children live with families in the community (often relatives but sometimes just caring neighbors that are good Samaritans) – they have not been isolated but are part of the local society and grow up as healthy socially as one could hope.