||Volume 22, Number 7, May/June 2010
Kenya, Summer 2009
By Steve Fairbairn
Education Beyond Borders (www.educationbeyondborders.org) is a Canadian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that was started and is currently being organized by Noble Kelly, a teacher on leave from West Vancouver School District (and they should be thanked whole heartedly for supporting him in his life’s journey).
EBB is an organization with a difference, as it is truly a grass-roots project that has been quietly growing over the last three years by making connections directly with the local teachers and other like-minded NGOs. EBB fundraising even covers the costs of providing travel, accommodation, and food for the local Kenyan teachers attending the workshops. The issue of providing financial support to the Kenyan teachers is important. They often do not have access to personal transportation (some have small motorcycles, the odd participant had a small tired-out car, but most depend on public transportation to get to the workshop sites), personal computers, professional development funding, classroom supplies, or many other things we take for granted here in Canada.
We came from across Canada and the USA. We came from many different teaching backgrounds and situations, from Fine Arts schools and Alternate Education settings, as well as your more run-of-the-mill primary and secondary schools. Over the course of two-and-a-half weeks, we shared our enthusiasm, passion, excitement, flexibility, dedication, and a willingness to share our skills and passions with our colleagues in Kenya. We debated, we laughed, we questioned, and we grew together.
We arrived in Africa, met each other, and packed our belongings into two small vans (and when I say packed, think sardines. I travelled for eight hours with luggage on my lap and on the floor between my legs. Forget air conditioning, think dust). That day was worth the price of admission on its own. You haven’t lived until you’ve travelled the roads of Africa after dark.
From our first accommodations in a beautiful grass-roofed house beside a watering hole in a nature conservancy, we traveled daily to Nanyuki High School for Boys, where we met our co-presenters and began to plan in earnest for our first set of week-long workshops.
Our days were filled from dawn to well past dusk with planning, visits to schools, and ministry officials. On one school visit, we were able to gather together enough money between us to purchase a classroom full of brand new desks and chairs. I was able to donate 50 scientific calculators (solar powered) to a secondary school that had never before had a calculator. Just imagine Grade 10 math (and a national exam too) without a calculator—and by the way, their curriculum is very similar to ours here in BC!
The school system in Kenya is modeled on the old English system, with forms and standards instead of grades, and where progress through each grade is solely dependent on passing a final exam worth 100% of your mark. It is a system that is nominally free, if you can afford the uniform, and/or the boarding fees. It is a system where there are only about a third the spaces for secondary school as there are for elementary school, so that Grade 8 standardized test really does mean success or failure. The schools reflect the small tax base—if the principal and the teachers haven’t raised the money, likely the school doesn’t have it (plumbing, floors, books, learning aids, and so on).
Before we knew it, the first week was over and we’d presented nearly 50 separate workshops on teaching methodologies such as learning styles, co-operative classrooms, inquiry learning, understanding by design, creating a positive classroom environment, formative assessment, assessment for learning, rubrics, professional learning communities, co-operative and discovery learning, and study and organizational skills. We worked on subject-based topics in the curricular areas of math, science, and English at both the elementary and secondary levels. We’d also begun to grasp the unique challenges of teaching in schools without resources, in classrooms with 40, 50, or more children. We tried to understand a system where all children are learning in their second (or third) language, as English is the language of instruction but it is not the mother tongue in Kenya. The light bulb went on a bit brighter when I figured out that every teacher was teaching in his or her second language too!
With Saturday coming to an end we packed up our stuff, loaded those vans again, and hit the roads for a six-hour drive across central Kenya. We arrived at Utumishi High School for Boys, and once again we tossed coins to see who’d share which bedroom with whom. Planning began again on Sunday and the workshops ramped up first thing Monday morning. We had the luxury of having access to a computer lab here; so many of the Kenyan teachers got to access “technology” —some for the very first time!
I got the special treat of being taken under the wing of the workshop cook—Walter. He let me help him serve and haul buckets of food. I got a tour of the school kitchen (anyone see a refrigerator?) and I got lessons on how to properly cook ugali—a porridge made of maize flour, water, and heat. You know it is ready to eat when the paddle comes out of it without any ugali sticking to it. Then it lasts for hours —just keep it warm on the charcoals.
Not all of my time was spent at work in Kenya. I took the opportunity to travel (camping safari) through large parts of Kenya. I got to sleep on the dirt of Africa. I got to shower, and do everything else that the body does, just like a rural Kenyan. I saw animals up close and personal. “Nice kitty, nice kitty, go away nice kitty” is a phrase I used more than once. Yes sir, to recognize that you are food (and when I say food, I mean easy snack) puts one’s place on the planet in a different perspective.
Ask me about Max the rhinoceros. “Nice Max, sit boy, roll over, go to sleep Max.” He was being handraised by two park rangers. Max loved those two men, so much so that they had to build a fence to keep him from crashing into their sleeping hut at night.
I am so proud to be part of Education Beyond Borders, an organization that is striving to bring quality education to the world. I was so very lucky to be in the company of such a dedicated group of teachers—Canadian, American, and Kenyan. I was in awe of the amazing skills, techniques, approaches, dedication, and personalities of my fellow team members—I am a better teacher and a better person for the experience.
Would I go back again? Yes. Thank you Noble Kelly and the other members of the team who put up with me—you all taught me so much—and, of course, to the BCTF who supported my journey with financial aid (including all of my friends and colleagues in the Representative Assembly—you helped to fund those calculators!).
Steve Fairbairn is president of Fernie Teachers’ Association.