Reflections of a Mzungu
When John Carroll came to the Lyme School in the spring of 2017 proposing a vision for Upper Valley Educators, I was “curious”. His idea: a trip to Kenya to exchange pedagogy, share experiences, and witness a culture so vastly different than our own. As the organizational meetings continued, my curiosity slowly grew. Ultimately, I was literally the “last man standing” and final plans were made to head off for a week in February to Kenya, one of those “****-hole” countries in Africa.
So there I was: a white, short, chubby, middle-aged Jewish guy spending a week in Western Kenya at the Our Lady of Grace School. John and Mary Beth Klee did their best to prepare me for what was to come, but words often lack the substance of experience that one encounters in real time.
I was unaware of and unprepared for the convergence of politics, religion, tribal affiliation, corruption, education and their impact and influence on daily life in Kenya. The result of these factors cannot be measured, but are evident in the fabric that binds a Kenyan’s love for their country. In my very brief encounter with the people and land of this country, I sensed a tremendous desire for them to try to make it all work.
Public Education K-8 only became available in 2003 in Kenya. Decentralization took place several years ago with Counties being formed to allocate resources. Kenya also embraces a National Curriculum, containing a religious component; however, power, politics, tribal allegiance and corruption still control the system. Education, both public and private, is test-centric. Performance on the Eighth Grade placement test determines a child’s fate for their future. A compelling factor in Kenya’s educational system is one’s ability to pay for Secondary School, let alone private school for the primary years. Wealth and availability of resources greatly contribute to the success or failures in educating a child.
Our Lady of Grace, a K-8 private Catholic school with ~ 200 students with limited resources, is an example of an institution that attempts to instill the fundamentals of learning and character into each child. The staff is genuinely sincere in caring for the needs of their students. I spent four days observinging classroom instruction and interactions between staff and students, and was impressed with the dedication and efforts of the staff and administrators at Our Lady of Grace. Instructional methodology was different and more structured, but I saw examples of best practices being implemented throughout their routines. The staff displayed a sense of cohesiveness and camaraderie, which is difficult to obtain due to the transitional nature of the teacher profession in a nongovernmental position. I also felt a strong “sense of place” at OLG: learning needs a community to thrive, and the school’s family supported and nurtured children coming from challenging home environments.
My brief time spent at the Our Lady of Grace School was a tremendous experience for me. I was warmly welcomed into a school that is truly trying to make a difference in children's' futures. It really does take a village.
So what is the proverbial take-away? When I ponder this question there can be so many ways to answer. Do I compare Thetford to the Village, Lyme School to Our Lady of Grace, the U.S. to Kenya, or my life to a life in Kenya? Never did I hear so much conversation about fresh water and toilets- is that a comparison between standards and culture? I’m still the white, short, chubby, middle-aged Jewish guy who stumbled into an incredible adventure. But this was an experience that I will never forget.