I came to Kenya as a volunteer faculty member here at Kenya Methodist University. I told the chair that I’d do anything they wanted me to do, that I just wanted to be helpful in any way I could. I agreed to “fit in” as best I could. I think I have, but there have been some surprises:
I don’t think I’ve ever written the final examination for a course I was teaching until about two weeks (or one) before the end of the class. Imagine my surprise last week to receive a memo telling me to turn in two (2) copies of sample final exams for each of the courses I’m teaching. The copies will subsequently be reviewed by faculty from other campuses, and I suppose a final decision about what the students will see on exam day will be some combination of what I’ve written, perhaps combined with items from faculty teaching the same course on another campus. Hmmm! I can see my AAUP friends back home jumping out of their chairs and reaching for the Red Book (is it still red?).
Me, I decided to fit in the system and do it “the Kenyan way.”
Joan and I experienced the Kenyan way last Saturday. It was time to purchase some supplies for our small kitchen, to get some postage stamps (we couldn’t find any on campus), and get to a book store. We flagged a taxi at the front gate of the campus, jumped in with another person, picked up another passenger a short way up the hill, then promptly ran out of gas. The driver popped the trunk lid, grabbed a plastic jug, flagged down a ride, jumped off at a filling station, then ran back with something less than a gallon. Off we went again, dropping a passenger here and there and arriving at the post office (200 Ksh). Our request for 25 stamps sufficient to send a letter to the U.S. almost wiped out the supply, but we made it.
The Kenyan way popped up when we asked the uniformed guard how to walk to our next destination. She gave us instructions, we started out on foot, and soon realized she was walking behind us to make sure we didn’t get lost. At the next “get lost” point, another request for directions produced the same response, “I’ll take you there.” We said we could follow directions and took off, only to discover our guide was coming with us—graciously, generously, with no critical comment about the two m’zungas who couldn’t find their way. One more wrong turn and another person wanted to give us directions and show the way. We kept thinking, “In what city in the U.S. would this happen?” In our half day of walking and shopping in downtown Meru, we did not see any other white faces. We did see hospitality, friendliness, and a month’s worth of interesting shops, sights, and people.
Another surprise today—I had asked for assistance to set up a web site where I could place class notes and materials for a course I’m teaching. I was directed to IT yesterday where a young man grabbed the phone, scheduled the videoconference room for today with a hookup to the web master in Nairobi. I just returned from being walked through establishment of a very nice web site (called “Moodle”) and I’m now ready to develop and upload stuff. I’m trying to give the students my class notes ahead of time as a means of bridging the language problems which I present.
This morning, for another bit of Kenyan way, we grabbed a taxi for the short ride to the home of a young man who has been our driver for several trips. He is the one who picked us up at the Nairobi airport at 2:00 AM, took us to our overnight lodging, picked us up the next morning, and deposited us after a four-hour drive at our guest house on the campus. He has also been the one who frequently takes Joan to the Children’s Home not far from the campus where she has become attached to about 14 young kids who watch for her appearance to see what they are going to do this night. (Part of our shopping was finding some new pants for the boys—skirts or pants for the girls come later.) Anyway, this morning we went to Munene’s home to see his one-week-old baby boy. We brought some little gifts. Munene’s wife had tea (chai) for us, then plates of arrowroot and potato pieces. That was followed by Kenyan porridge (a mixture of ground grains cooked together in a thin liquid). The hospitality was genuine. The baby was great. Pictures all around. Discussions about Kenyan naming procedures. Instruction in a couple more Swahili words. Shared stories about our separate families. And astonishment that Joan and I are as old as we are (I think 78 is a little rare to be teaching, walking so far to the store, or doing much).
With each new introduction comes an invitation: “You must come to my house,” or “You must come to my church,” or “I must bring you some food.” Again, the hospitality is extensive and genuine.
Now I’ll have to get back to a little email discussion with my university colleagues about academic freedom and examination procedures. I have attached a picture of my Intro to Psych class. For those who are interested, the white duster is defense against chalk dust—with no white boards and no handout for today, I created a lot of chalk dust (how many years since you used chalk?).
A new surprise very day.
Brooke Collison is professor emeritus of counselor education and a former president of the American Counseling Association. He will be a visiting professor at Kenya Methodist University in Meru, Kenya during the September trimester. Joan Collison will be a volunteer with children in a social service agency during their four-month stay in Kenya.