The time has come to close up loose ends, pack bags, say goodbyes, and head back to Oregon. It’s a bittersweet time—this experience has been good, we’ve made good friends, we feel good about what we’ve done, and we hear constant questioning about our return date. It’s also just a week before Christmas and one of those high points of family time. We’re ready to be at home and to celebrate with family and friends whom we have not seen for four months.
I leave Kenya and the Kenyan educational system knowing more than when I came. Many people told me before we arrived to listen a lot and learn what I could. I have done that. There are things that I still don’t understand and some things that I don’t particularly agree with, but I come away with a greater understanding and appreciation than before.
It has only been a few years since Kenya gained total independence and began to operate with its own government. In fact, Independence Day (Jamhuri Day) is today (December 12)—the day in 1964 when Jomo Kenyatta became the first elected president of this nation, just a year after obtaining independence from the colonial system. It has only been a few years since legislation was passed mandating free primary education for all Kenyan children. There are pieces of that education system which bear similarities to the “separate-but-equal” days of the “pre-Brown” era in the U.S.A., but they are working on it.
I continue to be amazed when I talk with teachers who have 45, 50, or even 80 children in a primary classroom. I am astounded at what teachers can accomplish without text books or even enough supplies for each child to have a pencil to call their own. And, I see primary and secondary boarding schools which are rich by comparison. I can never think about any of those situations without bringing my granddaughter’s school experience into the comparison—her small group of fifth graders has lots of supplies, wonderful resources, access to computers and the web, caring parents who drive them to school in nice vehicles, healthy meals, clean water, good medical and dental care, and lovely places to sleep. Of course, I also think about the number of children in the U.S. who appear to be headed for a life of obesity. I don’t see that in Kenya. In fact, my spouse and I both will return to the states with fewer personal pounds than we brought with us: the new diet plan--Eat like a Kenyan! [When Joan asked the kids at the Children’s Home about dessert, the response was, “What is dessert?”]
It doesn’t please me that I see classroom teachers walking around with a stick in hand. And, I’m not happy with the long-term outcome of crowded classrooms which (I believe) results in an emphasis on learned or memorized facts rather than discovery, challenge, and exploration. But I must admit that the focus I have observed in these last two weeks has amazed me as I’ve seen university students so totally absorbed with study and preparation for final exams that I believe they have left no note unread and no fact unmemorized. I am convinced they will transfer those facts to the examination booklet page in that small precise printing that uses every bit of available space on the rare piece of paper the university will provide for their tests.
Because the Kenyan school year ends in December, I’ve been here during the time that Form IV students (e.g. high school seniors) and the Standard 8 students have prepared for and have taken the national examinations which determine much of their future. The national exam has its associated controversy—a national teacher strike at the beginning of the term delayed the start of school for several weeks and subsequently pushed the exam time back to provide adequate time to prepare. The logistics of administering a national exam in a country as diverse as Kenya are enormously complicated and hints of cheating or other improprieties have been covered with severe articles in the newspaper. [NOTE: The headmaster of the Barack and Michelle Obama Academy failed to register his students for the national exam—they must now wait a year for the next opportunity.]
The tests have also brought on severe anxiety for students. They are examined in early December, receive results in late February, learn about school decisions in late March, and begin the next term in April or May. The lag in scoring, reporting, and entrance decision result in one complete trimester being missed, as well as an extra-long period of limbo.
When test results are known, certain schools have first pick of students, then the next tier selects, and so on. There are aspects of that which bother me. And, of course, there will be students who don’t make the cut at any level. The decision points are critical for students exiting primary school (Standard 8) and secondary school (Form IV). It means secondary school eligibility or not, college eligibility or not.
There are a lot of things we will miss when we leave: we will miss the cordial greetings and warm welcome (karibu) every Kenyan gives. I’ll miss walking through the campus and being greeted with “Hello Prof” by persons I’ve never met. We will miss the pleasant unchanging weather found at this 6,000 foot elevation right on the equator (although the short-term torrential rains which suddenly occur without warning are not to be trifled with).
I don’t know if the constantly visible extreme poverty which surrounds us will be missed. I know that it will be a new and continuing reference point for these two middle class Americans to use in judging our own abundance. The impact has been great. The number of open palms thrust our way with expectation of donations, gifts, emergency resources, funds to meet extreme needs has been difficult for us to reconcile. It has made us think about the assumptions people make about any two white people (wazungu) they see. It has made us think about ourselves. There will be more to think about in the days ahead.
I will miss my students. Two came to sit by me in the cafeteria yesterday. They said, “We’ll miss you.” After I said I would miss them also, they asked, “When are you coming back?”—a question we’ve heard from every Kenyan we’ve met.
Joan will miss the children at the children’s home where she has been volunteering since we arrived in August. To hear and know their stories is more than sobering. To see the promise of their lives is rewarding. To realize the hardships they yet face is bothersome. We will have years of “what-ever-happened-to” thoughts which will probably never be answered for us.
I will continue to be awed by stories from some of my students who describe they work they do in remote towns and villages where AIDS is rampant. To listen to Margaret talk about the group of AIDS orphans she facilitates who have come together to gain support from each other and to be advocates for others to stay in school is something that will leave a lasting impression. [I wrote about Margaret in an earlier blog post (# 11).]
I have enjoyed the quick visits to primary schools where I’ve found pupils eager to ask “the man from America” questions. After all my years in the classroom, it’s a delight to return; however, the slight hearing loss I’ve experienced in the last few years makes it more difficult for me to feel good about exchange and dialogue (my favorite teaching strategies). I know when it’s time to be out.
I hope that some of my colleagues will consider extending themselves for their next Sabbatical experience. Or, after retirement, if travel is on the long-delayed bucket list, how about planning a trip to some place where you could be of service—either to apply your years of teaching skill, to offer your academic expertise, or to put your hands and heart to work. I would think it would beat hunting for lost golf balls in the deep rough; plus, on your days off you might get to wander through the landscape taking pictures of lions, elephants, zebras, and crocodiles [Don’t wade when mamba kubwa are present—they are lazy feeders and just wait for the food to come to them!]
Until the next post from America, I am, Brooke.
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.