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Brooke Collison
Oct 15, 2012

A Counselor Educator in Kenya: Blog #12: Making It Relevant

I continue to struggle to find ways to make my classes most relevant for the students here in Kenya. At times, the obvious jumps up and smacks me in the face and I ask myself, “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?” I’ve had difficulty getting young students to identify broad social issues that face communities or groups. I’ve been struck by individual students who can name a human need (AIDS counseling, etc.) and who can develop a response [see Blog # 11], but I get less response when there is a class of 20 people. Of course, developing an interactive class [my preferred style] has been difficult all along.

Last week, I got a class response! This is the time of year when students in secondary school are about to take their end-of-year exams. These are national exams which determine a lot about a student’s future in education. The newspapers have been full of preparation stories, in particular because of the national teacher strike that delayed the start of this term and caused the exam date to be pushed back several times.

I asked the students in my Intro to Psych class (mostly first and second year students), if they remembered what it was like for them a year or two years ago. I got some head nods. I got them to talk about four time periods: the month or two before the exam, the day of the exam, the wait period until scores arrive (months), and the post-score period. They talked about individual and group behaviors, study groups, stomach butterflies, the normal kinds of response.

And then I asked about pre- or post-exam suicides. There was a big silence in the room and then a couple of head nods. More probing on my part and a couple of hands raised in response to the question, “How many of you know of someone who attempted or completed suicide?” (I left the time period vague.)

My questions then moved to determine what the school, community, church, or family did in each of those periods to assist students. In particular, I wanted to know if there was any kind of suicide response program. The answers—none. Schools provided study-group frameworks. Parents provided increased demand for performance prior to the exam date. People arranged celebrations following release of scores. No one knew of any school or community group to provide support for suicide risk, suicide attempt, or for completed suicide.

I grant that my sample was small and in no way representative. Because they are enrolled in a university, they obviously were successful. They remember their own stress, but can not recall any post-suicide response. And, they didn’t seem to have ideas about what could be done, what might have been done, or what should be done.

My search for Kenya youth suicide rates has come up with some problem indicators. The newspaper this weekend included an article on Kenya adolescent pregnancy and birth rates. AIDS numbers, although very high, are declining somewhat. I think I have material for a couple of relevant class sessions.

On a Different Note:
I’ve mentioned before how softly Kenyan students speak when they are in class and that they have explained why English is spoken so softly while Swahili comes out with fluency and volume. I understand that, having tried a couple of times in my life to take on a new language. I watched one of my students lead part of a worship service in the campus church on Sunday. He used both English and Swahili with vigor and volume and fluency; he guided the singing with action and enthusiasm. And in my class he scores well on written exams and speaks so softly that I can’t tell if he’s answered or just moved his lips. I think I’ll ask him to sing his answers this week.

On a Related Note:
While we have been in Kenya, my spouse, Joan, has been volunteering at a Children’s Home not far from campus. On Sunday, she had arranged to bring about 20 kids to campus to attend church, tour the campus, play football (soccer) with some of the university team, see what a dorm looks like, and eat lunch in the student cafeteria. Rain cancelled the football game (to be rescheduled), but the rest of the day went well. The kids sang three songs at church—without much at the Children’s Home they sing and dance a lot for self entertainment. The third song would bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened—it is their “anthem” composed by children residents, who sing (in Swahili) about living on the streets, having the city tear down their paper houses, sleeping under lorries, being hungry, and finally finding a place to live at the Children’s Home. It is pure poetry which they sing with gusto and hand motions and, with a little more performance room, marvelous dance steps.

On a Final Note:
I discovered that most of the students in my Intro to Psych class will not have an additional Psych course in their nursing program; so, I quickly developed an abnormal unit, assuming that in their future hospital work they would encounter psychiatric cases. I showed them a new DSM-IV, then handed them a two-page explanation of the DSM I had written, with the explanation that it was the shortest version any of them would ever see. They have each picked out a category from Axis I or II on which they will instruct the rest of the class (another attempt at relevance) and I’ll try to fill in gaps. I’m interested to see what value labels are placed on things like sexual and gender-identity disorders.

Joan and I take off this week to celebrate an anniversary while on Safari with two good friends. We hope there won’t be too much “hatari.”

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.

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