Having never been to Africa, let alone Kenya, I fully expected there to be a huge cultural gulf between the world I grew up in and the one I flew into on June 9th. What I found was much more complex and surprising than I could ever have anticipated.
Arriving in Kitale was somewhat overwhelming after an eight hour flight from Heathrow through the night on no sleep. My friends and family have asked me what sort of place in the UK it is comparable to. Honestly, there is no such place. The services and amenities it had were as interesting as what it did not have; two large, well stocked supermarkets, numerous internet cafes, a couple of expensive hotels, several bars, pharmacies, a hospital and frequent power cuts that nearly always followed the afternoon heavy rains.
What it did not have was streetlights, reliable traffic lights, pedestrian crossings or any kind of government subsidised or regulated public transport. In its place are fleets of boda bodas and matatus with a variable safety record. Kitale is surrounded by green, fertile fields and hills fenced in by a multitude of red earth tracks and donkeys dragging impossible loads. The roads are unpredictable at best, long tracks of smooth driving suddenly interrupted by half a mile of huge potholes and makeshift speed bumps put up by the locals. The pavements are sporadic in central Kitale disappearing altogether in the surrounding area where Josphat’s house and the school are located.
Above all this, what struck me on the first day and never lost its novelty was the children. They are everywhere. Little ones dozing on their mothers’ backs, toddlers meandering in and out of market stalls and school age children in their uniforms playing variants of hopscotch by the roadside. This isn’t just my own perception; according to the CIA World Factbook Kenya has a birth rate of 33.54 births per 1000 and 42.2% of its population are under fifteen years old. Compare this with the UK which has a birth rate of 12.29 births per 1000 and where only 17.3% of its total population are aged 0 to 14 years old and you can begin to see why education is so, so important for Kenya’s future.
The children at Aquinoe were the focus of my time in Kitale and having been back two weeks I still miss their company, their enthusiasm, exuberance and above all their warmth and affection. My teaching work was mainly with the younger children in the baby class, middle class and pre-unit which is roughly equivalent to nursery, reception and year one in the UK. From what Josphat told me and what I witnessed both at Aquinoe and in local schools where I observed classes, education in Kenya is quite formal from the outset. There is an emphasis on rote learning and dictation. Part of Josphat’s long term vision, especially within the early years, is to begin to incorporate more interactive and child led activities.
Having seen a variety of early years teachers both in the UK and France with varying attitudes to the children in their care, it was heartening to see from the first day that the early years staff at Aquinoe have genuine affection and concern for every child. The kind of resources that are a given in a British classroom (glue sticks, child scissors, jigsaw puzzles) are not available in Kitale or are prohibitively expensive. Despite this, the teachers remain dedicated to their work and this is evident in the children’s enthusiasm for school.
Fundamentally, the children I taught in Kitale are no different from those I taught in Paris and London. The games they play in the red earth yard and the songs they sing pushing each other on the swing set echoed the songs and games I’d heard in places, that superficially at least, have little in common with Kitale. They worry about the same things; exams and their position in class, whether or not other children will be their friends. They have huge, expansive ambitions; to be a lawyer, a neuroscientist (I’m pretty sure at eleven I didn’t have the faintest idea what a neuroscientist was) and to run their own schools.
Where they differ from the majority of their peers in Europe is in the number of obstacles that face many of them. One of the boarders told me that she was going to be a doctor, that she would work hard and avoid ‘all the men’ until she had a job because otherwise she ‘would be pregnant and he will leave anyway.’ The girl in question is ranked in the top three of her class, she works hard and enjoys school.
One would assume then that these are not crazy ambitions. However, she is also from a deeply impoverished family who struggle to make any contribution to her fees since her father abandoned the family and refuses to provide any financial support. When she had a parasitic infection in her foot it was Josphat who paid for her to visit Kitale hospital to get basic treatment. According to the hospital doctor I took her to, if left untreated the ‘jigga’ worm could have caused an infection that would spread up her leg causing it to swell and making it almost impossible to walk let alone concentrate on her studies. It is doubtful that her mother would have been able to afford the trip to hospital.
The difficulties faced by the children with special needs are even greater. It is a credit to the charity’s efforts and Josphat’s dedication that the special needs children have the resource room, a physiotherapist, dedicated house mothers and fathers and, in September, a properly tiled dormitory. For many children, such as seventeen year old Madjuma, who was abandoned at Aquinoe when she was about seven, the school is not just the best option but the only option. Without it they would receive no formal education despite the fact that, since the term ‘special needs’ is so broad, many of them have no mental disabilities whatsoever. Even private ‘special’ schools in the area do not always offer a proper education. One day, Josphat drove me out towards Webuye to see a school for blind children. The classrooms were almost entirely bare with no form of sensory equipment for the children and after observing the classes Josphat felt that they were in no way adequately catering for the children’s needs.
Despite the provision of free primary education for all Kenyan children, education remains a lottery, especially in rural areas where even classes of three and four year olds can include fifty or sixty pupils in one class. There are also ongoing problems with lack of adequate sanitation facilities and food shortages that sometimes lead schools to send children home early. As one of the teachers told me, if children learn anything at all in this environment it is ‘almost by accident.’
In contrast, what I loved about my time at Aquinoe was seeing every day how individually cherished all the children are. This is first evident in the behaviour of their class teachers but extends throughout the staff body. The head teacher (and de facto librarian) Lucas, swamped with paperwork, marking Class Eight essays and organising the library still regularly took time to speak to particularly verbal members of baby class who would arrive in his office to regale him with stories of their daily exploits.
Rachel who is housekeeper, administrator and about a million other things knows all the children by name and has in the past sat through the night in the special needs dormitory holding distressed children through the night. She also, along with Esther, cooked the meals in the house, washed the clothes, swept the compound and, while I was sick, checked on me every few hours.
Aquinoe is not a perfect school. As Josphat himself said in the final meeting of the year, there are issues with teachers preparing lessons properly in advance. The library, an impressive resource, is still underused and the children would benefit from a more comprehensive extra-curricular provision. But Aquinoe is a good school with the potential to be an exceptional one that, with its inclusive ethos, is having a positive impact on local attitudes towards children with special needs. The children love their school and it offers a real chance for a productive, fulfilling future to children who would otherwise struggle throughout their lives. Because of my experiences at Aquinoe, and at Josphat’s request, I am hoping to return to the school in the next year or so to work with the early years teachers.
For days after I touched down in London, I found myself looking out of bus windows and down the escalators of the underground seeing everything through the eyes of the four and five year olds I spent my days with. It was a strange sensation but even after it has faded I still feel like I carry a little bit of Kitale with me. I think that one day I will look back on my two months in Kenya as the beginning of what I hope will be a lifelong relationship with the school, the country and the continent as a whole.