What’s it really like? Elizabeth Gunstone interviews her old Head Teacher

2844808.jpgMy first experience of Kenya was as a bright-eyed-bushy-tailed 20 year old student. I’d signed up to KEP (now EPAfrica) with a wish to explore the “unknown continent”, opening up a different world of culture, education and simple living. Now, looking back at the summer, having worked in Kenya as a teacher for the last two years as an adult, I have come to realise it was the first decision in a very long chain of consequences which has led me to the position I am now in. However cheesy it sounds, EPAfrica has the ability to change the direction of your life.So… When EPAfrica asked me to interview the old Head Teacher (MM) of my KEP school I was delighted – an opportunity to reminisce about those days in 2007 when I rejected my scholar’s gown and Oxford spires to replace them with vibrant African prints and a corrugated-iron hut in a field.

Boitang’are Friends, my placement school, was on the outskirts of a small village. My amble across the countryside every morning was magical in itself: jumping across a small stream, being greeted with big grins by young children and enjoying the fresh air of Kisii. 2007 was the 4th year Boitang’are had hosted Project Workers so “mzungu” volunteers had become an essential component to the months of July and August for the whole community. Yet back in 2003 MM had no experience of KEP and he describes his confusion when he

“had a meeting with Chris Trimble who came to visit the school to check that the accommodation was ready for the Project Workers that summer. I was a new Head Teacher so I didn’t have a full picture of what to expect. I was impressed with their commitment to getting text books and lab equipment as by then the school was in dire need of those resources.”

So by the time I arrived 4 years later the development of the school was noticeable. Books were lining the shelves of the library and the laboratory was equipped with basic resources to ensure students were regularly partaking in practicals. MM’s incredulity when asked, “How did KEP impact your school?” is testament to the work of EPAfrica. He exclaimed,

“I do not know what word to use to describe it…. Incredible really.” The main area he cited was the “constant commitment, leading to a huge number of influential changes within my school – lab equipment, text books, even infrastructure.”

Yet more than that “it changed the face of the school” as “Project Workers had insight into creating meaningful programmes: health club, careers resources, a successful borrowing system in the library.”

I know, during my EPAfrica career, my cynical side has occasionally reared its ugly head. How can 10 weeks in the summer really make a difference? Is the investment big enough? What can a naïve student honestly achieve? Yet, hearing the account of an EPAfrica Head Teacher 10 years down the line from his initial experience of the programme, certainly banishes these doubts: “The people are important as we work with them directly and the resources are used effectively. I’m sure if the PWs didn’t come then that money would never have been channeled into such varied resources. PWs also interact with the students and it raises their aspirations and knowledge of the outside world.” This level of cultural exchange is paramount to the success of the project. It is such a privilege for volunteers to live amongst a rural African community and be embraced into a different life -even if that includes eating endless ugali (maize meal) and sukamawiki (spinach)! Equally, for our African partners PWs are often the first experience they have of Westerners – heated discussions abound, regarding the value of the royal family, the success of politicians and even the acceptable number of cows to be offered in a dowry!

These conversations are only possible due to the unwavering warmth of people in Africa. MM proudly acknowledges, “Generally individual Kenyans are very hospitable. They will go out of their way to welcome visitors to their homes, show them around, and be of help to them in terms of understanding the environment and Kenyan society.” This support is often necessary to appreciate the intricacies of African customs – even using the correct handshake can be a conundrum you have to overcome!

MM’s explanation suggests,

“A handshake is the accepted form of greeting here. Yet it depends on the generation, the occasion and the groups involved. The younger generation shakes hands and clicks thumbs or punches fists as it conveys more familiarity with one another. Often the punched fist is used for a feeling of accomplishment or success. Then there is a handshake where one holds the elbow with your left hand alongside shaking with the right. This demonstrates respect to elders – juniors to seniors. In Kenya generally there is deference to the elder; they are treated with respect as age commands authority.”

As a volunteer, these are all valuable lessons to learn. I definitely appreciated the importance of treading carefully and working with all staff members to ensure everyone’s opinion was heard. Respect for elders is embedded within Kenyan culture and it is important to see any Head Teacher as the ultimate expert in their school’s success. MM suggests for him,

“The priorities of an institution vary from school to school but largely the key areas of focus which management targets to ensure they perform highly would be: infrastructure, academics and discipline.”

I often think if only running a school could be so simple and Kenyan schools are no different! They are full of challenges and laden with endless rules and dynamics to unpick. Interestingly, as a PW you can sometimes get lost amongst the specific details of running a careers day or organising the delivery of resources that you lose sight of the “big picture” which drives the success or failure of a school.  MM pinpointed these issues when answering the question, “In your opinion what are the biggest challenges facing Kenyan schools?”

  • “Effective utilisation of resources – in my view schools over stress infrastructure (there is an obsession with admin blocks) and if the school does have books and lab equipment then the school doesn’t necessarily implement a system which allows students the best access available.
  • Effective staffing – teachers are not used effectively as there are staffing imbalances. The Teacher Services Commission tends to allocate teachers based on numbers rather than on expertise, so you may have a number of business teachers in a school but no English teachers!
  • School management – vested interests at a Board of Governors level is a big concern. The people who are mandated to run schools do not necessarily have the suitable educational qualifications, interest in the school or even worse they see the school as an opportunity to make money for themselves. I cannot even blame such people, as these levels of corruption are endemic on all levels of society… Look at our politicians! “

So, it’s easy to ask, “How can we influence these huge issues of staffing or infrastructure concerns?” The likelihood is… we probably can’t! Yet this pragmatism is key to enjoying any experience within EPAfrica and it is certainly a valuable lesson to take away in life. During my conversation with MM each of us began to recognise the challenges of the Kenyan education system and our own limitations as agents of change within it. These moments of understanding, sitting with a cold Tusker (beer), overlooking the stunning rolling hills of Kisii, are worth capturing in memories. My experiences as a PW in 2007 began to develop my knowledge regarding these problems and it is a privilege to acknowledge that I will always return to my Kisii-home and continue that journey.

So what are the words of wisdom offered by a Kenyan Head Teacher for new Project Workers embarking on Step Number 1 of their African chapter? MM suggests,

“Be open and try not to have certain fixed expectations or ideas. Enjoy yourself working in schools and communities: the scenery, the new faces and the new culture. Everything is exciting.”