I am terrible at introductions. If you met me on the street today you probably wouldn’t believe it, but as a kid I was overwhelmingly shy. I avoided talking to strangers at all costs, preferring to hide in silence behind my chatty little brother every time a family friend or relative came to visit. Over time I have gotten a lot better at meeting new people (besides, my brother Tyler is a little too busy to come along with me to Africa as my personal spokesman). But the truth is I still find introductions to be a challenge, so I’ll keep this one short. My name is Chelsea and I will be spending the next six months working as Nuru International’s first real live intern for the education program in Kuria, Kenya.
My beginning with Nuru has coincided with the closing of another very important chapter in my life, as my first day on the job came the morning following my college graduation. When I rolled out of bed on June 16th to get ready for my first day of training for FT3, the foundation team that would be taking over Nuru’s seed project during the coming months, I noticed the graduation cap and gown crumpled in the corner of dorm room. I realized that, for the first time in my life, being a good student was no longer my primary occupation. As I left my college dorm for the last time I wondered what life would be like now that all my textbooks were packed away and I was a bona fide “working woman.” Yet, in the short time I’ve been with Nuru, I’ve realized that my student days are far from over. In fact, learning is an essential part of my job description as a foundation team member. Here on the ground our work is fundamentally based on learning from the communities where we work in order to develop customized solutions to the specific needs and daily challenges they face living in extreme poverty. I arrived at Nuru’s seed project in Kenya just over one month ago and already the people of this community and my co-workers have taught me more than I could have ever learned from a textbook or lecture in school.
The lessons are diverse and, trust me, they are many. Luckily, there is no short supply of qualified people to teach me. Boda boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) teach me phrases in Kiswahili as we cruise through winding roads on the way to village centers. Women and girls balancing over laden bundles of goods on their heads have given me a lesson on how strong the human body can be when the burden of your feeding your family sits firmly on your shoulders. I’ve been taught how easily corruption can hide behind polite smiles and proper English in nice government offices. And I’ve been educated more than once on how generous people can be even when they have very little to spare. My first month in Kuria has affirmed my belief that education is a process of living, not a preparation for your future life. I am living, working and learning with Nuru everyday. Through this blog I hope to share with you my life and the lessons I’m learning along the way.
Lesson 1: Hakuna Mtu
Our first few weeks in the Kuria work site were pretty hectic. During training we had been warned that life in the seed project normally operates at a very high tempo, which makes sense considering you work, eat, sleep and socialize in the same place with the same people 24 hours a day. That atmosphere was only intensified by the fact that we arrived right in the middle of some very big projects that were being orchestrated by Foundation Team 2. For the first month we were on the ground, we were working with FT2, learning about their projects and everything else about life and work in Kuria. I was lucky to have an awesome turnover partner, Meghan, the previous Education Project Manager from FT2. For the first few weeks we were together, Meghan took me through an exhaustive turnover of the education programs and research she’d been working on during the previous six months. The first few weeks we covered a lot of territory, both literally and figuratively, as we traveled to each of Nuru’s nine school sights, meeting teachers, touring through classrooms, learning about current short-term projects, and shaking the hands of the numerous governmental and community leaders I would soon be working with. It was exciting and overwhelming at the same time. Clearly, it was nice to finally put faces to the many names Meghan had been telling my about, but my favorite moments during those days filled with so many “meet and greet” sessions were the in-between parts of our day, as we traveled from one school to another. As I twisted up and down the muddy unpaved roads on the back of the boda boda, I was able to take a moment to truly soak in my surroundings. During those minutes when I was passing pairs of women carrying loads of laundry to the river, ragtag gangs of laughing children running on the way to school, men carrying heavy bags of maize from their farms, I began to form a clearer picture of the places and people I would be working with in the coming months.
One of my favorite drives was en route to a neighboring town called Kehancha, located about an hour from the Nuru living compound. There in a local teacher’s college, Meghan had organized a five-week training program in early childhood development for the preschool teachers in the area. We set out for the training site on a Monday morning with two of the boda boda drivers that Nuru depends on regularly for transportation, Charles and Peter. As we left the gate of our compound around mid-morning both drivers were waiting for us next to their bikes, coolly slouched across their seats in the shade. Dressed in tangerine colored jeans, an overstuffed winter coat and, most importantly, a Chelsea Football Team beanie, Charles was a comic sight to behold. The bright morning sunlight was already drawing beads of sweat from my forehead and the heat only promised to get stronger as the day progressed. I couldn’t figure out why on earth he had so much clothing on. Yet, as we turned onto the long stretch of red dirt road that cut across the countryside, I understood that Charles’ long sleeves and pants served a different purpose other than just warmth. Covering my eyes as we passed through the first giant cloud of dust kicked up by a passing truckload of maize, I realized that I would probably climb off the back of the motorbike in Kehancha looking like a muddy umpa lumpa. I figured there was probably a lot more I could learn from Charles, so I took the opportunity of the hour-long ride to see what else he could explain to me about my new surroundings.
In order to save gas and avoid skidding on the gravelly declines, Charles preferred to cruise down the steep hills, going only slightly faster than we would have on bicycle. In those quieter moments when the engine wasn’t struggling to haul us over the sandy bumps littered throughout the road, Charles pointed out the names in Kiswahili of the things we were passing. As we drove through villages I learned mbusi (goat), daraja (bridge), and murima (hill). Over the course of the week we made the trip to Kehancha a few more times with Charles acting as my boda driver-turned Kiswahili teacher. I began to accumulate a basic vocabulary and even started to string together simple phrases and sentences. As my Kiswahili grew more complex, so did my understanding of the things I saw around me. Pointing to a building that looked well built, if not a little neglected, I tried to make out the words written in peeling paint above the door. Charles explained that the building had been constructed by an aid organization just a couple years earlier. It was supposed to be a school. Curious why I didn’t see any students around, I asked Charles who attended the school.
That’s when I learned the words hakuna mtu, meaning no one. Shule imefunga – the school was closed. The building had been constructed by an NGO as part of an initiative to provide better education facilities in the area. Unfortunately, the planning for the school hadn’t extended much beyond laying the bricks and painting the walls. Apparently the school had been operated by the NGO for a couple of years, but when the organization decided to move on to a new project site they left no system in place to ensure that the school would continue operating properly. Charles couldn’t tell me many more details than that, but I’m pretty sure that I can fill in the rest of the story on my own. After all, it’s one of the classic tales told about development work, where all too many well-meaning organizations pour millions of dollars into poverty-alleviating initiatives that are only half thought out. Schoolrooms are built without trained teachers to fill them; foodstuffs are distributed but no seeds are available for the next season’s crop cycle; medicines are shipped to facilities where there are not enough trained staff to administer them; wells are drilled but there is no one there to maintain them… and so the story goes.
As we continued down the road to the teacher training college I reflected on the challenges Nuru’s education program would be facing in the coming months. Everywhere Meghan and I had visited thus far there were head teachers keen to get their hands on “mazungu” (white man) money and resources, eagerly expressing their need for new offices and classrooms, updated textbooks or better supplies. They had a point. Most classrooms were overcrowded and depressingly undersupplied. Yet, if providing quality education were simply a matter of constructing four walls and filling them with glossy new textbooks, the developing world would have overcome the struggle to provide a basic education to its widely illiterate populations years ago. If anything, this method of investment has only been effective in revealing the fact that monetary and material resources are only helpful when they are used as supportive supplements to the development of human resources first. That’s exactly what Nuru is about. In education, our primary concern is to develop programs that will provide a sustainable infrastructure and community organization geared towards maintaining high quality education for the community. If we want to really make a difference we will have to move beyond simply providing resources like new classrooms or textbooks and, instead, focus on innovative ways for schools to generate revenue on their own so that they can provide quality supplies and teaching to their schools on their own in the future.
Simply put, we plan to invest in people first, buildings second.
Unfortunately, the majority of head teachers Meghan and I spoke with during that first week were not as excited about Nuru’s vision for human resource development. They would prefer a new set of felt pens and chalk. Yet, the “higher ups” aren’t the ones we are counting on to bring quality education to the Kuria district. That day in Kehancha I saw the potential for real change in the proud smiles of the preschool teachers who were completing the first portion of their early childhood development training. Closing ceremonies were held on the lawn of the teacher college, where the teachers had spent the last two weeks in an intensive course to prepare them for their teaching certificates. The manager of the college asked the trainees to share with us some of the ideas they had learned so far. A few students raised their hands to share details about specific lessons they had covered that week. Then a young woman named Mohabe raised her hand. A few of the other students snickered as the woman stood to speak. “That one, she’s quite cheeky,” whispered one of the lecturers in my ear. Mohabe didn’t seem phased at all by the chides of her classmates as she cleared her throat to be heard loud and clear, “We have learned all this, but it is not so important,” she explained, referring to the other students’ reviews of the material they’d covered. “What is important is that we are learning to teach. That is what is so good for us. We are becoming real teachers.”
Mohabe is one of the first teachers Nuru is sponsoring to complete the two-year training process to become a fully certified pre-school teacher. I would learn from later conversations with Mohabe that she really did get the bigger picture. She understood from the outset that Nuru was giving her a real skill set that she could use to greatly influence the trajectory of her own life and improve the living conditions of her entire community. In return for Nuru’s support for her training, Mohabe has committed to working with us to tutor her fellow teacher trainees, to educate parents on the standards of education they should expect from their schools, and to serve as a model educator in any of the schools Nuru is working with in the Kurian community. She is committed to improving herself and her community through education. Through her diligence and frank advice, I have learned a lot about the unique challenges young women like her face in trying to get their teaching certificate, such as early marriage and lack of family willingness to invest in a daughter’s education, especially at post-secondary school levels. She is teaching me new phrases in Kiswahili, like “I work every day” (ninafanya kazi kila siku), “(you) never lose hope” (usipotezi tumaini). I can’t wait to see what else she can teach me. She is who Nuru is investing in. I’m excited to see the returns.