Our contact at the Amurt centre couldn’t meet us on the first day and in all honesty my first impressions weren’t great. Not of the centre, that seemed fantastic, but the usefulness of us! Amurt is a worldwide mission, ran by Hindus originating in India in the 1950s, opening the centre in Kenya in the 1970s. They have a free health care clinic, fund education for the needy, hold a small day care centre and also house some of the orphans. Their mission however is to help people to help themselves and do not want to take children out of their communities unless completely necessary.
The older children were all at school during the hours we should be working, so we were taken to the day care centre 10 minutes walk away (through a gated, affluent area of Mountain View) where we found Tepeter and his class of 12 children, between the ages of 3 – 7 years old. My initial thoughts that we would be of no use due to the small class side proved unfounded very early on. The different levels of ability, concentration and need for 1:1 attention became very clear. For one teacher to meet all these needs would be impossible. Spent the first day trying to work out levels of ability, get to know the children and have a bit of fun with bubbles, balloons, football… the usual!
The personalities of each didn’t take long to come through! Considering I am hoping to do a PGCE in London soon the training of teaching children who only vaguely understand English should be a help… The difference between the older boys and girls was incredibly obvious in terms of ability and concentration levels. But, the most satisfying thing accomplished in my short time there was helping two of the older boys (6/7 years old) learn to add and subtract. When 1:1 attention was focused on them, with patience, repetition and above all praise, they finally got it. The pride on my face could not have been more obvious and on realising this both the boys mirrored it, proud of themselves – as they should be. Thinking back to my primary education and what I knew at what age (roughly, my memory isn’t that good) it makes me sad to see the levels they are at. Bright children, just not the background, or the educational system. Many had only been at school a short time due to family issues (ranged from being orphans to being in vulnerable homes, or parents that were ill and unable to afford school).
Our 12 children were… (ages are rough… they seemed to lie/not know…)
Alice – 7: Smartest in the class, but very moody and sensitive. I know I shouldn’t have a favourite but she was mine. She seemed to take a shining to me as well – My favourite time with her was sitting inside during break and all she wanted to do was learn, so I taught her how to divide!
Blessing – 6: One of the older advanced girls. Seemed to have issues with Alice. At first I thought because they were both the smarter ones, but I’m sure it was something more personal than that. Tried very hard, and had a very sweet personality.
Vivian – 6: Part of the smarter older girl group, but copied a lot and seemed to have little confidence in herself. I remembered her name as she had her ears pierced and I thought of Vivian Westwood?! More of a follower than a leader, meaning she could also be quite bitchy to Blessing.
Veronica – 4: The kindest girl. Always helping the others, trying to defuse situations. Any time someone was upset she would be trying to comfort them. The only time I saw her even remotely thinking about herself was when the skipping rope was out! I think skipping was her thing!
MaryAnne – 4: What can you say about MaryAnne! A 4 year old Big Mama! High pitched loud voice, loved hanging out with (and antagonizing) the boys! She had this incredible dance, which I believe is innate and can’t be learnt. I could never do it justice by describing it. Once the kids realised how much all the adults loved it the whole class used to try and do the MaryAnne dance. Too cute and funny for words.
Doreen & Diana – 5: Twins, both HIV positive. Very very cute. For the first few days Diana was at home sick and Dorkus (her nickname) was very shy and quiet, and never smiled. Recoiled if you tried to give her a hug. Once her sister, who is the confident one, was back she was smiley and happy. Teaching them was near impossible though sadly.
Philip – 6: Naughty kid of the class, but I think highly disturbed. Off ill all the second week, was constantly hurting himself (in quite disturbing way – throwing himself off things, trying to asphyxiate himself by clamping himself in between the desk and the wall – blindfolding himself and trying to stab pencil into his eye?!) I tried to work out why – what his background was, but Tepeter never seemed to want to upset us or portray anything badly so often it was hard to get the full picture or truth of situations. He was obviously a sad boy.. maybe the reasons were disturbing (most likely?) or maybe it’s ADHD… I never managed to find out and in two weeks it’s hard to be a good enough person/role model to help out at all.
Rooney – 6: Apparently yes, he is named after Wayne Rooney! Middle of the class… needed strict guidance but a really good kid.
Comfort – 6: Usually fairly shy, but sometimes would get really hyper active, or a little angry… though I never saw him hit anyone, so not sure if he was just framed a lot?! He seemed to love hats… the mouse hat was my favourite. Was a lot smarter than he seemed, I think because he is shy he may have got overlooked a bit. Definitely managed to make progress with him.
John – 6: Always trying to be naughty, but a good heart! Made a lot of progress from 1:1 attention. I could not have been more proud when he started to understand how to add and take away.
Ochin – 4: Little troublemaker! Always trying to cause mischief, and even more so when Philip was off ill. My favourite thing about Ochin was that when doing anything in his exercise book he would start from the centre of the book… so if it was the left page he would write the mirror image of what was on the board. Not only the top line reading Ee Dd Cc Bb Aa, but the letters would also be backwards. On the right page they would be perfect. Intelligent… but wrong!
The day care children are well looked after – given Ugali regularly which is a maize based drink – a common staple food. Avocados which are grown in the yard (have you seen an avocado tree? They are massive! I was looking at some strawberry type shrubberies trying to find the avocados when a neighbour came over, inquired to what I was doing… laughed and then pointed at the large oak type trees behind me!)
For lunch they usually eat Ugali and vegetables. I have always prided myself as a very non fussy vegetarian.. that I will everything and anything that is vegetarian, which is more important than it sounds, and less common than it sounds! But that is one claim I can no longer make. The smell and taste of Ugali makes me choke. I don’t know why. It’s only maize.. but I can’t eat it. I tried. I even tried again. But the smell?! Even the smell! Excuse after excuse each day on why I did not want to join them for lunch (‘allergic, don’t take a big lunch, huge breakfast’) whilst hiding in the classroom during their breaks trying to eat a bit of chocolate or a couple of crisps. Thank god for those avocado trees! (This led to us being starving 4pm every day… going for dinner number one at either Open House Indian, Siam Thai, Java, Panda Chinese, Takeaway at the Barnetts… normally with a beer or two.. )
Classes consisted of Maths, English (alphabet or spelling depending on the levels), shapes, colours (think we got there in the end) animals, storytime, drawing, painting. Good fun, but hard work. Frustrating when you need to explain one vital thing, but they don’t understand your English. With Tepeter’s help we usually got there in the end. He does a great job, and you can tell he loves and cares for the kids. I cleaned up the classroom and organised the teachers trunk (no surprise to those who know me). I found so many useful books for all ages and subjects – most likely from other volunteers, piled them up where the kids could see them, instead of mixed up between old exercise books, and of course the kids love looking through them. He was really grateful for the clear out, so I hope he manages to keep some level of organisation –I think it’s so important and otherwise such a waste of really good, fun educational materials. They also had a mini farm yard with rabbits and goats which they fed daily. They drank the milk from the goat, and I believe sold the rabbits when they were big enough.
At breaktimes (many of them.. it was after all daycare) we usually played with balloons, bubbles, made shakers out of old water-bottles (and played a version of musical statues.. named ‘the shakey shakey game’. Skipping, football, hopping.. even taught them the Hokey Kokey (which they, and the street kids loved). We generally walked with the kids part way back home through the Kangame Shanty Town; Trush always amazed at how they could find their way. I loved walking back with them, but the Pied Piperish feel of it made me a little uncomfortable, with kids hanging off each hand – fighting each other, and the other children all following in a line. I loved holding their hands and swinging them around but occasionally their fights got too big and we had to declare no one would hold hands with ‘Cha! Perhaps it was the looks of the local woman that made me uncomfortable. I get it, but I’m just trying to help, and they seem happy.
The dynamics of the classroom were so interesting. At such a young age, such full personalities. I never got to the bottom of the girls bitchiness feud due to the Swahili language boundary, but it was very much there between the three older girls – though the alliances seemed to change every few days. The boys were generally boys, messing around unless they had 1:1 care and then they turned into little angels! All of them loved ‘Cha’s (teachers) attention.
The teacher supposedly did ‘cane’ them, which horrified Trush and I, but when it actually happened (which was very very rare) it was more like a smack my Mum used to give me; all about embarrassment rather than hurting. Before I saw this happen I had no idea what I was going to do. I don’t believe hitting children works (and what Tepeter did seemed to have no effect whatsoever either), but the fact he wasn’t hurting them meant I left the subject alone. The threat of caning them did seem to work on some of the kids somewhat. What I found most effective was to stop them from doing whatever everyone else was doing! Messing around during Maths? Fine.. go outside, play… every time within 5 minutes they would be back keen and ready to learn. Simple. Effective! I made Rooney sit in the corner once after being disruptive and he started crying after five minutes… desperate to join everyone else in class.
We took them for ice cream one Friday afternoon – such a great experience for us, never-mind them. Enquiring why MaryAnne wasn’t eating her ice cream I was told it was because she wanted to show off to her family how rich she was! She cared not it would melt by the time she got to them.
On our last day we bought food and soda and party hats for the kids, and those who often came to play during breaks and after school (the neighbours’ kids, who though we were told went to school seemed never to be there) and the smiley deaf boy, who runs so fast, I think he should compete – a smiley deaf by from the slums, winning a Gold for Kenya… ahh..… and for two weeks was stunned by my tongue bar! I noticed how some of ‘our’ kids could be mean to him, not wanting him to eat with them at lunch, but we persevered in trying to include him and overall I think he enjoyed himself.
Because it was half term for the older kids we ended up with 30 of them that day. It was the hardest day of teaching… all wanted to do something and we had no idea of their abilities and also had to get them from messing around mode to taking us seriously. Again, telling them we were teaching a class and to please leave if they were going to mess around worked! The oddest thing was many of these girls and boys were 13/14, taller than me, looked older than me, but wanted stickers, the hats, the horn blowers and really enjoyed the party and the games. They all just seem so much more mature and have so many more responsibilities, but really of course, they are still kids (though I would never tell a 13 year old that 😉 )
‘Well done, well done, Alice.. Try again another day Alice. You Showed a good example, thank you, thank you Alice!”
During our time there Irene brought 2 HIV positive women to come and speak to us. The matter of factness about how they contracted it was pretty heartbreaking; even though expected (husband playing around). The first lady was asking us ways she could earn more money, as she earned too little washing clothes (she washed ours). We tried to discuss other things she could do, but not sure if all was lost in translation or if there really isn’t anything else? She was generally quite well, so don’t really think it was that, but where to start? She said she did not want aid, but I guess a little push/help in the right direction, but what can we do? Create jobs? Gill told me about a lady she visited who started a Samosa business. Each day baking Samosas in her one roomed house and selling them. Apparently this really changed things for her and was an idea given to her in a Women’s Empowerment Group.
I had to stop myself from crying when we met the second lady. It was the first time she had come to see Irene and most likely the first time she had properly offloaded her troubles. She had had a stroke about six months previously, and since then her eyesight has deteriorated – now she is blind aside from occasionally seeing blurry lights. He son had to take the day off school to bring her here. You could tell by her mannerisms and posture she was a proud, hard working woman and even typing this now my heart is breaking for her. She had seen many doctors, all saying nothing could be done (I enquired whether it was a money thing, but it was not. Both Trush and I cringed when Irene told her to pray to God for her eyesight back, as he can perform miracles. To me it came across as implying it was a punishment for something, though I don’t think she meant it this way. Irene told us later that they would try to get funding together to her to the blind school (after their doctors had examined her) so she could learn to live as a blind lady, and get back into work.
My teaching experience was not as sad or desperate as I thought it would be. The classrooms aren’t like they are at home, but there is a want to learn, and hopefully with a stream of volunteers there should be the resources to give the kids a decent start. It’s the kids outside the classroom, those who have been abused (by family often) or those who can’t afford secondary school (the school is free, but they need to pay for uniforms, books, stationary, exams, etc) or don’t have a primary school near enough that need the attention. I think a little less attention to God’s will and a little more need to realise that we are what we make, our society is how we have built it and people and education, not a higher being nor throwing money at the issue, is the only thing that can address the fundamental issues that are here today.