(Disclaimer: There is a possibility, unlikely of course, that I didn’t get all the facts straight – there is definitely a language issue between the teachers and us. Even though they speak quite good English sometimes there were misunderstandings. Hopefully, if there are errors the someone on the trip will correct me in the comments. Thanks.)
This morning we spent a couple of hours at the school we are involved with. It was truly an eye-opening, heart wrenching and inspiring experience. Let me give you a description of the morning and then the emotional response.
The camp we are at is about 2 hours from Arusha in what can only be described as appearing to be in the middle of nowhere. The school is about 250 yards from the camp. As we approached it you could see the kids running to the gate and lining up in two lines, one on either side of the path. Then they started to sing a welcoming song. We went down the row, shaking each child’s and adult’s hand, while saying Jambo – hello.
The school has 230 students from grade 1 through 7 and consists of 9 cinderblock buildings. There is one building for grade 7, one for grades 6, 5, 4 and 3, and 1 for 1 and 2. There is a washroom for the children and another for staff. There is a cooking building and 3 teaherages. There seemed to be one teacher per grade and one classroom per grade. The school was originally built in 1995 by the community, and I think it was likely built with wood. Over the years the We organization has transformed it into the cinderblock school with high ceilings and glass windows.
We were in two classrooms, the grade 7 class where there were about 15 kids who gave us a further greeting, and the grade 1 room with no kids. We spent a couple of hours listening to some speeches and then talking to the teachers individually. The classrooms had just a few things on the walls – a chart of the numbers 1 – 99, the vowels, some examples of addition (grade 1 class), a drawing of a uterus (grade 7 class)…
Although all of the teachers spoke English, several of the staff and community members spoke to us of their appreciation in Swahili with our Maasai guides interpreting for us. It was clear they deeply appreciate what We has done and what we are going to do while we are here.
The school serves an area of approximately 20 km square. There are about 800 adults plus children. As far as I can tell, there is no central village, but rather scattered homes throughout the area – think early prairie homesteaders. The students walk to school – some up to 10 kilometres each way. Many of them start out each day at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to be at school for 7:00.
School isn’t totally mandatory and some parents keep their kids home because it is just too far. Some kids leave home in the morning, hide in the bush all day and then go home when they see other kids coming home, telling their parents they were at school all day. If the kids don’t show up at school for a couple of daze there is a community liaison who goes to the home to talk to the parents. Still others will send their oldest to school but keep the others to look after the family goat herd.
Most students only go to Grade 7 and then stay home. There is a national exam at the end of grade 7 which covers the 9 subjects they take. In order to go on to secondary school, they must achieve a certain level.
The area we are in is a Maasai region and they speak Ma. When the children come to grade 1, they are forced to learn Swahili as that is the national language and that is the language they are taught in. They start to learn English in grade 4.
To become a teacher you take a two year course after the completion of secondary school. Once you are a teacher, the government tells you where you are going. The teachers here live in the teacherages – sometimes going home on the weekends and sometimes staying there as it is too far to go. To become a principal, you are appointed by the “ministry of education.”
The government does not fund education other than textbooks and teacher salaries which are very low and apparently secret as they wouldn’t tell us how much they made, other than new teachers get less and old teachers get more. Parents provide the school uniforms and supplies and if they can’t afford them their daughter/son go without or borrow from a friend.
The children have very little food. It didn’t appear that a recess snack was in the cards. The school has a small cooking area and the kids collect sticks of wood for the fire and the school provides one cup of maize based porridge at lunch each day at lunch time.
The school has no electricity although the wires are in place and they are just waiting to be connected to the grid. They do have some solar power but that appears to be used solely to power the satellite dish for the tv which is the entertainment for the teachers in the evening.
The visit generated a wide spectrum of emotions for me.
Walking down the line of children was an interesting experience. Many of the kids had vibrant sparkling personalities and greeted me with great big smiles and a very healthy JAMBO! Others were quiet but would engage with a quieter Jambo while others had an almost blank look and seemed to not even have the energy to shake my hand. It was a very unsettling feeling to see the lack of light in so many eyes.
I chatted with the principal for about half an hour and I was immensely impressed with the staff’s dedication to the kids and to the value of an education. They have very little to work with in terms of supplies. When I compared it to what I had when teaching it was overwhelming. There is no PAC to fundraise and no financial resources in the community to call upon. I came away with both sadness at the discrepancies and huge respect for what they are doing. Despite all the shortcomings they endure they all seemed to be very very happy – lots and lots of laughter.
For years in BC we have talked about the lack of funding of education. While that is correct and while we should not compare what we have to what the community of Engutukoit doesn’t have, perhaps a better understanding of what can be done with less would lessen our own frustration.