God damn, this day is most positively off to a bad start. It is 8:05am and I am sitting back in my chair, sipping my tasty cup of Nescafe instant coffee, waking up at my own pace. In the other room I can hear my phone ringing. At this hour? People rarely call me during the day, let alone so early in the morning. I pick up the phone and look at the screen. It’s one of my my co-teachers, Shimba.
“Hi Tom, what time were you coming in today?”
“Habari ako. I was told I didn’t need to come in till 10:00”
“Oh… really? Ok then.”
Shoot, maybe I should’ve came in early after all. Great, now ive disappointed my co-teacher and it isn’t evem 9:00. I throw back my coffee in a classic flip-cup style, consume my breakfast egg sandwich like a duck and throw on my clothes. I race out of the house and wave down one of the ubiquitous motorcycle boda bodas. Luckily I know that the Kiswahili word for faster is ‘kasi’, so I make it to school in no time
I arrive at school and make my way to the teachers lounge and see that all of the teachers are sitting at their desk, listening to the Principle, Deputy Principal and head teacher sitting at the front of the room. It would seem that there is a teacher’s meeting going on and here I am strolling in during middle of it. With embarrassment painted all over my face, I grab a seat at the front of the room. The principle explains that this was an impromptu meeting and for me not to worry. Yeah, right. As this is officially the first day of the new term, the meeting is to basically welcome everybody back, to explain some of the priorities to the term and to take care of some technical details. None of this applies to me. At the end of it the principle asks if I can say a few words to my fellow teachers. Did I mention that I love public speaking? I manage to get some good laughs and I’m confident that nobody cares about my tardiness.
Once the meeting has wrapped up, one of my co-teachers shows me to my new desk. Considering that I now officially am in charge of a class to myself AND I get my own desk, this volunteer gig is becoming more and more official with each passing day. It is now approximately 10:00am and I don’t have to give my lesson. That gives me almost two hours to over-analyze my lesson, to ruminate over my anxiety and to basically work myself into a tightly wound ball of stress. I try to hide this fact, of course, but I am sure that I just reek of nervousness by this point. I’ll had it to my fellow teachers, they certainly have got my back. As I sit at my desk, endlessly altering my lesson plan, a stead stream of teachers kept approaching me to chat, talk about life and to generally get my mind off my mind off of my inevitable future in class. This works wonders for the time we are talking, but as soon as the teacher walks away its back to the heart palpitations, page scribbling and thoughts of Armageddon.
At one point, Sheiba offers to walk me out to the school maize field. That is a great idea, A walk would be very useful right now. I must say, upon entering the vegetable patch and maize field, I am quite amazed at the scale of it all. Compared to the tiny greenhouse that is my old high school’s agrarian zone, this school has an epically sizable maize field, situated by an equally impressive Sukuma wiki, sugar cane and cabbage field. Sheiba explains that most of this will be used to the school lunches, with any extra to be sold in the market.
As we are walking and talking, I realize that one of the few universals in the world is that young 24 year olds like the two of us always have two things in common: a love for beer and a love for music. Sheiba describes some of the local blues bars that serve cheap beer and play music all night long. While I am initially disappointed that his definition of ‘blues’ music is not a B.B. King type show, but more of a dance hall, I am more happy to hear that there is actually a pretty good night life in the town of Kakamega. I should note that one of the more difficult things about understanding other cultures can be how labels can have two different meanings in the different countries. When he asks me if I would like to go to the gymnastics club time, I was momentarily surprised that this young man was into the balance beam and the parallel bars. I then realize that by gumnastics he actually means work-out room, and I explain that hell yah, id be down.
It is time. Sheiba has gone ahead to, as he explains, “psychologically prepare the students” for my entrance, and I am on my way to the class. I tell you, this was a pretty surreal moment for me. I had know that I was going to be teaching in Kenya, and that it has been almost six months since I have been in front of a room of students and now here I am, walking up my front steps and entering into my new reality. I walk in an I see that there are approximately 18 students attending today, with another 32 expected to arrive throughout the rest of this week. I won’t go into too many of the details of the lessons, but what I can say is that the students were amazing! The students had an ambience of an academic sponge, unquenchably thirsty for learning and ideas. They possessed that perfect combination of an obedient attitude, following my instructions and listening attentively, but also maintaining their independence and curiosity, not hesitating to ask questions, to provide answers and to express their opinions. I can say, at east from my experience in South Korea, these qualities tend to be in a zero-sum game, typically existing as one or the other.
We get through my lesson in proper time, but still unknown as to why, the lunch bell doesn’t go off for another 40 minutes. Normally, it would be quite uncomfortable for a teacher to have an impromptu extra class to fill, but that is not the case when you are a visiting muzungu infront of a room of high school students. We spend the next 40 minutes having a glorious group conversation, mostly revolving around our two cultures. Topics covered: the story behind my tattoo, whether or not eggs are bad for you (the claim no more than a couple consumed per week), food that I should learn how to make while in Kenya, what the global economic super powers are, how to say words in other languages, the story behind my Buddhist beads and my Shiva cord, what I mean exactly when I say that I am ‘Anti-theist’, and so on. We cover every possible topic and permutation. I don’t know if the kids were as interested as I was, but I was enthralled to have such a great conversation with them on my first day.
And then it was over. Just like that. First day is done, and quite successful if I do say so myself. I cool down back in the teacher’s lounge, and by 2:00 I am back on the motorcycle boda boda, off to meet with Malik to discuss CES business. Another day, another volunteered dollar.
I thought that you might want to meet some of the students yourself. Part of our work today was for them to write me a half page, telling me 1) a little about them, 2) an intimidating situation they have faces (it was our theme for the lesson), and 3) what they know about Canada. What I got back was a fantastic assortment of writing that was funny, sad, interesting, cute, and everything else under the sun.
I would like you to meet Form 2 Green class, at least part of it.
Christabel was born and raised in Kakamega. She has a relatively small family, consisting of just one sister and her mother. She loves reading, writing, but most of all experiencing new things. She notes that she wished to be a lawyer when she grows up, to help people who can’t help themselves because they don’t have enough money. She recalls that her most intimidating situation was when she had accidentally zipped up her skirt wrong and realized that she had been walking around the neighborhood with her underware showing. In her words, “I knew there was a problem when so many people were looking at me strange, wondering what is wrong with that girl.”
Jael has a fairly large family, consisting of 4 other siblings and both her mother and her father. I found it interesting that she specifically makes a note that her parents are monogamous, a signifier of both her Christian background and some polygamous cultural traditions. She says that her most intidmidating moment was when the post election violence occurred. People had forced her to speak her native tongue, a language that she didn’t know too well. She notes that she realized this was discrimination.
Grace has both of her parents and says that she “used to be silemt in her life.” As she is not originally from Kakamega, she explains that she finds the cold weather intimidating and that it is affecting her health.
Dionesia clearly explains that her tribe is Abaluhuya, a sub clan of the Lsuka people. She has four siblings and describes herself as a born again Christian. Her favorite activites: making new friends, traveling, listening to music, and swimming.
Zuena is part of a family of five. She has a dog that she describes as “peaceful and cool.” Her explains that her most intimidating moment was the language barrier she experienced while trying to travel to her family’s village, as they spoke a local dialect and she only speaks English and Kiswahili. All she knows about Canada is that many cool actors and musicians come from there
Salome explains that her most intimidating moment was when she got lost once on her way to school, and that no one spoke her language.
Mary wanted me to know that she has a cat that she loves very much. Her favorite activities are travelling, reading, and watching movies. She explains that her most intimidating moment was when she has experienced a language barrier while traveling. One thing that she knows about Canada is that “people don’t eat maize in Canada, only cows do.”
Fridah loves pink roses and to eat chicken. Her most intimidating moment was when she “saw a man being shot down by police in 2007.”
Praticia wants to be a magistrate when she graduates from school. Both of her parents dies some years ago, so she has no one to take care of her. This causes her a lot of stress. She says that “most of the people in Canada are white men”, and that life is “smooth.”
Her most stressful situation was when she almost drowned while swimming. She was saved by a young cattle herder that happened to be passing by.
Other students include Zuena Nafula, Charulim Roselyne, Hilda Adhiambo and Heilah. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to write down their story, but you at least get a taste of some of my inspiring students.
I couldn’t be more excited about my future.