There’s something about being handed a falling-apart English book, being given NO guidance or lesson plan, and standing yourself in front of 50+ African seventh graders in a dirty, cement classroom with no electricity, desks falling apart, and being equipped with ONLY a single piece of chalk and your brain and being told by the headmaster, “Go for it!” that completely made this all insanely REAL. James and I were in an extremely remote area just outside Maasai Mara, Kenya, and would be volunteer teaching for one week… and we really didn’t realize what we were getting ourselves into until we first stepped foot into that classroom!
Continuing from James’ previous story about the Maasai tribe we visited, we arrived in Kenya on January 11th and spent a good part of the day traveling west from Nairobi out to a remote area that normally tourists only go to embark on safari game drives. Instead, we were only there to volunteer/teach at a local elementary school called Oloolaimutia Elementary School. We were put up at a campsite within walking distance from the school which was called Enchoro Wildlife Center. We were pleasantly surprised that our accommodations weren’t as bad as we were expecting (since we only knew it was a campsite, and weren’t sure what kind of “tent”
we would be staying in): Our tent was made of thick canvas and covered completely by a standing wood structure. You could stand up completely inside the tent, and it came equipped with decent beds, mosquito nets, and indoor plumbing (sink, toilet, and a shower with hot water!). Since we were in such a remote area, there really weren’t any stores or restaurants nearby, so our three meals a day were cooked in the main dining house… and food was pretty decent, although the meat served was LOCAL: mostly only goat, sheep, or “mystery beef.” Most of the week, we ended up being the ONLY people staying at the lodge, so this wonderful guy, Malachi, ended up being our personal chef for the week, and that was lovely.
The most exciting part about where we were staying is that we were totally surrounded by a TON of wildlife: there was a small, brown cow that lived on camp and we often found her grazing
near our tent! During the day, velvet monkeys and baboons were constantly running and playing through the camp (we would sit on our porch and watch them in amazement) and by night, we fell asleep to the sound of hyenas screeching and wild dogs barking and howling! [Click here to see a fun video of monkeys right outside our tent!] And of course… both night and day there were at least 10+ different bird calls we could hear at any given time, PLUS the constant jingling of cowbells—as there were TONS of cattle being herded back and forth past our camp 24/7!… what a cool, “natural” type of experience!
The camp we stayed at was very close to both the school we volunteered at as well as one of the local Maasai tribal villages. And actually, a few of the Maasai tribe members hung around our camp on a consistent basis, so we got to speak to them every day and learn all about their lives, culture, and traditions. WOW… what an entirely different world they live in!
Now to the volunteer part: We taught English at the local elementary school Monday through Friday for one week. Our volunteer assignment was set up through an organization called, “KVCDP: Kenya Voluntary & Community Development Project.” When we arrived to the school for the first time on Monday (January 13th), we found out that it was actually the START of the new school year for them, and not only were a few teachers out on maternity leave, but some teachers simply DID NOT SHOW UP! So they were down from like 14 teachers to only EIGHT or less!… and that was for an entire school of 450 kids, grades K-8! The school was going through a ton of changes at that time, we realized, and we fortunately/unfortunately arrived in the middle of all the chaos. With the lack of resources, we were basically each handed an English lesson book and told, “Good luck!” Yikes… So James was suddenly in charge of grade six, and I was in charge of grade seven with NO instructions, and basically was supplied with just a lesson book to quickly rifle through before class and try to make something of! Hmmm…. But neither of us have a teaching background, and this wasn’t like our teaching experience in Thailand, where there was a main English teacher that prepared all the subject matter for us. We were each officially in charge of a WHOLE class, and had to make up our own lessons and teach on our own each day… Yikes!
To make the situation even more challenging, you should have seen the classrooms: VERY VERY MINIMAL. Dirty, cement classrooms with rickety desks that 5-6 children shared at a time, broken windows, no electricity, chalk boards with huge sections missing, about eight falling-apart lesson books to share between 50+ children in each class, and maybe one out of every five children actually had a paper and pencil with which to write! We didn’t even have a chalk board eraser/duster, so we used a sheet of paper (which was also hard to come by) or a piece of cloth to try to erase our previous writing on the board. For the school “bell,” a child would use a stick to bang on an old, metal tire rim that was hung in the main school area. [Click here to see a video of a child ringing the “school bell.”]
Needless to say, teaching in these conditions was a bit of a challenge! Fortunately, the kids were pretty well behaved, wanted to learn, and as the days went by the lesson planning became easier. Also, by the afternoon of the second day, James and I decided to co-teach each of the two classes together (with one of us being the lead of each class, and the other helping out), as it became quite difficult to constantly be writing and erasing on a chalk board by yourself while trying to keep 50+ kids in each class interested and paying attention to the subject matter.
Speaking of subject matter… some things we had to teach the kids were pretty surprising and cliché in regards to Africa, and we were both a bit taken aback by it all. In two of James’ lessons to the sixth-graders that week, AIDS and HIV were main topics of conversation, used a great deal in grammar examples. Tuberculosis was a main topic as well. The kids were learning vocabulary words related to illness and going to the doctor, and there were sentences they needed to complete by filling in the blanks with the new words…. Look at this!:
Then, a few pages later, the book used AIDS/HIV again in examples for teaching conditional sentences:
Interesting and different, isn’t it? I guess it may be a bit strange to be teaching 11 and 12 year olds this type of subject matter in such depth, but with such a huge AIDS/HIV epidemic going on throughout the whole continent of Africa, I guess it’s smart to teach them young and educate them on the dangers and causes of the disease. What makes this all even more a bit “whimsical” is that one boy actually came up to James after class one day and said, “Teacher James, thanks for teaching us about HIV and AIDS today.” Hah!…. are we in an after school special or something?? 😉
In regards to the teaching experience in general, I have to say James had a bit better experience at it than I did… the sixth grade class (that he lead) was a lot more attentive, raised their hands a lot, and most of them really understood the subject matter! Also, as always, I think that James’ calm and assertive manner caused the kids to pay attention (most of the time), and he also had a teacher’s manual to help with answers and teaching methods. [See a video here of James teaching the sixth graders.] The seventh grade (that I mostly lead), however, didn’t understand their subject matter as much, didn’t seem as eager to learn, and would NOT raise their hand for anything in the world (for neither James nor I)! Then, in the classroom, there were many more rowdy kids that would talk out of turn, and others that were SO shy that they would barely utter a single word if you asked them a question. In addition, I didn’t have a teaching manual for the majority of the week AND I would get a bit flustered when the kids weren’t behaving or paying attention. I also somewhat suspect that maybe the fact I’m female might also have something to do with the kids being a bit more unruly in my grade, as women are NOT respected as much in their culture and aren’t regarded as authority figures as much as men. Who knows? In the end, though, we think all 100+ kids in both classes had a great time, learned a lot of new things, and hopefully were also intrigued by us “foreigners” to want to learn more English and study hard. [Click here to see a video of me teaching the seventh graders.]
In conclusion, it was a very rewarding experience for us both. In regards to the chaos in the school in the beginning, it was obvious the school was going through a lot of changes: they were getting a new school headmaster that week and it seemed the old headmaster was pretty disorganized and left a lot of things in shambles! And by the end of the week, the schedule was a lot more laid out, more teachers were hired, classes were cleaned up and old books were now OUT (and apparently the kids were finally all getting new books after eight years), and things in the school, overall, were a lot more organized. SO… even though it was a bit of a challenge for us, it seemed that we came at the right time for THEM, because they really needed our help!… and they were incredibly grateful for having us there that week. And the main English teacher and the new headmaster said they had gotten a LOT of feedback from the kids, saying that the school should keep us around longer and/or should have more visitor English teachers in the future! Aww…. How nice!
Also, we realized one main thing in regards to the differences in this school compared to schools back home in the U.S.: even though the children and school didn’t have electricity, computers, good books, pencils and paper for every child, chalkboard erasers, or decent desks for them to sit at, one thing was still apparent: the kids just wanted to LEARN, and they were still able to do that despite the lack of supplies. Of course, I’m sure kids in other schools or countries may have a better chance of getting ahead in life if their school supplied the entire student body with iPads, but is all that stuff completely necessary?
Anyway, we really enjoyed teaching the kids for the week, and WOW, was that quite an eye-opening experience for James and I as well. Between our visit to the Maasai Village, our experience staying in the camp nearby, being throw into an unorganized and uncomfortable situation (teaching) and both having to figure out how to adjust, learning about the children and how different of a situation they grew up in compared to our upbringings, and just soaking up the whole surreal experience, I have to say it was probably the most cultural and rewarding experience we have had in all of our lives!
And it also makes us feel VERY fortunate to have the upbringing we have had, and all the opportunities back in the U.S.
Man… we are SO fortunate, it really is beyond words.
To see photos from Maasai Mara and our teaching experience, click here.