Monday, March 30, 2009

The end of a beginning

"Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." John F. Kennedy

It's a bittersweet ending of my first computer class. I always knew that the class would eventually come to an end but I kept the thought of its end at the back of my mind. I was always more concerned with things like making sure my students ("wanafunzi wangu" in Kiswahili) understood me, being there to answer their questions ("majibu" in Kiswahili), making available my textbooks ("vitabu"), and other notes outside of class time so that everyone was able to understand the topics I was teaching.

Alas all good things must come to an end...

I saw a leaf falling from a tree that is drying up and a single tear came to my eye. As the leaf fell, I thought of my class: I hope that I did not fail them as the lack of rain has failed this tree.

The first class I've ever taught is in its closing stages. Sure I've taught merit badge classes at Boy Scout summer camp, and I've taught plenty of people in a less formal setting. Nevertheless, this is the first time that I have taught a class and been a 'teacher' ("mwalimu" in Kiswahili). As my students are taking their last exams, I cant help but wonder: Did I fail my students? Perhaps a few of my students didn't try their hardest or didn't pay attention during class. Even so, did I fail to teach them properly?As part of the exam my students were asked to write a letter providing feedback regarding the course in general - feedback, I hoped, that would help me improve my teaching style for future classes. Many students wrote very positive things such as "Mr. Daniel was very nice and helpful" and "I hereby wish to congraturate you for the good work that you voluntered to do" which made me feel better about my self-doubts. Yet part of me wonders, how would I feel about the course if I were in their situation: a high school graduate that possibly has never seen a computer before; in a class being taught by a foreigner who speaks the third language I've learned and with an accent at that.

I am deeply grateful for the assistance that the students have provided to each other and to me as we've grown. My students have have provided me great assistance as I learn Kiswahili. In addition to the help with Kiswahili, they have also taught me a great deal about Kenyan culture and the community in which we reside.I can honestly say that I will miss my students and I do wish them the best as they depart from my 'classroom', with theoretical & practical knowledge of computers. The next class or lot, as referred to by Kenyans, will begin next week as the exams come to a conclusion and certificates are awarded for their completion of the course. As a new class begins, so will a new adventure. I certainly hope not to fail my students. After all, I was brought to this locale to facilitate community development.

The above post is as it was originally written. Since its original inception, my perspective has changed. Having had a chance to speak to most of my students one-on-one I have come to realize that I have not failed them, as I had feared. Each and every one of my students is leaving my class with a knowledge of computers. The degree of the information learned varies from student to student, but alas everyone of them has learned something which they did not know before.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wanyama (animals)

Seeing wildlife is like seeing celebrities, only better. ~ Tanja Andrews

I find it very interesting that many people are curious to know what animals I have seen since I came to Kenya so I thought I would write a post about the different animals I've seen...
In a previous post I described an interesting encounter with a chicken and her young chicks. Even though the prior story was only one example, it is not uncommon to see many chickens throughout the day. In the morning I usually see a few chickens and a rooster as they roam around the compound. Some neighbors also have geese which have been known to roam around our compound from time to time. Speaking of geese, there is a group of geese that tend to hang around puddles on my way into town. These geese tend to stare me down as I walk by and they have been known to greet me as I walk by.
Cows are also seen on a daily basis. In the compound where I live we have three cows plus one calf. Cows can also be seen walking down the road on their way to being grazed. Sheep are also seen regularly as they are being walked to their grazing locations.
There are of course many different types of birds that can be seen and heard all around the community. If you walk down by the rice paddies when there are tractors in the area you are guaranteed to see flocks of birds looking for a meal (worms) as the ground is being turned.
In fact, there is one bird that when sing or call out predators in the area make a sound that I recognized upon first hearing it as a sound commonly used for error messages on a computer system (Mac I think but I can’t recall for sure under which circumstances this particular error can be heard). Which reminds me that the other day I heard a “tie-fighter” squeal coming from a chicken roost (I know, I’m a sci-fi geek). I swear I’m not going crazy! I heard some chickens or maybe roosters making some noises from a roost and I swear for a moment I thought I had gone back to watching a Star Wars film in which some Tie Fighters were chasing other space ships.
Aside from the animals already listed, I also have bats flying around at night in the compound I live and some that even like to hang on the roof of the pit latrine.
I have also seen camels walking near the road on one occasion. I’m not sure where they were going or what they were doing, but it was cool to see them from roughly 20 meters away.
I have also seen lions, elephants, monkeys, wildebeests, water buffalo, and a giraffe from afar during our initial trip to our training location. One day I’d like to visit some other volunteers and possibly travel into a national park to see more of Kenya’s beautiful wildlife.
I have been truly blessed/lucky to have seen all these different types of animals in the short time I’ve been in Kenya.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's the simple things that matter...

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
~Walt Whitman

Every morning as I walk to work, (or trek as most Kenyans would say), I walk by a primary school. Almost every day, I end up walking with several children who attend this school. Most of the children that walk with me are very young and thus do not all know Kiswahili yet - rather they know their tribal language Kikuyu. As most of these children do not know Kiswahili, we were for the longest time unable to exchange verbal greetings, instead we would smile and wave.
Recently, I have started learning some of the Kikuyu greetings which has changed this entire scenario. The children will say something that sounds like Natea (I don't know the spelling of any Kikuyu words yet) and I will respond Nicuega.
Within 24hours of the children realizing that I had learned Kikuyu greetings, children from every school in the community have started greeting me in Kikuyu.
The next morning, as I was approaching the school I heard a group of children chanting Muthungo (which sounds very similar to the Kiswahili word Mzungu; both words mean foreigner). As I walk closer and closer to the school, more and more children began to chant. The chant continued until I was right outside the school gate in front of them. Just then, there was a brief moment of silence.
And then, in unison, the children said Muthungo Natea to which i replied Nicuega. Then I greeted them all saying Muriega - a greeting for groups of people as if saying "how are you all doing today?" The children, again in unison, replied Turiega meaning "we're fine".
Such a simple thing as a greeting can really make a large difference. Before I came to this community, the children whom I greet every morning had probably not seen a Mzungu (or Muthungoi) that would be able to greet them in their own language.
Every morning I look forward to greeting these children as they all become very very excited that they are being greeted by me.
I walk away from the school on my way to work extremely happy every morning.
And all of this is the result of a simple greeting.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Frightened by chickens?

“Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms” ~George Elliot

On one fine afternoon, I was walking home from class and I stopped for a moment to enjoy the peacefulness of the nature around me.
I stopped by the side of the road underneath the shade of a nearby tree. As I stood there, I could hear nothing but the wind and about three different types of birds singing away this peaceful afternoon. I'm not certain how much time had passed and it was quite unusual for the road to be this quiet so I was expecting at any moment to hear the roar of a pikipiki (motorcycle) motor as it was passing by. Without realizing it, I had stopped paying attention to the birds and other animals - just listening to the wind expecting my peaceful experience to be disturbed by a pikipiki.
Just then, as I thought I heard a pikipiki engine roaring down the road, I heard a noise in the bushes that frightened me half-to-death. In the brief moment before I saw what presumed animal made the noise, I was half-ready to run for my life.
Then just before I started running, I saw a chicken with her family of chicks following her as they were searching for food.
Shortly after realizing there was nothing to fear, I felt very happy. I don't think I can recall many occasions where I was able to just be in peace with nature & my environment back in the States.
Of course, I was slightly disappointed that soon after the chickens frightened me traffic resumed and I was unable to find my peace again. But alas, tomorrow is another day...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Converstations with Kenyan students

“There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.” ~James Nathan Miller

Notes prior to reading this post: please note that I posted two posts in the same day last time I posted. So if you did not read both, I would encourage you to do so. Also, my mailing address has changed so if you want to send letters/packages please use the new address listed near the bottom of the page!

During the days in which we have not had electricity at our facility, my students have asked me questions about myself and also about life in America. This blog post is intended to provide with some of the curiosity of my Kenyan students (who are high school graduates). Aside from the basic questions such as "where did you live? where did you go to college?" etc. I find the following questions to be more thought provoking.

Why did you come to Kenya?
I don't think I can fully answer that question as other people might be able. I suppose the cop-out answer would be that I applied to the Peace Corps and they decided to send me here. But that brings up the underlying question, "why did you join the peace corps?" That question is one that I find I ask myself frequently. On the most basic level, I joined to provide assistance to other people as best as I am able. Going further, joining gives me an experience that I will never forget. It is in fact, as the saying goes, "the toughest job you will ever love". I sometimes wonder if I am 100% ready for this challenge and on occasion it feels that though I am providing help, I cannot but be haunted by the feeling that I am alone. I am the only Mzungu (foreigner) in this town. Trusting others can also be a challenge sometimes as I will often wonder if the person will want something from me. In fact, there are many people who continually ask me if I will take them to the U.S. for a visit; others ask me to marry them; others simply call me "Johnny" or "Boss" and want me to give them a handout. As much as I would like to help everyone, I am unable to help everyone in the way that they would like.
Sometimes I wonder if I came to Kenya to escape what I saw was an unmeaningful life I was living in the States. Although I do think that I have come to Kenya for a reason. Perhaps it is so that I can learn not only about the culture here, but to learn about myself also and figure out who I am.

English is the only language in America, isn't it?
"Not exactly. English is the only national language of the U.S. but there are many languages spoken. For instance, my mother tongue is Spanish." It is sometimes challenging to explain that there are tribes of natives that still reside in America, each with their own language, and to add to that trying to explain that immigrants from other countries also speak different languages.
Although, I must mention that my students enjoyed my singing in Spanish. (I sang some Enrique Iglesias songs as my Spanish collection is somewhat limited here in Kenya).

Are there are any roads like this one in America (referring to an "all-weather" road that is composed of dirt/stones)?
"Not in the town where I lived, but there may be in other places." Most of the Kenyans I have met believe that every road is paved in the U.S.
An immediate follow up question is:
How do people travel in America?
"Well many families have cars that they use to get around town but not all families have cars. Other people may use a piki-piki [motorcycle]. In large cities there are sometimes even trains or subways - a subway is an underground train."

Are there any poor people in America?
"Well... that's not a simple question to answer, but yes there are poor people in America. You see, poverty in America is judged differently than that of Kenya..." I try to explain about the poverty level and the higher costs of basic things in America. At one point, I tried to explain someone making less than 32,000$ per year would not be considered "rich" in America. This attempt at an explanation lead to the math which came out to be roughly 210,000 Kenyan Shillings per month. In Kenya, this would be a fairly well-off person. After this attempt failed, I turned to an alternate explanation of poverty between Kenya and the U.S. "In the U.S., everything is more expensive. For example a small soda would cost roughly 150 shillings. The difference is that in the U.S. money is easier to get and everything costs more. Whereas in Kenya, money is not as easy to get and things cost less, comparatively." This explanation, however, typically requires a further explanation of the current financial situation in the U.S.

When students asked me this question, I began wondering about what poverty really is. Poverty is usually expressed in monetary terms, one's monthly income, annual income or daily living allowance. While the amount of money someone has is an indicator of the quality of life they are able to lead, something about defining poverty as a financial matter doesn't sit well in my mind. Because of all the factors that go into the value of one currency in relation to another, I don't think that trying to capture life in a country like Kenya in dollars and cents paints a clear picture. As I watched a TV show called "Trippin" (an MTV show from the States), I was very intrigued by the way in which the country's wealth is determined in the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. It is not by the amount of money, or the value of the currency. Instead, their wealth is determined in natural riches.
So depending on the means by which you define poverty, Kenya may or may not be as 'poor' as it is thought of by both locals and by foreigners.

Based on my definition, I feel that Kenya is not poor.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

New found respect for Teachers around the world

During High School, and to some extent during my University studies, I wondered what it would be like to be a teacher. To be a person who is trusted with providing tomorrow's leaders with the tools they need to succeed.
Upon graduating, I briefly considered if I would want to be a teacher, I even applied to Teach For America. And now I find myself a teacher in a foreign country teaching basic computer skills.
I never realized the amount of hard work that teachers go through to make their class a success until very recently. Even though I taught some merit badge classes during Boy Scout Summer Camp, I have found it is very very different when teaching in a classroom setting.
My first challenge was of course the creation of lesson plans. In my mind I knew what I wanted to teach to my students, but I did not truly realize how much information to provide each day giving enough time for all students to have time to practice on our limited computers (there are 20+ students and only 6 computers - one of which is used by the organization's secretary).
My next challenge was the language. I believe that all of my students speak Kiswahili and Kikuyu, the local language, (if I have a student who does not speak Kikuyu, it is likely to be another tribal language such as Kiluo, Kikamba, or Kiembu). As English is my student's third language, and my second, the way in which I explain certain actions or certain concepts sometimes needs to be very specific in order for my students to understand clearly. Thankfully, however, the few students who understand me 'accent' very well are able to assist other students who may not understand me.
My last major challenge so far has been testing my students' understanding of what we've covered in class. The past few days I've administered an exam to my students of their understanding of the things we've covered in class. However, I had to reconsider my testing criteria and split the exam up into different parts so that the students' performance can be graded not based on how quickly they can perform a task, but on whether or not he/she is able to perform the task. I also faced the challenge that my directions were not 100% clear for most of the students. In the future, I will need to be more specific in what it is I am asking them to do. I may even reformat the exam instructions so that they will be easier to read.
As a result of my new experiences as a teacher, I have a new found respect for teachers around the world. I have come closer to realizing what it takes to be a positive role-model and provide the future with the most powerful tool they will need to succeed: knowledge.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Best feeling in the world

It's truly amazing that my students care enough about my staying here
that they said "from now on, we'll only speak to you in Kiswahili" so
that i will pass the language proficiency exam. Plus, one of the
mamas in the compound where i live mentioned seeing several of my
students in town and she was telling me "I'm very happy today. I'm
very happy because your students love you so much."
The greatest feeling in the world is knowing you're making a difference in
the lives of others.