Between early mornings, a few late nights, lack of Internet service in some places, and (I’ll be honest) a general weariness/discomfort with finding the right words to blog and share with you all of these experiences, I have somehow found this opportunity to jot some words down. I apologize to my unnamed audience for the looong delay (which perhaps has you considering whether our entire trip was spent on a safari)!
Our week begins with a dusty ride from Sweetwater straight to Mount Kenya Academy. We have entered into this week with an amazing gusto that emanates at every level- from us, as the visitors, to the students, to the teachers, the energy is definitely there. But before I divulge, let me share a quick background on CLC: Children’s Literature for Children’s Reader-to-Reader program here in Kenya is responsible for building sustainable libraries and sending as many books as possible to particular schools in Nyeri. The goal is to help build up one school library at a time. With the support of individuals such as Mr. Ashley Bryan and “Madame” Kay Curtis who choose to adopt a school, the program helps with other necessities such as building water tanks, growing grass and trees on school grounds, giving uniforms, bringing in desks, creating office space for teachers and more classrooms for students, establishing feeding programs, etc., all under the supervision and direction of Mrs. Charity Mwangi who functions as CLC’s correspondent on Kenyan grounds. The key word here is sustainability, not just on the level of structure, but on a creative front as well. Certainly we could benefit from at least a month in this area in order to have ample time to really connect with students. However, because authors such as Ashley Bryan have traveled to these particular schools for the past ten years or so, teachers and staff have begun to make an effort to take what is brought and reinforce it throughout the year. What he has brought in terms of re-introducing the power of creativity and rhythm in learning is certainly and visibly making a difference, and is definitely a legacy I hope to continue with with him. (Meaning: I will be back).
Our job throughout this week has revolved around traveling both to Mount Kenya Academy as well as to other local government schools that benefit from support to complete different tasks. Debbie Green, the director takes note of improvement in terms of infrastructure, school size, and score improvement for “standard 8” classes in the primary schools while Mr. Bryan and I work with the students to share a deeper appreciation for education, particularly creative education- reading, writing, and inevitably, the power of poetry!
Now picture this: It’s Monday afternoon and before I’ve caught my breath, we have entered into the whirlwind of Mount Kenya Academy junior school. Today, we’ve settled in the library where several classes will come and go until the school day ends. With one particular group, I sit in a rocking chair, still on a high from talking and sharing with the students. The five of us- Kay, Rich, Abi, Debbie, and the other teachers and librarians are beaming as we take in the spectacle: Ashley Bryan marching around the library, weaving in and out of stacks of books, followed by an eager but behaved group of kindergarteners shouting the words of Eloise Greenfield’s Things, and ending emphatically (somehow lying on the floor with Ashley stretched out between them) with the words of Langston Hughes: “Beautiful also are the souls of my people, MY PEOPLE!”
I feel as if something in this ability for eighty-seven year old Ashley to connect in such a manner with these students (so much so that the school has memorized some of the poems he came with a few years ago) is whispering to me: Noni, watch and learn! And so I do! Ashley speaks, then I speak; Ashley recites and I read, he emphasizing the power of poetry while I speak of reading & writing & never giving up. I find myself melting into the naturalness of discussing with the students dreams, discussing goals, discussing a new word for them: aspirations! Con-fi-dence! What is confidence? Why is it important? We dance and spin to poems about “digging way down in dreams”, and simulate a poem that talks about “running towards the finish line”. I recall, before leaving the states, Mrs. Kemie Nix sitting over a cup of tea, sharing her desire for me to impart, if nothing else, a sense that everyone, every student has a story to tell. Right here in the middle of Nyeri talking to these students, I recall her words, and think of creative ways to drive in that idea. We do a little activity on Kuumba- Creativity- and examine the question Why do we write? “Who in here is a writer?” I ask, at the beginning of my little talk with one of our groups. Few hands go up in the air. Near the end, however, after we’ve questioned, explored, dissected the importance of writing, I ask again, “Who in here is a writer?” And every hand shoots up. A smile from me- what a group! We had an exhilarating time Monday afternoon, needless to say. (Many thanks to the book Ashley found for me: Honey, I love and other poems as well as quick inspirational poems that would hit me at the best of times, as well as shining faces peaking around the corners with notepads and pens waiting for someone bold enough to ask for a signature.)
And to think this was only the beginning. Tuesday rolls around- truly a day for the books. We first attend an assembly for the senior school (Mount Kenya Academy’s high school) where the six of us speak, Debbie introducing CLC and what they do, me sharing a poem questioning what our generation is willing to do for the world today (that left Kay in tears), Abi Joy’s presentation of her exciting occupation as a psychotherapist, Dr. Rich’s stories’ of attending Mr. Bryan’s college course on art (back in the day), Kay’s own declarations of the Rotary and her Kenyan tea parties that raise money for the schools, and Ashley Bryan’s recitation of Paul Dunbar’s Negro Love Song that, of course, received a litany of responses. (This followed by a Wednesday morning assembly for the junior school where I present a poem on “why I love writing” and Ashley has the entire auditorium ringing with shouts of “I love books” and Nikki Giovanni’s “The Reason I love chocolate”, and, James Berry’s “People Equal”, and the list goes on and on. Not to mention the amazing performances given by the students. This time Rich is close to tears, and there’s certainly a reason for that.)
Following a subsequent morning filled with observing some classes, and helping teach others, I am left to do my own work at the school as the others continue on to visit Ndiriti Primary and Lesoi Primary. I was a bit surprised at how much freedom the principal and faculty allowed me to have in interacting with the students and really sharing what I had to bring. It was interesting meeting and talking with the faculty- I was floored (though I don’t know why) by how many genuinely dedicated teachers the school had. I ate lunch (very healthy for the students) with the principal, Charity Mwangi (who, if I have not yet paused to share her outstanding role in all of this, is a very powerful force and sincere, intelligent woman who founded Mount Kenya Academy with her husband, and is now its overall director) and a few teachers. I toured the school, met with students who shared poetry and even musical selections, and of course talked to a few of the classes. Between all of this, I came upon certainly one of the highlights of the trip- being thrown into a classroom of new “form one” (what we would call freshman) students who had literally just arrived at the school for an hour and a half. It was certainly an experience attempting to break the ice, and maneuvering around topics with my interactive session, attempting to find things that really would resonate with them as young teenage Kenyan students. We had a few minutes of reverse role playing- I sat, and they “taught me” what they considered was important for a “first-timer” like me to know about their country and respective cultures. Most importantly- we really had a good time, and I came away, not only with interesting takes on my three E’s, but with virtually all of the students self-inspired to answer a few “creative” questions I posed to win a shot at getting a signed copy of the book. That desire for reading, for knowledge that I observed was so enlightening!
If you can imagine, just these first two days of “work” have been more inspiring than I can impart to you. There’s something moving in all of this. I’m realizing- it doesn’t seem to matter where I go, kids will always be kids, students will always be students! From the creativity, to emotions, to the issues and viewpoints of life, the desire for the older kids to move on to other experiences, that scary transition from 8th grade to 9th grade, that love for learning- its something that seems to be rooted in the very innocent character of a child, any student who is not held back by the society around them, and here at Mount Kenya Academy, I definitely had the feeling that I was talking to a classroom of students back at home.
Anyhow, I’ve written quite a lot for just these two days (and yet feel as if I’ve barely said anything at all). I just flipped through my passport and wanted to end this blog with an appropriate, beautiful quote I found that’s worth sharing:
“Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds…to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation” Ellison S. Onizuka.
Good advice. So let’s get to work, generation!
Until Next Time!Back