Valuable lessons in Kenya slum

November 30, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Carrying suitcases filled with teaching aids and carry-on bags stuffed with clothing and personal items, several Harford County educators traveled to Kenya last summer.

This group of educators knew they were headed to a school where the children sharpened pencils with razor blades and used stone pebbles to count.

"We have grown so used to having certain supplies when we teach that they don't have in Mathare Valley," said Nadine Wellington, principal of Mountain Christian School, who went to Kenya with a group of educators in 2007.

"So we packed our suitcases full of every possible thing we thought we might need to teach."

Knowing to bring school supplies to Kenya was only one of the lessons the educators learned during their trip to Mathare Valley, a slum of 850,000 people in Nairobi.

The experience was so rewarding that leaders are seeking about 30 educators to go on the next trip, scheduled June 28 to July 19 next year, said the Rev. Dennis Curran, pastor of Mountain Christian Church. He has led such groups for the past four years with his wife, Renda.

"We don't go to Kenya to do relief work," Curran said. "We go to teach the people how to fish. We are feeding them for a lifetime. The work that has been done so far is breathtaking. When we first went, it was unsafe for us to walk through the village without an escort. Now we can. They know we are there to help."

The trip is part of Hope Missions International, a nonprofit organization based in Tualatin, Ore. The group was started by Mary Kamau to provide aid to people in disadvantaged communities through education, evangelism and economic empowerment. Kamau was so touched by the people and their living conditions that she started the program.

Encompassing an area of less than a square mile, Mathare Valley is rampant with crime, HIV/AIDS and poor living conditions, including rivers of sewage running through the community and entire families living in one-room huts without electricity or running water.

Curran said he was impressed by their hospitality.

"One thing that struck me was that in our society, it's acceptable not to want a homeless guy in our house on Thanksgiving Day," he said. "But in Kenya, the people welcome you into their meager homes. They have no electricity and no water from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. But they still open their doors to us."

Kamau started a school with 50 4- and 5-year-old children. In 2005, when the Currans first went to Nairobi, there were 168 children attending school. This year, there are 2,500 students who attend five day schools and one boarding school, said Renda Curran, a physical education teacher for 32 years at Southhampton Middle School.

"It's nice to see the difference that just one person can make," said Curran, who taught the Kenyan children physical education and skills such as juggling.

There are several ways that schools and educators can participate in the program, including service learning projects to raise funds for books, desks, school supplies and textbooks; adopting a class; donations through the United Way campaign; and trips to teach and mentor Kenyan educators.

The local tachers find the trips the most rewarding.

Peggy Kirk, principal of Emmorton Elementary, came away with more than she could give, she said.

Kirk, who has been in education for 35 years, was amazed at how much the children in Kenya value an education.

"The kids in Mathare Valley are incredibly bright, but they lack resources," said Kirk, who taught reading to the African children.

Teaching the children reading was a challenge, she said. The children are members of about 50 different tribal groups, each with its own dialect, Kirk said.

Despite the language barrier, she tried to engage the children and make reading fun, she said. In one lesson, she taught the Three Billy Goats Gruff, for which the children made masks, she said.

"The children were extraordinarily compliant during all of the lessons," Kirk said. "They didn't always understand the language, and I don't know what the teachers gained from the instruction, but I hope they carry on. I feel like I gave so little and came back with so much."

Debbie Gibbons, the librarian at Riverside Elementary, helped set up a library at one of the schools, she said. Then she treated the children to story time using dance and puppet narration.

"The whole experience reminded me of the Dr. Seuss book, Oh the Places You'll Go," she said.

The students thought that Karen McNeely, a fifth-grade teacher at Ring Factory, was a magician, she said. The children liked her science "performance" so much that they applauded her.

"In all of my years of teaching, I have never been applauded," McNeely said. "I told the kids that it wasn't a trick; they could do it, too."

When her time with the children was done, McNeely had a new appreciation for her job, she said.

"The children and the teachers were so appreciative," she said. "They were so proud of everything they did. When we gave out stickers to the children for a job well done, the teachers wanted theirs, too."

Sue Payne, a third-grade teacher at Emmorton, taught mathematics to the children.

"I wanted to show them that math was not all problems being copied from a board," said Payne. "I showed the children how to make geometric shapes with straws and count using Froot Loops."

When she completed the lesson, one girl thanked her, she said.

"She came to me, and she said, 'God bless you, Sue,' " Payne said. "My heart grew just like the Grinch's.

"Here was this little girl who lived in the conditions she lived in, and she was blessing me."

To learn more about the program, visit www.hopemissionsinternational.org.

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