You might call me…unconventional

Aright, so I have been at the game now for two full weeks, and I feel that I have the ability to start talking about what it’s like teaching Kenyans how to use computers.  But first, let me explain the teaching situation:

I work for the National Youth Service (NYS) of Kenya [and a giant grasshopper has made its way into my house ladies and gentlemen].  NYS is a uniformed branch of the Kenyan government [I think its breaking things in my kitchen now], which means that to the untrained eye, it appears that I live and work on a military compound.  There are no guns however, and when I proposed the notion of push-ups I was gawked at.  Para-military would be more like it, with the focus of helping shape the youth and mould them into productive members of society.

They do this moulding by offering diplomas and trades courses.  I don’t know the full run down of everything offered, and the website has minimal information on it, though it might all be in this huge packet of info they gave me the day before swearing in.  Needless to say I didn’t read it.  There are many different NYS camps throughout Kenya, each specializing in specific areas.  Here in mombasa we specialize in the trades: Carpentry (and Joinery; they say Joinery here in Kenya), Plumbing, Masonry, Production, and Electrical and one more that is escaping me at the moment and I am too lazy to go find my day planner with.

So where do the computers fit in?  Computers is classified as a Craft course, i.e. elective.  As far as I can tell, each first year student is being required to take a computer course with me, so I see 6 different classes each week for 2 hours per class.  Why do I not know the specifics? Because no one has told me, and when I try to figure it out, no one wants to tell me.  It’s a very admitted fact about Kenyan culture that they do not directly answer questions.  In fact, even when asked a yes-no question, you will not get a yes or no answer.  Ever.  Thus it makes finding out my role all the more difficult.  So instead I just roll with it and have decided to teach a simple intro to computers class.  I have no supervisor besides the principle, no one sits in the class with me except Dai Kato, who has given me the reigns due to my better grasp on English and Kiswahili, and no one evaluates what the heck I am even teaching these kids.

Where’s the problem in all this?  Nothing really.  Enter my unconventionality.  Something you must realize though is that these “youth” are mostly all my age or older than me.  Agemates they are called in Kenyan English.  Yet they see me not as a peer but, I believe, as a Mzungu first, teacher second and then, maybe the crazy guy obsessed with the fact that there are as many monkeys here as squirrels back home.  Needless to say there is a very awkward social barrier surrounding the whole situation (obsession with monkeys not aiding my cause).  And to be perfectly honest because there seems to be no sense of officiality to anything I am doing, I am trying to side more on being their peer than their teacher.  I just happen to know more about computers and really, really want to share it with them.

This is a seemingly impossible notion to convey to them however.  There is minimal exchange of dialogue between us.  When I ask questions, general questions, I get no response.  When I ask specific questions to specific individuals, I must get to within a nanometer of [killed a mosquito; today’s count: flies 3, mozzies 3] their mouth in order to hear their response.  Having trained with [mozzies 4] teachers for two months, I have heard that this is how the Kenyan education system works.  The kids sit in school and “learn,” afraid to ask questions or be wrong because they fear to be chappa-ed (caned).  All learning is done through rote memorization with minimal critical analysis or thinking applied.

I haven’t meshed well with this, and because I did not go through teacher training, (I went through business training), I am applying my business strategy of learn about the culture and see what minimal amount needs to be changed to be productive.  From what I hear about being an “official” teacher-volunteer you need to confirm more to Kenyan ways of teaching.  You must teach from the prescribed books with the prescribed lessons and whatnot.  If I remember correctly, one volunteer even told me that if a student needs to be disciplined and you don’t feel you can hit him (which I believe is technically illegal), then you can call in another Kenyan teacher to do the deed for you.

Myself on the other hand have been given no books, no materials, no supervisor or counterpart, nothing but a room full of Kenyans and computers (that are actually quite decent and certainly useable for teaching, if only low in quantity).  I pace up and down the room, draw pictures on the white board, speak loudly, and have quite  explicitly told all of my students that class will pause when I ask a question until I get an answer.  And it’s working, a little.  I asked all my students to arrive on time for class (a near impossibility in typical Kenyan culture), and within a week of being told I even have students arriving early!

Today, being a bit sick and exhausted (I haven’t been particularly sleeping well due to the adjustment), I sat down with my students and was very honest with them.  I said that I was unable to stand and lecture on the fundamentals of an Operating System, so instead we would have a circle Q&A session about anything computers or America related (I am here to exchange culture as well).  I did this with two different classes.  Neither class responded very well.  So I had to get creative.  Don’t blame me, don’t judge. Teaching Kenyans is one of the most frustrating things  anyone can do I believe.

The first class, upon being silent, was given an option.  Either one person becomes the board writer and elicits questions from his peers or I throw a marker at someone.  They got a countdown.  A marker may or may not have been indiscriminately thrown in the general direction of one of my students.  A student became board-writer and questions were asked/written on the board.  The rest of the class was then spent with me answering those questions [mozzies 5] and then with the students having free time to use the computer.

Lunch!

Then back to class.  This next class was small, only 9 students (most of my classes have between 20 and 35).  I decided to try something other than throwing markers, so I tapped into the Kenyan desire for education.  Knowing these students do want to learn and do see value in an education, I informed them that everyone would write a question on the board within 10 minutes or I would kick everyone out of class and no one could use the computers for the day.  Within 10 minutes 9 questions were written on the board with minimal prodding needed for the last two.  Were they all serious? No.  Some had been answered in the previous class (making me wonder if anything gets absorbed), but just the compliance confirmed the Kenyan desire for an education, at least a little.

Spent the rest of class answering questions and then decided to be creative again.  Everyone was told that for one half hour they had to write a story.  The story had to include a male character Jack, a female character Jill, a chui (leopard) named George and had to take place in present time on the slopes of Mount Kenya.  Then we all went around and read each others’ screens (I felt it would be too much to have them read them aloud considering nothing in class gets done aloud except cell phones going off).  Two of the nine stories included references to the chui being a creation of God, two stories did not really get written (one due to technical difficulties the erased the story, and another due to … who knows what?).  One included the fact that though when Jack and Jill got married they were happy, soon their marriage degraded into sadness.  It was a good time.

That’s what I do.  One class Mondays and Fridays from 2 to 4pm and two classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, morning and afternoon.  I have wednesdays off though there was one hint, once, that I might be teaching teachers how to use computers.  We shall see.  As in all things Kenya, labda kesho (maybe tomorrow) or tutaona (we will see).  I just can’t sit and teach the same boring lesson 6 times before coming up with something new.  And without feedback from my students, and no counterpart, I get creative.  And the mombasa heat frying my brain does not lend sanity to the creativity.  More as it develops!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “You might call me…unconventional

  1. Amanda

    Hey Jon,
    I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your blog. You have a great writing style and your stories are so damn interesting! I’m glad to read that things seem to be going well for you and I can’t wait to see you back in Franklin someday.
    Lots of hugs!

  2. Jeff Briggs

    Hi Jon,

    What is the name of the town where your house is? Teaching foriegn students in their own country can be a challenge. What is the native language of the majority of your students? When I was teaching in Arabia, I learned to speak much more slowly when teaching and had better luck. All my students had taken English, but their abilities varied greatly. Some spoke and read like a native californian and some had had 2 years of english with an Egyptian English teacher. Do you ever listen to the “slow news” on BBC? That is a pretty good pace for a non-native English speaker.

    Well, it sounds like a you are enjoying yourself. And you will even more as you hit your groove and your students see you for who you really are. That may take a couple of months. But when it happens it will be great!

    Jeff

  3. David

    That “para-military” designation is mine, isn’t it?

    I’ve come across almost all of the same issues as you have, except that I have only taught one class of students thus far and I only have 4 (FOUR!) computers in the lab.

    I have devised several activities in my ind to overcome some of these issues, much like yours, but I haven’t had a chance to put the into action yet. I’ll share them with you when I do.

    I’ll return to Nairobi from Lesotho tomorrow. Best.