Friday, 24 July 2009

Week One in Eramba School

We made the brief walk down the dusty road from Kiamoncha to Eramba with Mr Samuel on Friday to be introduced to the whole school. The buildings sit on at the top of one of the sloping hills that leads down to a small, gurgling stream, from which one often sees school workers fetching buckets of water. From its perch, Eramba gets a fine view of the various shambas (small farms) with their patchwork of maize, teas, occasionally bananas, and the clumps of trees that protrude from this mosaic. The school itself has a small plot next to the sloping games fields in which agriculture students get an opportunity to put into practice the techniques they have learnt – this year they are growing kale.

There are three main buildings, other than the long-drop blocks and the small wooden and mud kitchen. They are arranged at right angles to one another, forming a C shape with a space in the centre for assemblies or outdoor reading. The top section is entirely comprised of classrooms, the lowest more classrooms and the staff room, and the middle one the library, chemistry lab, and an unfinished series of offices. All are simple brick and corrugated iron structures with high ceilings supported by wooden beams – like the church they remain remarkably cool, even in the heat of the day. Desks and chairs pack each classroom, leaving little space for the teacher to write on the blackboard. Sometimes up to seventy students are crammed into a room even smaller than a normal English classroom, yet discipline is fierce so the pupils are silent.

The library is somewhat gloomy – shelves line the walls, filled with previous KEP donations but they sometimes cover the windows. Precious little light reaches the desks and benches. The staffroom is simply a collection of desks scattered in a room – there is very little personal space to work though it provides a welcome retreat for the various teachers who eat, mark, read the papers and chat there. The lab is well-stocked but two computers and a generator lurk unused in a corner – a sign of what we will be inevitably be asked to help with.

We only met Masara Ombori (the head) and the rest of staff over the course of the following week (6th to 10th) when we also got a better idea about the problems the school faces. Mr Ombori is a tall, quiet man who teaches biology – very measured and calculating, his enthusiasm for our ideas has always been moderate but genuine. Tragically, we suspect that he is still grieving after witnessing the killing of his two cousins last year during the post-election violence. His taciturn nature has probably been magnified by those terrible months. Mr Samuel compliments him well – with seemingly boundless energy, he eagerly answers all of our own questions and is keen to find ways to accommodate our aims. He is also, as we discovered in one of our first form English lessons, an excellent teacher.

We are gradually getting to know the other staff – Joel Bichango, the literature teacher is quiet but charismatic in an understated way and clearly has the respect of his students. Lynette Nyaata, the business studies teacher (and the only woman) is warm, bubbly and suits her role as counsellor perfectly. She also was kind enough to invite us to stay at her house within a few minutes of introducing ourselves, an offer than was repeated by students and staff alike. Mr Austin Wandabwa, the biology and agriculture teacher, though full of a little bluster when discussing clubs, is also a hard-working and a keen supporter of our aims.

The lessons we attended were revealing about the style of Kenyan education. Having lacked textbooks for so many years, the general formula remains: teacher talks, writes notes on board, students copy them. This simple formula is often repeated for a whole lesson with a little discussion at the end, if there was any at all. There were exceptions of course – Mr Samuel, in a lesson about descriptive writing got them involved by both contrasting tall and short, thin and ‘muscular’ (very tactful) and by making everyone write a short description of their desk partner. Sophie’s and my other half could barely look at us they were so shy, let alone write about us! But the young Mr Nyaswabu’s Christian Religious Education lesson was a simple lecture – with a warm classroom drowsiness was inevitable.

Joel’s lesson on ‘A meeting in the dark’ by the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o was fascinating, not because of the teaching (a single reading rotation and commentary) but because of the seriousness of the issues it touched upon: western Christian morality vs. African traditional beliefs, pre-marital sex and female circumcision. Given that we had been warned that these were somewhat taboo, it was amazing that they were being tackled so directly.

The somewhat tedious teaching style left us disappointed at the lack of opportunity students were given to show initiative, a deficiency that seemed to translate into their general behaviour – other than Dennis and his friends, everyone was wary of approaching us. In other KEP schools students were apparently very inquisitive, suggesting that, while Eramba is one of the most successful schools in the area, it might have achieved this while sacrificing the integrity of its pupils.

On a lighter note, lunch at school has been an interesting experience, especially compared to the buffet dinners we had been having in Nairobi and Kisii where we helped ourselves to chapattis, fried rice, goat and beef stews, curried vegetables and chicken. On Monday and Tuesday we had a simple lunch of maize straight off the cob and boiled and beans with the students. Sophie pointed out the many small bugs included in the mix – clearly an unintentional extra source of protein! More of an issue are the portions they give us with gleeful predictions that we will leave weighing a 100kg – a huge, heaping bowl is apparently the norm and anything less and we are accused of letting ourselves starve. Even I struggled to finish. We have since switched to the teacher’s food – an epic slab of ugali (maize flour boiled into a think, solid mass), sukuma-wiki (kale) and a little goat. The portions are still massive, but they are usually lacking in insects.

This first week has been about collecting information about where our attention needs to be directed, through observation and some direct questionnaires. We distributed questions for teachers that revealed a lack of revision material, too few experiments for all years (50% of every KCSE science mark is practical work) not enough support for extra curricular activities, and a lack of awareness amongst students about the process of applying to university or technical college. There is no longer a careers teacher – in what is proving to be a common cause of problems, it was around the 2008 post-election violence when the position became vacant. We are awaiting other suggestions from our newly-created suggestions box for students although their lack of initiative in approaching us does not bode well for this. The absence of a proper university and careers section in the library and the fact that the KEP pamphlet dealing with both has gone missing indicates post-education opportunities (PEO) should be a key focus. Indeed, we would like to spend some time working on the library – as well as the gloom, the books are messily arranged, displayed poorly and there are not enough benches or desks to make it an effective room for working in. The fiction section is also tiny which was surprising given the passion to read most students seemed willing to mention. Although when any book costs the equivalent of at least a hundred avocadoes this becomes a little more understandable! We have also settled on three special days for the school – sports, careers, and an open day/harambe or fundraiser to show off the school to parents as well as raising some money. Budgeting for textbooks and science equipment must wait for further teacher feedback.

These criticisms aside, Eramba is clearly an excellent school. For 2008, a bad year for every school given the violence, Eramba still came second in the district. Students, while a little quiet, are neat in their black trousers/skirt, white shirts/blouses and green jumpers. Prefects proudly sport red blazers. Perhaps most importantly, the teaching at Eramba is clearly good enough for some students to go to university, a feat than some schools in the area have never achieved. An average ‘B’ mark is generally regarded as high enough to guarantee one a place at on of the seven public universities, although this depends on how well the other students sitting their KCSEs performed that year – ‘B’ was the average for boys two years ago, with one pupil managing an A- overall last year, despite the political turmoil. So while there is a reassuring amount of work we can do, we are intervening in a school that is already, partly due to KEP support, a success story.

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