#12 A Visit to the Neighbors July 1, 2015
Milimani Primary School (K – 8) and Milimani High School (9 – 12) are right next door to the church compound. In fact Mji Wa Neema and the primary school share a common wall. They are big schools and as I write this from my bed this morning, I hear hundreds of small voices, all doing what little kid voices do – yell. Classes in these schools can run up to 100 children – 100 children in one room with one teacher! If that isn’t the definition of teacher hell, please send another. To me is would be an impossible nightmare. Yet the schools “perform” very well, as defined by the results of the KCPE (primary exam) and KCSE (secondary exam). Every school’s reputation is set by a number—the exam results. Many of the Mji Wa Neema children have attended Milimani primary and gone on to excellent high schools.
Since SFG and Ndingi were closed for mid-term break, I decided to visit the high school. M is a form 2 there and had spoken to the principal about my coming. He had told her, “yes, ask her to come, but she must be here by 8 am, because I have to go to Nairobi.”
Gamely, I set my clock for 6, to give myself plenty of time to walk over there-which takes about 10 minutes, walking down our drive, out the gate, up the hill to the next drive and in that compound to the very back, where the high school is – or so I thought. When I arrived at the gate at 7:45, I was stopped by the gateman. “Oh no, Madam, you can’t come in my way. This is only for the primary school. You must go through the Catholic Church.” Hmmm, I know this compound pretty well, and I don’t think there is any gate between the 2. “I have an appointment with the principal at 8. He asked me to be on time and I will be late if I have to walk around.” “I’m sorry Madam, if I let you in I could lose my job.” ARGH! What to do? But we talked a bit more and he did let me in. Five minutes later, at exactly 8 am, I found the whole school at parade (outside assembly) being addressed by the principal. This went on for a good 15 minutes, while I wondered why he’d told me I must arrive by 8. Several teachers eyed me curiously and introduced themselves. Clearly I was an anomaly. Finally assembly was over, M found me and took me to the principal.
He is a big man, imposing, as would be necessary to lead a school like Milimani. The students who attend there are largely from the very low (and no-) income areas of Naivasha. A day school, where students must be on time, having walked at least a mile, and I’m sure many walk much father. It’s not unusual for a student to leave home at 6 to arrive at school by 7:30 or 8. Woe be unto (s)he who is late. It’s not like a boarding school, where discipline is very tight. These are street-wise kids who want to be there, but somewhat more on their own terms.
The principal was very welcoming as I told my story, retired high school math teacher, volunteering at SFG for many years, live next door at Mji Wa Neema…… It turned out we had seen the purpose of my visit through different eyes. His saw a sponsor for M, mine saw an opportunity to meet math teachers and students from another school. I had been under the impression that M’s fees were met through some fund. Not so. She has arrears. Now I am in a dilemma. If I pay her fees, I’m stuck for the next 2 ½ years. I know full well that one of the many duties of a principal is to make sure the fees get paid. Even though Milimani is a government school, part of its budget comes from the fees. We agreed he would have the secretary give me the bill and I would think about it. I knew I would have to go through ETW and there would be opposition from Fr. Kiriti. We have purposely limited our support to students at SFG or Ndingi, with the exception of the Mji Wa Neema kids, some of whom attend really good schools for top students. Neither of our schools is that kind. We get mid-level performers, by design. I was going to do a delicate dance. We shook hands and he welcomed me to meet the math teachers and visit their classes.
It turns out I had met Elizabeth, one of the form 3 and 4 teachers when she had taught at the prestigious Naivasha Mixed High School, now separated into Naivasha Boys and Naivasha Girls. She invited me to teach the unit circle to her form 3’s. It was one of the smaller classes, only 63 students!
The school is quite new, having begun with form 1 in 2010, I think. Clearly it has fulfilled a big need. Some 10 years or so ago, when the Kenyan government initiated “free” primary education, thousands upon thousands of children flocked to already overcrowded schools. The government is trying to catch up with the influx, but they are still far from the goal. And now those first kids have completed primary school and are flooding high schools. These are students coming from very poor families, which is why they were not in school before the “free” school program began. They are another reason why Kenya Help and ETW need to exist, to support some of those bright but poor children in a school where the max is 40 and not 60 -100 students per class. I say “free” because there are still costs – books, uniforms, desk fees (yes, a fee for a desk), paper, pencils – the usual.
Although the school is new, the rooms are still dark and of course jammed with students. Unlike the SFG students, it took them a few minutes to settle and I could see it would be a different experience, so I began by explaining some “rules”. #1, when I’m talking, you don’t. #2, if you’ve not understood something I’ve explained, it’s important to tell me. #3, please speak up, I’m old and I won’t be able to hear you. I talked about the difference between outside voices and inside voices – yes, they understood that – so please use your outside voice. By then I had the attention of everyone except a boy in the front. I gave him my best schoolmarm stare and he settled too.
I thought the lesson went very well, and when it was over, Elizabeth agreed. She had taught the unit circle earlier in the year, but there are many patterns and uses of it that are not included in the text books, thus not taught. She could appreciate the value, particularly the patterns, that help in remembering. An experienced teacher can feel the tone of the room and it was good. Kids were smiling; a few asked questions and I could see Elizabeth had learned something too. In the past I’ve been greeted on the streets by perfect strangers who told me I’d taught them math at Milimani (2 years ago). I’m told that having a visitor from the US come to teach them, even briefly is a big deal. These students reflected that too and many thanked me as we left for tea break.
I sat in on a form 3 class from another teacher, Mr. Mbugua. He’d invited me to teach the session, but it was on enlargement, a topic I’m not confident about, having not taught it, only learned about it here. I can usually stumble through the question on the KCSE, but being able to do a problem and teaching it well are very different and I knew I wasn’t at the latter level. So I sat in the back of his class of 64. I strained to see the board and to hear his words. However, I saw an excellent lesson and had my own “ah ha.” I now see the issue and how this particular topic works. May not be quite ready to teach it without first organizing my thoughts, but as usual, it’s easy if you understand. I was glad I was there!
Meeting M again, she explained she actually needed the bill the secretary had prepared. She would go to the chief to apply for a bursary, which evidently means her fees would be paid through a fund. I was greatly relieved and when I met with the principal before I left, I told him why it would be hard for me, but M had it all figured out. He didn’t seem to be surprised, so I wondered why he’d wanted me to pay. Must be the mzungu effect!
I apologize for failing to get a picture. It’s quite dramatic to see so many teenagers jammed into such small spaces. Pole sana.
After a quick lunch I was off to SFG to teach the 9 who had since become 11. Leaving at 4:45 I suddenly realized how tired I was. I’d been “on stage” either teaching a class, in a class or talking with math teachers since early morning. ACH! My energy didn’t used to flag like this. I still don’t feel old, but I am aware of some realities. I fell on my bed for a nap, waking to M’s knock. We didn’t do much math, just talked a bit. I had a bowl is cereal and was asleep by 8.