In January I was lucky enough to be invited by a family friend, Canon David Shaw, to visit a primary school on the coast.
St Clement, Malindi was conceived from a generous offer to mend the collapsing wall of a little mud-and-stick church, but since 2008 has grown and flourished under the generous cloak of St Clement, Jersey, into a school of 400 children. 140 of these are sponsored by congregation members and friends in Jersey, who have also contributed towards all sorts of things, from additional classrooms, to water tanks and roof gutters.
Malindi is H.O.T and I was sweating before I’d even been through the rudimentary baggage claim at the airport. David’s reliable tuk-tuk driver, Eric, collected me, as David was busy ministering Sunday services and we chugged along to the Seaview Hotel where I was to stay for the week. (There was no actual view of the sea as far as I could tell, but it was nice to know it was there, somewhere beyond the giant palm trees).
I have spent the last couple of years working as a Teaching Assistant and I had been invited to St Clement Malindi, partly because David thought it might be interesting for me to see some more of Kenya and partly with the idea that I could offer some help to the school. Having another mazungu there turned out to be a source of entertainment in itself; even if I had just stood in the playground all week it would have provided hours of fun, but I was hoping to contribute a little more than this.
My first appointment however, was lunch at Bishop Lawrence’s house. It was quite a feast and there was much ceremony in the gathering together of so many brothers and sisters of the church. Meetings of all types in Kenya have an element of ceremony to them, so this is not solely reflective of gatherings of clergy. I remember Kat and I stifling giggles as we were very formally welcomed to a field in Kericho (very rude of us as this was actually the sports pitch), but the level of formality does sometimes feel disproportionate to the occasion. With so many vicars – and the Bishop present it was not surprising however and there were prayers, rounds of introductions, speeches, gift-giving and more speeches. A buffet-style lunch of Biryani rice, meat and fish was served and having taken a rather abstemious amount, I was promptly sent back by the Bishop to add more to my plate.
By 7.30am the next day I was standing in front of a full school assembly of around 400 children outside in the playground. The sun was already quite strong and any hint of a breeze whipped up clouds of dust from the earth playground. We watched the exceedingly smart Scouts marching to time before they raised the school and National flags. I wished Will could have been there to see them – or even better a Grenadier drill sergeant. (One little boy particularly caught my eye and he turned out to be a real character called Jimmy). After the head teacher had greeted the school, Ruth Smith, a retired teacher and a tireless and exceedingly generous volunteer from Jersey, said a few words and then it was my turn:
Good morning children, how are you?
chorused 400 (mostly) smiling children – the littlest ones just stared at me as they probably couldn’t understand a word I was saying. Not only did my accent sound completely foreign to them, but they are still learning to speak English and Swahili, their mother tongue being Giryama. Anyway, I think I at least managed to convey that I was happy to be there and would like to help in any way I could.
I spent most of my time at St Clement’s with the younger years in the school as I have had most experience with this age group. That first morning, inspired by the Year 1 teacher at Shrivenham Primary School, I showed the teachers how they could incorporate puppetry into part of numeracy or literacy lessons (someone from Jersey had very generously donated a whole bag of toys for David to bring out with him and we found three animal puppets which the children loved).
Porridge or “uji” time is a highlight in their day and for many of the children this is their only meal until supper. The childrens’ school fees just about cover the cost of the teachers’ salaries, and the porridge, and it is definitely a good investment as the little ones would be too lethargic to learn anything without it. It’s made from millet, corn and/or sorghum flours, water and sugar. It is a grey-brown colour and is served in plastic mugs. The children found it very amusing that I was giving them their porridge that day and were also delighted that I miscounted the number of little people in the room so they ended up with seconds.
Bearing in mind this somewhat restricted calorie intake, I was curious to see the condition in which some of these children were living. Ruth sponsors two pupils at the school herself and had kindly offered to build a new house for their family as their house had become a little bit overcrowded. She was going to see how the construction of the new house was coming along and invited me to go with her.
Their village was about 10 minutes away by tuk-tuk, down a dusty, bumpy 2m wide track. It was pleasant looking with not too much rubbish (a real scourge in Kenya), nicely spaced out, simple huts made mostly of mud, dung and thin wooden poles, made from Casuarena trees, with the odd animal pen and some sparse vegetation. Goats and chickens wandered about and some little toddlers and babies peered at us from a safe distance. Margaret, the lady Ruth was building a new house for was too embarrassed to let us see inside her current house as she had not tidied yet that morning, but it was pretty tiny and was home to seven children plus their mother.
We saw inside a similar building later that morning which was made up of two tiny rooms containing one single bed, a couple of cooking utensils and some makeshift bedding on the floor. There was a metal trunk in the corner of one of the rooms used to store everything of value: clothes, food, books; rats would devour anything left out. For the same reason, all the hen houses had to be on raised stilts – you can see one being constructed in the picture below.
We moved onto a second village a short way away and while Ruth was inspecting another building project I wandered a little way off and heard a class of very young children chanting their “a b c’s” in a very enthusiastic manner. Ruth and I decided to investigate a bit further and stumbled across a village school, set up by some of the elders, who had decided they had to provide somewhere for the village children to learn, rather than them just staying at home.* This little school, with mud floors and walls, no desks and no chairs, made St Clement’s look positively palatial, but the children seemed very happy and the teacher was fantastic. I gave out some stickers which prompted some surreptitious jumping up and down on the spot – quickly quashed by the teacher, and Ruth promised to return the following week to give a phonics lesson.
As well as volunteering at St Clement’s, Ruth has set up her own school in Malindi, and we went to visit this next. The children at Malindi Bright Futures seemed incredibly privileged in contrast to those at the village school, but many of them were there grace of the Bank of Ruth – a very generous and forgiving institution. I sat in on a couple of classes and taught the invaluable teacher’s “five-minutes-to-kill-before-lunch” game of Hangman. At lunch break, in absolutely searing heat, I played Duck Duck Goose with an enormous circle of children; the size of which I seriously regretted when they caught on to the rules. I was chased about 250m by an extremely speedy little 10 year old boy, got caught out and had to run around again. I would be lying if I said my next “goose” wasn’t a much younger child.
That afternoon, back at St Clement’s, I visited KG or “Kindergarten” 2 which had quickly become my favourite class. This was in part due to the wonderful Madam Joyce, their teacher, who was also the school’s choir director.
I was desperate to see the choir in action, but first I had promised to give a “Composition” (Creative Writing) lesson to one of the older years, equivalent to Year 6 in the U.K. I discovered that usually, the only help the class would get would be the title of the essay and they were then expected to write for forty minutes in silence. While I am not a trained teacher, I knew that a little bit of input and discussion would create a more interesting essay and would also be a more enjoyable experience for the children, so we tried this out. I also discovered that although they were reluctant to share their written work; tapping into a tradition that goes back many centuries, (especially when pen and paper are not so readily available), the children were fantastic storytellers. One little boy told an Aesop’s Fable style story in front of the class about a rabbit, fox and a cheetah, with some fantastic hand gestures to accompany it.
After the Creative Writing lesson I was virtually carried on a wave of children to the church, where the choir was gathering for practice. I was careful to tuck my camera (phone) away as earlier I had created a mini-riot when I started snapping away.
The choir was awesome. I felt instantly tuneless and wooden as I watched these children, who totally lived up to the stereotype of having beautiful, natural rhythm. I was just musing to myself that part of the reason for this is their complete unselfconsciousness – when Madam Joyce grabbed me by the crook of my arm and I was taken up onto the predella to join in. I was definitely self-conscious at first, but as soon as I realised that there was no one watching us and that the children around me hadn’t keeled over holding their sides in laughter, I relaxed a bit and really enjoyed myself. I would say “heaven knows what I looked like”, but unfortunately there is video evidence of our actual performance a few days later. (Thanks David.)
Despite my willingness to participate, I was very thankful when Joyce suggested “I might enjoy sitting down now”. Not only was the next song’s choreography considerably more complicated than the “two-step” movement I had just about mastered, but, as Joyce candidly pointed out, I was sweating profusely.
I was so impressed with the choir, who moved seamlessly from one song to the next with no pause in the music at all. Their songs were all evangelical Christian and although I understood the lyrics from a Christian perspective, the words had a deeper meaning for me by the end of the week having seen the many hardships faced by local families. One verse of a song stuck in my head in particular:
There is a city, way up over the hilltop
A precious city with no more tears
There’ll be no more tears; there’ll be no more sorrow
Only rejoicing, praising the Lord
I suspect the children may not have scrutinised the lyrics as I am doing now, but it was moving to think that they, who have so little in comparison to us, were singing with so much hope and faith.
Early the next day, David and I set off for a place called Bamba, 95km inland from Malindi. We were to visit Rev’d Isaiah, a young, recently ordained vicar whom David had helped to sponsor through theological college.
Before I left Nairobi I had a quick whip-around family and friends (many thanks again to those who contributed so generously) and managed to raise about £200 with which I bought some much needed supplies for St Clement’s. Pencil sharpeners for instance, which replaced razor blades which were being used to sharpen pencils. Before I could spend the whole lot on stationery however, (which I have a real, very geeky weakness for), David suggested that the money might go further buying food for the community in Bamba, who have been suffering the effects of a prolonged drought; the crops have failed due to lack of rain, and many livestock have perished.
With the money I had remaining, we managed to buy the most incredible amount of food: 95 bags of maize flour, 95 bags of beans and 800 shortcake biscuits! David calculated that this was enough to feed 95 families for a week at the cost of about £2 per family. What we hadn’t calculated was the weight of our shopping and our poor driver or “pilot” as he called himself, started sweating visibly as the underside of his shiny new car grew closer and closer to the ground. We eventually agreed to leave half the maize at the supermarket for collection at a later date and set off on the three-hour journey inland.
All traces of sea breeze and greenery soon disappeared as we said goodbye to the tarmac road and plunged into the “bushi”. Besides our “pilot”, our other travelling companion was Archdeacon Joseph who had recently taken over the diocese of Malindi, which included Bamba, and Joseph’s own parish of Ganze. We stopped here en route to see Joseph’s church and the construction of his new vicarage.
When we arrived at Bamba school and church, we were greeted by a small band of children who were on their way home for lunch. The school was painted was pink-wafer-biscuit pink and pale blue and the pupils wore pink and blue uniform which matched this. The girls’ dresses had large “Peter-Pan” collars that looked sweet on the little ones, but slightly peculiar on the teenage girls.
After we had greeted Isaiah, we had a tour of a sewing project which is currently training 32 students to be tailors. We made our first speeches of the day, introducing ourselves to everyone in the room, David, then me, then our “pilot” and then Joseph, each of us receiving a round of applause. This was later repeated in front of Isaiah’s congregation who had gathered especially to see us and were seated on plastic chairs under a large white tent. We were placed behind a long table with little bottles of water in front of us, almost as if we were giving a press conference. The students from the sewing cooperative sang a “welcome” song, with tape measures hanging proudly around their necks and many more speeches ensued.
During David’s speech he announced he was personally funding another sewing machine. This was met with huge applause. We also explained that we had brought some food with us, to be distributed to the congregation and it was brought from the car with great ceremony and given out immediately. Some young children and some older ladies were first in line and although the children were adorable, I was most moved by one of the grandmothers, in a traditional headscarf and “wrapper” who was trying her utmost not to cry as I handed over her family’s portion of maize and beans. £145 could not have been better spent and I wished I had more to give.
Having seen the harsh terrain on our drive to Bamba I couldn’t help wondering how on earth people here survive? They must have to walk miles for water and indeed, we had driven passed several groups of women waiting resignedly by the side of the road with the ubiquitous yellow containers used to store water. A government water truck is meant to deliver water to them but I don’t know how far these ladies will have walked to get there, or how reliable the trucks are – or how often they pass by. Isaiah had already told us that many of his congregation have had to stop attending church as they have nothing to sustain them for the journey there and back. This drought has had some coverage in the International and National press but it was shocking to see it first hand and I wish more was being done to help this region.
After lunch, we went to inspect some of the local initiative projects set up and funded by St Clement Jersey, in conjunction with Jersey Government. The first was a series of 300 beehives, 5 of which we saw, which we were relived to hear had been successfully producing honey and therefore income, throughout the drought. A very distinguished elderly gentleman, or Mzee, showed us around each of the hives he was responsible for, but warned us not to get too close because African bees are quite ferocious. I can’t quite describe how hot we were by this stage; the sun seemed to be burning as brightly as ever, even though dusk was drawing near.
The heat and the arid landscape made the next initiative appear even more incredible than it was. An oasis of water slowly drew into sight over the lip of a small hill. This reservoir or “water pan”, dug by the local population by hand, was funded by Jersey government through a charity called Tearfund. It was wonderful to see nearby crops being irrigated, birdlife flourishing around the edges of the ‘pan and a water pump being supplied just the other side of the lip of the reservoir – the only source of clean water for miles around, saving locals a five hour round trip for washing, cleaning and drinking water.
Just before we began our three hour “numb-bum” journey back to Malindi, Isaiah disappeared to fetch a gift for David and returned on his motorbike. He had been wearing a very smart silver suit, complete with “dog collar” the whole day, even in the boiling heat, making us feel very scruffy by comparison, but the addition of the motorbike really emphasised the “African clergy-in-action” image.
The next day was Friday, my last day at St Clement’s. My parting gifts to the children were “whistle-lollipops” (100% David’s idea and something he naughtily likes to suggest every year). The children were all thrilled; the teachers less so – 400 children all blowing whistles at the same time is apparently quite loud.
I spent break time teaching Uno to a few of the teachers: Lina, Monica and Joyce, in the hope that they might be able to use them in numeracy lessons with the younger children. They became very competitive once they had learnt the rules and I did worry that the cards might never see the outside of the staff room, but I have heard from Monica since who reported that she had a great time playing with her class.
Madam Joyce and her choir put on a fantastic performance before I left, and once again I was invited to join in the celebration with the choir, along with Ruth and her friend, “the other” David. I was flattered to be included, but much preferred to watch the singing and dancing from the safety of my seat.
I tried to imagine what it must be like for the children to have Europeans at the school; it was slightly unnerving having a large group of children gathered around you, not speaking, just staring, but I concluded it would be similar to having an Inuit, in full national dress, turning up to Shrivenham Primary School. With this in mind, it didn’t seem as odd, that at any given opportunity, the children would try to touch my skin or hair (hair which apparently made me “like a Rasta”). This might also go some way to explaining the portraits the children drew of me in, presented at various intervals throughout the week, in which I resemble one of the ugly sisters from Cinderella. Maybe they had a template for “female mazungu” in their heads and we all fit the bill? Actually, I don’t know what could explain these, they are quite fantastic, but I was honoured to be an artistic muse.
I was incredibly sad when the time came to leave. I had tried to get around each classroom to say goodbye, but it took so long that I only managed three. I shared my tuk-tuk to the airport with one of my favourite (shh!) children, Winnie. She was quite shy but when she realised I had memorised the words to a few of their choir songs and was quite keen to blast out a verse or two while no one could hear me in the tuk tuk, she joined in and we had a very enjoyable ride to the supply shop, where she had been given some money (by Ruth of course), to buy sports clothes.
It’s not often that I smile so much my face hurts – the last time I remember this happening was our wedding day, but by the end of my week at St Clement’s, my cheekbones were aching.
I was pretty tired when I got back to Karen (sorry Mum for falling asleep during Facetime), and it has taken me a while to process everything I saw during me week in Malindi but I’m incredibly grateful to David for inviting me to visit and I will be back next year I hope – armed with stationery and whistle lollipops.
* Although primary school education is mean to be free in Kenya, as far as I can make out, this only applies to “government-funded” schools and there aren’t enough schools for every child in the country to attend one, especially in rural areas. For everyone else, they have to pay school fees as well as paying for uniform, books and stationery. Fees might be as “little” as 3000KSH or £24 per term, but if you have five or six children and you are earning a labourer’s wage of KSH350 or £2.70 per day, you can understand why this might present a challenge.