After the enlightening regional meetings, I found myself with a lot of work to do. Site-specific inclusive discussions needed to be prepared at four special schools (seven if you include Waondo Primary, which shares a campus with Hope Special School, Nyamuga Primary, and Obalwanda Primary), all with very diverse needs. I spent the remainder of my first complete week in Kenya preparing for the demanding few weeks ahead.
I presumed the weekend would provide ample time to slowly prepare for discussions, purchase necessary learning materials, immerse myself in local culture, nap, read, and, most importantly, sleep in. I was wrong. Benson mentioned to me and the two other m’zungus, my British housemates Andrew and Matthew, that there was a community fundraiser we should attend after church. This meant that we were officially (and willingly) signed up for church, and the community event.
Church was similar to my first experience the previous week. It was packed full of scripture on poverty, community responsibility, and remarkable music. As the three m’zungus departed the church, we headed to the community fundraiser. The crowd was a diverse slice of life in Luanda. Young teens formed cliques around the periphery, with parents and village elders filling the inner social strata with the colorful local culture. There were older women dancing and chanting to encourage people to donate shillings, empowered speeches in the local Luo dialect, and of course a constellation of Kenyan cuisine. I bestowed what few shillings I had in my wallet to the event, and enjoyed some oogali, beef, and my new obsession: pineapple Fanta. Benson introduced us to some community leaders; we stuffed our bellies, and enjoyed the cultural scene.
The busy afternoon of worship and mingling called for adult beverages at the Milly Pub where warm Tusker Beer is always on the menu. At the pub, we were invited to sit with Michael Kowuor, the chief of Luanda. We began organizing a football (a.k.a. soccer) tournament with a team of m’zungus in the fray, discussing projects, and laughing over Tuskers. Michael asked what we were doing the following day, and invited us to participate in a food distribution to benefit the 350 local orphans. We jumped at the opportunity, and agreed to be at the Viagenco Clinic the following morning at 9 a.m.
We arrived at the clinic on time, only to find that we were not keen on what the locals call “African time.” The food distribution actually began at 11 a.m., but the time lag gave us ample opportunity to converse with the clinic staff and interact with the teeming orphans. I tried not to think about the challenging situation of these children. Parent death in Luanda is typically due to illnesses like malaria, with the largest killer being AIDS. Despite their harrowing realities, these children still emanate an incredible spirit that is impossible to put into words.
As we began handing out oogali mix to the throngs of children, Michael mentioned this food was donated by Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care-Santa Barbara (VNHC-SB). See a PDF about their work here. He wanted me to take pictures to share with Susan Saperstein, a nurse in Santa Barbara who is involved with VNHC-SB, and the woman who introduced me to Benson over five years ago. I happily obliged and was privileged to be a part of such a touching gesture toward the community.
It was one of the most surreal and rewarding experiences of my life, and one I will never forget. I can add this event to the growing list of other life-changing opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have during my short time in Luanda. This community is truly full of people who are deeply invested in improving the lives of everyone in their sphere of influence. This was an experience I was fortunate to set my alarm for.
Week Two: Let the Awareness Begin
With an intense two-week plan in place for my remaining time in Kenya, I launched into the first day of my marathon schedule at Obalwanda Primary School on the eastern outskirts of Luanda. Obalwanda Primary shares a fence with Obalwanda Special School, and already includes students with physical disabilities. The headmasters from both schools requested that I teach lessons on the primary school campus, and initiate discussions and activities centered on ability awareness. The activities were hands-on, and allowed the students to experience “simulations” of a variety of disabilities. These “simulations” were not meant to portray the realities of what life is actually like for individuals with disabilities, but rather serve as conversation starters to discuss tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion of people of all abilities in every facet of life.
The students at Obalwanda Primary School responded to the lessons with laughter, active participation, and thoughtful insights. I found similar responses to these discussions as I traversed Mbita District Schools and replicated our initial awareness lessons at Nyamuga, Hope, and Waondo Schools. Throughout these lessons, about 1,000 students with and without disabilities shared a common space, and held open discussions on abilities, disabilities, and how we all have them. General and special education teachers not only participated in the lessons, but also helped translate tricky nuances of the classes into Luo. As the awareness sessions came to a close, students generated a list of actions they would take to ensure all people in their lives are given opportunities to flourish. These actions included: kindness, support, patience, respect, and love … notions we all need to survive.
Of all the schools I collaborated with, one had markedly different needs. When I was speaking with the head teacher for the Lambwe Christian School for the Deaf, Margaret Odhiambo, about trainings she needed at her school, she did not feel she needed more awareness at her school. Instead she preferred focused discussions about inclusion in Lambwe schools, and invited a smattering of various stakeholders, and community members. She felt the existing culture at her school was already inclusive and helping her students thrive in the deaf community.
From my observations at her school, I had to agree. Mrs. Odhiambo felt a larger need lay in the local community who view disabilities as a curse. She wanted to help dispel that myth through community-based conversations about viewing children with disabilities as capable citizens, and children in the deaf community as typical learners without a disability, who happen to have a hearing impairment.
I was pleasantly surprised that our discussion at Lambwe School brought together roughly 20 participants that included parents, Lambwe teachers, teachers of a neighboring school, school administrators, school board members, an American Peace Corp teacher with deafness, siblings of students with deafness, interested community members, and even the groundskeepers and housemothers employed at Lambwe School. Our discussion was not based on deafness, but rather people with varying disabilities who deserve access to typical, self-directed lives. Being that I am an outsider in the Kenyan world of education and disability, I made sure my role was one of a facilitator, and a provider of information and evidence-based practices regarding inclusive education. I had zero interest in injecting my American values into this distinctly Kenyan dialogue.
The culmination of an eventful week took place at Hope Special School, and brought together 13 head teachers from just as many schools. As per my planning meeting the previous week with education leaders, they felt Mbita District head teachers needed trainings on writing grant proposals to procure funds for vital projects for which the government was not going to provide money. Imperative issues plaguing local schools included: the construction of classrooms, libraries, and dormitories; the provision of electricity, clean water, and food within schools; and the development of health facilities to support students with pressing health needs such as malaria, epilepsy, and HIV/AIDS.
We began the meeting by outlining the aforementioned priorities of the varying schools in attendance, and then by identifying local and international organizations that are currently funding projects in the Mbita District. From there, we went into the basics of grant writing, research, budgeting, and follow-through. Teachers paired up to brainstorm on projects they can undertake collaboratively, and we had a teacher-driven discussion on the next steps in the grant writing process.
In a week, at our next grant-focused meeting, the teachers are to have researched potential sources of funding for their top three school needs, and come prepared to actually start writing certain sections of their grant proposals. When these head teachers write successful proposals, it stands to change the face of education in this corner of Western Kenya, and start giving these students what they need: access to schools with resources that can help them reach their highest potential.