Exploring, Educating in Kenya

Our Correspondent's First Days in Africa

Brent Elder and Michelle Damiani with Jean-Claude of DeafAID
Courtesy Photo

After barely escaping Syracuse to Chicago, and engaging in a minor luggage battle with American Airlines, we got on an eight-hour flight from Chicago to London. We were processed in Heathrow, and squeaked onto our next eight-hour leg from London to Nairobi. We touched down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport around 9 p.m.

Familiar wazungus, and Syracuse University professors, Drs. Joanna Masingila and Alan Foley, welcomed us outside the baggage claim. Following a few rogue passenger-packed matatus swerving wildly between lanes of the Thika Highway, driving on the unfamiliar side of the road, and marveling at the passing urban Nairobi sprawl, we arrived safely at our comfortable lodging on the Kenyatta University campus.

The UNICEF Connection

Ripped mosquito net kicked askew dangling awkwardly from the ceiling. A mattress too large for the frame, flesh exposed. I woke in the same position I started in eight hours prior thanks to generic Ambien. Within a half-hour, we were out the door, dodging matatus, and braking for jaywalking pedestrians on Thika Highway en route to Village Market to purchase Safaricom SIM cards for our smart phones, and colorful knickknacks from the Masai Market. We lunched from an international smorgasbord of open-air restaurants in the market center, and made small talk over spring rolls, Indian curries, and bbq lamb. Next stop, UNICEF/Kenya to meet with Suguru Mizunoya, the Chief of Education.

I received Mr. Mizunoya’s contact information from Deirdre O’Shea, the Santa Barbara woman I reconnected with at the United Nations last September. UNICEF/Kenya is housed in the same building as the United Nations. The relocated U.S. Embassy looms large across the street as an eerie reminder of the 1998 blast that rocked its former Nairobi city center location and claimed 212 lives.

As Joanna pulled up to the gates on United Nations Avenue and Limuru Road, Michelle and I hurriedly jumped out of the car anxious to pitch our research project to UNICEF. Mr. Mizunoya appeared within a few minutes, and motioned us to follow him to an adjoining building that resembled a Club Med, complete with a crowded swimming pool lined with mango trees, music reverberating from a lunchtime Zumba class, and UN/UNICEF staffers nibbling on salads and sipping coffee.

“If we meet here, you won’t have to go through all of the security to get into the UNICEF building.” Michelle and I followed until we arrived at a table with a poolside view, and a tropical Nairobi winter breeze permeating the scene.

“So, tell me about your project.”

Michelle and I proceeded to expand on our past teaching experiences, our current roles as graduate students at SU, and details about the “no cost” inclusive strategies project we were initiating in Western Kenya. Mr. Mizunoya took copious notes as the we spoke and sipped on creamy mango and citrus smoothies. When our spiel was through, Mr. Mizunoya sat in silence. Does he not like our project? Is he uninterested? What is he thinking?

“Your work is very interesting and timely. Your project is a high priority for UNICEF, and specifically relates to the current push for child friendly schools. I will put you in touch with Joseph Karuga, the National Chairman of KEPSHA (Kenya Primary Schools Head Teachers Association), and Jean-Claude Adzalla, the Regional Director of DeafAid Kenya.” He explained that both men were very well connected with the Kenyan government, and should be very attentive to our project.

Mr. Mizunoya mentioned that if our project is successful in Western Kenya, with proper government support, the chances for replication in other regions in Kenya were good. Government connections in Nairobi were exactly what Michelle and I were hoping for, but we did not expect them to materialize so fast, nor at such a high level. The Chief of Education for UNICEF was interested in our project.

Safari in the City

The following day, in an effort to escape the Nairobi cacophony, the SU group caravanned to the Kiambethu Tea Farm nestled above the capital city. The picturesque estate is a throwback to Kenya’s colonial past, replete with an antique farmhouse filled with relics from a bygone era. We enjoyed an afternoon of local history, a stroll through a dwindling slice of indigenous forest, and dined on food and imbibed drink of the highest quality. The gardens were pristine, and the experience exceptional.

On our third Nairobi day, Joanna had us out the door by 7 a.m. for a morning of animal spotting in Nairobi National Park, and an afternoon of soaking up Kenyan culture at the Nairobi National Museum. With the backdrop of the Nairobi skyline, we glimpsed Cape buffalo, zebra, a myriad of gazelle, eland, crested cranes, and giraffe. We trekked through waist-high savannah grasses behind guards armed with rifles in search of hippos. Our trip down the dung spackled trail was to no avail as the oversized herbivores were hiding out from an overcast day.

As we departed the park en route to the Nairobi National Museum, we caught a glimpse of the sprawling Kibera slum near the city center. It is rumored to have over a million residents, and to be one of the toughest districts on the continent. From our vantage point, it looked like a sea of corrugated tin roofs interrupted by billows of smoke cooking for an invisible population below.

The National Museum was not far from Kibera, and was filled with fascinating artifacts from pre-colonial Kenya to modern day. Famous paleontology finds, including Turkana Boy, a replica of Lucy, copious displays of Kenyan culture and art, and stuffed species representing Kenya’s diverse fauna fill the halls. There is even a section dedicated to Africa’s deadliest (live) reptiles, including the infamous puff adder and black mamba.

Kenyatta University faculty at a training.
Courtesy Photo

Down to Business KU Style

Monday brought with it the start of the two-day workshops Michelle and I planned for the Educational Communication and Technology (Comm-Tech) Department at KU. We planned activities we hoped would engage the 20-member faculty audience in meaningful professional learning communities, encourage the production of usable lecture materials, and stimulate critical discussions based around inclusion in higher education.

Day one began with faculty members who’s classes range anywhere from 15 to 1,000 students. Three-fourths of the group teach classes between 500 to 1,000 students. We were told some lectures are so crowded that students cannot physically fit in the class space. Michelle and I introduced the idea inclusion in higher education using frameworks of Multiple Intelligence Theory (MI), and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Multiple Intelligence Theory outlines that there are a variety of different learning styles (e.g., verbal-linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, etc), and that lessons should be created in a way that reaches multimodalities of learning and demonstrating knowledge (Gardner, 1993). Universal Design for Learning suggests that lessons should be designed so content is presented in a variety of formats, information is differentiated so students can show what they know in multiple ways, and learning material has real life meaning that supports student engagement (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

We had the faculty analyze their own learning styles, and apply that same exploration to students in their large classes. We emphasized the need to plan for the broadest audience, and anticipate diverse learning styles from the onset of their lesson preparation.

During the lunch break I received a phone call on my Safaricom-compatible cell,

“Brent, I am in Nairobi for the day. I am near Kenyatta University.”

“Hey, Benson! Can you make it to the Conference Center on campus? Part two of our session starts at 2:00.”

“I will there soon.”

Benson found his way to the second part of our workshop, and collaborated with the Comm-Tech faculty. Upon closure of the first day, Benson accompanied Michelle and I to our lodging on campus. We discussed the ongoing teacher strike and how it is based on a union contract that has not been honored by the government since 1997.

Benson: “I have found 20 teachers who are willing to participate in the trainings.”

Michelle: “What?! That is great news!”

Brent: “Wait, you have teachers willing to attend trainings even though they are on strike?”

Michelle: “That would never happen in the U.S.”

Benson: “Um hmm. The teachers will not feel comfortable attending the trainings at the school as initially planned. We will have to find another location.”

The project was still on.

Inclusion Workshop Day Two

Feedback from Day One:

“How do I use UDL in large classes?”

“With a class of 1,000, how can I know my students, and give them individual feedback?”

“How do I take MI and UDL and put it into practice with large classes?”

Before the second workshop, we needed to revamp our approach to meet the needs of our audience. We decided to introduce specific strategies for incorporating UDL in higher education, based on the work of Dr. Wendy Harbour from SU. This included: creating accessible PowerPoint presentations, using graphic organizers, infusing meaning in academic content, utilizing alternative forms of assessment, providing student choice, and modeling. We placed the faculty into groups based on discipline, and provided activities that encouraged collaboration, and the co-creation of usable materials for upcoming lessons.

The Jean-Claude Factor

Wednesday marked the start of the Third International Conference on Education (ICE) at KU that was co-sponsored by SU. Dr. Alan Foley gave a regionally appropriate keynote presentation on the use of mobile technology, and its implications for developing countries. His presentation set the tone for the theme of the conference- “Technology, Teaching and Learning: Theory into Practice.” Michelle and I were not slated to present until the following day, and bounced around the conference attending a variety of presentations.

Throughout the day, Jean-Claude Adzalla and I maintained a text message conversation to set up a meeting time:

Brent: Are you familiar with the Kenyatta University Conference Center? Can we meet there?

Jean-Claude: Sorry. Was in a meeting. Driving towards you now. Sent a message earlier but wasn’t delivered.

Brent: No problem. See you soon.

Jean-Claude: Thanks.

Jean-Claude: Just arrived.

Brent: We are walking there now. Just around the corner. Be there in a few.

Jean-Claude: Ok.

Jean-Claude arrived just after 7 p.m. We sat at a four-top table outside at the Kenyatta University Conference Center (KUCC) under a fluorescent bulb that invited the random swat, and occasional mosquito kill. Michelle and I ran through our by-now-rote teaching profiles, and outline of our research project. I sat wondering how Jean-Claude, the Regional Director of DeafAid Kenya, could help replicate our program in other regions of the country.

“You are probably wondering what I can do for your project as the Director of DeafAid. Suguru put you in contact with me because I am also the National Chair of the Partnership on Children with Disabilities in Kenya. It is a civil society position. I bring together public and private partnerships interested in disability rights. Inclusive education in Kenya is a key interest to the organizations I represent. Your project is timely.”

Michelle and I exchanged pleased glances.

I follow with, “We are developing an inclusion committee consisting of primary and special education teachers from both a Special School and a Primary School, parents of children with and without disabilities from both schools, the Ministry of Education, school administrators, and community members with and without disabilities.”

Throughout our discussion, Jean-Claude scribbled notes on his pad. He followed with constructively critical questions on assessment, modifying the environment of Kenyan schools, teacher training, and the current infrastructure of Kenyan schools. Michelle and I tag teamed the questions and emphasized the importance of receiving input from people with disabilities, and the teachers who actually implement inclusive education programs.

Jean-Claude explained, “Community-based organizations are one thing, but they don’t have a chance of surviving unless there is local government support along with partnerships with international organizations. I can help provide those things.”

“What do you have going on in the next few weeks? Why don’t you come to observe our project?” I ask, fishing for an affirmation of my offer.

“I have to go to Paris for work next week. I am free the week of 22nd July. Hold on one second.” Jean-Claude holds up a finger, and makes a phone call from the table.

“Hi, is it too late to call you?” Jean-Claude speaks into the phone while checking his watch. It is 9 p.m.

“I have two people here doing work you would be interested in. They are doing a project on inclusive education in Western Kenya. We should go together to see if we can partner with them.”

The conversation revolves around specifics on how to gain government approval for travel expenses. Jean-Claude hangs up.

“That was Ann Musulia, the Deputy Director of Quality Assurance for the government. She is interested in seeing your work.”

Adieu KU

Still riding high from the meeting with Jean-Claude, and the top-level connections we gained during our short time in Nairobi, Michelle and I began to prepare for our journey west. On our last full day in Nairobi, Michelle and I presented at the ICE on law, Disability Studies, and topics related to the development of a sustainable inclusive education system in Kenya. The following morning, we said our goodbyes to our SU crew, took a hired car to the notorious Nairobi city center, and boarded a (not-so) EasyCoach west to Homa Bay. Even with its rough exterior, Nairobi was kind to us. We had productive and collaborative professional experiences at KU, and met some influential policymakers at the same time. Asante sana Nairobi. Next stop- Western Kenya.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books: New York.

Rose, D. & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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