Monday, March 9, 2009

Collectiveness vs Individualism

[Before I jump into this entry, I just wanted to say that I got the USB drive, woo hoo, and I tried to upload some photos on the office computer, but technical difficulties is holding me back. Hopefully by next week I will have enough patience to upload some photos without wanting to throw the monitor through the window …]

As I mentioned several times already here on this little website thingy, one of my biggest adjustment I need to make and am in the process of making with my move to Kenya is adjusting to the collective mentality of Kenyans. They value time with your family and friends highly – time alone is unheard of, and privacy is such a luxury it is now at the point where privacy is considered unhealthy and unnatural. All the teachers who live on the compound have a family with several children, and their families live in the same size space I live, a two-bedroom apartment and it is considered a good sized house for them.

My neighbors – the teachers and their families – have a difficult time with the fact that I need alone time every now and then. That is the tough thing about living on the school compound – the loss of privacy. Everyone basically knows where you are and what you are up to, seriously – if I need to find another teacher who lives on the compound, all I need to do is to ask one of the kids, and they’ll be like, oh he’s at the office, he’s out in town, or he’s walking out back to the local shop.

When I lock my house for a few hours to get myself lost in one of the high brow literature that mama and baba sent me (I think they’re enjoying the fact that I have no choice over my books and they’re taking advantage by sending the recommendations that they made that were ignored by me …), the teachers and their families ask me if everything is all right, if I’m sick, that it’s really not healthy for me to hang out at home for few hours, and that I need to have my Peace Corps Volunteer friends visiting me. After several weekends of not subtly observing me, they’re now used to the idea that I am actually fine with spending a few hours by myself doing a variety of things, and that I DO have friends who I go and visit and who come and visit.

This aspect of Kenyan culture influences every part of Kenyan life – I definitely can see some of the influence in the classroom. The students greet the teachers who enter the room by all signing together at the same time “Hallo, Good Morning (or whatever time it is) Teacher” and they understand how to work together, much better than I ever did when I was a grammar school or secondary school student myself.

The issue rears its ugly head when I start asking critical thinking skills questions and talk about looking at a sentence as a whole, rather than reciting words one by one as an entire group – the way they grew up learning how to read. The students are slightly taken aback with my style of teaching, especially asking conceptual questions on how stories work, getting out meaning from the sentences, figuring out who pronouns represent, and the are slowly getting used to the back and forth, using a different part of their brains, rather than just copying down exercises and regurgitating it back to me / the other teachers.

I realized that I could use the individualism aspect in my background, from my upbringing in the States, and incorporate it into my teaching, just to add a new perspective in the teaching process. In no way will I transform the Kenyan education system, but it makes me happy to think about students thinking about the stories they are reading and actually understanding what the story is all about rather than just reading it word by word, not understanding the point or moral of the story.

I also believe the collectiveness of the Kenyan society has a huge influence on the test-taking ability of the students. They are trained to respond as a group, in a group, their ability to answer or focus on individual assignments or on their own test paper is just a completely different experience, one that they have very little practice or experience in, and because of this, I think that their test results are greatly affected. Paul wrote a bit about the KCPE test, the test that is required for students to enter secondary school, and after asking and talking with some of the other teachers, I find that I still have a lot to learn about what the KCPE measure, how the test-taking skills of the students affects the result, and how much of a factor Deafness / language skills is in the whole she-bang.

Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I will be around for 22 more months, yes?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Whatever It Takes

Watching Kenyan Mamas touch too-hot-for-my-wimpy-hands pots and pans (there’s no handles out here, only rims to hold on), they merely grab the pot and move to another surface while I look at amazement. I would need to use a rag and fold it several times then it’ll finally get to the point where it’s not too hot for me to remove the pot from my stove. All the Kenyan Mamas always giggle when they watch me remove the pot.

“You need to work your hands harder!”


“You have very soft hands, not Kenyan hands!”

“You are so funny!”

As I gingerly walk on the hot sand barefoot, hopping to and fro all the way, the kids standing on the hot sand right in the middle of several ants’ nest started laughing.

“What’s wrong with your feet?”

“Why are you jumping?”

“Do you want us to jump too?”

Watching the kids lean onto the barbed wire as they wait to be looked at by the infirmary (seriously, they would send the kids from the assembly to an area near a bush and tree area that is wrapped around in barbed wire, and they are really leaning right on the sharp bits), I gaped in amazement for a few minutes. After recovering, I started wondering what was the point of the barbed wire if it does not work on people? I asked another volunteer that exact question and he wondered the same thing, and over some palm wine, we agreed that it really was not worth all the mental energy spent thinking about it, and that some things are probably better left unexplained.

When I sat outside in the shade, doing nothing except fan myself, and sweating buckets, I was watching all the kids play a furious game of football (what people back in the States call soccer) at high noon when it was the hottest part of the day and the sun did the most damage. I did a double take and saw a few kids who were playing soccer wearing sweaters. Yep, you read that right - they were wearing school uniform wool sweaters on top of their school uniform.

I asked one of my Form One students standing next to me, “Why are those kids wearing their sweater at noon when everyone is sweating?”

“Oh, probably because their shirt is dirty.”

Eyebrows raised, I wordlessly asked for an explanation.

“Right, you know, school uniforms has to be completely clean or they get punished.”

When I looked at him in amazement, he started laughing.

In between all the laughter some of the kids started to ask me questions about my home.

“In America, is it hot like this?”

“In some parts, yes, but, right now, my mama and baba’s home is really cold. Remember I explained about ice? I showed you pictures of snow? That is what my parent’s home looks like.”



“Do you mean [from an older student] [numbers converted to 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit]?”

“Oh, no, we wear what you are wearing right now in that temperature, it gets much, much, much colder!”

Nothing but horrified looks of silence from the children for a few seconds as a small smile grows on my face.


“Do you mzungus have special powers?”

“We wear coats and hats in [70-75 degrees F]!”

“[70-75 degrees F] is wicked cold!”


Of course, this led into sort of a scientific discussion on how our bodies become used to the areas in where we grew up, and as we finished it up, the children continued playing happily a version of monkey-in-the-middle on hot sand in the middle of several huge ant nests barefoot, and me clad in my trusty flip-flops, walked home happily thinking about what I plan to cook for dinner, perfectly content to use a thick rag as a pot holder.


This blog consists of my personal thoughts and opinions. It does not in any way reflect the position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.