Friday, July 27, 2007

We’re Old Enough: A Team Update from Andy






This morning I discovered that the sound of a donkey is more ear-piercing than that of any rooster in the world. Sitting up underneath my mosquito netting, I leaned over and grabbed our team’s blackberry to see if there were any new messages from our partners, donors or friends. I always find it ironic that we are in one of the most rural villages of Kenya, and I am still able to read the front pages of the New York Times, CNN, and my Mom’s updates from Vermont.

What was interesting about this morning’s set of emails and the most challenging for me was a message from a friend of mine back at Duke. It read, “So Andy, how’s the team doing in Muhuru Bay?” With only my thumbs to type the answer, I simply replied with, “Amazingly well – everyone has dived in head first.” But as I sit here in Migori at the internet café with a full keyboard at my disposal, I found myself typing a different response. And I wanted to share it with you when I had the chance.

My subject heading: You’re old enough.

Ok, so I have decided to take a second crack at your seemingly simple, and yet almost impossible question of describing how our team is fairing in their first two weeks here in Muhuru Bay. In the last email, I tried to use one phrase. Today, I have narrowed it down to one item: a driver’s license. But I’ll get to why I chose this prop over, oh, I don’t know, a passport. First, however, let me tell you how frustration is a good thing here and what makes this team different than any other I have worked with in the past.

One of our team members told me one morning that no book or class could have ever prepared her for what she was experiencing in these first few weeks. She explained that yes, reading about something is one thing, but meeting a girl face to face and listening to her accounts of selling her body in order to earn enough money to pay for school – “You just can’t prepare me for that,” she said. And on the other spectrum, one of the guys in our team was floored by the community commitment expressed at our town-meeting the other week. He recalled the chiefs announcing that although poverty plagues the region, they were willing to invest in the future of their girls and raise enough money to pay for one girl to attend WISER every year through a Muhuru Bay scholarship fund. “I never in my wildest dreams expected that,” he said.

And it’s difficult coming into this community for the first time. Even in the taxi ride from Migori to Muhuru Bay, I was asking him about his thoughts about girls’ education in the region. I will never forget his answer. He told me, “The women here are the farmers’ first harvest.” He explained that when there is a drought, or a low crop yield and farmers are hard pressed for money, they will immediately look at their women, daughters, and any others that could be sold into a forced marriage. As we were driving, we passed a trio of girls carrying buckets of water on their head. The driver pointed, “If they were part of one family, two out of the three would be sold.” These girls were no older than 15 or 16 years old.

So, as I said, I think it has been difficult for some to enter this community and begin to understand the giant need for improved girls’ education here. As is natural, many in our team simply became frustrated by what they were observing – classes not having qualified teachers, homework being given without any answers or textbooks, and a preference for boys in almost every aspect of the day – food, sports, and more. But what makes this team unique is that they have used their frustration to fuel their action.

Take Patrick Messac, for example. During his first week here in Muhuru Bay, he wanted to learn what it takes to be a teacher. He sat in the back of multiple classes in both the existing mixed secondary and primary schools. On different occasions, he has interviewed students about what they enjoy most about their school experience and where they hope things can improve. He has tutored countless students in what are called “Night Preps,” almost serving as a Jeopardy contestant helping students answer questions ranging from geometry to agriculture, Kenyan history to Christian Religious Education ( a requirement in the Kenyan education curriculum). And lastly, he has talked with many of the teachers about what they enjoy about their school day and what areas they hope for ways to improve. And the reoccurring theme is homework – how to assign it, how to do it, how to review it, and how to make it an important rather than supplementary part of the day’s lesson.

After seeing him interact with the students and teachers on a twenty-four hour basis, I knew that this team was not going to stop with being frustrated. He has now arranged with the teachers and administration a teachers’ seminar about ways to use the Duke donated computers to provide students a weekly homework assignment schedule, an answer sheet for review and a grade sheet to provide incentives for students to complete their homework. Talking to the deputy principal, Patrick is providing them with something they have never had – a brainstorming session.

But Patrick has also planned a student study skills session. He tells the group over and over that simply tutoring and giving an answer here or helping out with a formula there, will not make a lasting impact. Instead, he knows that if given the opportunity to learn study skills (different methods of review, working in groups, budgeting time, having weekly goals, making to do lists, using study skills such as acronyms, chunking, and flashcards) these students can and will succeed. He has planned two school-wide sessions that have not only got the students excited but relieved in a sense considering their major exams are in two weeks and to have a new set of study skills – as one student put it, “Better than a futbol goal.”

So right, the team gets frustrated, but when I told you the team was doing amazingly well, I meant that frustration was not the dead end, but rather a catalyst to the change each student feels they can make in partnership with the community.

Coupled with frustration, many team members have also expressed moments of utter surprise (and I am not talking about how bats fly around our mosquito nets each day or even out from beneath the latrines!), but instead how students are literally on the edge of their seats to learn new things.

Take Kelly Teagarden and Tyla Fowler for example. Both are prepared to lead the leadership session that will take place over WISER Camp from August 5 to 18th. But beforehand, they have helped lead a session where the former form 4’s from last year, returned to provide feedback about the curriculum we hope to use in this year’s WISER Camp. Kelly and Tyla led an activity that according to them, on average took students in the United States about an hour to complete. The task was retrieving a bucket from the middle of a circle (the pretend lake) using only rope and each other. The group of Former Form 4s completed the task in less than five minutes. But what took them a lot more time than expected were the trust falls and floating stick activity where a group of twenty student all have to be touching a stick and then gradually get it to the ground – it’s fairly difficult without a solid teamwork and chosen leader. Both Kelly and Tyla found it empowering to see such active participation by the students, but more importantly, during their feedback session, students told them that they had never had these type of activities before. One girl said in the group that before, she would have never trusted her peers as much as she does now after the activity. Another student observed that, and I quote, “The best team is the one who has a team of leaders.” At the end of the day, students worked together to create a shirt that described what they have all been doing since they finished secondary school. None of them had continued onto college. None of them had steady jobs. To be honest, I was a little nervous what they were going to put on their t-shirt.

After an hour, the shirt had the design of all their names on it with the phrase written in royal, bold blue, “Unity is Strength.” When asked to describe the process of making the shirt, one of the girls shared that, “Too often, we’re alone. Today we were together and felt stronger. That’s why we wrote about unity.”

Both Kelly and Tyla took all the feedback and are now in full swing preparing for the WISER Girls’ Day (this precedes WISER Camp) where all of the area primary school standard 7 girls are invited to attend an all-day long event sponsored by WISER on August 9th. These are the girls who will be eligible next year to apply as Form 1s for the first class of WISER. The All Girls’ Day will involve every Duke student as it has been planned to involve five different stations: W I S E and R. the W station will have games, activities and information about Who, What, When, Where, Why WISER led by April? The I station pushes girls to say, “I can lead, I can trust, I can be myself” which will involve Kelly and Tyla’s leadership activities already piloted with the former form 4s, the S station will be led by Chetan about “Strength Within” which will listen to the stories of each girl in order to learn who might be our first class of WISER students and how we could pair certain students with sponsoring organizations and families, the E station will be led by Lee which stands for “Expand Your Mind” that involves a life-size puzzle of Africa and a series of trivia questions that we as a group have collected from the area primary schools, and lastly the R station stands for Rx where students will learn from Mike and Elise about health facts including HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and puberty. The day will begin with an opening ceremony that will break the 125 girl students into five teams – the W’s, I’s, S’s, E’s, and R’s and each have a counselor. Each team will create a cheer and flag with which to travel station to station. At the end of the day, students will participate in a final closing ceremony where they will be addressed by two women leaders of the community including one of WISER’s board members and learn that this was a walk through a typical day at WISER. We are hoping to target the standard seven girls at this time to provide them with an incentive and motivating goal to work extra hard in the next year in standard eight in order to be eligible for WISER the next year, but more importantly, realize that WISER will be a community center in addition to a school that will provide workshops that are not only educational, but downright fun.

So we have feelings of frustration and surprise in our team, but both coupled with action – and thoughtful, meaningful action in the community. Among the many activities, however, one has been the most exciting for our team and involves almost everyone. After installing the first solar panels of the community with Dr. Sherrryl Broverman’s funds, we have utilized Duke’s 20 donated computers to lead computer training classes during the day and at night. Every Duke student pairs with 2-3 Rabwao Secondary students huddled over a computer learning how to successfully use a computer calculator, type, format, save, and open a document and reach 25 words per minute or more typing speed. These students have never seen a computer, much less touched one. To see the students’ pace of learning explode with the support of the Duke team is absolutely incredible. We printed off a practice typing sheet which we drew from hand. And every night and day you can see students practicing their homekeys and proper fingering techniques for typing.

One student who was paired with Jason Pate, just could not type on the first day. There was no concept of lifting up one’s finger before pressing another key. So instead of typing “I am a good student,” it would instead read, “ IIIIIIIIII AAAAAAAAMmmmmmmmmm aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa ggggggggggoooooooooooodddddddssssssssstuuuuuuuudeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnnnnnnnt.” Lots of areas in which to improve! We thought it was going to be pretty difficult on the second day. But again, why underestimate a kid who wants to learn. The next she was the fastest of the entire group and on Mavis Beacon achieved 32 words per minute with 94% accuracy. Unbelievable.

But the computers are used more than just for typing and word processing. Instead, they also provide us with an incredible tool to teach about health issues with visual examples and even a few videos. In addition, we can show the students their photos instead of just taking a snapshot and walking away. And lastly, we have showed a “A Closer Walk,” which is a film about the worldwide AIDS epidemic and for many, it’s their first time seeing a white person have AIDS and realizing that this disease is truly a global nightmare requiring a globalized solution. We have been training teachers in the mornings and students in the afternoons and evenings. But most of all, we have realized how much power you give to a student by opening a laptop and telling him or her, “Go ahead!” Absolutely incredible.

So that’s how are team is diving in head first. It’s not that they are unprepared; in many cases I think our team is over prepared in the lessons we teach, the activities we lead and the discussions we have among ourselves debriefing the days’ events. Although most of us say no book, classroom or article could prepare us for what we have experienced here thus far, we have also realized that we could not be thinking about any solutions or interventions without the preparation back at Duke and in our own high school experience. We have realized that international development is not isolated to those who spend their entire lives in the classroom; nor is it only about those who devote their entire lives to being ‘on the ground’, but rather, it is an intersection of both – a delicate, complex, but empowering combination.

I told you that I would describe our team using a driver’s license. And I’ll now tell you why. Although most of us are still under our parents’ life insurance plans, we all have a driver’s license. On that license, it tells us our age. Whether it is Patrick in the classroom, Tyla and Kelly in their leadership workshops, Jason in computer class, Sunny and Lucy in their microfinance surveys (see Lucy’s blog), Chetan and Lee’s planning of Girls’ Day, Mike’s involvement with health education in and around the community, and my work with the architect beginning the construction of our school and all the bureaucratic steps in between, we all know one thing: We’re now old enough. We’re old enough to start something big.

We’re old enough to make an impact. And we’re old enough to say we can and mean it.

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