Teaching lessons from Mombasa
Jacquelyn Little was a volunteer teacher at the Nazarene Primary School near Mombasa, Kenya, for four weeks.
My first impression of Mombasa, Kenya, was from the backseat of a car at one o’clock in the morning, any city’s most dangerous time. I stared outside, terrified, at a city unimaginably different than any place I have ever seen. As we drove through the dark, pot-holed streets, lined with shanty buildings and littered with trash and homeless people, I realized how far from home I really was. It was during this drive that I started asking myself why I was here and what I had gotten myself into.
I wanted to be a teacher since the third grade and, as high school approached, this sparked a desire to teach in a Third-World country. I wanted to go to Africa and I had my heart and mind set on it. After turning 20, I decided there would be no better time to do it and started to look for a safe program. My family was proud, but not thrilled at my decision to go considering the dangers surrounding the trip. The whole ride from the airport, I imagined their terror if I told them what my first impression of the city was like.
The sense of unease I felt in those first hours after arriving in Mombasa disappeared the next morning. I was welcomed by the house mom, volunteer coordinators and three other volunteers, each from a different country. Although poverty and filth still surrounded us on the streets, the environment and the people were not as scary as the previous night.
There is no way to describe my first day at Nazarene Primary School, an understaffed and under-resourced school in the town of Mikindani, except to say that it was a complete scramble. After a brief meeting with the head teacher, I was handed three textbooks, which I later discovered to be absolutely useless, and was pointed in the direction of my classroom, where I was greeted by 18 second-graders staring expectantly at me. Despite the dream of being a teacher I’ve had since the third grade, my experience in front of a classroom was virtually nonexistent. Yet here I was, expected to teach all the subjects – English, math, science, social studies, P.E., creative arts, Christian religion and Swahili. I was unprepared and had no idea what to teach and how to do it. I got through that first day, exhausted, with a new appreciation for teachers.
For the next four weeks, I would be greeted every day by their smiling faces. At this point, they had not had a consistent teacher in several months, so it was rewarding to see their excitement and happiness when I would come back each morning. Even on the hardest of days, I was inspired by their vibrant enthusiasm. I went into the trip expecting the kids to be discouraged by their conditions, but instead met kids so happy, inventive and appreciative.
On one occasion, I was astounded by the students’ selflessness. As I was not used to the miserably hot conditions, for lunch I normally could not eat more than half a sandwich. When one particularly-observant student walked in and saw this, she clucked her tongue and said, “Teacher, that’s all you eat? Here!” And she handed me 10 shillings. “Go buy food!” she said. The money, equivalent to 11 cents, could buy a small lunch and was everything she had. I previously had met this student’s family, I had been to her home and I knew that, even in my worst circumstances, I have more than she can imagine. Yet this student was offering all she could to help me.
On my way back to the airport on my last day there, I sat in the same backseat of the car that had taken me to the volunteer house upon my arrival. I caught myself reflecting on not only the change of my feelings towards the city of Mombasa and the people I saw since that first drive, but also how much it has changed me. I didn’t notice the trash and the smell that initially overwhelmed me. I went there to get experience teaching and, over the four weeks, my confidence in the classroom grew.
I learned that no matter how much you prepare a lesson plan, it constantly needs to be adjusted according to uncontrollable factors that arise every day.
I learned that it is not only the teacher who teaches, but the students also who taught me lessons every day.
I learned that teaching in a Third-World country requires creativity and the ability to make a science lesson out of the neighbor’s papaya tree and an art project out of dirt and water. This new perception of their world could not have been more different as it became a home away from home. I am so fortunate to have had the experience that I did, and I miss my students every day that I’ve been back.
Jacquelyn Little is a Sonoma resident and is entering her junior year at UC Davis, where she is majoring in English with a minor in education and Spanish.