Isak Dinesen, Farms in Africa, Syringa Trees, Savannah, Forest….

At about the same time most children ran around with blankets and stuffed animals, I became firmly affixed to maps – specifically the magic of the continent Africa. For some reason, the shape and the  colorful, wonderful people, animals and amazing heat provoked great desire in me  to travel there.  As far back as I can remember, I was much more interested in lions on the savannah than cows, horses, etc.  There was something so ‘old soul’ about Africa that I just knew, in my heart, my core of being I had to go there.  The fact that Richard Leaky had found Lucy and Dian Fossey studied gorillas only added to the allure.

It was many years (and many other worldy journeys) before I made it to the continent.  I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement during my undergraduate years. When I finally went to Africa,  I did as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and I knew I had found my ‘home’ in the world.   I was fortunate enough to live near the Zambezi River in the  northern reaches of Namibia, along the Caprivi Strip. My village was called Katima-Mulilo   in  Ngweze, Namibia, SW Africa.  I saw the part of the world I had written  for Amnesty Interntional about, protested for and cried over.  It was the best and most magical time of my life.  Sadly, before I was able to complete my commitment, there was a civil war and all the Peace Corps Volunteers in my group had to leave.

For the first time in my life I became homesick – not for the U.S., for my village, my Namibian Family  and my way of life.   As if the civil war were not disruptive enough , a little less than a year  and 1/2 later while I was in graduate school at Columbia, 9/11 happened.  Those two events, even each alone, made me question my very existence here on earth.  As the madness of things around me accelerated, where was the meaningfulness?  What had happened to my energy, enthusiasm and joy about going into the Peace Corps and doing GOOD, never mind having a purposefull life?  How could so many people be so hateful – hateful, angry, sad, uninformed and uneducated that killing became a ‘purpose’?

Fortunately for me, I met a young woman who was from Kenya and also in grad school.  We quickly became close friends.  I had so much to learn about the world, especially understanding what is Africa when I had only been there for a little over a year.   My learning continues to this day for I have only books, movies and people to educate me.   Over the years, as my friend completed her two masters degrees and sprinted through her PhD, she knew my deepest dream was to somehow, some way go back to Africa to live.  We always talked about it and she always helped me separate my fictional perceptions from reality.

At about the point when I had almost given up the dream of  getting back to Africa except as a tourist, my friend  from graduate school contacted me.  It was two weeks after being laid off from a  venture funded gig in Silicon Valley so I was free….  She asked if I were busy; Would I like to come to Kenya and visit?  She knew of a school where I might enjoy teaching and helping students and provide professional development to teachers.  To say that I ‘did not even think’ would be far more than what I did.  I believe I did not even blink or exhale and just said yes.

There were 11 days in March which, in retrospect, seem far longer in duration  (in the best possible way) as I felt at home, not a tourist, not an interloper on holiday-I fell into the daily rhythm with ease.   Nairobi reminded me a bit of Jo’burg, yet Nairobi is more cosmoplitan.    I believe my mind was made up long before I landed at Kenyatta International – everything after just confirmed my beliefs.  It was the heat, the people, the friendliness, the harshness of a land with little water and few resources yet so loving and full of goodness.

I visited the girls school in Eldoret, which is situated near a protected forest.  I met the teachers, principal, students. I was able to teach – and the girls did far better on the lessons than their American counterparts who often struggle with a concept called “Is it full?” about matter.   There was farmland and cattle. 

There were students who wanted to LEARN!  This was what was most encouraging. 

 In January 2003, the Government of Kenya announced the introduction of free primary education. As a result, primary school enrolment increased by about 70%. However, secondary and tertiary education enrollment has not increased proportionally because payment is still required for attendance.  Quoted from Wikipedia

Here were female students who desired to study, learn, ask questions and put in the effort to elevate themselves.  They understood the value of an education.  Here were teachers who wanted to work hard and do more to improve their craft.  Here was a quiet space for contemplation and yet it was a large learning community.  The students were friendly, polite, sincere and thoughtful. The teachers were engaged, felt strongly about their curriculum and believed wholeheartedly in the power of an education.

I had found ‘home’ again. This was the place I could love unendingly and fill myself  of purpose and grow and learn and should I get old, do it knowing full well I had lived a full life committed to somthing larger than myself. 

Perhaps the saddest part has been that coming home to California after being in Kenya, I became disenfranchised from the very education  system that gave me my credential.  I have subbed in many schools as I needed an “in between job” until I moved and only about 40% of the schools are functional – the rest make me wonder how they call themselves schools and can collect ADA.  Of the functional schools, I am now subbing in classes where teachers are either so burned out they don’t really care (I have been there  and empathize fully) or they are moving on and just want to finish out the end of the year but need to take vacation time since it is not ‘portable’.   I have watched the unending fight (years of it – long since Proposition 13 passed) about the budget and teachers being kicked to the curb like yesterdays trash.   My teacher colleagues (over 20 years worth) from all over the country don’t even have the abiity to cry anymore;  No one believes any longer (none of us did in the first place) that test scores were the only answer to success. 

I picked up a book by Judy Estrin called Closing the Innovation Gap.  As I am reading it, my goal is to help inspire innovation in Kenya – to offer help to  them so they can  be a Silicon Savannah; I no longer believe there  is a way to make public education in America work, most especially California.  Innovation at this juncture is not possible  –  we have set the focus too narrow and not well thought out – test scores! 

At times I feel as if apartheid or a Tokoloshe left South Africa to come home to America and it is being well liked by far too many.  I have watched charter schools do wonderful statistical manipulations with test scores – I have yet to see anything indicating these test scores translate to college graduation.  

Updated 5/22/09

It is my hope that the U.S. learn something from other countries so recent to the idea of free public education.  It is my hope that I will be able to bring back many valuable ideas from Kenya to help America innovate its educational progam.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

  • ISBN-10: 0679600213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679600213
  • The Art of Recycling in Kenya by Annelise Della Rosa

  • ISBN-10: 8881586975
  • ISBN-13: 978-8881586974
  •  The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien

  • ISBN-10: 0375759107
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375759109
  • Closing The Innovation Gap

  • ISBN-10: 0071499873
  • ISBN-13: 978-0071499873