The Circle of Giving: Insights from Kenya by Ellen Kelner | #TeachMeTuesdays

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Last summer I travelled to Africa with my 13 year-old son where we spent two weeks in the Maasai Mara, a region located in the southeastern part of Kenya near the Tanzanian border. We enjoyed our first week connecting with the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic tribe steeped in tradition, who have lived in the area for more than 300 years. While on safari we experienced endless wildlife sightings including giraffes, zebras, hippos, elephants, and as a highlight, three lionesses hunting down a lone wildebeest. For our second week we volunteered on a Me to We trip, an affiliate of the charity Free the Children. We learned how to make concrete which we carried uphill by the bucketful. Using only wheelbarrows and shovels, we eventually poured our hard- earned mixture into footings to create the foundation for a future boys’ dormitory so that for some, distance will no longer be a barrier to education.


I went to Kenya with a Western arrogance thinking of what I had to offer; what I did not expect was how much I’d learn while there. As soon as babies are able to walk they begin helping with age appropriate chores that are essential to their family’s survival. We saw four year-olds with infant siblings strapped to their backs running to greet us with a warm Jambo (hello in Swahili), young girls chopping firewood while their male counterparts sported weapons to protect their livestock from predators. We witnessed boys on their own in the wilderness tending to herds of more than 50 goats and sheep, while girls carried 25-50 pound canisters of water on their backs using straps around their foreheads to manage the load. Seeing the responsibility and independence these youngsters exhibited lies in juxtaposition to the way children are raised in my world. It was a reminder of what kids are capable of doing if given the chance.


The teenagers we met at Kisaruni, the first all girls’ high school in the region, mesmerized us by their enthusiasm and determination. The girls unanimously voted to begin their school day at 4:30 a.m. as they did not want to miss out on opportunities for learning; their principal persuaded them that a 5:30 wake up was more reasonable. They know school is a privilege, not a right, as few Kenyan girls ever attend high school due to financial constraints, as well as early marriage and domestic obligations. This pervasive sense of gratitude was expressed by kids who walk seven kilometers in the dark to and from school every day, as well as by their parents who sacrifice financially to pay for term fees, school supplies, and uniforms.



A conversation with our Maasai warrior guide, Wilson, who is also a teacher, emphasized on strong respect and work ethic. When asked about behavioural issues in his class of 60 where ten students share one text- book, he replied, “I am allowed to beat my students but have never had to. Children are respectful to all adults in their lives, whether teacher, parent or village elder.” Wilson also explained that children do not pass into the next grade until they have shown profi- ciency with the current curriculum. He was shocked by our system that promotes students regardless of their mastery of the requisite material. It was a reminder of what kids are capable of doing if given the chance. 


While I have a renewed appreciation for the conveniences in my life such as electricity and running water, my time in Africa has given me much to ponder in terms of our child-rearing and educational practices.










ELLEN KELNER holds a Master’s Degree in Education and is a resource and math specialist at a private school downtown Toronto. She is a long time resident of the West Village Community.

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