During my two weeks in Kenya, Africa with Free the Children this past summer, we visited Enelerai Primary School, which was a 20 minute walk from our camp near the Masai Mara. This was the first time we officially came in contact with any local children. But before we met the kids, we had a old school/new school history lesson. As you can see, the old school at Enelerai had seen better days, but even at its best, it was leaky, breezy, and more than a bit ramshackle. The new school, while not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, was a huge improvement. The roof was guaranteed to keep out the rain, the classrooms had cement floors and solid walls, and the desks wouldn’t give the kids splinters.
For all its newness, the new school was set up in a very traditional way. Each child was at a shared desk, and you could see from the work they left out that they were doing individual drill based work of the “3 R’s” variety. As far as I could see, no one was working on a group inquiry or a personalized learning project, or at least they weren’t doing it that day.
Inquiry, however, wasn’t absent by any means. During recess time, the children were all over us. We met two little girls with their arms entwined, Olivia and also Olivia, who were practicing their English with questions such as “What is your name? How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? How many children do you have?” Olivia and Olivia cut right to the chase with their playground inquiry project.
The Olivias and their friends were also very curious about our cameras. After talking with them and answering all those personal questions, we carefully asked if we could take their pictures, as we thought they might be camera shy and we didn’t want to offend them. As it turned out, they weren’t shy in the least, and were also very keen to look at the display to see every picture taken. Before I knew it, looking at the display turned into running around taking their own pictures – with my camera. It wasn’t so different from last year’s recess duty.
Free primary education was instituted in Kenya in 2003. From that point on, everyone had the opportunity to go to elementary school, and school enrollment skyrocketed overnight. Even in rural impoverished areas, such as Enelerai, people could give their children something they never dreamed of having. The chance to learn to read, write and find better options in life still seems like a miracle there, and these children are very proud of their English and all that they’re learning.
It was a reminder of how the public education we constantly discuss and debate here is a gift we’ve come to take for granted. That gift, which gives children a chance to become literate, interact with each other and have options as they become adults, transcends all the local debates about whether to give a zero or if the education system is broken. For the children of Enelerai, and our children too, for that matter, education is where we put our hopes for their future. That’s some heavy freight to carry. No wonder it’s sought after, admired, critiqued and dismissed in equal measure. How you see it depends on where you’ve been and where you want to go.