Montessori in Kenya
After 30 hours on planes and in airports, a bush flight and a six-hour jeep ride, we arrived in the village of Sereolipi in the Samburu District of Northern Kenya. It was Sunday in the late afternoon and suddenly, our exhaustion turned to excitement. My first introduction to the Samburu people and culture is a memory I will never forget! Beautiful women walking with strands of necklaces around their necks, made from colorful beads. Elders, adult married men, sitting together in small groups playing what looked like mancala, each with a rifle by his side. Every so often, a warrior would saunter past, dressed in true warrior regalia consisting of layers of wraps, straps crisscrossed across a bare chest and covered in jewelry. It truly looked like we had stepped into a page from National Geographic! We stopped at the primary school and were quickly surrounded by children wearing their school uniforms, for many, the only clothes they owned. They grinned for the camera, giggling and laughing when they saw their pictures displayed. What great children, full of life! I didn’t want to leave them but the sun was close to setting and we had to make our way to our campground, a thirty-minute ride through the bush.
The Samburu people are semi-nomadic pastoraists who rely on their goats, cows and camels for their livelihood. Related to the Maasai, the Samburu live just north of the equator in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. The Samburu culture is virtually unchanged in over 1000 years. Families live together in manyattas, homes placed close together and surrounded by a thorn fence. Men care for the livestock while women are in charge of the living quarters built from sticks, mud and cow dung. The diet of the Samburu consists mainly of milk, sometimes mixed with blood. Vegetables are rare and meat is eaten on special occasions.
Faced with a challenging environment, the Samburu live constantly on the edge of survival. Temperatures can easily soar over 100 degrees and little shade is available. There is no electricity or plumbing and access to water is minimal. Though the land and living conditions are quite harsh, the simplicity of life is appealing. The unhurried pace (it is too hot to move quickly) and the lack of material “stuff” creates a feeling of freedom. Unconditional sharing is necessary for survival and decisions are made based on consensus. The people are kind, gracious and proud! The teachers at the schools are dedicated to the students and the students are ever grateful to their parents for allowing them to go to school. The students have goals to be a doctors, nurses, teachers, and scientists. All speak of bringing their skills back to their community once their education is completed.
I was initially invited to visit the towns of Sereolipi and Ndonyo Wasin to work with the preschool teachers by Jane Newman, active in the Thorn Tree Project. Montessori material had been donated to the project from schools across the United States but nobody in the area knew how to use the materials. The Thorn Tree Project (www.thorntreeproject.org) was initially formed by George Lemerketo, the Chief of Sereolipi, George Leparkiras, the Headmaster of Ndonyo Wasin Primary School and Lucy Leparkiras, the Senior Teacher at Sereolipi Primary School. The goal of the project was to have as many children of the nomadic families attend school as possible. By placing the preschools within the settlements, or manyattas, the parents would begin to see the benefits of education and would be more willing to send their children to primary school.
For a long time, it was not practical to send children to school because the schools were located so far away. Also, since the parents had not experienced “school” themselves, there was little understanding of the importance of education. With preschools in the manyattas, parents were now able to observe their children learning to count, add, subtract, write their names and even read. Since the Thorn Tree Project was introduced in 2001, there has been a steady increase in the student population at both the primary schools in the area.
After rest and adjustment to the weather (just our luck to arrive during a heat wave with temperatures hovering around 110 degrees), we drove to Ndonyo Wasin where the Montessori material was being stored and where the workshop would be held. I asked for directions to the storage area, expecting to rummage through a couple of boxes of material but was surprised to find the area filled! With over 30 boxes to unpack, sort and prepare and the sun setting in less than 3 hours, saying I was overwhelmed is an understatement! I put my son and my brother to work, along with a couple of the preschool teachers who had arrived early and were hanging around. Within a few hours, we had managed to create five piles, one each for sensorial, practical life, language, math and a miscellaneous pile.
In the morning, I met with ten preschool teachers, all eager to learn. I quickly I realized that talking philosophy was not going to work. Only a few knew English and what they knew was minimal. A lot of time was spent communicating with gestures and miming. I introduced the materials and everyone caught on to the use of the fingers when feeling the knobbed cylinders or tracing the sandpaper letters. They quickly made the connection between the use of the fingers and later holding a pencil. In fact, if one of the teachers forgot to use his fingers, he was reminded by a peer with a gentle slap on the hand and fingers in the face, “Like this!” The most popular material by far was the math, the bead frame in particular. The teachers smiled and laughed as we worked through addition, subtraction and multiplication problems. It was difficult at the end of the workshop when I distributed the materials and only had enough bead frames for six of the teachers.
Since the range of material available was not complete (numerous pink towers but no metal insets, sound cylinders or golden beads), I had to get creative with the use of the environment. We drew letters and numbers in the dirt, used geometric cabinet drawers as rugs, sewed with thorns as needles and did division with pebbles. Every few hours, we were interrupted as Samburu tea was served. I discovered that even in soaring temperatures, with sweat running down my back, a hot cup of tea is to be enjoyed! Time flew by and it was over way too soon. I distributed all of the material and the teachers began preparations for the return to their villages.
What struck me about the Samburu people and the entire experience in the Samburu District was the dedication to each other, the community and to improving living conditions for all. The people are proud and it shows in their faces and in their communication! Mothers speak of their children learning about the world, fathers speak of how education is going to provide a voice for the Samburu with the Kenyan government. Education is seen as the way to improve living conditions and the entire community now revolves around the schools.
I returned to the Samburu District in March 2008 for several days of workshops with the preschool teachers. I’m planning to return in November 2008 to continue working with the preschool teachers as well as the lower elementary teachers. My experiences have changed my life.
I’ve learned far more from my interactions with the Samburu then they have from me. I come back from my trips with a different perspective on life. I have more appreciation for all that I have and all the opportunities presented to me. I’m in the process of working with another Montessorian to develop a training program for the development of Montessori programs in remote areas of the world. The details that Montessorians find themselves obsessing over disappear when the children you are working with are hungry, sick with malaria or covered in dirt because there isn’t water available to wash. Personal hygiene becomes a priority over a complete set of sensorial material. With all of this in mind, I realize that the essence of Montessori, the idea of Montessori being a philosophy of life and available for all children in the world is clearer for me. I am more dedicated and further driven to pour through Dr. Montessori’s books, review my manuals, be a constant observer. Once again, Montessori has led me in a direction that challenges who I am as a human being. I feel like I’m beginning yet another journey in my life!
Andrea Scott is a Montessori child herself, having been enrolled in the first class at Clay-Platte Montessori School in Kansas City, Missouri, a school founded by her mother, Shirley Plath in 1966.
Last Updated (Thursday, 22 July 2010 09:06)