By Jessica Warkentin
When I was in elementary school, I remember excitedly unpacking multiple boxes of pens, pencil crayons and lined paper at the start of the school year. Each day after a nutritious breakfast, I would head off to school with a lunch in my hand, sturdy backpack on my shoulders, and the promise of more food and time to play after school. I was simply one of many in my Canadian town that had such privileges.
But as I sat, squished three per desk in a crumbling old classroom in Enelerai, Kenya, I saw first-hand the stark differences between the learning environment that Kenyan children experience and the one that I was educated in.
About a year ago, I was chosen as a recipient of the RBC Leading Change Scholarship, an award which includes funds towards tuition and the chance to go on a Me to We trip with international charity Free the Children. The opportunity of getting to know individual Kenyan students and their circumstances has taught me more than any textbook chapter on development ever could.
As I sat at that desk in Enelerai, our Me to We trip facilitator put us in the shoes of a student: “Imagine, it’s the rainy season, and you’re a student who really wants to learn, but your only notebook falls off your desk into a muddy puddle at your feet and you can no longer read any of the notes you worked so hard on.”
She moved forward, picking up her pants in illustration. “Or imagine you’re a teacher wanting so badly to teach your students, but you have to jump over mud puddles in the classroom to correct students’ work. You go home with a hoarse voice after yelling to be heard over the adjacent classrooms.”
On another occasion, our group crowded into a Kenyan classroom, listening as a student from Kisaruni, Free The Children’s all-girls high school, described her daily schedule. It started with waking up at 4:45 a.m. and rigorously studying before a long day of chores. Later we learned that the girls themselves came up with this schedule because of their desire to learn as much as possible.
During my time in Kenya, I saw first hand that education is the key to developing communities, becoming a leader, and providing for families. But I also saw that there are still older members of the community that follow traditional values and are hesitant to send their children to school. The curriculum at Kisaruni focuses on the girls giving back to their community through their education. In this regard, the girls participate in community projects as well as health and agricultural clubs.
After more than two weeks in Kenya, working on everything from a volunteer build project, to learning about safe drinking water initiatives and local farming, to volunteering in a local health centre, I’ve only touched the surface of learning what life is like for many in Africa.
What’s become most clear is that while students in Kenya endure many more hardships than their counterparts in Canada, they value their education so much more.
Towards the end of my trip after a climb up the hillside, I caught my breath as I turned and looked out at the Mara Valley. I took in the lush greenery, prosperous farmland and surrounding mountains. This beautiful scenery was not what I expected to find, considering the projected images of desolate Africa.
My experience with Kenya has been of a beautiful people in a lush, clean land.
Jessica Warkentin of Abbotsford is studying social work at the University of The Fraser Valley. She was a 2013 recipient of the RBC Leading Change Scholarship which recognizes Canada’s most civic-minded students with scholarships towards their post-secondary tuition and a unique, hands-on, overseas Me to We Trip experience to a Free The Children community overseas through RBC’s ongoing partnership with Free The Children.. For more information about the RBC Students Leading Change Scholarship, visit: www.scholarships.rbc.com