By Alison Crow

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Volunteering in Kenya with Mustard Seed Project

Retiring from teaching last July meant I could fulfil a promise to myself and my friend Rita Fowler that I would go to Mombasa to volunteer in the school that she and her husband, Geoff, have created.  The date agreed in February was auspicious as the first four classrooms of the new school being built had just been completed.

The journey to the school was one of contrasts.  Having passed a shopping mall like in England, and roadside ‘shops’ where woodworkers make bedframes (some like four posters but of course the posts support mosquito nets), we turned off the main road into a street with tiny shacks selling fruit, food, charcoal (for cooking) and clothes. We travelled on, turning off the narrow, new tarmac road and entered a world of sandy tracks without street lights or running water (water containers are filled from bore holes, wells or a fresh water pipe which is turned on three days a week if you are lucky).   

Cows and goats wandered over a rubbish-strewn area which, I later learnt, serves as a playground for the local children but it was left to the cows this morning….the children were in their schools.  The track narrowed and then we were there gazing at the bright, white, newly painted front of “Miche Bora Primary School” – a stark contrast to the surrounding area made more so by an excited class practising their circus skills with Abi, another volunteer.  The children’s faces said it all; delight, challenge, pride as they learnt that they would watch Abi, practise and achieve new skills.  The scene encapsulated what Miche Bora is about: giving children in a very poor area better life chances.

I watched, practised my juggling skills, helped children, and then we all walked across to the “old” school for lunch.  Again, watching the children tuck into ugali (a starchy dish made with maize flour), spinach and beans with such relish made clear the truth, “Children cannot learn when starving.”  These children are not; they are fed and are hungry for knowledge.

I worked with Nursery and Reception where children learn English alongside Swahili.  They play enthusiastically with toys never seen at home, listen and act out with delight stories from colourful books.  The “Home” corner has a toy charcoal brazier stove, pots, pans, a bed and a baby carried by the children on their backs in a shawl.  They know the English words for these things and sing songs in both languages.

This is where their opportunities begin, they are sufficiently proficient by six to have their lessons in English and so, by the time they sit the National Kenyan Primary exam at fourteen, they should be fluent and have a huge advantage in the job market or perhaps go on to secondary school if they have the funds.  

My expertise is Maths so I showed the teachers a new range of strategies to make Maths clearer, and games to practise key Maths skills.  The teachers’ enthusiasm as they experienced the new approaches themselves and tried them out in class, and the growing realisation in both children and staff that more than one method can be used, was a pleasure to see.  

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Mombasa and left having exchanged a little of my time and Maths knowledge for a wealth of new experiences and an appreciation of the huge effort being put in by the children, teachers, parents and Mustard Seed Project to give these pupils the best education they possibly can. 

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