Kenya: Education as a Cherished Opportunity

“I will never leave here without a success story.” The chipped blue sign hung above the door of the Kenyan school, every day enforcing the opportunities and positive effects of something most American teens take for granted- an education.

In mid-September of 2017, Menchville’s Assistant Principal of Operations Joe Edwards journeyed to Kenya for an “educational mission trip.” Joined by other Newport News Public Schools principals, administrators, and school board members, Edwards took the chance of a lifetime to experience education in schools a quarter of the way around the globe.

Joseph Edwards
An all-girls boarding school in Kenya.

Visiting Africa had always been on Edwards’s bucket list, but he never expected what a profound impact the trip would have on his life. Said Edwards, “I spoke to my pastor who had gone to Africa before, and he told me, ‘When you come back, you will never be the same.’ And he was right- it completely changes your mindset.” The most impactful part of the trip for Edwards was his experiences with the Kenyan schools and students, which pose some distinct contrasts to our American approach to education.

One of the first things Edwards noticed about the African schools was the children’s attitude towards learning. “The students have a different mindset there,” the assistant principal said. “Students here [in the states], when something is difficult, they say ‘oh I can’t do that- I can’t learn that.’ In Africa they say ‘I can’t do that yet.’” Such a positive mantra fosters a sense of openness towards learning that is present in the African schools. Edwards described this willingness to learn as a “growth” mindset, which helps the children to fully embrace their educational opportunities, as well as their challenges.

Joseph Edwards
Handmade posters line the walls of one Kenyan classroom.

The challenges faced by the Kenyan students, however, are vastly different from what the majority of students face in United States schools. While many American schools may be debating over the addition of iPads and online curriculums, many Kenyan schools lack access to books and, what we in the U.S. consider to be, basic classroom resources. Around half of the population of Kenya lives in poverty, and rural areas see these effects the most. However, the students and teachers in Kenyan schools do not let these factors impede education. In the rural schools Edwards visited, classes made their own books and posters to aid classroom instruction when they could not afford to buy materials. Even with such high levels of poverty and economic inequality, Kenya puts an emphasis on education for all ages, helping the country to achieve one of the highest literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

The voracious approach to taking on obstacles extends even past childhood education in Kenya. Edwards, in recounting the story of a craftsmen he met in Nairobi, remarks on this resilience and determination of the human spirit. “This man told me, ‘I may not have all the material things, but I have what I need.” Edwards continued, “I was so impressed how everyone could take the minimal and do such great things with it.” Whether it was watching the children create new and inventive schoolyard games using nothing but a soccer ball and a stick, or seeing the craftsman on the street build a life for himself solely off of his woodworking skill, Edwards could not help but admire the people’s ability to make the most out of any situation and take on life with a positive view.

Considering all of his experiences with the Kenyan schools, Edwards was most in awe of the sheer positivity surrounding education. Everywhere in the schools and buses there were inspirational messages and posters about learning- an idea the assistant principal wants to bring back to Menchville. The Kenyan schools had mantras and messages aimed at fostering a love of learning in their students, like “a student who is afraid to ask questions is a student afraid to learn.” Even just from their smiles and happiness to be in school, students and teachers in Nairobi made it quite evident how valued education is in Kenya.

Joseph Edwards
Students in the all-girls school stand as they start a new day of class.

Often American students find it easy to fall under the impression that school is some sort of “burden.” An education can be seen by students as something mandatory, not something to be cherished and taken advantage of at every opportunity. In fact, just seeing any high schooler’s face at 7:20 am on a Monday morning can give a good impression of how some American students view school. Edwards hopes to help change this impression, at least within the Menchville community. After traveling to Kenya, he saw firsthand how a “growth mindset” and positive attitude towards learning can affect education. In the future, he hopes to bring this lesson to his students, urging them to cherish their educational opportunities and take them as the privileges they are.

Students should consider the sign above that doorway far away in Nairobi, and ask themselves, “Do I have a success story to leave school with today?”