Education Opinion

The Voices We Need

By Christina Torres — June 26, 2019 6 min read
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Note: I am writing this based on the two-week experience I had in Kenya, as well as research and interviews with Kenyan educators. I also know that my short experience and interviews don’t negate the gaps in knowledge I have about Kenyan history and education, so if something is misrepresented, please let me know.

I want everyone to say this with me now: I am a writer.”

The group of 35 teachers looked around the room, before hesistantly responding, “I am a writer.”

“Good!” My colleague at the front of the room smiled. “Again, repeat after me: I am a writer.”

The teachers smiled at each other and more loudly declared, “I am a writer.”

We all laughed and smiled, some of the initial awkwardness shaking lose. Finally, my colleague encouraged them once more. “OK, now, one last time: I am a writer.”

The smiles grew as the teachers said louder and in unison, “I am a writer.”

The group of Kenyan teachers were particpating in a writing workshop my colleagues and I from Punahou School had put together, hosted by Kenya Connect. The workshop followed a more traditional U.S. writing process: brainstorming, drafting, peer editing, revising, publishing—all focused on helping teachers write and adapt to the new CBC, or competency-based curriculum, that has recently been rolled out in Kenya.

Previously, Kenyan education had been rigid, with a strong focus on testing, and without much room for student opinion or critical thinking (read more via UNESCO here or this first-hand account). Given Kenya’s history of colonization, its education systems have focused more on creating obedient students rather than fostering independent thought.

That, by no means, means that the Kenyan communities I visited lacked independent, unique, creative, and brilliant minds. My experience in Kenya was a cornucopia of colors and music. Communities opened their arms with vibrant song and dance. We were consistently in awe of the beautiful fashion and colors we would see from people not just dressed up but doing everyday tasks on their farms. The students, teachers, and community members were funny, vivacious, loving, and extremely joyful in every interaction I had. Teachers and students clearly had deep, familial relationships that were playful and affectionate. I met so many folks who were thoughtful, proud, resilient, and innovative. It was heart-warming and wonderful to witness.

What I realized as I watched the teachers in that writing workshop was that Kenya is a place full of vibrant, colorful, magic—yet, it appears that its people have been taught that its magic had no place in its schools and with its students. After teaching a group of students to make an acrostic poem with their names, one of Kenya Connect’s university interns, Cornelius, encouraged teachers to use this idea more. “No one ever told me I could make a poem. I don’t think I wrote one until today,” he shared with the teachers and with us.

This isn’t a story about saviors, though. It’s not a story where the fancy Western school showed these Kenyan teachers how to value their voices because we suddenly did. Kenya does not need anyone’s approval for its own brilliance to thrive.

Instead, this is a story of kinship. Entering into that kinship means sharing stories and building trust. For me, it means reparation and accountability. It is an acknowledgement that, before I went to Kenya, I never planned on or, frankly, wanted to visit Africa. Before I went to Kenya, I had never asked myself, “Why don’t I see or read more writing from African authors? Where are those stories?” Whether or not I realized it, Kenya was a place I felt was “foreign,” and while I respected it, I did not see myself as connected to Kenya in any way.

Yet, as I saw these teachers working on personal narratives, having deep and passionate conversations about their students, and sharing some beautiful lines of writing, it illustrated how wrong I was. Africa is full of important voices that must be heard and that involve us all to varying degrees, yet many of us fail to hear its stories.

There is a fullness to the African story that many of us rarely consider: its cradle of civilization; its originator status of art, music, and fashion; its beautiful legacies precolonization intertwined with its struggle to overcome and become independent from that oppression. These multiple threads are intertwined in all our lives and must be looked at—from celebrating and seeking stories from Africa to acknowledging how the treatment of its people has affected the generations that followed. This is a truth that has been shared by many for generations, and sitting in that room made me realize that I had blinded myself from that truth for far too long.

Kenya does not need my acknowledgement to be successful. Still, it would be wrong for me to not acknowledge that the influence of the Western world has affected the way its schools function, as well as the lack of focus and thought given to its voices. Schools aren’t necessary to validate creativity, but it is a key place that we can begin to nurture and build creative thought. In moving toward a more holistic view of students, I am excited and eager for more and more Kenyan students and adults to see their stories as not only something worth writing down but as something worth sharing and demanding space in the global conversation as well.

Some of that work falls on us in the U.S. and Western world as well. We are missing out on important ideas and developments from a place brimming with possibility; we fail to seek it out. Because while this piece starts with a story of Kenyan teachers learning from my colleagues and me, I can’t help but feel I learned far more from them. I experienced what it meant to be loved wholeheartedly by people who didn’t know me. I began to conceptualize a level of ingenuity and resourcefulness that I hadn’t manifested in myself or in my students but now very much want to. I saw, firsthand, what “wraparound services” and seeing schools as the center of a community really look like—schools providing food, water, and places to sleep for their students. When asked why or who paid for it, there was no question that it was just the right thing to do.

When we think of “global education” in the states, we often want to focus on other “developed” countries: Finland, Japan, Germany. We praise all sorts of things about them, fund trips for teachers to study what they do there, ask for their stories, and share them widely. What would it look like if we did this with Africa or other “developing” countries? What if we sent teachers there and asked for their stories—not because we want to “fix” them but to acknowledge and repair the fact that they have been denied space in the global conversation for far too long? What if we built kinship with these countries, seeing them as collaborators instead of places needing to be “saved”?

We must seek and listen to teachers in other countries—especially those we have unfairly deemed as “third world” or lesser than. We must support and share their stories in any way that we can. To do anything less only continues to perpetuate the single story about them. We must include all countries in the conversation about “global education,” because all countries bring different things to the table. In doing so, we cannot only supply space but resources, ideas, and support that allow all of us to grow together. By learning about Africa’s history and acknowledging the ways in which our privilege has blinded us to its story, we can hopefully work better in allyship to dismantle the problematic ideas that affect these communities, as well as learn from them in the process.

So, while there are ways I am hopeful Kenyan education can grow, I also know it is a place already brimming with beauty, love, and possibility. Kenya is heavily steeped in joy and resilience, which is a particular kind of success that has too long been undervalued. We must make space to hear those stories, and when those voices are lifted, they are absolutely ones we need to listen to.

Photo: Teachers at Kenya Connect get peer feedback on their writing. Photo provided by author.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.