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Sean Michels School - Trip Log
By Rowe Michels, June 2010
The Michels (except Sheila, who is on a Mormon mission in Brazil) and Littlefield families visited Koins and the SMS in June 2010 in order to meet with the government supervisors and teachers, the Koins staff, and most of all, the children. We also wanted to complete a few work projects (namely, a swing-set and balance bars for physical therapy and also bed-posts for hanging the mosquito nets) and understand future needs.
Meeting with Kenyan Special Needs School Administrators – Our Partners
Being still jet-lagged following 40 hours in economy class, I must admit that I dreaded meeting with two of the government's "Special Needs Councilors". I envisioned just another set of bureaucrats that were only interested in our funding. I couldn't have been more wrong.
The day we were scheduled to meet them at the Koins Center was filled with monsoon-like rain, and our van got stuck in the mud several times just going ~3 miles to the SMS. The government representatives arrived about 6 hours late, so we met back at the Koins Center, but I was shocked that they even showed up. Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they used public transport rather than some sort of expensive four-wheel drive government jeep or limo. Both administrators showed an extraordinary caring interest in the children, so much so that even after we had our improbable meeting at the Koins Center they said they still wanted to go back to SMS to visit with the teachers and kids. By then it had rained another 3 hours, and the road looked more like a series of small lakes that were clearly impassable in my view (shared by our driver, "Johnson"). Nevertheless, they were determined, and even though I wimped-out and basically refused to go (under the excuse of "someone needs to take care of Kyle"), Lisa and a few others of our Koins travelmates went with them. I bet Steve Littlefield that they wouldn't make it more than 100 yards in the 2 wheel drive van - with four balding tires - that we had. I won the bet, but the pay-off was having to go out in the rain with a bunch of barefoot Kenyans and push them out of the mud. After that, their trip was mostly uphill and so the remaining mud-holes weren't as bad, at least with the benefit of a kamikazi high-speed running start by "Johnson" (who had apparently spent some time driving in the UK and said that his previous experience "sliding on the snow" on several occasions was helpful). After the meeting, the government school representatives couldn't get public transport, so they walked many miles in the rain to get back to their hometown. Since then, they have already visited SMS again and are providing regular email updates.
Jamaima – the Matron "Saint" of SMS, and a "Typical" Day
One of the best things about the SMS school (and dare I say, the world in general) is "Jamaima", the head teacher. She truly loves the kids, is a tireless worker, and has an extraordinary smile that is only matched by the Kenyan kids themselves. We consider her a key asset for SMS, and much thanks goes to our Kenyan government partners for recruiting her. Jamaima lives at the school with her four children and her mother, Edna as the chief cook. Jamaima's work day is extraordinary vs. Western standards, but very much the norm for Kenyan women. Before dawn, she works on preparing for her regular classes at the contiguous Miyani school where the SMS kids are being integrated. In the early morning, she helps the kids get dressed, eat a small breakfast and get ready for school at 8am, From 8am to 4:30 she teaches in one of the Miyani "classrooms" which are all without electricity, so there is no light (except what comes through the windows), computers or air conditioning. Very few of the kids have chairs and desks, so the vast majority sit on the floor. Moreover, the floor space is so overcrowded the kids that are late have to sit on the porch.
There is a school lunchbreak from 12-2, long enough for some of the nearby kids to go home, but the vast majority stay for the only meal they will be eating that day in a line of 1,005 children, including our SMS special needs kids, that line-up outside the Miyani school kitchen. Inside the smoke-filled mud-hut are two cooks that tend 6 fires with six 30 gallon-sized pots, usually filled with a maise (i.e., a rough corn) porrage. The kids all have their personal plastic bowls and they eat with their hands. Jamaima usually accompanies the SMS kids back to our their dorm-room building.
When school ends at 4:30pm, Jamaima accompanies the SMS kids to our dormitory-building, while the "typical" kids go home. Then the "real work" begins as Jamaima rotates between each of the kids to help them with their homework. This tutoring is no small task as the kids are mostly all in different grades and are usually start out well behind the "typical kids" that have more likely attended school since they were young. As the night comes, all the children shower in the new bathrooms that we now have at SMS. They have dinner, and some of the older kids will study later into the night depending on how much lighting our solar panel and batteries can kick off (we are addressing this problem). The kids of course sleep in their clothes, or on hot days, in their underwear, and are each privaledged to have little wooden bunk-beds, with ensolyte foam mattresses.
A Few Small Projects
On this last trip, Lisa and Jamaima designed some more practical frames for each cot's mosquito net - a requirement in Kenya to avoid against Malaria. Jamaima and most of the adults we spoke to said they have all had malaria several times in their lives, treated with medicine from the local clinic near the Koins Center. However, Jamaima says that the smaller kids usually don't make it even with the treatment.
Rowe also worked with the local Kenyans on the several "playground" projects to help the SMS kids with physical therapy. The larger project was to finish off sanding, painting and cementing a swing-set in the ground. The basic steel frame of the swing-set was already complete before we arrived, and YouTube has a funny video of Bret interviewing the head welder as to whether he understood what he was making (given that the locals had never seen a swing-set before, he had no idea):
. We also designed, welding and built some balance beams for the kids (starting with Beja) that have difficulty walking to work on their upper body strength.
Visiting the Miyani School Where the SMS Kids Are Being Integrated
As Lisa and I visited the Miyani school classrooms, we were struck by two themes: 1) the kids were extraordinarily well behaved and hard-working. Apparently, the alternative of working in subsistence farming is so grueling that this provides a real incentive for kids to work hard in school; and, 2) the kids were genuinely happy, as pronounced by their wonderful smiles. As we entered each class (more just looking in the doorway as there is little walking room), there would usually be one of our integrated SMS kids that would light up and say "Jumbo" ("hi") and we could then usually say "Jumbo" back, with the special recognition of knowing their name. In a small way, we were so happy that the SMS school and our "family" was allowing the handicapped kids to no longer be a scourge and outcasts, but very much be accepted, if not even with a touch of envy. All of the Miyani "typical" kids know of the SMS facilities, which are woefully deficient by developed world standards but are superb by local standards, even though Koin's policy is not to create huge inequalities among each school's facilities. Nevertheless, out of necessity, the Miyani typical kids are not allowed to use the swing-set (which none had ever seen when we built in this last trip) and SMS facilities unless they are invited by an SMS student as part of a "play-date", so we hope the incentive to integrate and be kind to the SMS kids is strong.
In each classroom, there would be some other kids that would enjoy the adventure of interacting with us, trying to talk to us in their broken English, with "how are you?" being the most common phrase. Then finally there were many kids, especially the young, that had probably rarely seen Caucasians before, and one could see a touch of wonderment and fear in their body language. Several of the Miyani school and neighborhood kids avoided physical contact with us, even though the SMS kids that knew us well (and that were living away from their parents for each three month semester) clearly cherished it.