Life lessons from my personal Victories and Defeats.

As impossible as it may seem you’ve got to fight for every dream, coz who’s to know, the one you let go would have made you complete…. West life’s Flying without Wings.

Struggling is the real meaning of life, victory and defeat, are in the hands, Of God so one, must enjoy in struggling.

I remember reading these words on a little cloth wall hanging at home. I must have been six or seven then. Beyond their rhythmic and lyrical sounds, they were just plain words, written on a cloth and hung on the wall.
I saw them again a couple of weeks ago. In my neighbors’ house. I read them slowly this time, twice. No longer noticing their rhythm but the wisdom they carried.
In January this year, I took up a teaching job and moved hundreds of miles from family and friends to a ‘strange land ‘and a school in the middle of a forest. I came out in search of among other things, meaning of life, peace of mind, adventure and a new real challenge.

In retrospect now, I understand that one more reason I ran off was because I had stopped enjoying everyday life. I had turned into an unfortunate unmotivated pessimist and I needed to get up on my feet as fast as I possibly could. I too was stuck in what the writer of ‘Who moved my Cheese’ calls a rut race.

Instead of enjoying the beautiful sunrise in the city, I hated getting up. I loathed struggling to get a matatu in the morning and listening to Maina and king’angi rant about how impossible it was to have a happy marriage, throwing one more cold blanket over my romanticized belief in happily ever afters’. I distasted getting through the office door every morning and settling in to just another day of routine. I looked forward to Fridays, end of year and salary increments. Just anything to make life more bearable. Most days, I was too worked up to call my friends. Consequently, my friendships suffered. At home, I was too exhausted to spend quality time with family and I got a lot of ‘oh, what happened to you, we miss the ‘real you’. That, coming from the teenagers in my house didn’t help my mood much. I never got enough time to write and hence my dream of writing was becoming a mirage. At one point, I stopped working with teens in church, gave up high school missions and stopped going to church for a while. My relationship with God was fading too. And I felt that I badly needed to figure out my life on my own, Alone.

And there was my good friend M, in almost the same job as mine, enjoying work. Enjoying church, putting in too much effort in our friendship, trying to get me back to my ‘real self again(okay, what’s the deal with the so called ‘real Me’, could the real me please stand up?  then again, (*why is it that when your life is really not working out your friends seem to be having a ball? Huh

There is something about the human spirit. About just how low we can allow ourselves to sink in that bottomless abyss of hopelessness. Mostly at such times, if we look hard enough, there is always that one life rope that is dangling right before our eyes, that Shakespearian tide that passes once and if we ride on it just at the right time, it will lead us to meaning again. For it is God’s simple way of telling us ‘I got your back buddy’.

Mine came in the form of a phone call. From an uncle who heard news of a school looking for a Business\ Geography teacher somewhere in Baringo. It wasn’t exactly the prestigious job I had hoped for, but at least it offered a chance to work with teenagers. Plus I would get a holiday, I’d get to be home over Christmas (yeah it’s that childhood habit I can never give up. singing carols, decorating the tree, sending out cards, letters and gifts* can’t wait for this year’s…..136 days to go:–) and it wasn’t routinely boring. As a bonus, it would allow me to employ my creativity as much as I deemed possible for the benefit of another humans’ holistic development.

I travelled to Eldoret, for the very first time in my life. Changed my mind when I figured just how far Baringo was but sat for the interview nonetheless. I accepted the job not knowing even how much I’d get as a salary, that how badly I needed to get my life back on track again!

I got the job, wrote a resignation at my other job, packed my bags and went off, to meet my random future in confidence.
In her book ‘the Blue Sweater’ by Longhorn Publishers, (the most inspiring book I have read this year) Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund international says, ‘they say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I took mine, and fell flat on my face. (In her twenties, Jacque gave up a promising wall street career and moved to Africa to ‘change the world’ only to find out, as I would later on, that, to change the word requires God given wisdom and patience and a stubborn persistence and refusal to give up and giving what you have in totality, your 100% despite it not being enough sometimes.

Unlike Jacque, my landing was rather smooth ,at first. I started off on a dreamy cruise. Enjoying the company of teenagers and doing what I deemed everything within my power to help them build big dreams and realize them.

In term one, I wrote a play (for the very first time in my life) then spent endless weeks directing and training with the students. It did look hopeless at first and I remember going to my wood cabin house distraught and almost hopeless when after auditions, it turned out that only one of my over 50 drama students could speak clear and good English, with correct pronunciation and minimal mother tongue influence. So it came to pass that as I trained the students on stage movement, facial expression and mastery of content, I had to work hard on pronunciation too.

Weeks of endless practice and sleepless nights culminated into an agonizing hour of reckoning at the Baringo County Drama Festivals and I held my breath all through, feeling like the Ghanaian football coach during the world cup match against Paraguay. The performance went beautifully. No forgotten lines, no stammering, perfect classical music in the background and a total silence in the hall full of a captivated animated faces.

In his book ‘The Alchemist’ the Brazilian Bestselling author Paulo Coelho tells the story of a young shepherd boy, Santiago, who leaves his home in search of a treasure he has been dreaming of. As fate would have it, he ends up penniless at a merchants’ shop. He then comes up with a great business idea and coaxes the merchant to adopt it in his business.’ We have to take advantage, it is called the principle of favorability or beginners luck’ he says.

We got third position, most original play and best actor and proceeded to the Rift Valley Provincials. I watched my students shout and scream with joy and felt a warm sensation in my heart thinking that perhaps this was my ‘beginners luck’ and the sky was the limit. I would soon find out that I was, after all, quite wrong.


Blaming teachers for illiteracy and poor language? No Please, Blame society

With the rather eventful just-ended teachers’ strike and the release of a coinciding report showing that over half the children in our public schools are illiterate , there has been a public outcry and blame on teachers dubbing them lazy and claiming that children cannot read because teachers do not teach them.
Being a high school teacher, reader and writer, I have been following these debates closely and I dare dub them ridiculous.
Truth be told, the critics (well meaning and otherwise) need to know that language skills are ACQUIRED not taught. What do I mean? Experts of linguistics will tell you that it is not possible to teach someone a language. What a language instructor does is teach the basic rules of grammar in the language with a few examples, it is then up to the learner to read material in that said language, answer questions and generally speak and practice until they master the rules of that language and hence the language.
As you may have noticed, the instructor’s role in this case is as limited as a preachers’ role in a wedding ceremony. The preacher only declares the couple ‘husband and wife’ but it is entirely up to the said couple to focus and make their marriage work.
How then, can one expect a teacher to ‘teach’ a child language when the child neither reads books nor speaks the language except during the lesson?
My deep conviction is that eradication of illiteracy and language development in Kenya is not a one man show but a rather whole society issue. Everyone has a role to play and this is how.
Being the major decision maker in the education sector, the government can start by including compulsory story books in the many textbooks they give to schools in the Free Education plan. And not just any texts; well written, interesting graded stories that are likely to inspire children to read some more. Making this a compulsory requirement from class one and even having it examined at the end of the school year could do wonders in boosting the language of a child. The students will reach form four having read at least 12 books which is fair enough considering some students I spoke to recently confessed they only read ‘set books’ and absolutely nothing else.
The government need also start treating language development as a public utility by funding useful TV programs that private investors are unwilling to venture into because of low profitability. The government and not private institutions should be at the fore front of funding programs like ‘the Great Debaters Contest’ that are turning our students into confident and eloquent thinkers and speakers. This will perhaps make future parliamentary proceedings more intellectual and solution-focused and less dramatic and personal as they currently are. Quality local plays can also be aired on TV and radio and I believe they will be useful to the crop of students that do not really enjoy the large percentage of Nigerian movies and local music being aired currently in the spirit of 50% local content.
Needless to say, parents too play a very major role in the language development of their children.
For one, they have a direct influence on whether their children develop interest in reading at an early age or not. A child who watches a parent read is likely to pick up a book themselves and read it.
Whenever I go over to my sisters’, my seven year old nephew cannot let me read in peace unless he too has a book to read. As a rule, I never go over without a children’s’ book for him because he will insist on reading the one I have together with me. Needless to say, the young boy is able to read and speak better than other children of his age.
Another way parents can influence language development is through giving gifts of books for birthdays, Christmas or when rewarding positive behavior. An effective strategy would be to go with the child to the bookstore and let them choose the book s\he wants to read. Another way would be to carefully select a book in the line of interest of the child e.g if she wants to become a nurse or doctor, a childrens’ book of either Florence Nightingale or Ben Carson’s story could be just the right inspiration.
Signing your child up for membership at the local Kenya National library Services available in most parts of the country would encourage the child to visit and hopefully develop a reading culture. Regulating TV hours, buying them newspapers with ‘children’s’ sections’, alternating computer/TV with reading or even buying your child a diary or journal could help the child dialogue with their inner self and develop writing skills.
Schools and Teachers.
Through introduction of compulsory library lessons (and ensuring children read books and not magazines during the lesson), weekly inter-school debates and functional writers and reading clubs, schools are in a very good position to stimulate interest in reading and writing .
Reward systems that include gifts of books in place of money and cups could also be a plus.
A teacher, being well placed to double up as a mentor, can inspire children to read. This could be done through putting up quotes from writers and examples of young writers work at the back of the classroom. This and mentioning a great story every week will get good students looking for the books.
Teachers can encourage students to write a school magazine or even letters to the editor(being student work, they will probably be published) and truth be told, there is no greater encouragement for a writer to keep writing than seeing their name in print.
After all a good teacher inspires a good student to find his own wings in the world.
Media houses/ publishers and Writers
Publishers and writers can organize reading contests and awards, read-a-thons, reading and writing workshops and spelling bees for children. Media houses can help writers and publishers do this by giving them the publicity they badly need. Like a publishing editor friend of mine told me recently ‘CSR is about funding activities that will put you in the limelight, no use putting your money where there is no publicity. Perhaps in their own little way, the media can make publishers stimulate literacy in Kenya.
So it looks like raising a child is after all a communal affair, and the earlier we accept it, the better. As for the teacher critics, please note that kidole kimoja hakiui chawa!
The writer is a teacher, trainer and blogger at twitter: @mwanigaminage