Whatcom residents take teaching to task in Kenya

Published on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 by Brandy Kiger

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When Kenya vice president Stephen Kolonzo and his wife Pauline opened a school to educate 20 impoverished children 
under their care, they quickly found themselves in over their heads. So they called on Whatcom County residents Debra Akre and Jeana King of the Tembo Trading Education Project for advice.

“We got a phone call from a contact in Africa and they said ‘you can be here tomorrow, right? Because I said you would be able to’,” Akre said. “We knew we were going over to meet the vice president and his wife, but we didn’t know why or what that meant.”

In 2003, Akre took a leap and went to  Kenya to help open a college of business administration program. “At first I didn’t think it was a good idea, or that I would want to do it,” Akre said. “But Jeana convinced me to go.” Akre applied and was immediately accepted for the 7-month volunteer teaching position.

While there, King came to visit, and like Akre, she too fell in love with the area and its people. When they saw the gaps left in the rote education system used by the Kenyan government, they knew they needed to act. “They were still using corporal punishment,” King said, “which is detrimental to the learning process. It’s a behavior modification, and students are taught to not ask questions because if they do, they will be caned.”

Akre concurred. “I saw it in my college classes,” she said. “They didn’t know how to formulate questions or think for themselves because they had never been allowed to do that. When the system is rote, you don’t allow for creative or critical thinking. In a developing nation, they need that ability to innovate or things will never change.”

Akre and King set to work to raise funds and opened a school in 2005 in the Nakuru District of Kenya. Within five years, it 
had earned a ranking of 56 out of 3,000 private schools in the area. “When the first graduating class sat for national exams they came in first in the district,” King said. “The second year they repeated that and were listed as one of the top 100 private schools in the country.” They have since established a college program for teacher training and partnered with other schools to teach their critical thinking teaching methods and holistic approach to learning. 

It was that sustained success that led Kolonzo to contact King and Akre.

“His wife Pauline was so worried,” Akre said. “She’d never done this before and it had been left to her to see it through since they were in the middle of campaigning.”

They met with the Kolanzos to learn about their vision for the school and what they hoped to achieve, before spending four days onsite at Mama Malia Academy, the school that was built to honor Stephen Kolonzo’s mother.

“It’s a really nice campus in a beautiful area,” Akre said. “It’s under construction, but close to 90 percent done.”

She and King said they had to laugh a little at Pauline’s concerns. “We said to her, ‘Pauline, you have buildings! We didn’t have buildings when we started. This is great,’” Akre said. 

Mama Malia Academy is an elementary school for fourth through seventh graders, and had only been open for a month when the two Whatcom women arrived for their consult. “Pauline really wanted it to be a great environment for the kids,” King said. “What she quickly realized after our visit was that it doesn’t matter what the school is, it’s how you work with the kids and teach them that forms the environment.” 

King said that she and Akre met with the teaching staff and explained their teaching philosophy. 

“Pauline couldn’t believe what a difference things such as proper nutrition and a positive environment makes on kids,” Jeana said. “It was visibly noticeable in their appearance and demeanor. When you’re dealing with children who are malnourished, it’s amazing how quickly their bodies fill in and their attitudes change with a proper diet.” 

King and Akre stress the importance of proper nutrition as part of their “whole child” approach to learning. “Sponsoring a child to go to school doesn’t mean anything if they aren’t eating well,” she said. “When you don’t have protein, your brain can’t form the proper synaptic connections, and it’s difficult to learn.”

They spent four days at the school learning about the children and staff and teaching their philosophy. 

The principal of the academy later joined the team and other teachers and administrators in Nakuru for more training. “It’s a 
one and half year program we are putting people through,” Akre said. “We will be involved with training the staff and continue to monitor the school.” 

The two are positive about the progress they’ve made with the academy already, but it’s not the only thing on their plate. They’ve just signed the papers to break ground on a new primary school that will also serve as an educational center so the students at the college can gain practical experience in the classroom. 

“We want to show that the model can be successful starting with the very youngest children all the way up to the college level,” King said. “The younger the kids are introduced to these concepts, the more opportunity they will have to develop the skills they need to help them learn.”

Akre said that a lot of interest has been generated by the work they have done so far, and a professor from Kenyatta 
University is gathering statistics in order to present the results to the Ministry of Education. They hope that their model will be incorporated into the curriculum for the Kenya educational system.

Close to 140 students have graduated from their school since 2005 and King and Akre expect many more as they continue their work. 

For more information about King and Akre and their work in Kenya, visit tembotrading.org or email jeana@tembotrading.com. 

Tembo Trading Education Project is a registered nonprofit organization.