Out of Africa

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Kenyan pupils entered a whole new world when they visited an Aberdeen school as part of a global exchange scheme. But for their Scottish counterparts, the return trip was equally life-changing

At home they start the school day at 4am and carry on working until 10 at night. So starting the day at Aberdeen's Dyce Academy at 8.30am means a long lie-in for the boys from Kenya.

Back in Kisumu it's a balmy 25C today, while in Aberdeen the boys have seen snow for the first time in their lives. Their immediate impressions of Scotland? "It's cold, but we're adapting to it," they smile politely through chattering teeth.

Fifteen-year-old Sunil Ochieng has made his first journey by plane. "The school is good and warm and the students are welcoming," he says shyly.

This weekend, they'll head for the ski slopes at the Lecht after a family ceilidh on Friday night. They're learning the Dashing White Sergeant in preparation - what a strange, cold country this must seem with its bizarre, shrieking dances.

But the welcome is warm and their hosts are kind. Geography teacher Elinor Farquharson is almost an empty-nester, with older children at university and one teenage son at home. This week, it's back to business as usual for Elinor, with four beds lined up dormitory-style for the Kenyan visitors.

Otieno Oyoo High School is a boarding school for 850 15- to 18-year-old boys in Kisumu, Kenya. The boys usually sleep in a dormitory with 100 other teenage boys. The longer lie-ins are quieter in the Aberdeen dorm.

The four boys have come to Aberdeen with two teachers to continue work on joint curricular projects in English and social subjects. Four fifth- and sixth-year girls from Dyce Academy joined classes at the boys' school for a week last month.

Links between these schools are funded as part of the Department for International Development's Global Schools Partnership programme and the focus is on working together. The programme is delivered by a consortium which includes the British Council, Cambridge Education Foundation, UK One World Linking Association and Voluntary Service Overseas.

Experiences like this are life-changing for pupils and teachers. The Aberdeen girls are affected by the commitment of the Kenyan pupils, with their long hours and dedication. It has made them reconsider their own attitudes towards education, to personal study and material possessions. For the boys, it's their first momentous glimpse of life outside Africa.

In Dyce Academy today, pupils are practising Swahili - modern languages teacher Anne Cullen was with the girls in Kenya and developed a video phrasebook. "Being a language teacher, I picked up a bit of Swahili, so my next class is going to use that and the boys from Kenya are coming into my class to help," says Mrs Cullen.

In social subjects, second-years hear about the changing lifestyle of the Masai people in a work group with Kenyan teacher Joifrees Otieno. "They are nomadic but now that the city is expanding, most of their grazing land is being taken for construction of cities," Mrs Otieno explains.

Their theme is Kenya and each visitor joins a second-year work group - one team examines artefacts, another investigates urban areas in Mombassa, others work on biographies. Sixty pupils at each school are creating these biographies for "My Life, Your Life", a major new project basing individual stories on questionnaires sent between the schools.

One of the visitors, 16-year-old George Okello, describes the daily routine back at home: "Our school starts at 4am and we go for morning prep and study on our own until 6am. Then at 6am, you break for breakfast and a shower and start classes with the teachers at 7am."

There are one or two breaks before lunch at 1.30pm and classes continue from 2pm until 4.30pm. They break for games and chores until supper at 6pm, before starting their personal study again at 6.30pm until bedtime at 10pm.

This is the routine seven days a week - on Sundays, they rise later, at 6am.

"Back home, education is the only key to a better life. So they have to endure hardship if they want to have a better future," says their teacher, Mrs Otieno, a mum of three girls who all attend boarding school.

She says these residential settings provide the best education for children in Kenya. The four boys are working towards university and future careers as doctors or lawyers.

"They all have high expectations, because those are well-paying jobs in Kenya. So nobody wants to be a teacher - they're not well paid, and it's a lot of work, and they see it," she says.

The girls' journey just three weeks ago is still fresh in their minds. "It was such a surreal experience, because you have 60 boys - some of them are 20, some are 15 - in the same class, with one teacher at the front writing up questions, and they are all dead silent," says 17-year-old sixth-year Sarah Munton.

"Some of them, you read the biographies and it says they didn't have shoes before they went to school. You would never know that, because they are all in the same uniform and dressed the same.

"We were reading them on the plane back and we were crying at some of them, because they were just that sad. But they don't see it as sad; they just see that's the way it is."

Another teacher who made the journey to the school in Kenya is Alan Millar, PT support for learning. "They are very focused," he says. "They know what they want. They're very friendly. Family is very important to them, the way they treat other people is very important to them, whereas over here we get lost in what we've got and what we want and what we need, even though we don't actually need it."

The pupils have also been reflecting on their experiences.

"It was more about how much we took for granted," says 17-year-old fifth- year Robyn Stirton. "They're so happy with what they have. They're always cheery - none of them are bored. They always find something to do. They're really keen and they really like school.

"I like school because I'm still here and I don't have to be. But so many people just take school for granted because they have to go. Some of these boys are funded and some of their parents have scraped really hard to find money for them. They have given everything they had, just so these boys can go to school."

Things have changed in Robyn's life since she got home. "I've always loved my iPod and my phone, and I've constantly been on that. I tend to spend more time with my family now, which I really like. Just because you feel so lucky to have them - a lot of these guys, their parents have died. In their autobiographies, a lot of them had said things like their mother had deceased and things like that."

Behind us, the dance practice is in full swing, with spirited clapping and laughter as the boys master the intricacies of Scottish country dancing.

"This is very different," smiles 16-year-old Francis Waweru. "The school is bigger and has everything in it, unlike ours which is somewhat smaller without many facilities. In our school we have 16 classrooms and we have boards and chalks; we don't use the laptops and projectors," he says.

There is internet access at his school, but only heads of department have computers. Francis wants to study medicine when he finishes school: "When I pass, I'll join the university - that is the policy in our school."

The boys are impressed with Dyce Academy, and not just because of the computers.

"This school is well-organised. When the bell rings and you look in the corridors, everybody is gone," says 17-year-old Solomon Ochieng.

For the academy pupils, this link has been part of their life since they started secondary school. Joanne Reid, 17, is now in sixth year and followed in the footsteps of her older brother, who travelled to Kenya with the school in 2005.

"They have to pay for their own school, which we don't. We just get it free but they have to try and get that money and they have to work hard for that," says Joanne, who is planning a career in the police.

Her friend Joanna Brims, 16, is in fifth year and helped research the comparative study of Aberdeen and Kisumu two years ago.

"I think people have a lot of bad preconceptions," says Joanna. "They think it will be what it's like in the slums. It's not. Maybe some things aren't so developed, but I thought it was a really nice place."

She also noticed the strong work ethic in Kenya. "You go over there and they know what they want and they will work hard for it. Then you come back here and everyone is just sort of lazing about in school - might do their homework, might not, just when they can be bothered."

The Kenyan approach has made a big impression. "I've always worked hard, but I want to work harder," she smiles. "I think I've decided I want to do medicine. I'm still not exactly sure."

So what is it like for teachers to come back to Scotland from a school where children run to their classes? "Oh, we have good points too," says Elinor Farquharson with a smile.


Links between the two schools were established after Dyce Academy's former head, Mike Taylor, led a visit to Kenya in 2005.

Since then, the relationship has flourished, thanks to the Global Schools Partnership, which has funded regular teacher exchanges and joint curricular projects.

Their first joint venture was an eco project where each school built a greenhouse from recycled plastic bottles and grew tomatoes.

"We started communicating by email with the assistance of the British Council. It's come this far and this is the second project we are doing. The first looked at waste management in both cities," says Solomon Okiro, deputy head at Otieno Oyoo High School.

The schools have written a book together, a comparative study of their cities' waste management strategies, involving hundreds of pupils at both schools in fieldwork and research.

"We looked at different urban zones in Aberdeen and Kisumu because they are both third cities in our countries," says Elinor Farquharson, faculty head of social subjects, who leads the partnership for Dyce Academy.

"It was just to break down stereotypes and make you realise cities are very similar, wherever you are in the world, and they are also very different."

Mr Okiro is on his second visit to Dyce Academy, where the children's biographies are a focal point for this new collaboration.

"We are different and yet we are the same," he says. "There are things we learn from here and there are things they learn from us."

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