Thank God it's Friday

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Monday My first glimpse of the student body is a regiment of maroon jumpers clustered around the flagpole on the forecourt. I loiter at the entrance to the compound as I realise with terror that they're all staring in my direction. I know they can sense my fear floating over in the wind. The headmaster rescues me and ushers me into the staffroom. It's full of laughter and I'm given sweet milky tea and kitheri. Unsure of the etiquette, I worry about choking on the maize husks, but noticing that the other teachers just spit them out, I do the same. As the conversation drifts into Kiswahili, I feel very alone and shrink into my chair.

Tuesday They all look identical in their uniforms, both boys and girls with newly shaven heads for the start of term. The class stretches on for ever.

Row after row of wide eyes stare at me, with smiles that I'm sure are menacing. At the board, my hand shakes and I drop the chalk. Flustered, I gather up the pieces and write "Collective nouns" on the board. I give some examples but no one is writing anything down, until one girl speaks up.

"Madam, we already done." I have no idea what to do, so turn over the page in the textbook, and blunder through the next topic, knowing they can see I haven't a clue what I'm doing. It's my first lesson and I wish I had never come.

Wednesday I explore the area around the compound and end up walking through a field belonging to the local primary school. Unfortunately, I arrive at lunchtime, and 200 ragged children sprint after me, attempting to hold my hand and stroke my hair and shouting "How are you? How are you?" It's how it must feel to be famous, and I find myself running to get out of the gate and away from the mob, none of whom are taller than my elbow.

Thursday A cockerel wakes me up and, half asleep, I think he's shouting "How are you? How are you?" I'm still exhausted but go to school, where the students have been up since four. I want to teach singing but soon learn that the Kenyan children have no interest in learning about diction or breath control - they're happy just to sing their hearts out. I get them doing "London's burning" in three parts, and as the music emerges and the smiles get wider, I remember why I came and my fear floats away.

Friday Teaching "two west" has become the highlight of my day. I know some students' names now - Charity, Gilbert, Alfred, Caroline - and they listen to my ramblings on English grammar, attentive even when they don't understand my accent, and speaking up to ask me questions. My lessons become more successful and I realise the Kenyan children are keen to learn.

At the end of the day, I leave the classroom buzzing and proud and a girl rushes after me to carry my books. They're not so terrifying after all.

Alice Usher, 18, is a gap year volunteer teaching English and history at Kipsigak high school, Kenya. She has finished her planned three-month stint but has decided to stay on independently, lodging with one of the Kenyan teachers

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