I was asked why I wasn’t bringing the kids’ studies on our two month trip, ten time zones away. The school year was not out yet. It was only the beginning of April. Throughout our time home educating, I have borrowed ideas from the classical and unschooling approaches. Every summer I have read solidly from Susan Wise-Bauer and got ideas to add to our homeschool routine; then I voraciously consumed everything John Holt to temper any conventional ideas about scheduling and curriculum.
Home educating children is a lifestyle, not a conventional school option.
During that time, my husband gave up his demanding (more than) full-time position to pursue a shared position so we could explore the world the other half of the year. We travelled to not-so-exotic places, sometimes in our towns’ backyard. We travelled south to Vancouver Island, north to Fort St. John, east to the Rocky Mountains, and even to the arctic into Inuvik. This time, though, we were planning somewhere exotic: a trip to Kapsowar, a rural mountain town in northeast Kenya.
We had often been asked why we home educated: weren’t the kids missing something educationally or socially? In Kenya, we watched uniformed primary kids walk an hour for their seven a.m. school start, five year old children piggyback their baby siblings, adult men gather firewood and water for a full day’s wages. Learning to read and write and attend school was a privilege, when so many others could not. It was not a right for most children to be taught anything; it was an honour to go to school.
One afternoon, we went on a field trip. We were going to school. Our four children, aged three to eleven, and our house helper, Agnes, took a Toyota-sized taxi, along with four strangers, to an even tinier village twenty minute away. We then walked fifteen minutes, past woven maize silos, shambas (family farms), wandering cows and sheep, and children, so many children of so many ages.
We stopped at the only private school in the area, started three years prior. The village chief’s wife had a vision to care for the littlest children of the village, while mothers went to work. Quickly, the hundred fifty person school developed on the mountainside. Two squatting latrines were available to all the children and staff. A four person brick outhouse was under construction, but money had run out.
The principal eagerly welcomed us into his office, without appointment, serving us Fanta sodas. He shared his hope for each of his schoolchildren: that they would perform well as their final pre-high school exam would determine their high school placement, which would then decide their college placement, which would finally determine their place in society. An African caste system. If those were the only options for my children in this developing country, I, too, might want my child in school, performing stellar in tests, not wandering the countryside searching for spare beans for today’s meal, not discovering the waking habits of the local alligator in its Creekside home.
The education is in the cross-culture. I didn’t bring the math workbooks, cursive practice or a host of other schoolish things. An immersion in the language, the food, the social faux-pas, the music, and people’s stories were all we needed. We had a guest speaker every time we talked to someone. They introduced us to chapatis, chai tea, cabbage and beans. They introduced us to shaking hands warmly with strangers, directly looking into people’s eyes, and acknowledging every child. They introduced us to sharing, even when there was almost no food in the straw hut kitchen. They taught us to slow down, understand that more is not more, and appreciate what we already have. This was an extension of the organized education they already had back home.
Our kids grew comfortable being themselves when they had a regular dose of what it’s like being different. They are white. Parents in the market yelled ‘muzungu muzungu’ (white person, white person) to warn their children and their toddlers, who burst into tears seeing our washed out skin. Muzungus were new to them as Africa was new to us.
Walking past schoolyards, swaths of uniformed kids ran toward us behind their wire fences, yelling at us: muzungu, muzungu and giggling fiercely, unaware that laugh transcends language. My kids didn’t enjoy it, but I stopped, let them greet us by shaking hands, and allowing them to touch my skin, occasionally singing ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight’, even grown-up kids like me.
Our children were introduced to new skill sets. At home, our kids couldn’t spend a day with dad in the hospital emerg assessing patients. In the rural mountain of Kapsowar, they took daily turns doing rounds on pediatrics and the male medical ward. One day, we each took turns dressing in adult scrubs and masks and headed to the operating room. Daddy showed them what he does for patients in the OR: intubations, IVs, and anaesthetics. They watched their first surgeries: thyroidectomy, exploratory laparotomy and orthopedic repair of a broken arm. The sprawling intestines weren’t a hit.
Our kids explored new terrain. The surroundings were hilly, presently green, potholed and ripe for ankle sprains. The tan brown dust dirt stained our clothes and shoes. No matter what puddle we stepped through, or wild chickens we climbed over, the motorcycles on this continent demanded immediate attention: get off the road if you want to live. We were re-introduced to pedestrian safety: the vehicles have the right of way despite no sidewalks.
Our kids learned about food availability and scarcity. Most Kenyans can tell you what they ate during their childhood. The daily menu plan: chai and bread for breakfast, beans and cabbage for lunch, and ugali (maize porridge), collard greens and if you were lucky, sheep stew.
Even for those of us with means, the grocery store was still a rough three hour ride away. It was a treat to have a bag of carrots or apples. Though unaccustomed and not so curious to make new friends with new foods, we all tried new foods, because we were hungry. We learned to be more thankful for our food, even if it was beans, again.
When I grew up, I was told to finish my plate, because the Ethiopians were starving. So, I couldn’t resist asking if African kids were picky. The woman I asked rolled her eyes, “Of course.”
Our kids managed extensive travelling. Eleven airports. Dad in front with his suitcase, four little ducklings, and mama duck guarding the end. They got a thrill out of customs and security. Belt off, backpack in separate bucket, wait for a parent on one side and walk through with hopefully no beeping–except twice, when two of our children were patted down. The kids know how to pack. Seven outfits, one teddy, one blanket, one e-reader and one music player. Simple and sweet.
Our kids learned the value of daily chores. Even I didn’t always know what to do when we outsourced our daily routine. To enable local jobs, we were expected to hire a house helper and a cook. The kids and I were the house cleaner and cook at home (to our housekeeper’s surprise). The kids declared that having work made them enjoy their play more. Jaw drop.
Our children learned to quell boredom. Toys weren’t necessary when travelling. The girls sewed dresses, baked brownies, bread, and treats (when we had flour). The kids saw they didn’t have to own stuff to enjoy their days. Good books and new people: even if they didn’t speak Swahili, this is an interesting life.
Our children learned to connect with new people. Preschool children that wandered the neighbourhood were a surprise addition during a mid-day thunderstorm. I skootched everyone to the verandah of our brick and mortar home. At lunch, when I realized the rain would not stop, we went inside for chai and quick bread. I asked our house helper if their mothers would be worried. She giggled; they wouldn’t be worried, they assume the kids are safe; they would have an interesting story to share later.
Our kids have many stories to share too. Hannah, Madelyn, Rachel and toddler Zachary, arrived home appreciating everything from cheddar cheese to chores to pedestrian safety laws.
I’d say that in the conventionally schooled approach, we most definitely extended our study year to include two extra months in school.
Hannah’s thoughts (11):
“It was hard living there, because you didn’t have the things that you needed all the time, like water and food. The people were thoughtful. Sometimes they made you feel at home, but not always, like when they laughed at you. We went to the OR and people were working on intestines. They were burning up the bits that they didn’t want. The OR smelt like burned garbage, but worse.”
Madelyn’s thoughts (9):
“It was really different in Africa because everyone had less things than most people had here in North America. The children were really dirty and I think they only had, like, one pair of clothing. If you asked somebody what their food was when they were a child, they would say five basic things. My favourite food to eat there was sukimawiki, that was a collard green, with vinegar and salt. My least favourite thing to eat was beans, cause we had it for protein every night. There were American medical students at the hospital and they were fun to hang out with. It made me feel different being there. It made me appreciate what we had more. I would go back because it was so fun there. My fortune cookie last night said that ‘a little charity would go far’, so I think that means we are the charity and we need to go to Africa again.”
Rachel’s thoughts (7):
“There were other white people there, but not a lot. There were two tons, five tons, of black people. There was this guy that we were passing at the start of the market and he thought I was a kid, which I was, but he told me that I was doing something bad because I accidentally pushed Hannah. The only thing I liked about the market was that when I went into the store we got free lollipops. Agnes was very nice. I wasn’t expecting to have a cook and a maid at all. Meschach (an 11 year old boy) would follow dad running in the mornings. All of his brothers and sisters and friends would always come to see what we were carrying and ask if we could have it, in a give it to me way. It smelled like burned animals in the backyard (that’s where our garbage was burned). It was dirty, not anywhere like home. It didn’t have grass. Sometimes we watched the white people play basketball. We walked around with dad in the hospital. We went to Agnes’ kids school and there were ten thousand kids (150 actually). And me and Zach drank one full bottle of pop by ourselves. I peed in these very disgusting holes in the ground. I wished I could change myself into a boy then. I might want to go back but only in this year, because I don’t want more immunizations; it hurt so much.”
Zachary’s thoughts (4):
“I remember getting water out, so there isn’t any bacteria in. We just get some water from our tap. Then we get it outside (in clear bottles) and then we drink it all up (after we let it sit in the sun for eight hours, filtered it, then boiled and cooled it actually). I met Afwican people. Bryan’s (a young kid) pants were always going down. I was always seeing his bumb. The kids like to play with the soccer ball we brought. I gave them cars (matchbox). We lived in a little, so little, house. A boy had this thing and he got this thing where he collects these thingys. We took a taxi up on that mountain to see the Rift Valley. I want to ‘tay in Afwica forever, because I like Bryan.”