Teaching Children “Usiogope” (Do Not Fear)
Greetings from Isibania! It’s difficult to believe that it’s been a month since Lindsey Kneuven left Kenya. I’m so honored and humbled to have the opportunity to play a part in supporting Nuru’s Education Program and have been loving every busy and exciting moment of my time here. I came on at a very interesting time when we had just scaled our outreach program to four new schools, which gave me the rare opportunity to observe the difference in knowledge, skills and attitudes between students at schools we’ve worked with for some time and those at the new schools.
Children truly have many things to fear here: hunger, illness, loss of family members and friends, early marriage, genital mutilation, and so on. Yet, a daily and pressing fear for them is caning. Caning in schools is illegal in Kenya, yet still, children are caned openly for simple mistakes, tardiness, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the most important lessons Nuru’s Education team teaches, I like to sum up in a term I hear them say regularly: ‘usiogope’, which means ‘do not fear’. They repeat this term constantly to coax the children out of their shells, encourage them to try new things without fear of failing, and know that no punishment awaits them regardless of what their answers or questions may be. Because of this, children in schools we have visited for some time are visibly much more active, engaged, and willing to participate, and even allow themselves the freedom to laugh, ask crazy questions, and just enjoy learning.
We’re here to support English language learning (one of the official languages of Kenya) and through it, all the positive impacts it will has on the futures of young people here. As a team, we recently brainstormed ways to help students build the confidence and skills needed to overcome obstacles to reading, writing and comprehension, and discussed a number of techniques to help the students recognize and sound out letters as well as to break down longer words into more manageable parts.
The next day George, part of our team, was using a book about animals with a group of Class 2 (or second grade) students. Animals are everywhere here. When I walk home from work, I dodge swinging tails of cows, step over chicks chasing mother hens, and am welcomed home by the buoyant leaping of neighborhood dogs. Perhaps because they are so common, a few children know some of the simple three-letter names in English. However, some students, especially a group of very shy girls in the back of this class, were too afraid to attempt reading or writing very short words…or even to make eye-contact with George at the beginning of class. George was patient and extremely engaging. He used new phonetic teaching techniques he had just learned and put his own innovative spin on them. When the children had no idea how to spell ‘sheep’, he asked them to make the noise to tell each other to be quiet and asked them how you would spell that ‘shh’ sound. Then, he asked them about the ‘eep’ sound and the first student guessed ‘ip’ (the letter ‘i’ in Kiswahili is pronounced like a long ‘e’ in English), and George walked them through what a short ‘i’ and what a long ‘e’ sounds like in English. With impressive skill, he drew a ship and a sheep for them and helped them understand the difference in the meanings as well.
When they were too afraid to try ‘kitten’, he asked who knew how to spell the word ‘kit’ and who knew how to spell the word ‘ten’, then showed them how the two words together make the word kitten. They were thrilled to know how to spell a six-letter word. At the end of the class, the group of girls who hadn’t even made eye contact with George at the beginning were jumping up to volunteer to write the new words they’d learned (and wrote them correctly!).
I have to say that the caliber of the education team is incredible. They are brimming with brilliance and passion for their community, especially the young minds they work with day to day. Literacy takes time. Change certainly doesn’t happen overnight. However, I have been amazed and impressed to see how incredible transformations in understanding and confidence can take place in less than even an hour.