February 27 - March 1, 2009
To celebrate the success of Tirrim’s standard 8 pupils, the Area Education Officer for our district decided that all the teachers from the seven little schools in this district should be rewarded with a trip (that’s the way things are done here in Kenya, it seems… the kids do well, the teachers get a reward!). Word went out to each headmaster that they needed to raise a certain amount of money – not from the teachers, but the community, so that the communities could show their support for the teachers. (Arg! How could I go for a weekend away on the shillings of the Rendille?!?! Hooray for being able to make anonymous donations!) Money was raised, and the trip was on!
We would be heading to a resort in South Horr (look it up! That one’s actually on the map!), would be fed, and would go there and back with special chartered transportation.
But then, remember, this is Africa!
The resort wasn’t exactly a resort (though it was pretty nice!). The women – all five of us – stayed in huts with bunk beds, bamboo leaf roofs, and a kerosene lantern. The two married couples also got huts. The other 60 or so men slept on the concrete basket ball court. About 20 had foam mattresses, the rest slept on a tarp, most without sheets, cause there was no indication that we had to bring bedding. I was extra thankful for my bed when I heard that!
We arrived Friday night and had supper (over the weekend, they slaughtered 5 goats to feed us all!). Saturday morning and early afternoon we had a few sessions. I kept thinking – this is professional development African style!
We met under the roof of the basket ball court, which bordered on a trail where Samburu warriors and herders – children as young as 6 years old – walked their cattle and goats back and forth from their village to various grazing areas. As we met, the cattle passed, their metal bells clanging back and forth as they walked. Then came the goats, bleating away as they walked. We spotted some monkeys playing in the trees above us as we talked.
We began the meeting with a brainstorming sesson aboug what makes a good teacher, which was a good inspiration. But of course, things quickly turned to politics. We got into groups and brainstormed some of the problems facing education in the north, and it was amusing to think that, except for the monkeys and the warriors, that it very well could have been Canada – too many kids in classrooms (but here, some teachers have classes of 50, 75 and even 100 kids), too few resources (but here, there is one English textbook for my class or 27 kids), teachers are underpaid (but here, many teachers make nearly nothing, often being paid about the same as a house helper/maid).
But there were problems unique to the north, too. For pastoralist people who keep camels and goats and sheep, the children are needed to take care of the animals. They take the herds far away in search of grazing and of water. If all the children go to school, there is no one left to tend the herds. How do you strike a balance?
After we listed problems and solutions (which basically ended up being “We need more money.”), the Area Education Officer spent nearly an hour and a half telling people that they should stop complaining about these problems, look how much has already been done (at least we have schools… we can’t afford teachers, but we’ve hired untrained people to teach… etc). He then told people that they should really take charge of their lives and go to continue their education so they can help solve some of these problems (gulp!) I asked our head teacher afterward what he thought of all this. He said the AEO was just motivating people and that he came away from the weekend really encouraged. I came away from the weekend angry and feeling pretty defensive for these teachers! I chalked it up to a different cultural understanding. If people felt encouraged, that’s great. That’s what the weekend was supposed to be about. Eekers!
But the best part of the weekend – an experience I’m so glad I had, but am also glad it’s over – was the special chartered transportation. Sixty people on the back of a public lorry. And not just any ol’ public lorry – a beat up, old, yellow lorry loaded with lumber and tables and all kinds of junk, with some of the metal bars up top lashed together with rubber straps and others sketchily welded together.
I spent the first part of the ride there up at the front, wedged in with a ton of people, hanging on to the bars and bouncing around with everyone else. At least I wasn’t one of the ones sitting up on TOP of the bars. Bumping along and balancing your butt on a two inch metal tube isn’t exactly my idea of comfortable! A lot of the guys rode the whole way like that. I have no idea how they did it, especially considering they had to be constantly on the lookout for overhead branches and duck when we passed under, lest the be torn to pieces by the nail-like thorns!
When my friend Janet and I got tired of standing and clutching the bars for dear life got too tiring, we found a place to sit on a large sack of maize for the remainder of the journey. Thankfully we were under the canopy for most of the trip, so there was at least a little protection from the sun.
The 100 km journey took about six and a half hours over bumpy, dusty desert roads. We stopped at every little town along the way (and a few that were not along the way) to pick up other teachers from the district: Ballah, Namarey, Ngurinit, Illaut... the lorry got more and more crowded with teachers and other random travelers who hopped a ride.
There were a few mamas with babies and a Borana woman who was making trouble, saying that Marsabit, a traditional Rendille area, was Borana country (the Rendille and the Borana are not exactly friends). There was some random dude with an AK-47 that he propped up against the fuel drum he was sitting on and an outgoing pastor who found that the solution to the cramped, dusty, bumpy ride was to get people to sing at the top of their lungs. It worked! You can’t be grumpy when you’re singing!
And then there was the miraa*-chewing muslim man who was stoned the whole trip and insisted that I should marry him and take him back to Canada with me. When my friend told him that I was a Christian and that I wanted to marry someone else who was a Christian, he told her to stop talking and go away, she was leading me astray. I assured him that, no, she’s right, I want to marry a Christian, and he’s a Muslim. “Well that’s not a democracy!” he told me. “Who says anything about a democracy? I can choose who I marry, and I choose to marry someone with the same faith as me.” I’m sure he thought I was the rudest woman in the world. It was mostly in good fun, though I did stay far away from him for the rest of the ride. He didn’t give me anymore trouble, as his attention quickly turned to the guy sitting on his stash of miraa, nearly starting a fist-fight on the back of the lorry.
Before the fist fight got going, however, everyone was distracted by a large part of the lorry FALLING OFF onto the road behind us. ‘Member how I talked about the sketchy welding? Well a piece of the tubing that made up the top of the lorry – it came up from the back corner and then bent and met the beam in the middle – had just had it with everyone sitting on it or holding on to it, and it completely broke off. For a while we thought that someone had fallen off with it, but the two guys who were hanging on to it flung themselves forward into the lorry and were OK. We stopped and a few guys dropped and ran to pick it up. Over the course of the trip, five of the twelve joints had broken.
As far as the driver goes, he was nice enough on the way there, and drove alright, doing his best to mitigate the bumps in the road for his passengers in the back. The ride back, however, was a different story! I think he must have been angry with us or something (we were told that we’d be leaving South Horr at 8am sharp, but knowing about African time, I thought a safe bet might be 10am. We didn’t leave till ten to TWELVE! Or maybe it’s cause he thought we were wrecking his truck!), because he drove like an absolute madman. Janet and I had found our seats on a pile of round-ish wooden poles and we were leaning up against the side of the lorry, our backs just the right height to be against the 1/4 inch metal rail that ran down the side of the lorry. We bumped and we banged and we rattled like crazy as the driver sped through the desert with the wind, causing great billows of dust to pour into the back of the lorry. And the driver slowed down for nothing. At least a dozen times the truck banged so fiercely that I was bounced 6-12 inches into the air, slamming back down again – butt on the poles and back on the rail.
Janet at one point told the driver, “Hey! Remember you’ve got people back here, not sacks of maize!” He just laughed and said that he had forgotten that, that he was sorry, and would drive more carefully. He got crazier. Even the land rover carrying the head honcho people behind us couldn’t believe how this dude was driving!
We could have been miserable, but, like the Rendille seem to do, we all sang instead. The pastor lady, who was sitting directly in front of me, led most of the signing, and as the bumps got more severe, she just sang louder. This photo is from a video I have of her dancing around and whistling and whooping. Notice the poor guy next to her - he has a bandana over his face keep the dust out, and his hands over his ears to dampen the decibels coming out of this fabulously rambunctious woman!
The whole weekend was a pretty cool experience. Despite the stiff body and bruises on my back (!!!), I might even venture to say I enjoyed it! It was definitely an experience to remember. No professional development I’ve ever done or will ever do will rival this one, that’s for sure!
* miraa – a stimulant drug that’s common here in the North – it’s a plant whose leaves, when chewed, make you pretty much lose your mind. A lot of lorry driver here chew it so they can drive for days without sleeping and make more deliveries, and thus more money.