I was asked why I wasn’t bringing the kids’ studies
on our two-month trip, ten time zones away. School was not out yet. It was
only the beginning of April. There was no explaining that home educating
one’s children is a lifestyle, not a conventional school option.
We’ve been rooted in this western Canadian town for
the last three years. As my husband gave up his full time, small town medical
practice, he pursued a shared position, so we could explore the world the
other half year, and he could maintain his skills, or stretch them a whole
lot. Half of those three years we’ve been travelling. Not always to exotic
places. Sometimes in our town’s backyard. Sometimes south to Vancouver Island,
north to Fort St. John, over to Canmore and even all the way to Inuvik,
near the Arctic Circle, and everywhere in between. This time, though, we
were planning exotic: a volunteer trip to Kapsowar, a rural mountain town
in northeast Kenya.
In Kenya, as we watched uniformed primary level kids
walk an hour for their seven a.m. school start, where we watched five year
old children piggyback their baby siblings, where we watched children gather
firewood and water for their full day activity, where learning to read and
attending high school was a privilege, we saw that it was not a right for
most children to be taught anything; it was a privilege to go to school.
We’d often been asked why we homeschooled -- weren’t the kids missing something
educationally or socially. Certainly it wouldn’t be understood here.
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 other people, to an even
tinier village twenty minutes away. We walked another fifteen minutes, past
straw woven maize silos, shambas (family farms), wandering cows and sheep,
and unkempt, runny nosed children. We stopped at the only Christian school
in the area, started three years before. The village chief’s wife had a
vision to care for the littlest children of the village, while mothers were
at work. Quickly, the hundred fifty person school developed on the mountainside.
Two squatting latrines were available to all. 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. Hmm, it made me sad that the culture functions the
way it does, but if those were the only options for my children, I, too,
might want my child in school, performing exceptionally on tests, not wandering
the countryside searching for spare beans for the daily meal.
But I’m not from a developing country, and I think
that ingenuity and ambition have lots of potential. That children, given
some direction and a healthy dose of direction, will chart their own path.
That’d be why I didn’t bring the math workbooks, cursive practice or a host
of other things we do six months of the year. The education is in the cross-culture.
It’s an immersion in the language, the food, the social faux-pas, the music,
and people’s stories. 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 to appreciate what we have.
The kids also had a solid dose of what it’s like to
be different. They were white. Toddlers in the market would burst into tears
seeing our skin. They’d not seen muzungus before. Walking past
schoolyards, swaths of uniformed kids ran toward us, yelling ‘muzungu, muzungu’
and giggling ferociously, unaware that laugh transcends language. My kids
didn’t enjoy it, but I would let them greet us, shake hands, and let them
touch my skin, occasionally singing to them: Jesus Loves the Little
Children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in His sight, even the grown-up kids like me.
Our children were introduced to new skill sets. In
Canada, for privacy and safety reasons, our kids could not spend a day with
dad in the hospital emerg assessing patients. In Kapsowar, they each took
daily turns rounding on pediatrics and the male medical ward. One day, we
even put on adult scrubs and masks and headed to the operating room. Daddy
showed them what he does for patients in the OR: anaesthetics. The kiddos
could watch their first surgeries: thyroidectomy, exploratory laparotomy
and orthopedic repair of a broken arm. The sprawling intestines weren’t
Our kids learned about road safety. There are no sidewalks
and the vehicles have the right of way. The surroundings were hilly, presently
green, and ripe for ankle sprains. The tan brown dust or muck, dependent
on the previous night’s rain, stained the clothes and shoes. But no matter
what puddle we had to step through, or wild chickens we must climb over,
the motorcycles on this continent demand immediate attention: get off the
road if you want to live.
The kids learned about food availability and scarcity.
Most Kenyans can tell you what they ate during their childhood, not a broad
array of possibilities as we North Americans can share. Rather, the daily
menu plan: chai and bread for breakfast, beans and cabbage for lunch, and
ugali (maize porridge), collard greens and possibly sheep stew for dinner,
if you had the means. When I grew up, I was told to finish my plate, because
the Ethiopians were starving. I couldn’t resist asking if African kids were
picky too. Turns out, they don’t always eat their dinner either. Even for
those of us with means, the grocery store is still a rough three hour ride.
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 many new
foods, because we were hungry. We learned to be more thankful for our food,
even if it was beans, again.
We’ve learned to manage airports. The children have
learned to follow the leader, dad in front with his suitcase, then the four
little ducklings, and mama duck guarding the end. We managed eleven airports.
They got a thrill out of customs and security. Belt off, back pack in separate
bucket, wait for a parent on the other 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.
To enable local jobs, we had a house helper and a cook.
We didn’t always know what to do when we outsourced our daily routine. The
kids were bored at times. They said that having work makes them enjoy play
more. I have learned when travelling that toys aren’t necessary. The girls
sewed dresses, baked brownies, bread, and treats of all sorts. The kids
learn that quality of life is not based on what you own. Good books, new
people to meet, even if you don’t understand the language, are what make
an interesting life. Soccer balls were popular, though, available only when
muzungus came to town. Preschool children wandered about the neighbourhood
for hours. When a surprise mid-day thunderstorm found a few little ones
playing in our yard, I scootched everyone onto the back verandah of our
brick and mortar home. At lunch, when I realized the rain would not let
up, we went inside for chai and quick bread. I asked our house helper if
their mothers would be worried. Agnes giggled; they wouldn’t be worried,
they assume the kids are safe, and they would have an interesting story
to share with their mamas.
Our kids have many stories to share now too. Hannah,
Madelyn, Rachel, and even three year old Zach, have come home appreciating
everything from cheddar cheese to chores to pedestrian safety laws. And
I’d say that we most definitely extended our study year to include two extra
months in school.
Teresa Wiedrick has been a home educator
of four kiddos for the last seven years. She and her family are building
a homestead in the West Kootenays of British Columbia, Canada. She seizes
her days by blogging about travel, homeschooling, and all things home, and
in her spare time, is trying to finish a novel. She would love to meet you