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Off the Beaten Path
Learning from a Trip to Kenya
By Teresa L. Wiedrick

Off the Beaten Path: Learning from a Trip to Kenya

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 a hit.

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 at or Carpe diem!

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