Joanna Goldberg sends weekly communiqués from Kenya, where she’s living with her kid
Erratic bus routes, clouds of exhaust fumes, no public playgrounds, preachers armed with microphones and amps on early Sunday mornings — all these pale in comparison to the challenge of finding my 5-year-old daughter Cameron a school in Nairobi. All I was asking for is that the school:
1. NOT be surrounded by barbed wire, or at least not that’s within reach of children (barbed wire is so ubiquitous here you’d think the city was overrun with blood-thirsty zombies at sundown);
2. NOT use corporal punishment as a means of discipline (outlawed in 2001, but still widely used);
3. NOT cost four times the amount of my monthly VSO (voluntary service overseas) allowance (some international schools cost upwards of $14,000 US a year; I’m making $3,600 this year);
4. NOT pick up Cameron at 6 a.m. to get her to school for 8:30 a.m.;
5. NOT have a headmaster who mentions Jesus more than twice in our conversation (the Christian faith soaks every aspect of life in Kenya, but being Jewish I hoped for as secular an education as possible);
6. NOT have Cameron as the only mzungu in the entire school (i.e., foreigner).
I called 16 different phone numbers to try to get through to someone, anyone, at each school during the holidays. Cameron and I travelled together by matatu (pimped-up Nissan minivans) before I had learned to navigate this expansive city with confidence. I listened patiently to the headmistress/master’s lengthy discourse on their educational philosophy while attempting to prevent Cameron from escaping the office. I pored over calculations for term fees, lunch menus, uniform costs, extracurricular activities, school bus charges and non-refundable “administration” fees.
A robust recommendation from a friendly neighbour would have been helpful, but early on I knew nobody with children in the city. With only a handful of schools within a 10-mile radius of our apartment that met all six requirements, the final decision was made with the exactitude of…my gut instinct.
I settled on an international Montessori school, which in addition to meeting all six prerequisites, allows me to drop Cameron off myself and is without doubt the most lovely school I’ve ever seen. It caters for children 1.5 to 6 years old and is a network of sprawling classrooms packed with a neatly arranged arsenal of Montessori-style tools, toys and techniques. Every space has been designed with such care and thought, with potted plants, flowering bushes and beautiful art just about everywhere. There are cozy nooks with love seats, arched windows opening onto the gardens, a fabulous veggie lunch menu and classical music playing softly throughout. The outdoor swimming pool is crystal clean, the playground is lovely, and several picnic spots hide among the labyrinth of gardens and outdoor space. In the playground are seven freely roaming tortoises, two rabbits, hens and a small aviary with budgies, lovebirds and cockatoos – all to promote kindness to animals. Stage, props, mini podium and microphones make up a dream drama room, while the astronomy centre is painted black with planets hanging from above and constellations glowing from the walls. I was wooed, and it seemed worth every shilling I could hardly afford.
Five months down the road, it remains a beautiful school. However, beneath the polished veneer, there are issues. Alone, Cameron tries to protect the playground fauna from children who relish kicking the tortoises and poking the hens with sticks. I’ve had to visit the headmistress too often about kids punching Cameron with no repercussions. Despite being reassured that it was not a Christian school before I enrolled Cameron, she came home the first week reciting the Lord’s Prayer and with a drawing of “God punishing me because I’m not praying to him.” On the same note, a classmate nearly beat her when she insisted she didn’t believe in Jesus Christ because she was Jewish, and her vegetarian lunches are often the regular meals with the meat scooped out. They have already raised school fees by 10 per cent and operate in a communication vacuum. And then, Cameron tells of an argument she had with a friend who said girls who marry girls will be punished by God. The surprises are endless.
And yet, for the first time in her life, Cameron is identifying with being Jewish. She has friends from Kenya, Russia, China, India, Croatia, Austria, Italy and Korea. She’s taken the lessons I’ve taught her about compassion for animals and is independently upholding those values outside our home. She brings home bananas she’s climbed trees to collect in the playground and bunches of frangipani, fuchsia, hibiscus and birds of paradise blossoms. She may be teaching a kid or two about tolerance, freedoms enjoyed elsewhere in the world and typical Canadian kindness…or confusing and incensing everyone. In either case, I’ve never been prouder.
Follow more of Joanna’s adventures in Kenya over at her blog.