Kenyan Students. Wikimedia Commons

The Exemplary Experience of Two Schools in Kenya

If you look at the statistics, Kenya seems to be well advanced as regards the spread of primary education. From 1963 to the present day, the number of primary schools has risen from 6,000 to 18,000.
Filippo Cavazza

If you look at the statistics, Kenya seems to be well advanced as regards the spread of primary education. From 1963 to the present day, the number of primary schools has risen from 6,000 to 18,000. At the end of the long regime of President Arap Moi, the government introduced free education. Today, almost 95% of children attend primary school and 50% secondary school. One of the United Nations’ objectives for the millennium (primary education for all by 2015) seems well on the way to fulfillment, an almost unique case in Africa.

“What we have, though, is an extremely formal education, without any human approach to the child or the adolescent.” These are the words of Fr. Valerio Valeri and Fr. Alfonso Poppi, priests of the St. Charles Borromeo Fraternity, missionaries who have been in Kenya for several years. “Behind the cold reality of the numbers, they say, is hidden another truth: a rigid, notional scholastic method, based only on examination results.
The two priests have much experience in the field of education. Fr. Valerio has been in Kenya since 1986 and, since 1991, at Fr. Giussani’s request, heads the St. Kizito Professional School. This institute, supported by AVSI in a number of Christmas Tent campaigns, runs a number of formation courses for mechanics, carpenters, electricians, secretaries, and information technologists. “We want the school to provide those who attend it with the competence needed for being men. We are not satisfied with producing mere professionals. We want them to understand that their life has a meaning, in a reality–like that of Nairobi and its poor slums–where it is easy to perceive life as an infinite tragedy.”

Fr. Valerio speaks proudly of his students who, once they qualify, give rise to small activities or get together to form cooperatives. He also teaches Christian religion at the Cardinal Otunga Secondary School, founded by parents and teachers belonging to CL. “The Principal, Veronica, taught for seven years in other institutions, but she keeps telling me that here it is all different. Susan, a first-year student, says that in this school, at last, she is treated as a human person–because in Kenya, everything is geared to competition. Even the teachers promote this conflict, keeping the students apart and punishing them severely–often with a stick–when they don’t behave well.”

Fr. Alfonso Poppi, who has been in Africa since 1973, first as a teacher, then later as a priest, told us, “Before they came to our kindergarten, some of our teachers were used to rather punitive methods.” At the Emmanuela Mazzola School, the joyful center of Kahawa Sukari Parish, along with the Urafiki Primary School (in Kiswahili the name means friendship), nothing of the kind happens. “We tested Fr. Giussani’s method proposed in The Risk of Education. The results came back in these terms: first, of numbers: in a few years the number of children attending the kindergarten grew from 20 to 80; and in terms of satisfaction on the part of the community, parents, teachers and children. I am particularly amazed to see the teachers happy and glad to communicate their life.” In the primary school, too, things are going well. Next year, they will add two more classes.

Every week the teachers meet with Fr. Poppi to work together on The Risk of Education. “In these years, they have built up strong relationships among themselves, overcoming ethnic prejudices. They have brought down all kinds of barriers in their relationships with the children, and have understood the importance of personal discussions between parents and teachers, perhaps unique in the Kenyan context.” Fr. Alfonso is moved as he speaks of some children who have come from other kindergartens and have overcome their timidity and begun to speak. “One of them came into the Headmistress’ office and found there his own parents, who had come for a discussion (they are separated). He had the freedom to tell them how he was suffering for the broken home situation. In the end, the mother and father came back together with the child.” He concluded, “That child had experienced the freedom that Fr. Giussani teaches us.”