Faculty of Education Dean Paul Axelrod visits Kenya amid election strife

York Faculty of Education Dean Paul Axelrod witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought by political strife when he and his family arrived in Nairobi on Dec. 27, 2007 – the day of national elections in Kenya – to visit local schools with links to the Faculty.

"Though we fortunately avoided danger during our three and a half weeks in the country, we were witness to the collapse of political and social order, which has yet to be restored," says Axelrod. "The economic and human costs of the violent conflict appear almost immeasurable, and our own Faculty’s plans for new initiatives in the country are on hold."

Right: Children near the Wikondiek School in Western Kenya

Their plans to visit local Kenyan schools and communities with connections to York’s Faculty of Education, go on a safari and volunteer to help build school facilities were a go, despite the political upheaval. "We did it all, even as the country was dissolving into political chaos," says Axelrod.

On the first leg of the journey, the Axelrod family visited the Wikondiek School, located in a poor rural community near the city of Oyugus in Western Kenya. "We stayed at the home of Phoebe Asiyo, a former Kenyan member of parliament who was awarded an honorary degree at York University in 2003 for her human right’s work."

Asiyo’s family has been heavily involved in assisting the Wikondiek School, serving 450 students and 12 teachers, and helps feed its students, many whom are AIDS orphans. Axelrod says, "There is no electricity, no library, and not a single computer. On the headmaster’s desk sat an ancient Underwood typewriter. The only daily meal many of the students receive is a school lunch provided in large measure by the Asiyo family. Orphans, and the younger siblings they care for, are permitted to sleep in the school. During weekends and school breaks they rely on local families for basic provisions. The poverty is pervasive."

Left: Nabaala Leitato, a Maasai warrior who works as a guide for Free the Children

Through York International’s Internship Program, several York students have had three-month assignments in Wikondiek, including Stacey Tsourounis, who wrote about her experience in the December 2007 issue of YorkU magazine. York’s Faculty of Education Student Association (FESA) is also involved with the Wikondiek School, raising funds annually to support the school.

Despite all the troubles and the poverty, Axelrod says the children are devoted students. "Schooling, now compulsory and free at the primary level in Kenya, matters immensely to them. Drawn from British educational conventions, academic instruction is rigorous. Concerns expressed by our own interns that high-school exams are "too hard" were dismissed politely, but firmly, by the principal. The headmaster proudly showed me Ministry of Education examination results, and Wikondiek students were doing well."

The school, however, is in desperate need of a library, something Axelrod thinks York students could turn their fundraising efforts to in the future.

The Axelrod family also visited the Kenyan Free the Children Centre, just inside the Masai Mara reserve, which serves the children of the Maasai and Kipsigi ethnic communities. Free the Children – founded by Canadian Craig Kielburger in 1995 when he was 12 years old – is the world’s largest network of children helping children through education, with more than one million youth involved in innovative education and development programs in 45 countries. It has built 500 school facilities world wide, 44 of which are in Kenya.

"Free the Children’s Africa programs director, Kenyan Peter Ruhiu, explained to us the organization’s approach to community development. Now that primary and secondary education is widely embraced in Kenya, the challenge is to surmount the remaining obstacles keeping students from attending class regularly," says Axelrod.

One such problem is that the girls spend much of their day hauling water from the nearest rivers or wells to their homes – mostly mud huts – and the survival of the families depends on their labour. Free the Children’s school sites now include simply-constructed reservoirs which collect and filter rainwater that children take home at the end of the school day. That way they have a major incentive to return to class the following morning, and increasingly, they do, explains Axelrod.

Right: Paul Axelrod (crouching) and his wife Susan (standing) working on a new teachers’ residence at the Free the Children education site

"Community engagement and respect for local practices are the cornerstones of Free the Children’s developmental work. We learned much about the people in the area from our guide, Nabaala Leitato, a 22-year-old Maasai ‘warrior’ who speaks six languages and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the plant and animal life on the Mara," says Axelrod.

The volunteer aspect of the trip occurred in the Masai Mara, a large park reserve in south-western Kenya. "We spent two half days mixing cement and helping lay the foundation for the walls of a new teachers’ residence. We enjoyed the exercise, felt virtuous, and understood the mere symbolism of our ‘labour’," says Axelrod. "But Free the Children’s high-school delegations do make a difference. The students work for up to three weeks with local labourers and foremen constructing school buildings from base to ceiling. They interact with families in the community, undoubtedly enriching their own cultural and global awareness. Like the [York] interns at Wikondiek, they serve as unofficial Canadian ambassadors, and are received enthusiastically. ‘We love Canada,’ I heard more than once."

Left: An elephant at the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya

Axelrod also visited the Lewa Conservancy, a 65,000-acre setting close to Mount Kenya in the north of the country. Its mission is to conserve wildlife and the habitat by creating community conservation and development programs and by educating the local people. As well as taking tourists on safaris, which generates income, Lewa builds schools, provides funds for the hiring of additional teachers and organizes health services for the surrounding communities.

"Kenyan schools are publicly funded, but resources remain scarce and organizations like Lewa and Free the Children help to enhance the quality of education and community services," says Axelrod.

An account of Dean Axelrod’s Kenyan trip will also be published in a forthcoming edition of the magazine, Education Canada, published by the Canadian Education Association.

Photos by Kaitlyn Axelrod and Paul Axelrod.