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Mimi ni Daraja: reflections on the gift of education

Mimi ni Daraja: reflections on the gift of education

I was roaming around the plaza exploring the Global Concerns groups during the GC fair in the school when I came across Ms Gonzalez at the stand for Daraja GC, which aims to raise funds and awareness about the importance of education for girls in Kenya. It is a girls-only school that gives students the opportunity to study four years with a scholarship with the aim of empowering them and filling the power gap between men and women in Kenya.

She told me about her trip to the Daraja Academy in Nanyuki, Kenya.

I came back and looked at the photos of the trip: fascinated by the NGO and the experience of Ms Gonzalez, I decided I had to go on the trip.

And here I was in Nayuki with the girls and an amazing group of people:

I consider my experience amazing as it really made me learn and reflect about the gift of education not just in my life, but also in the lives of kids all over this world. I felt I wanted to share this reflection because it made me reflect about my attitude towards education.

It is an absolute gift we have been given, but we usually forget about it.

But what made me reflect about this? How did my mind change only after one week at the school? Well, I spent all my meals at Daraja and I had time to talk to the girls.

“Mimi ni Gianluca” is the first sentence I learnt in Swahili; it means: “I am Gianluca.”

Mercy, one of the Form 4 (Grade 12) girls in Daraja, started teaching me Swahili as soon as I met her. We were eating the usual dish of rice and beans in the 'patio' (canteen).

We started to chat together, both curious to know more about each other. After talking about our hobbies and our dreams for the future, she told me about her daily routine at school: wake up between 4am and 6.30am depending on the day of the week; study until 8am when the first class starts; 20-minute tea break in the middle of the morning and then lunch between 12.30-1pm; finally, classes again until 5pm on average. I thought my routine at UWCSEA was pretty tough, but Mercy’s schedule took 'tough' to another level.

Then she asked me about the routine in my school and in the boarding house. She was surprised by the amount of time we devote to sports and activities. She was even more surprised when I told her that UWCSEA students consider their routine stressful.

I explained to her that there is compulsory study time in the boarding house from 7-9pm after dinner. Smiling at me she replied: “Oh, so the kids need to be pushed to study in your school!” I laughed and I told her that of course some students aren’t willing to study and that is always the case. She didn’t say anything.

I came back to my 'banda' (room) and looking at my calendar I got nervous about the homework I had to do. I thought: “I hate doing homework” and I wanted the holiday to be extended forever. I mean, who likes doing homework? Who likes going to school? You certainly don’t become popular by saying to your peers: “Hey guys, what I love the most is learning and going to school!” At least that it was I believed. But then I started thinking about what I had said: “It is often the case that some students aren’t willing to study in school.” Wait. What did I just say? Why did I have this attitude towards school, and why do so many other teenagers share my attitude? Is it the case that we don’t appreciate studying and acquiring new knowledge and skills? I don’t think so; but then, where does this attitude towards school and education come from?

It is one of those paradigms I had, and many people like me have, without knowing where it came from. It is like when you are a little boy and you say that you don’t like girls and you mostly stay with boys, but one day you finally realise you actually do like girls.

Learning, going to school or being in class was cool for Mercy; and it was the same for every other girl in the Daraja Academy. For me, school was not cool. It was not the good part of the day and I mostly enjoyed playing the sport I loved and having fun with my friends.

I might be very Euro-centric, but I find that there is a lot about the teenage culture I come from that says that school - and therefore learning - is something boring and for nerds. And at the end of the day when I am with my peers I rarely say: “Today class was so amazing; I am so glad I can go to school.” There is something about the social behaviour of teenagers like me that seems to have forgotten the beauty of knowing and learning, even though at the same time we say that education is so important and “It is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Is it just because Nelson Mandela says it or do we actually believe in it? Knowledge is what really makes us different from animals, what leads us to progress, what brings us technology and more importantly, learning can be deeply satisfying and pleasurable.

We fill our discussions with words talking about the importance of learning and knowing, and how this can really make a difference in life, but we probably forget about the direct practical application that an education brings us. The girls in Daraja Academy are really going to make a difference because they know Math, Sciences and Literature, and they are all determined to make a change in their country. They are proud to go to school and even study more than seven hours per day.

Education doesn’t reach everyone in Kenya. Children in rural areas that get education are often the ones that are able to get a book in the classroom or they have access to more pencils and books (the government provides children with one pencil every three months).

Visiting a local school in Nanyuki

I'm not trying to make UWCSEA students feel guilty about our everyday attitude, and I'm certainly not saying that we should pity the girls in Daraja, who have a very intense academic experience compared with the holistic education we have here.

They are doing great, and they honestly do a lot of sports in their free time like we do, only maybe not on an astroturf. The passion for learning constantly drives every single one of them to enjoy every school day without feeling tired or annoyed by the amount of studying they have to do. It is so clear for them. So simple: learning was the best thing they ever came across. I felt stupid, naive and little.

I am really happy to have been on this trip, thanks to the help of the UWCSEA Foundation’s Scholarship Enrichment Fund, as it really changed my perspective on how I look at education and learning just in time for university. Looking at the girls in Daraja Academy discussing issues of global importance and listening to their plans to change their country made the real difference between talking about the importance of education and believing in education as the leverage point to change the world. I wouldn’t be what I am now without being so fortunate to have an education; education enables us to think. And we need to think in order to be.

By Gianluca Mancini
Italian UWC National Committee Scholar
Grade 12
East Campus

19 Mar 2016
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