When I left my position as founding director of DrawBridge, after almost twenty years of intolerable stress trying to support the children that I loved, I decided to apply for a Fulbright fellowship. I can’t remember how the idea occurred to me, but it was a long shot…considering that I don’t have a PhD and I don’t have a research bone in my body. Immediately after leaving DrawBridge, I went to Cuba where I danced away my stress night and day and kissed dark skinned, elegant men in white shirts with cowrie shell necklaces. They sing love songs very loudly and propose marriage as you walk hand in hand through the streets of old Havana. Ramon, my favorite, said, “If I could ask God for one thing it would be that our love grows and grows. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” “Oh”, I responded. “My one wish would be that everyone in the world would have enough food.”
Those weeks in Cuba were a perfect interlude and then reality sank in…I was diving head first into the void without a safety net. My “severance package” from the organization that I had poured my tears and sweat into was close to nothing and I was a sixty-year old woman…ready for adventure and excitement…but sixty!
In March I discovered that I had been accepted as a Fulbright scholar to teach and do research in Zimbabwe (at the University of Harare) for ten months. It was a shift to imagine myself in the role and at the same time I was thrilled. In May I attended an orientation in Washington DC for the 120 sub-Saharan Africa Fulbrighters…and I was told that Zimbabwe was too unstable politically and would I consider working in Nairobi as a second choice? The answer: “Yes, happily.”
There was some confusion around my affiliation in Kenya and finally (after several stressful months) I received an email from the new state department cultural attaché in Nairobi asking me to affiliate with KIE, The Kenya Institute of Education. According to her, the Institute (“a forward thinking governmental organization”…I since learned that “forward thinking” and “governmental” do not fit in the same sentence…or paragraph) was interested in re-introducing the arts into the primary school curriculum in the hopes that students would stop striking and burning down the schools. Art as an alternative to violence…exciting and intriguing.
I arrived in Nairobi on September 5, 2008 filled with energy…ready for anything and everything. I was a SCHOLAR!!! I happily settled into my old apartment at the Norfolk Towers in downtown, anticipating my new life. Many phone calls followed and many broken appointments and disappointments. I couldn’t believe the number of funerals attended and “Take this week off” and “I’m too busy to see you.” Exactly one month later I received an invitation to meet my new “boss” and I set off to KIE in my one professional outfit…a white blouse and long navy blue skirt. The meeting was a good one and I really liked the “boss”. She showed me around KIE which is an enormous agency with more than 300 staff…I was the only white and the only foreigner. I was told that I needed to follow the strict dress code…tailored, business clothing. I panicked and went shopping that same afternoon and purchased a pair of black “pumps” (my first pair) and several pairs of slacks (also new for me).
The following day I was told that I couldn’t start work yet because I had to meet the director of KIE and get her signature and God only knows what else…and so I was given one more week OFF!!!!! And I didn’t want one more week OFF!!!! I wanted to start to WORK!!!!!!
OK. I went for my meeting with the DIRECTOR and of course I had to wait more than one hour in a hot reception room with no magazines. Finally I was in her large, executive office with an enormous shiny cherry wood desk and a beautiful view of trees.
My journal entry about that meeting:
She yawned throughout the meeting and then told me that she thought that I might be bored at KIE. “Do you have other things to occupy your time?” She kept repeating that the mission of KIE is “curriculum development” and that they work with teachers “once in a blue moon.”
This is REALLY not me and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. And then she said, “We can’t give you an office, but maybe we can give you a chair.” That’s when I made the mistake of making a joke, “I was hoping to have an office like yours.” She didn’t get the joke. I don’t know about this…I am discouraged.”
A few days later I was finally allowed to start work. My first assignment…to help my “boss” coordinate an art “competition” highlighting the post election violence and “Unity, peace and love” (words from the national anthem) that is possible in Kenya today. Anyone who has ever met me is aware that I detest art “competitions” and that I spent my entire life thus far (a long time) working to promote non-judgmental art programs for children. I was appalled. When I told my “boss” that I didn’t believe in art competitions, her response was, “Art competitions are a part of life.” First step was to arrange a meeting of 150 representatives (head teachers and art teachers) from Nairobi primary schools to come together to hear details of the “competition” and to have a free lunch (an enormous attraction in Nairobi). I still (to this day) can’t believe that I was a part of this craziness. Anyway…I was.
At the large meeting I was called upon to address the teachers and I was one of several boring speakers. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but something about working together to create an exciting arts curriculum blah blah and blah. The Kenyan educational system is based on the English system and is exam driven. In other words, all of the efforts of teachers and students are focused on achieving high grades during exams in order to continue to the next level. All teaching is done in lecture form and memorizing from the (outdated) textbook is the accepted method of learning. Art is not an examinable subject and therefore the teachers have no time (truly) and no interest in supporting art classes. They simply don’t have the resources. And so, from the very start I felt as though I was swimming up a rocky creek with a strong current (against me) and not quite sure why. Meanwhile, at the meeting, one of the other speakers emphasized that only realistic artwork would be eligible for the competition…no abstract art. I couldn’t believe my own ears.
I made some good connections at that meeting though, and afterwards I was approached by a handful of head teachers who invited me to visit their schools. Since KIE didn’t seem to know what to do with me and I would have no office (I don’t like offices anyway), I decided to just organize my own plan. I chose three schools and arranged with a taxi driver to take me to the Kibera Primary School in the slums, to the Mwangaza Primary School in the Kayole slums (that area has a VERY bad reputation!) and to the City Primary School very near the KIE office in town. I had heard that City Primary had a model program for “special needs “ children and I wanted to meet them.
I requested funds from KIE for art materials. Request denied. There are NO materials…NONE and KIE was unwilling to provide anything. I’ve been buying pastels, markers and good paper with my own money. My boss suggested that we ask the teachers to tell each student to bring ONE crayon from home and then everyone could share. “Now that’s a wacky idea,” I thought to myself.
The teachers that I me
t were impressive…very dedicated to the students and to their profession as an educator. They work long hours for little money and are constantly under pressure that their students perform well. Every school displays charts comparing numbers of children who excelled in exams for each year.
At the same time, the teachers were angry because they are in the middle of exams and didn’t want to be bothered with an art competition. One of the teachers at the Kibera School said to me, “Everything has become so political. You see, they cut creative arts and now they (KIE) sees that it is no good and so they are forcing it on us. There is a lot of pressure. We are so focused on academic excellence…we should have a football club. Many of our students are so good, but we don’t have it. We should have an art club. The people who are making the policies…they don’t care. Their grandchildren are already studying out of the country.”
This week the children have been finishing up their projects for the competition. I am still in complete awe and utter disbelief to find myself involved in this competition. It goes completely against all of my core values and beliefs. It is not my cup of tea (or chai, as they say in Kenya). I find myself telling the children: “This is beautiful”, over and over again…a sentence that was banned from my vocabulary many years ago. It took years to develop the DrawBridge philosophy and here it is being trashed in one short month. I would be the laughing stock of all DrawBridge art facilitators (former and present…a sizable number) who patiently listened to my methodology for years and years. And now I discover that I am part of the “quality assurance team” and I must go to KIE on Tuesday as one of the competition judges. I feel sick. All I want is another hug from Simon (the boy with down’s syndrome with whom I fell in love) and to spend more time with all of the “special” kids.
Judging of the competition was even worse than my worst imagining. There were ten of us…one very arrogant man and the rest were quiet women who passively allowed him to make all of his (ridiculous) decisions. Each of the “quality assurance team” was paid 7,000 shillings for two afternoons of judging (almost $100—a fortune in Kenya). I had seen the schools…huge holes in the roofs, broken out windows, broken down walls and crumbling deterioration right and left. One of the head teachers told me, “In the rainy season, the students get wet.” I had gone to the ladies room at one of the schools, and there was no water…not only that, the entire faucet came off in my hand when I tried to turn the water on. Another teacher had warned me, “When you flush, just go a bit far, because…well…” Why were ten teachers getting paid money that should have been used to repair a school?
At the judging, there were three piles on the floor and they were labeled, “Good artwork, medium good and poor.” Poor artwork by children?? Not in my world!! I told my “boss” that I couldn’t be a part of this judging, and I left. The “good artwork” consisted of very detailed renderings in pencil…a great deal of it politically inspired….drawings of Kenya’s President, Prime Minister and Koffi Annan. It was awful. The hundreds of expressive, more imaginative paintings that I had done with children at three schools were discarded. Why, I wondered? Maybe too much like children? I really don’t know.
One of the wonderful teachers who approached me at the close of the original meeting about the competition at KIE was Merab, a teacher at the Muslim Girl’s Primary School. She asked me if I was familiar with the work of Carl Rogers and told me that she was studying counseling at the Kenya Association of Professional Counselors, located a few blocks away. KAPC is modeled after the work of Rogers…a client centered approach…identical to the DrawBridge (and my own personal) approach. She invited me to accompany her to the to center to meet the staff and have a look around. Ten minutes later I met Cecilia, Don and Gikunde…the marvelous team with whom I am now working. Miraculously I found these people in Nairobi and we speak the same language. Since our first meeting I have presented an overview of my work to 30 students at an afternoon lecture, and then followed up with a weekend workshop, attended by 22 students. The workshop was a huge success…very well received, and so I am now scheduled to teach at the KAPC branches in Mombassa, Eldoret and Kisumu. In addition I am creating a certificate program in Expressive Art Therapies with the KAPC Director and helping to form a Kenyan Play Therapy Association. Several days ago I received the great news that my request to change my Fulbright affiliation from KIE at KAPC had been approved. I am no longer swimming up a muddy, dark stream…now I am swimming in a crystal clear, fresh stream with a like-minded group.