The danger in writing about the African continent is that one can end up falling into the trap of perpetuating what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as the “single story”; that is, writing about one idea where Africa is a country; a deep, dark and poor country. A place out there the natives are starving and waiting for the return of the colonial master. The single story about Africa is limited by those who consider themselves as African as well as those who are outsiders seeking to understand the complexity of this place and explain to others. At least this was how I felt when I read a story about a teacher in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum area.
The first time I found out about Kibera, “the slums of Nairobi” was last year. I was planning a trip to Nairobi and while looking for a touristy list of things to do, I came across this article: “Ten things to do while visiting Nairobi”. On the list was a mention of the area Kibera, a large “slum” in Nairobi. The article suggested that it would be inspiring to walk through the “slum” and experience what it might be like to live in this area. The author must have had a privileged and possibly “Western” audience in mind as I was a little uncomfortable with the notion of simply walking through a “slum” (which I assume is the equivalent word we use for a township) to see what it’s like to live in Kibera (“visiting the natives in their natural habitat” as one friend described the idea of “township tours”). While in Nairobi, I didn’t visit Kibera.
I came across Kibera again when reading about Margaret’s story, a teacher in Kibera. While reading about her experience of teaching in a poor area and doing her utmost best in teaching students who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy of importance, I wondered how we could escape the single narrative where African stories are a blemish or yet another narrative of using other people’s stories as a means to an end? Writing about the experience of being poor in Africa can elicit a number of responses: cynicism, empathy or sympathy. While reading about Margaret’s story I oscillated between awe and bitterness. Awe because there are people on this continent doing the unthinkable and teaching under difficult circumstances, but they continue to do it because of the hope they have in their students. Bitterness because in writing about Kibera I feel complicit in perpetuating “the single story” (especially because the post I wrote a few weeks ago was about a teacher in Malawi who also teaches under great duress).
Margaret’s story is unique. She is part of a group of teachers who know a different reality and persist anyway. Hers could be a story from a teacher in Limpopo or Zimbabwe. Here are some excerpts from her story:
- “I wake up at 4am, I get the bus in the morning and travel for two hours to my school. I have my regular duties to perform. I’m a class teacher of grade six with 85 children in a class. It starts at 8am, but we normally come early to mark the books. I also take care of the feeding programme so have to measure the food for the day. I have to mark my work. It’s normally a packed day. Today when you called I was issuing textbooks to all the different children. There is a lot of counting to be done and a lot of different activities.”
- “We end at 3.10pm and then the children have prep until 5pm. Between 6pm and 7pm we give an extra hour to some children that can’t do their homework at home because there’s no electricity or space at home. I leave at around 6.30pm. We have to make sure that we clear the compound. Sometime leave at 7pm. Imagine! But when I’m doing it I don’t mind. We work for the children. Five days a week.”
- “There is a persistent shortage of teachers. The government has its own way of doing things, but we are getting forgotten by policies. I am praying the government trains more teachers so we break the large classes into small classes of 50 so we produce the best children from the slum.”
- “The children share books, one to three children per book. The government sends the books but they get destroyed in their bags and sometimes the children sell their books at 50 to 100 shillings to buy food in the slum. 100 shillings, it’s about US$1.5. Children go out campaigning to get other children to come to school.”
- “There is a big difference between rural and urban school because they’re not densely populated. The way we do things in urban areas is different. In rural areas teacher to student ratio is 1 to 40, here is 1 to 70/100.”
- “There is no training for how to teach in slum schools! We’re given training to teach anywhere where there are children — not even in a school! Even if there is no school but there are children, you teach under a tree!”
Of course I could rattle off a list of statistics to support what Margaret’s story shows: if you are poor, you are less likely to get an education that can be an escape from the poverty trap that comes with a poor education. Exclusion from education persists because of the interaction between geography, gender, policies and poverty. But in countries like Botswana, they have achieved much higher levels of learning, thanks to its much narrower gap between rich and poor. Botswana is challenging the single story narrative, but one country cannot alone change the perceptions of an entire continent.
This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.