Last month I returned to Kenya to re-visit Gede Special School and to meet up again with our local partners Damian and Ken. I last went to Kenya in 2012, right in the middle of the Kenyan teachers’ strike, so although I had visited the school before and met the Head-teacher, I had not met any of the staff or children or had the chance to see the school in action. This trip, I went there with Yvonne – I had volunteered with her in The Gambia last spring and she was to be our first volunteer at Gede. I was only able to stay there for two weeks; Yvonne stayed for a month and I was really jealous of her being able to spend more time at this lovely school.
Before I left home I must confess to being slightly nervous about volunteering in a special school. I have no experience of teaching children with any kind of special needs and I was aware that all the children at Gede are either physically disabled (referred to as CP – cerebral palsy) or are hearing impaired (HI), so I expected the job to be challenging. Believe me, it isn’t (or no more so than teaching in any other school) – we had really good fun!
The staff at the school are very friendly and welcoming, and compared to teachers in many developing countries have been quite well trained. Although not well resourced compared to British schools, the school does have quite a lot of toys and games as well as some specialised resources for the children who are physically handicapped – for example each child who needs it has a desk and chair appropriately shaped to give them the support they need to work in the classroom.
Class sizes are very small, especially for the CP classes, usually in single figures, meaning the teachers are able to give the children quite a lot of individual attention while still delivering the national curriculum. Children are placed in classes according to their intellectual ability, for example class 3 has 5 children, ranging in age from 7 to 21, but all at the right stage to access the class 3 curriculum. This was Yvonne’s favourite class and I’m sure she would agree with me that they were a lovely class to teach and that it was easy to pitch the work at the right level for them.
Classes for the hearing impaired are taught mainly in Kenyan Sign Language – this is different to British Sign Language but more or less the same as American Sign Language. I downloaded the American Sign Language alphabet onto my Kindle and Yvonne and I caused some interest among other passengers on the plane as we attempted to learn the alphabet and make sure we could at least spell out our names. I never progressed very much beyond this, but I quickly discovered it doesn’t matter at all – deaf children communicate largely through mime (they are superb at drama) and it is very easy to have a conversation with them in this way.
The older children also have a good understanding of written English so if mime fails writing on the board provides a good alternative. I concluded that teaching a class of hearing impaired children is no more difficult than teaching children who speak any other foreign language – in lessons we spoke in English and the teacher translated into Kenyan Sign Language, exactly as they would translate into any other foreign language. Two lessons I particularly enjoyed watching were a lesson completely in sign language on volcanoes (I enjoyed the teacher’s miming of the eruption of a volcano), and a lesson taught by Yvonne and one of the Kenyan teachers on the function of the lungs – they used balloons to demonstrate air coming in and out of the lungs, and the teacher translated Yvonne’s explanation of breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide so enthusiastically that we were sure he was going to hyper-ventilate!
The important thing to realise about the HI children is that have no other disability other than lack of hearing – they are not intellectually disabled in any other way although they may be a little behind hearing children in learning to read and write as these are more difficult skills for them to acquire. An ex-student from Gede gained the highest mark in all of Kenya in his Sign Language exams last year – an achievement of which the school is very proud.
On my final day at the school it was their Academic Day – a day to celebrate all the achievements of the last academic year. This included a march through the village accompanied by drums and trumpets, short Drama sketches performed by many of the HI children, a wonderful demonstration of singing by the CP children and their teachers, and the presentation of certificates to the highest achieving students and of presents to the staff for all their hard work last year. The message of the day was ‘Disability Does Not Mean Inability’ and I thought this summed up well the ethos of the whole school.
Our accommodation in Kenya is at Turtle Bay Beach Club, and it was fantastic at the end of a hard day’s work to come back to such comfortable surroundings and often to have a swim in the pool or a walk on the beautiful beach. We particularly appreciated the Turtle Bay custom of serving tea and pancakes at 4.00 – timed perfectly just as we returned from school. Thank you to Ken and Damian for looking after us so well, and I encourage more of you to consider volunteering here – I certainly hope to go back myself before too long.