Upendo Academy – one week musings
We have been in Usa River for a little more than a week now, spending every day but two at Upendo School, which is a private pre-primary and primary school with an enrollment of over 200 children. The three Montessori classrooms are only partially Montessori, since all the materials in the rooms have been brought here by Betsy Hoke and whomever she invited to join her. This time it was me, but she has come with two other friends before, and each time she comes, KLM Airlines transports at least 200 pounds of Montessori materials for Upendo. It seems like a hard why to equip a school, but it has the advantage of being slow enough that the teachers, who are starting from no understanding of Montessori education at all, seem to be able to absorb the information we are sharing with them.
Maria Montessori began her work with children in a very similar way in a slum of Rome, with poor children who had no place to go during the day. She had no materials, but instead watched the children and began to hire cabinet makers (fundi, in Swahili) to make things for the children to touch and manipulate as she noticed their interests. Her teachers weren’t trained Montessori teachers, because her educational approach didn’t exist yet. So there are similarities here in Usa River – children who live such simple lives that many of them may not own a book.
Yesterday we took a break from our work at Upendo to visit a Montessori school in a village two hours away. In this school were around 25 children in a classroom somewhat smaller than the toddler class who worked with Montessori-like materials made by local craftsmen. The photos I am including in this post are from that school.
At Upendo, the children are fascinated and enchanted by the materials. We see children repeat pouring water from one pitcher to another for many minutes, day after day. When Betsy and I offered a Saturday art class for the older children close to 60 showed up, walking to school on their own from the dust roads around Upendo, and then walking home alone when we were finished.
The Montessori approach is a bit more difficult for the teachers to absorb, but most of them are also enchanted and excited by what they see. Betsy has a much deeper understanding of the Tanzanian culture than I do after my single week, but both of us can see that what we have done all our lives as Montessori teachers doesn’t come easily to the Tanzanian teachers. The cultural gulf is just as wide for them as it is for us.
I return to Denver in a week, back to the culture I do understand, and the children who speak the American English I also speak (I may never again say Africa without pronouncing it Ah-frica, however!) I am so excited to be here, but will also be excited to be home again.