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Making life-long friends & memories abroad

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”  

Paulo Freire, cited in Maria de Figueiredo Cowen and Denise Gastaldo (Eds).  (1995, p1). Paulo Freire at the Institute.

Freire (2005) contended that is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together in order to critically reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection. His idea of praxis suggests that there is a dialectical interplay between the way in which history and culture make people.

I first met Samuel in July 2009 at the Utimishi Boys Secondary School in Gigil Kenya, a small town about two hours from Nairobi.  I was in Gigil as one of eight Canadians and two Americans, all members of a non-profit volunteer organization called Education Beyond Borders (EBB).  Our reason for being there was to provide professional development sessions to more than sixty Kenyan educators.  Samuel was one of several Kenyan teachers chosen as facilitators whose role was to develop professional development workshops along with EBB members, for Kenyan educators who were set to arrive in the coming week.

For the next week Samuel and me worked together planning the presentations. It was during this time that our friendship grew.  We talked about a variety of topics related to our teaching as well as more personal things like family. It’s a cliché but we immediately felt as if we had known each other for a long time. 

A true relationship is built on a mutual understanding of each other’s beliefs, values, hopes, and fears.  These formed the basis for our dialogue concerning the state of education in our respective countries and in many ways our shared philosophy of education view of education, which Samuel described in the following way; “education is life itself. It adds value to life. When one is well educated he has the ability to change the world around him for the better. On a practical sense, education enables job opportunities and improves ability to reason”. We both grumbled about the large numbers of students in our classroom, though thirty-six in my classroom does not compare to a hundred in Samuel’s.  Educators in Quebec fear what many see as increases in students’ disrespect for teachers and major discipline problems such as bullying.  While issues of discipline exist in Samuel’s school, considering the large class numbers, there are fewer instances of serious behavior problems. The more resources I have for my students the more I want. Samuel is content just having basics such as pencils and books for each student. I lament over the lack of parent involvement and support. While parent participation in Samuel’s school is very limited, most parents wish for the opportunity to be more involved, however in many instances providing for fundamental daily wants is in itself a struggle.  Parents of my students often complain about the lack of homework or that their child has too much homework.  Most parents of children in Samuel’s school do not have the literacy levels that enable them to assist with homework. It is difficult to motivate my students.  Some of Samuel’s primary and secondary students walk several kilometers to school each day. More so, the vast majority desperately wants to be in school, even if they must wear a school uniform, often paid for by parents without complaint, though poverty is their lifestyle.  While the wearing of uniforms is always a topic of heated discussion in the schools in which I have taught, in my thirty-five years not one student has had to wear a uniform.

The Ceremony

Often accounts of friendship between a volunteer and an individual in the host country follow a typical narrative plot line, i.e. a beginning, middle and end.  As will become apparent in the following excerpt of Samuel and me, the story continues.

Samuel and me have kept in constant communication through email.  In one of our earlier emails, we reminisced about our time together.  Samuel’s suggested that we be “spiritually joined as brothers through a ritual of unification”. That is, I would be welcomed into Samuel’s tribe, the Kikuyu. The ceremony was set for August 12, 2010.

At 9:00 a.m. on the day of the ceremony (find date) I was driven to Samuel’s home, located high in the mountain village of Eburru.  The hour drive seemed much longer since the road was really a series of trenches. We were met at the entrance road to Samuel’s house by the beautiful and melodic sound of women singing and clapping.  They led us to our seats in the front of Samuels’ home.  As is tradition the men sit and talk while the women cook.

For the next we ate and listened to the senior elder speak of Eburru’s history. Speaking through an interpreter, he recounted the colonial days when the ‘white’ British controlled the Kikuyu land and people. Following his presentation I was led into Samuel’s home where three of the elders ‘interviewed’ me to ensure that I was worthy of being accepted as a village member and Kikuyu tribesman.

Following the interview I was led down a hill to a place under the trees where the elders sat around the slaughtered goat and sheep, which I had purchased the day before and now lay in pieces on a bed of leaves.  I suddenly felt a sense of guilt that the end of these poor creatures lives were to be cut short in my honor.  Samuel handed me the as yet uncooked backbone of one of these animals.  I was asked to pass the bloody bone to one of the elders.  Next came the skin, which I gave to another elder.

I was then led back up the hill back to Samuel’s home.  Over the next few hours we ate, sang, prayed, and danced after which a goat was forcibly led into Samuel’s home where it too was slaughtered.  I joined the men who were standing in a line. One of the women carried a plate on which were cube shaped pieces of raw goat meat.  Each of us was given a piece to eat. 

The final activity involved the placing of a thin ring of raw goatskin around my neck and a small piece served as a ring on my index finger.  Prayers were said after which one of the ladies removed the skins and threw them into a nearby field.  I later learned that the ceremony represented my rebirth. I was given the name Chege Mwangi. The ceremony concluded with more singing and dancing. As a result of the honor bestowed on me by the villagers of Eburru I have come to understand that, regardless of culture and distance or our personal stories we are interconnected.  I also gained an appreciation for the different ways we each learn how our lives are shaped.

Dialogue, defined by Freire (2005) is encounter mediated by the world, in order to name the world.

The bond formed between me and Samuel transformed me into an authentic global citizen.  Professionally, I am conscious that as a member of a global learning community I have a responsibility to have, not just my students but also my colleagues as well take on the assignment of challenging hegemonic assumptions, in particular those related to destiny, power and diversity.