Kenya: through the eyes of an American Teenager

By: Zibran Vastani

Kenya always seemed to me like an exotic land far away filled with animals roaming free in the wild,  rich with local customs and traditions.  Last summer, my travels took me to this beautiful country that my ancestors once inhabited.  The animals were exotic and the people warm, the food scrumptious and cultures fascinating but what touched my heart and changed me forever was my interaction with two children over the course of four weeks that summer.

The nation of Kenya is on the east coast of Africa. I landed in Nairobi and then flew to the coastal town of Mombasa on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean.  In Mombasa, I worked with Unity Private School of Freetown, a K-8 school alongside 30 student volunteers from around the world. 

Tony presenting to his peers at Unity School (Mombasa, Kenya)
Tony presenting to his peers at Unity School (Mombasa, Kenya)

We were charged with developing a large and diverse creative arts program which encompassed everything from basic computing to public speaking. I entered the school with a goal of helping the administrators improve the school but as I spent more time at the school, I came to a new understanding of what “help” truly meant. Initially, I believed that help implied giving people something they needed. As my mission progressed I began understanding the temporary nature of the relief work we were engaged in with the school.  As an example, providing an underprivileged school financial means to build a new annex is helpful but rarely sustainable. 

Many organizations fail to realize that money is finite, when the school runs out of money and the building is unfinished then what? This is the crux of why many developing nations fail to realize their potential to develop into prosperous countries no matter how much aid they receive.  For context, Kenya has received over three trillion dollars in charity efforts to date, but only 1/16th of those funds have been useful.  This fact bothered me and I decided to take a different approach to my work at the Unity School.

I was charged with teaching basic computing skills to elementary school-aged children given my inclination for tech geek-ness. I was ecstatic to have an opportunity to contribute my knowledge in an area that I enjoyed and knew well. My approach was to not only teach the students but also the teachers. I gave the students worksheets while helping the teachers develop a curriculum for the school year. Over the next several days we settled into a productive rhythm and worked towards making the program sustainable.  The three weeks of work that my team and I did is now being taught throughout the entire school year where each student can grasp, understand, and apply the knowledge.  As the project drew to a closure I felt fulfilled and enjoyed every minute of my time there. I had hoped to bring back memories and souvenirs, but I returned home with much more.

Agnes and her friends at Unity School (Mombasa, Kenya)
Agnes and her friends at Unity School (Mombasa, Kenya)

While developing the curriculum and working with the students, I encountered two children. Tony is 12 years old in 7th grade, and Agnes is 11 years old also in 7th grade. I formed a special bond with these two children. I had taken two robots with me on the trip not knowing how I would use them in Kenya.  On my first day there, the local volunteers organized a youth day at a community center. They asked me if I would like to display my robots and talk to the youth about how they work and the things they could do with them. 

Tony and Agnes had never seen anything like it, and they followed me around all day fascinated with the “bots”.  I shared with them all the things robots could do, we even disassembled one and put it back together. Their excitement reminded me of a similar feeling I had when I was first introduced to robots many summers ago at a camp at Georgia Tech.  Over the course of the summer, Tony, Agnes and I interacted several times playing with robots and sharing stories about our lives. As the mission neared its end they asked something of me that I just could not refuse. They asked me to keep sending them information about competitive robotics and return to Kenya to show them the other fun robots I had at my home in Johns Creek. We said our goodbyes and I boarded my flight for home.

I’ve been back now exactly one month, and I cannot forget the two children and the look in their eyes when they played with those robots.  We’ve kept in touch, and I’m hoping to continue speaking to Tony and Agnes over skype about robots.  I founded a non-for profit called Tech For Kenya so I can continue to grow this work through the coming years. It was an unforgettable summer for me, and I learned that sharing your knowledge, talents or passion for something can ignite a spark in anyone.

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