Mary Walker: Free isn’t always free |

Mary Walker: Free isn’t always free

Mary Walker

Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safe house for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.

In 2003, the Kenyan government announced "free primary education for all," funded by various international education initiatives, as well as programs of the U.S. and British governments. Many Maasai girls, who might never have gone to primary school without this program, now have completed teachers college and are working as teachers. Others are enrolled in full-time university programs in Kenya.

Many of these girls were allowed by their fathers to go to primary school at the time only because this very basic level of education then was "free." But in reality, the education wasn't free because many of the girls' mothers still had to find money to pay for uniforms (an unabashed vestige of British colonialism), shoes, food, transportation, pencils and school supplies and other necessities like menstrual pads that older girls need if away from home all day. In fact, "free primary education" in Kenya is anything but free, as schools routinely tack on extra fees, charges and requirements that still today place even this very basic level of education outside the reach of far too many Kenyan children.

People often ask me if they can donate used American textbooks for me to take to the Maasai girls who I help. In declining this generous and well-meaning gesture, I often am at a loss for words to explain exactly why. For one thing, the curriculum in American primary and secondary schools ranges widely among standard public schools, charter schools, Montessori schools, home schooling and even online coursework. Our curriculum takes into consideration accelerated learners, immigrant students, students with disabilities and special needs students. In contrast, the curriculum in Kenyan public schools is absolutely standard, and there is absolutely no deviation from the prescribed syllabus for each grade level for every school in Kenya from primary through secondary school. And the vast majority of children in Kenya go to public school — only government officials and the wealthy class (which together form a small minority in Kenya) can afford to send their children to the far superior private schools in Kenya or to England.

Mastering the standard Kenyan curriculum requires memorization, not comprehension. As one example, a young Kenyan student knows that 2 + 2 = 4, but not because she understands the base 10 system of mathematics on which this equation is based. They are not taught, as a way of comparison for the sake of comprehension, that in a binomial system, 2 + 2 would equal 100. This type of interpretive reasoning and comprehension, which can open a child's mind in such wonderful ways, simply is lacking in Kenyan education philosophy and teaching techniques.

That is the long answer, and just one example, for why our textbooks are not useful in Kenya. And it is why I routinely ask instead that people donate money so that I can buy Kenyan textbooks to give to the girls. They must learn the material in the style that they are expected to learn it and in the manner that it is presented in Kenya to succeed in school.

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And along with an 84-year-old Kenyan man named Maruge, these girls know better than most what being allowed to go to school really means.

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