Somewhere in Africa...

Peter Kimani

Feb 07, 2012

"Where is Kenya on the world map?" I ask freshmen every semester as part of our introductions. It's part of my evolving "teaching philosophy" which is premised on stimulating intellectual curiosity as part of the learning process. "Africa," comes the barely audible chorus. "I know Kenya is somewhere in Africa," I venture. "But so are 53 other countries, if we count the newest nation, South Sudan." There is eerie silence. "Where in Africa do you find Kenya?" I pursue. One student who has West African roots volunteers a response. "North Africa," he says. An American student who spent two years in North Africa thinks Kenya is in West Africa. I say to both it's evident they have been away from Africa for a long while, but Kenya has not moved. It's still in East Africa. I presented the question to other freshmen last semester. While the question predictably drew a blank, there was a Kenyan student in my class, and he provided a revealing, if stereotypical perspective. He said, with a chuckle, that he was surprised to find a Kenyan teaching English Composition and not, to use his own words, "engineering or something like that." Like most Kenyans, he understands the English language arrived on our shores by ship from England at the turn of the 20th century - and even the fishes in the ocean did not catch a word of it! Hence the student's surprise that, a century later, his compatriot would fly across two oceans to teach, as he put it, "the white man's language." I thought the comment was meant as a compliment, so I did not interrogate the student's comment on science and technology as the more probable line to be pursued by Kenyans abroad. Over the last semester some brave students would seek to know where I learned English, even how I arrived at the University of Houston, or simply U of H, as we fondly call it. I would then, to use the expression currently in vogue in Composition, "allow a moment of weakness," and patiently explain that English, alongside Swahili, is the official language, so we had to master its usage to survive through the long years in high school and college. This was followed by a stint in England for post-graduate study. For good measure, I would state Kenya has 40-something ethnic groups, each with distinct language and cultural forms, not to mentions foods, dressing, etc. On finding U of H, I would pin it down to good fortunes as I found about the writing program almost by accident. The more appropriate response is that I'm computer literate, so a simple Google search is likely to trawl U of H's among the top writing programs in the nation. The natural question that follows is the distance between Houston to Nairobi, perhaps to estimate the great lengths that I took to be here. Once again, I allow another "moment of weakness" and confess I was equally surprised that it takes so long to travel to Houston from Nairobi. On my maiden trip here, it included a 17 hour non-stop flight from Dubai to Houston. It was so memorably long, I even wrote a travelogue. I have learned from the students probably as much as I have given. We developed literacy autobiographies last semester. While describing to students my earliest recollections of when I was first able to read, my self-inquiry produced a very startling revelation. As I recalled sitting under the shade of a eucalyptus tree on the way home from school, and opening a page from the Ladybird Young Readers Series, I realized that beyond the wonder that filled me as a six-year-old, staring at the blue-eyed and blonde-haired children in the book's illustrations, those images had a deeper meaning. They fed my unconscious hunger for knowledge and discovery, and which had taken me to different corners of the world. And seated before me were some blue-eyed and blond youngsters, resembling the color illustrations in the Ladybird book! This was the first time I was making connections between the day I learned to read, and my intellectual curiosity that has kept me going in life. My students' ignorance of the world has served a more positive role, and saved me from at least one unmitigated disaster. While shopping for a ticket home last December, I called a tour agency whose number I found pinned outside the Department of English. I indicated the dates that I intended to travel from Houston to Nairobi and back. "Nairobi is in..." the female attendant asked on the other end. I did not fill the dots. My antennae went up. While such display of ignorance is permissible among students, it is criminal dereliction for a tour agency that "sells" destinations for a living. There is no way they would not known about the city as virtually all international airlines fly in or out of the Kenyan capital. My instinct was right. My online inquiries, and well as a check with the Best Business Bureau confirmed it was sham tour firm. The give-away was simply their ignorance. I notified the police immediately, as well as the university administration. My students' limited worldview and my optimism that our interactions should trigger curiosity that drive them to more discoveries, was vigorously tested early this month when I bumped into a former student. We took the bus together and sat chatting. "Did you go home for Christmas?" he asked cheerfully. I answered in the affirmative. "That's..." he hesitated for a moment, staring ahead, before facing me: "Swahili, right?" Another crucial lesson for my developing "teaching philosophy."