A teaching adventure

  • Education
  • Sunday, 14 Jul 2013

A brief stint as a teacher in an African city slum leaves a lasting impression on a Chinese undergraduate who vows to return.

THE first thing that drew university student Lu Song towards a volunteer position near Nairobi, Kenya was the opportunity to put the experience on his applications for postgraduate study in the United States (US). The second was the chance to spend an adventurous summer abroad.

But the 18-year-old did not count on a third factor that would only become apparent after he had begun working at a school in one of Africa’s largest slums — the desire to help.

Lu, a first-year undergraduate at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, found the experience so rewarding that he now recruits other students as volunteers, and is raising money for the school he worked at.

“My outlook towards life changed a lot after I returned from Africa,” he says.

“I had, before coming on the trip, thought of it as more of a vacation, but now I realise there are a lot of things that need to be done for children in Kenya.”

As well as encouraging other students to volunteer, Lu and some of his classmates plan to make postcards using photographs he took during his trip and sell them to raise money for the school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.

It all began one day when Lu was thinking about what to do for the summer.

Like many Chinese students, his plan was to study in the US after graduation. His intention at that time was to volunteer in Kenya since an African stint would “look impresssive” on his application to US varsities.

“I think my attitude and motive at the start, wasn’t a good one ... it was for my own selfish reasons,” he says.

“I was thinking about how I was going to spend my vacation there and had asked for a comfortable place to live which was in a good location ...”

Lu found a volunteer position through Aiesec (the world’s largest student-run organisation which is also a platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential in order to have a positive impact in society), and after passing an interview with teachers from the University of Nairobi, he was offered a position teaching at St Catherine School in Kibera.

“It’s a dangerous place to work as there is a high rate of robbery and a high incidence of AIDS in the slum, but I convinced myself that this was an opportunity that might only happen once in a lifetime,” he says.

The school, located on the edge of Kibera, was considered a safer place to work and Lu lived with five other volunteers from Norway and Russia.

Each room in the school was divided by partitions that were not very high ... these were the classrooms

“Sometimes I had to find a way to help my students concentrate, while another group behind the partition was having a class at the same time,” he says.

Lu taught “creativity”, which included painting, Chinese military boxing and debating.

“I actually came up with “creativity” as a subject mainly as an attempt to broaden the children’s minds with something that could not be learnt in textbooks,” Lu says.

During debates, he encouraged students in his class to give their opinions on what it meant to be good or bad.

During weekends, Lu also helped out at a home for orphans, where hugs were the most valuable thing he could offer.

On one occasion, he held each child up to touch the top of a goalpost in the football field, which was the only form of relaxation there.

“They were different from the children at St Catherine, because they didn’t have parents and you could see the sadness in their eyes,” Lu says.

Lu played hide and seek with the children, taught them to count in Chinese and told them stories.

By the time he left, he says, he had developed a deep affection for them.

“I wish I could see them again. I would like to know how things are going for them in a few years.”

On his last day in Kenya, Lu spoke with his landlord about the experience.

“I told him that I felt like I had not done much to change the situation, as nothing was different after 35 days,” shares Lu.

“However, I was touched when he told me that even small things made a big difference to them.”

When a student at the school asked him when he would return, Lu burst into tears.

“I will come back ... I definitely want to see you children again.” — China Daily/Asia News Network

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