Post Script from Church of Our Saviour, Somerset, MA

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A mission of learning

“…Future trips should also have concrete goals that benefit both communities.”
In the words of participant, Kim Forbes, Church of Our Saviour, Somerset

In early July 2015, Church of Our Saviour, Somerset, visited friends in Amagoro, Kenya for the third time in four years. Amagoro is in the Western fringe of Kenya where the border between it and Uganda gets squiggly, like someone jostled the hand of the mapmaker when he was drawing. Amagoro is 4.5 miles from the Uganda border, at the foot of the hills that culminate in Mount Elgon. Because of its proximity to the mountains, there is weightlessness to the air here: You feel as if you can blow the heat of the day away with one strong breath.

In many ways, our “mission” is as feathery as the heat of Amagoro. For four years we have been trying to figure out why God keeps calling us here. We are beginning to discern that it may have something to do with education. This trip we worked directly with the staff and leadership of Amagoro Primary school. We worked on a long-term pen pal program that matches students with similar interests on each continent. Our hope is that this will lead to a 2.5 year commitment to communicate by letter or email from each side. While our children played with the children of Amagoro, the adult members observed teachers in the classroom and took notes to bring home to the teachers in Somerset.

One remarkable teacher we met was Evans Okwenye, who controls a large outside assembly like a maestro conducts an orchestra. He is trim with a close-cropped graying beard, and dressed in the universal uniform of male middle-school teachers everywhere: short-sleeve collared shirt with a pen clipped in the front pocket. His pants are creased and pressed, and magically repel the fine red clay dust that coats every inch of my clothing.  “I’m sorry, I have not had time for a visit this time,” he says to me before turning to his students. “I have been busy with exams.” In Kenya, students are tested and publically ranked every year.

After Evans turns from me, he begins to lead the students into their expected behavior for the program. Like every Kenyan teacher whom I observed teaching, he stands in front of this large assembly of over 300 students from grades 5 to 8, and does not move much. American teachers move a lot in the classroom. If a Kenyan teacher is like a conductor, an American teacher is more like a ringmaster, restlessly moving from one end of the classroom to another, checking groups, overseeing projects, balancing learning objectives, “accountable talk,” and independent projects with the finesse of a plate spinner. Classrooms that average 45 to 50 students per teacher necessitate less group work and more traditional class structures at Amagoro Primary.

As Evans is talking to me, there is chatter and jostling, disagreements and snatched papers in the rows of students around me.  “Good afternoon, children,” Evans intones, and magically the chattering, crying, and bickering stop. Three hundred children reply, “Good afternoon, teacher.”

Evans pivots to address all of the children and says, “Today, we are going to have a special program to say goodbye to our friends from Somerset, Massachusetts.” He briefly describes the program of events. Evans gently pats his hands together, and says, “So let’s say goodbye to our friends from . . .  . “ He leaves the sentence hanging, and waits for the children to pluck it from the air. Three hundred children reply, “Somerset, Massachusetts.” He nods his head and smiles. “Good,” he tells them.

Excellent teaching is universal. Evans Okwenye has control of his classroom, provides a recognizable routine where every child knows how to respond, and provides plenty of positive reinforcement. The fact that he is able to do this at an end-of-the-year assembly, after exams, after school, with no help, may seem miraculous to American teachers. Maybe God is leading us to a teacher exchange program. The expertise of Mr. Okwenye who teaches at a large, poor, underfunded school in a remote area of Kenya with very little government resources would resonate with American teachers who teach at large, poor, underfunded schools in America.

Zach Drennen, the Episcopal priest who hosted our trip through his non-profit organization, the Elewana Education Project, says the “professional development for local teachers” is one of the goals of his organization. Although we can support this goal through financial backing, we should also export some of the skills that I saw in Amagoro to our local communities. In this way, our mission is truly bi-directional: a real relationship that benefits both communities and widens our goals from not just improving our church and improving a poor school in Kenya, to using the complementary skills of our partners to improve our own larger communities.

Nicholas Lorusso, another member of the Church of Our Saviour team that visited Amagoro this year agreed that expanding the definition of mission would only serve to strengthen both Amagoro and Somerset. “[This trip] was a nice balance of school and community activities.” Nick went on to say that future trips should also have concrete goals that benefit both communities.

Somerset and Amagoro are in a relationship that we are still trying to figure out. If we continue to work together with respect and patience, I have no doubt that God has great things in store for both communities.