A New Model of Education

“You have been a student for many years. You have read hundreds of pages and have spent hours carrying out exercises of various kinds. It would be good at this point to reflect on the significance of your education. What purpose does it serve? To what extent should it prepare you to promote the sound progress of your community? How much should it contribute to your growth as an individual? Can one aim be met without the other?”

I came across the this passage reading through the course materials of the “Preparation for Social Action” (PSA) program and it struck a cord in me. How is it that I have gone through twelve years of public school and four years of college and never been asked these questions? We spend so much time and money worrying about standardizing test scores, decreasing class size and bringing technology into the classroom but we rarely hear any discussion about the purpose of our education system. As someone aspiring to be a teacher, this is a particularly important question.

Caity and I had come to Jinja, Uganda for a week to visit a friend doing a year of service and study a new model of education being used by the organization she works with. The PSA program is the fruit of over three decades of work by a Baha’i inspired organization in Colombia called FUNDEAC (Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Sciences) and is now being piloted and further developed in a few other countries, including Uganda. The purpose of the program is to make it possible for any individual – youth or adult – even in the most rural areas, to have access to a high quality secondary education that gives them the knowledge, skills and inspiration to contribute to their communities.

The program consists of three units that cover topics such as math, science, history, agriculture, health and language, but it is not the information in the courses that is unique; it is the way in which the knowledge is presented and applied. In very simple but brilliant ways, the PSA program solves many of the fundamental problems that plague our education system. This is perhaps a more appropriate topic for a dissertation, but maybe I can give you a glimpse of some of the aspects that amazed me.

Math is one of the subjects that is often a great source of frustration to students, many of whom ask at one point or another, “when am I ever going to use this?” I am sure this question rarely arises in PSA groups. First of all, all of the problems and examples are derived from real knowledge and situations relevant to the students’ lives. Whereas I spent years working with only numbers and the occasional word problem (which often had no significance to my life or no relation to reality at all), students who study addition and subtraction are quickly asked to calculate the growth of domestic animals, increases of farm production and costs for building materials, as well as learning basic accounting skills, all of which are directly applicable to their everyday lives. At higher levels, students in the fractions and percents course find themselves discussing infant mortality rates in their villages, vaccination percentages and the problem of species extinction, all topics that provide great material to practice their new skills but also lead to interesting and challenging discussions that relate to pressing issues going on around them.

The PSA program also engages students to use their practical skills outside the classroom and to the benefit of their community. After their first few courses, students study a book focused on “nurturing young minds” and are asked to start a children’s class in their neighborhood, teaching virtues as well as some of the basic concepts they learned in their previous courses. These classes are a wonderful way to contribute to the community and they also allow the students to beneficially apply their knowledge through service even before they have finished the program! This is certainly in clear contrast to most standard education systems where we study for years and years and only afterword are we able to engage in the world, and even then, very rarely in our own communities.

The PSA program also boldly introduces discussion on complex and deep-seated social problems, asking students to apply the knowledge and perspective they have just studied. For example, after learning about classification, dividing things into sets based on their characteristics, students are asked to turn their attention to the “subsets” of the human race. When speaking about men and women, students chose words from a list which “describe relations between the two sexes when they live according to the principle of equality, and…when this principle is disregarded.” The exercise ends by asking, “In a society governed by the principle of equality of the sexes, would women ever be treated as sex objects?”

Another example along the same lines is found in the book discussing the dawn of civilization and the beginning of agriculture. Students first learn that within early hunter-gather societies, 75% of the food was obtained from gathering, most of which was done by women. Women therefore had incredible knowledge, which they passed on to their children, giving them a great importance in those early societies. Then students are asked, “So then what has happened that led to the decrease in the status of women?” These are deep questions that cultivate critical thought and lead to personal development and reflection. After all, why not use our education as a forum for discussing issues of great societal importance?

In the end, knowledge about the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion and the irrationality of prejudice is also knowledge, equal to and if not of greater import than the factual knowledge many schools focus on today. After all, many of the world’s problems are not caused by the lack of factual knowledge but the absence of trust, justice and equality in so many of the systems and relationships that make up our society, at the global level as well as in the smallest villages.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of the PSA program. It does away with the false dichotomy of science vs. spirituality and blends the presentation of information and skills with discussion about the spiritual nature of human beings. One of the earliest courses provides a great example. The course deals with “properties” and begins by helping students to describe simple concepts such as shape, size and position, then moving onto different states of matter and the physical properties of cells but ultimately coming to a discussion on the “properties” of human beings. This is where it gets interesting. The section asks the students to identify the “true” qualities of human beings: honesty or dishonesty, truthfulness or deceit, coming to the conclusion that human beings have lower and higher natures. The students then end the section by discussing the quote, “we have been created noble, why abase ourselves?” This is certainly not a question I encountered in high school.

This brings us back to the beginning. So what is the purpose of education? Perhaps it is to help us develop our latent talents and capacities and positively contribute to the betterment of our communities – to be both inwardly and outwardly focused. It should give us the skills, perspective, experience and the inspiration to build a better world. If that is the case, then while the PSA program is still a work in progress, it is one hopeful step in the right direction.

Rafting the Nile

We had just pushed off the bank in our sixteen-foot paddle boat and our guide, Lee, was giving us a safety talk. “Always keep one hand on the T grip of the paddle. Otherwise it is going to knock someone’s teeth out. It has happened before and it will happen again. This is not Disneyland.”

We had arrived in Jinja, Uganda the previous day after a twelve-hour bus ride from Nairobi. Jinja is the source of the White Nile, which joins with the Blue Nile in Khartoum to create the massive river that we can see off the deck of our Cairo apartment. It is also the starting point for some serious whitewater rafting.

The company we chose, Adrift (not exactly a name that inspires confidence or stability), picked us up in the morning and took us to their office where we paid and signed the usual form stating it’s not their fault should we meet an untimely end during our Nile adventure. Then we loaded up into a van with our fellow rafters for the hour ride to the launch site.

After collecting our life-jackets, paddles and helmets, we made our way barefoot down the steep path taking us to the our boats waiting peacefully on the bank. Lee asked for two strong men to get into the front and two Danish men volunteered, awkwardly making their way to the front of the boat as we piled in after them.

Once we pushed off, Lee started to explain the basics as many in our group had never rafted before. After detailing a number of ways that members of our group could get black eyes or teeth knocked out, he set us to work practicing paddling as a group, with everyone working on the long deep strokes that would propel us across the flat sections and hopefully get us through the all upcoming rapids in one piece.

When he was satisfied with our paddling, he had us practice flipping and then reflipping the boat, an experience we would probably have again in the coming hours. The flipping part is the easy, but those who failed to hang on to the side ropes ringing our boat quickly found themselves surfacing inside the overturned raft instead of beside it. They looked a little shaken when they swam out but it was clear that Lee was not a sympathetic teacher, telling one women who let go of her paddle to go back under the raft and find it!

We made it back onto the raft and paddled up to the start of our first rapid. I had read online that the trip started with a few Class 1 or 2 rapids to get us warmed up and ready for the larger whitewater later on. Unfortunately it seems that a new dam has changed the launch point, because as we neared the suspiciously loud rapid Lee announced that this was “Overtime” and it was a Class 5.

Most rivers classify the difficulty of their rapids using a 1-5 rating. A one is small ripples, two gets bigger with some obstacles, three is more complex and requires significant maneuvering to come out alright, four is huge but predictable and fives are described by the American Whitewater Association as “long, difficult, violent rapids. Unavoidable waves and obstructions. Steep holes and/or drops. Demanding maneuvers that come quickly before difficult passageways. Risks are high for injury and even death.

I was probably the only person on the boat who knew what Class 5 actually meant and Lee didn’t bother to explain it, instead just telling us that we would paddle hard then get down and hold on. We swung around the first rock at the top of the rapid, paddling furiously to keep in the clear channel and cut to the right across the rapid, avoiding the massive rocks just off to our left. Our boat then wheeled around and started in the other direction, coming to rest up against a large rock dead in the center of the river. Lee shouted to get down and look outward (not toward the person in front) and then pushed off the rock so we were heading downriver backward. Looking off to the side, I felt the boat start to tip and then we plunged off a ten-foot waterfall! When we hit the bottom, the boat partially folded in on itself and then shot back into shape, launching half of us, myself included, into the water. Luckily it seems that each rapid ends in a calm section, giving us time to climb back onto the boat and and calm our racing hearts.

The next rapid saw the other half of our group sent flying into the water as we hit a huge wave sideways, turning our boat vertical before flopping it back down again. We had to portage around the first part of the third rapid, a Class 6. Walking around it, we could see why it was classed as “unrunable”. There were two ten-foot waterfalls right after one another leading into a massive hole known as “The Bad Place”, named after one of the adventurous kayakers who first braved the rapid. When asked how it was, he replied, clearly shaken, “that is a bad place!”

After one more massive set of waves, known as Vengeance, we stopped for lunch and lost three members of our group, who left after a half day, needing to get back to Kampala early. Although losing three people cut our group down to five, we were not hugely inconvenienced as they were not operating at 100% to begin with. It seems that they were still drunk from the night before and the pitiful swimming and weak paddling of one prompted our guide to ask, “you knew that you signed up to go whitewater rafting right?” He had started in the front of the boat and ended his trip in the back.

There was a long flat section after lunch which gave us a chance to float a bit in the warm Nile waters and chat with Lee. He seems to be living the ideal life of a rafting guide, going from one country to the next staying for a year or two and then heading on. His favorite river was the Kickin’ Horse in British Columbia, which, he told us smiling. is known for being the cause of death for at least one person a year. Clearly he was not a mellow-waters kinda guy.

He also made no real effort to learn our names, calling all the men “bro” and the women “princess”, trying the name out until he found a good person to match it. He told us the the Turks were the worst paddlers in the world and that an entire side of Turkish paddlers was only equal to the short Korean girl whose weak paddling earned her the title of princess for our group. Although his humor and social skills were questionable, we certainly trusted him with our lives, which was good because we had four huge rapids to go until we reached the end of our trip. Luckily, we made it through all of them without any major problems, making our only flip of the trip the one we caused ourselves in the beginning.

By the time that we paddled in to the take out, our arms were incredibly soar and our other muscles cramped, but we had survived and it was totally worth it. Even more gratifying was the knowledge that we did it all while fasting. It is the middle of the Baha’i fasting month, where Baha’is all over the world do not eat or drink between sunup and sundown for nineteen days. Although our we were a little worried about not having the energy to paddle for 4-5 hours, our hardy breakfast kept us going without a problem. As for thirst, Overdrive, Vengeance and Nile Special made sure we had plenty to drink. :)

Lions, Rhinos and Hippos oh my!

I have never really understood the appeal of going on safari. I guess that I imagined the experience as sitting out in a car for hours in the baking sun and every once in a while catching sight of a zebra, antelope or, if you are lucky, a lion. But there is obviously something to it, as these excursions draw tens of thousands of tourists each year to Kenya, which has set aside 10% of its land as protected reserves.  Our trusty Lonely Planet also seems to encourage these trips, as at least 80% of the book is devoted to visiting various national parks around the country.

Knowing therefore that we could not leave Kenya without going on some expedition out on the savannah, we decided to take the cheap tourist option and visit the Nairobi National Park. A short 45-minute drive took us to the entrance of the park, whose 117 square kilometers is amazingly located just beside downtown Nairobi.

With life-sized animal statues everywhere and baboons roaming freely about the premises, we seemed to have come to the right place. We boarded the large green bus and set off, our two guides introducing us to the park, which is divided up into several ecosystems and has over 100 species of animals and 400 species of birds (more than the total variety of birds in the UK)!

Throughout the three-hour trip, the guides were bursting with information, some normal and relevant and some decidedly not. For example, while they always told us the usual size, weight and running speed of all the animals that we saw, they also included the gestation period and seemed particularly fond of pointing out which animals “practiced polygamous” and detailing all the resulting drama.

The first animal we came across as we rumbled down the dirt road was a hippo, which was almost completely submerged in a small pond on the left of the bus. It turns out that these are the most dangerous animals in Africa and apparently enjoy destroying the farms of anyone who encroaches upon their bathing grounds. They also apparently have very delicate skin, which is why they spend most of their day under water. I am surprised they have yet to be used as a mascot for a moisturizing lotion – “skin so soft to make a hippo happy.”

We next spotted a herd of zebras, which are actually surprisingly stout creatures, unlike their more majestic horse cousins. Perhaps due to their stature, they also cannot run terribly fast, making it necessary to group up and use their stripes to confuse predators, as they are certainly not winning a 100 meter dash against a lion.

The antelopes were our first example of animals that “practiced polygamous” and their herd dynamics were fascinating. We quickly spotted the alpha male, who controls and protects the herd from challenges both foreign and domestic. This includes forcing the younger males out when they grow to a threatening age. Normally this leads to a number of young males wandering around the savannah forced to find their own heard or live as perpetual bachelors, but at times the females will decided that they really liked that young male and will instead leave the alpha male to fend for himself!

At first, many of these behaviors seemed odd, but it is not as though human behavior, especially as it relates to mating, is any less strange. I could not imagine explaining the dynamics of picking up a date at a bar to a lion or describing mother in-law relationships to a gazelle.

Perhaps our most exciting sighting was the lions. With only 25 in the park, it seems that spotting one is incredibly lucky and we saw five! Although the male lion is the most famous and known as the “King of the Jungle” (perhaps because he is louder than any other animal as his roar can be heard for over five miles) it is actually the female who does 90% of the hunting! Despite their fearsome reputation, our guide also told us that they are the laziest of the cats, sleeping between 14-18 hours a day. That certainly seemed to be the case, as the ones we saw weren’t moving much, only getting up to walk a few paces and slump down again in the shade. The Lion King must have conveniently skipped over that fact or it would have been a much less exciting, and significantly longer, movie.

The giraffes however, win the prize for being the oddest creatures that roam the grasslands. Having seen them both up close at a giraffe center (being licked in the process) and now in their natural habitat, we have grown quite fond of these funny animals. Their incredible height and long necks mean that they have massive hearts, (up to two feet wide and weighing 22 pounds!), and a blood pressure so high that its skin has to be extra thick just to keep the blood in! They also cannot kneel or sit down in order to drink and instead must comically spread out their front legs wide to either side and dip their head down into the water.

Being unable to sit also presents some problems with giving birth, as baby giraffes drop six feet to the ground when they are born, giving the human baby no grounds to complain about getting spanked. Despite being brought into this world in a pretty traumatic way, the baby giraffes can run as quickly as their parents after only thirty minutes! Giraffe mothers can even delay giving birth, at times waiting days until they have found a safe location. To top it all off, giraffes only sleep 15-30 minutes a day, making the lion seem comatose in comparison.

Most of these sightings were done from a well-traveled dirt road that runs around the park but occasionally our driver wanted to get closer. Our massive bus was certainly not built for four-wheeling but that did not stop us from taking very bumpy detours off the main road if it meant we could get closer to a buffalo herd or one of the rare black rhinos (which are oddly not actually black). We also went up and down rock-strewn hills that were steep enough to make us wish that we were in a Land Rover and not a fifty-foot bus that seats sixty.

When we returned to the park center, our guide told us that we were a very lucky group and we had to agree. The incredible number and diversity of animals we saw on our three-hour trip was amazing and certainly helped me to understand the appeal of going on safari. I had the feeling of having gone inside a National Geographic special and certainly came away with a profound respect and appreciation for the natural beauty that is now such a small part of our daily lives. While this might not mean that we are dropping our current plans to go and live in the bush, it will certainly be hard going back to Cairo. Luckily, people watching can be entertaining too. :)

Ode to the Refrigerator and Morning Monkeys

There are many things that we take for granted in our daily lives, but I never thought that a refrigerator would be one of them. As our time in Mombasa proved however, it was not the only thing.

When we agreed to spend two weeks assisting the local Baha’i community in Mombasa, we didn’t put much thought into what the conditions of our accommodations would be. Our group of six was set to stay at the Baha’i center, which would be our home base as we went out to visit the local Baha’is and help them to strengthen and enliven their community building activities.

We got in after a nine-hour bus ride from Nairobi over the vast grassy savannah between the capital and Kenya’s second largest city. We arrived around 9:30 pm sore, tired and ready to make dinner and get to sleep. After dropping our bags in our rooms, we plodded to the kitchen to find that the multi-burner gas stove we were expecting to use to cook up our rice and daal was actually a single burner charcoal stove called a jiko. As I never advanced very far in boy scouts, the caretakers Aziz and Janet helped us light it (a twenty minute process we would repeat twice a day for the next two weeks) and, after some confusion on how to cook rice without being able to adjust the heat, an hour later we settled down for a warm tasty meal.

Cooking with our best friend, the jiko

After dinner we all went off to our rooms to get ready for bed, but then realized that there were not enough mattresses for our entire group! Not only that, but the two rooms that we were split between were uncomfortably hot and the prospect of sharing a bed under a stifling mosquito net was even less appealing. Luckily, we solved both problems by moving all the mattresses out into the common room and having a slumber party under the building’s single fan, which not only kept us cool, but was also strong enough to keep off the mosquitoes!

The next morning brought more challenges as we learned that although there were showers, faucets and a toilet, there was no running water. Although this is the case for multiple months of the year, this apparently does not stop the water company from demanding to be paid every month, despite the fact that the meter reading does not change. We instead had to pay for water carriers who push long wooden carts filled with fifteen-liter jugs to come and fill up a tank behind the main building. Then, (because the pump was broken) every time we needed water for showering, cleaning or going to the bathroom we would grab a bucket, jump down into the hole where the tank was and scoop the water out by hand.

Perhaps one benefit of this process is that you only use water when you really need it, and you are much more economical with the water you do use. It is hard to take a luxurious bucket bath and you can’t waste water by leaving the tap on when shaving or brushing teeth if there is no running water in the first place. :)

This brings me to the refrigerator, or more accurately, the absence of one. I had never quite realized what a luxury it was to keep food chilled or frozen until that was no longer possible. The lack of a comfortingly whirring electric icebox not only meant that we had to go shopping almost everyday for fresh produce but we also could not have many food items that you can’t eat in one sitting, such as cheese or yogurt, which spoil quickly in the coastal heat. Perhaps most sadly, leftovers, normally a significant part of my diet, were also a victim of our lack of artificial frigidity. If you don’t finish it after the next meal, it went to the garbage (or rather, the pile in the back continually raided by morning monkeys).

Our Kenyan friends, who were used to many of the conditions we found challenging, helped us to see the brighter side of these conditions. Using a charcoal stove allows you to leave a pot of food cooking for hours and not worry about it, the original slow cooker. No running water means that instead of everyone individually washing hands before they eat, one person goes around with a pitcher and basin pouring water on the hands of everyone sitting at the table, giving the process a very communal and almost reverent feel. And sleeping out under the building’s only fan brought us all together at night for prayers before we all went to bed. Perhaps most importantly, giving up material comforts seems to enliven prayer and makes it easier to move into a state of communion, something that was certainly essential for our trip.

As our train pulled away from the Mombasa station at the end of our two weeks, we left behind a new children’s virtues class, a reinvigorated youth empowerment group and many wonderful people starting the first in a series of courses that help to strengthen community life and train people to become agents of change in their own lives. What we took back with us to Nairobi was a profound feeling of gratefulness for being afforded such an incredible opportunity to serve, learn and grow. That, and a newfound appreciation for refrigerators. :)