True Grit: Work and Study in Kenyan Universities

Over the next 6 weeks, our Regional Director of East Africa will be in Kenya. Andrew is visiting campuses across the country to assess how Textbooks for Change can make the biggest impact possible with our textbook donations and envision the future of our impact model. He will be blogging along his journey.

Visiting university campuses in Kenya is a slightly conflicting experience. On one hand, you see incredible energy, ambitious and bright young students, dedicated faculty, and administrators of unmistakeable toughness and capability. You can even stumble on scenes seemingly cut out of campus life in Canada: two lads in their backpacks cheerfully trying to bodycheck each other off of the sidewalk, campus clubs meeting in unused classrooms, and groups of students lying in the grass or huddled protectively around the few viable power outlets. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the significant challenges these institutions face: skyrocketing enrolment, tightened budgets, unreliable internet access, and notable shortages of learning materials from textbooks to computers.

Students at Maasai Mara University crowding around a Wifi Hotspot.

While the scale and magnitude of the issues faced by these schools could overwhelm their administrators and lead to paralysis, the staff of the universities choose instead to combat them with a seemingly limitless supply of resourcefulness, elbow grease, and good humour.

I was walking around some lecture halls with a Dean of a campus, and he suggested we pop in to take a peek at the lesson. The huge hall was dominated by two groups of students in lecture chairs, each clustered around one of two lecturing professor at opposite ends of the room. Unfortunately there was no dividing wall to separate the two classes, so students were forced to tune out the other class and focus on their professor. The Dean told me “As you can see, we are short of rooms, so two lecturers must teach at once. It can be difficult for students to concentrate on their lesson. However, if one lecture gets boring you can always diversify.”

This is the type of eye-opening, interesting and often hilarious things that people working and learning on these campuses say.

Rather than give my interpretation of what I heard and saw on Kenyan campuses over the past week, I thought it best to give you some sense of what these men and women are thinking, provide some direct quotes.

Student, on campus life:

“Here in Kenya we have modelling pageants at our school, to crown Mr. and Mrs. Campus. Do you have the same system in Canada?”

Student, on the applicability of Canadian content:

“I study comparative politics and public policy, so content from Canada is useful for me.”

Professor, on the financial constraints of his pupils:

“Sometimes students will sacrifice meals to buy textbooks. But this, too, impacts their studies, as they can find it hard to concentrate in class when they are hungry.”

Campus Librarian, on the need to balance e-resources with more traditional content:

“A library without hard copy books is not a library. People will always think it is empty.”
Students studying at Narok Town Library

Student, on book requests:

“We need more textbooks on quantum mechanics.”

Professor, on her involvement with the media and broadcasting program:

“We would like to enable our journalism students to tell stories about the community. We live in a fragile ecosystem, in an underdeveloped area, so it is important to have the stories the people in the nearby area spread through radio, print and other media. Our students can do this if they have the right knowledge and equipment.”

Andrew Loebus is our Regional Director of East Africa. He joined Textbooks for Change after working with Honey Care Africa and a fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation. Andrew also enjoys cooking, weightlifting, philosophy, and a nice pair of slacks.