Office Matters: Two E-mails

Posted on May 31, 2011

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I wanted to write something specifically for this blog about the first day here and my perceptions of the office and the organization … but I find myself lacking in time and Internet access. I’m currently listening to Dinosaur Jr. while working in the office in the Kilimani district of Nairobi. Life is surreal.

Given my limited Internet access for the time being, I’m going to repost below excepts from two e-mails I wrote last night and sent this morning. They discuss, albeit somewhat informally, my first day teaching and my analysis of the organization here. As you’ll notice, things are rough … but we’re working on it!:

From an e-mail to a friend:

Hah, I think I did put on great airs of knowing what I’m doing … but I must admit I’m somewhat encouraged mainly because I can see a bit of an impact so far. I wanted to use the first day to gauge knowledge and expectations of the students, get a pulse on their desires and their skills, and found out that they knew much less about rhetoric and higher education than I’d expected going in. And you can very much tell the education these girls came from by the way they act in class—they do that thing where they all daintily murmur an answer in unison, avoid eye contact with you as the male teacher, and have trouble raising their voices and asking questions. When I did get them to speak, I had to crane my neck just to hear them. But god I kept trying, smiling and joking with them, coaxing a laugh or two out of them until they seemed much less ashamed to smile in a classroom setting.

The organization folks in the class told me afterwards that the girls seemed much less scared than in the past—usually they have quite a few dropouts within the first few days, but all 60 have stayed and I intend to keep it that way. Apparently we’re saying very different things to the girls too—the organization is thinking far too much in terms of the Kenyan educational model still and so they’re telling girls that if they got B levels on their Kenyan standardized tests, they cannot pursue top schools and should expect lower scores on their standardized tests and will probably not do as well on their essays. My message has been much more of a you can do anything, and if we work hard enough here on your writing, your interviews, your presentation of yourself, if we work harder at figuring out not what you think is expected of you, but what you really want to do with yourself, and if we can get you to a level where you can communicate that drive and passion as well as your history, then there’s no reason that all of you can’t get scholarships to some very prestigious institutions. I find myself hovering over the shoulders of the administrators, perhaps being more bold than my title allows—and whenever they tell the girls that they should expect this or that, I try to pop in with a qualification of, well if you work very hard and are willing to do this, this and this, which you might feel is beyond you—and that’s okay if you feel scared or if you don’t want to do it because it will be a lot of work—then you can get perhaps more than you’d expect and as much as you want.

It’s a very basic thing, before we even begin the deeper lessons, but I think these are girls who have never been told that they can do anything they want to. The organization’s empowering them to think that they can achieve higher education and work on par with students in the West, something they often doubt. But I think that a huge part of what I’ll have to do is try to make a little sea change in the way these girls and this organization think about what is possible for them. And it all sounds so silly when I say it, so Stand and Deliver, but … it actually has a lot of meaning here and now.

I guess it’s also my job to prepare them for what they’re getting into, because all of them seem to want an education, but few of them seem to understand what that might mean for them—being thrust into a foreign culture (whether it’s Ghanaian or American) when they’ve usually never left their tribe for more than a day at a time, and furthermore being cut off from their rural families. I’ve been looking into what’s happened to the girls who have come beforehand, and many are undergoing identity crises, rejecting their homelands, rejecting Africa and may fail to return as leaders. Some are getting scared and failing out. They need a support net once they manage to get to school … they need other girls from the same background who have gone through the program and know all the hardships they’re doing to face. But we can’t provide that because until the first class graduates in two years, there are no girls from their background in Kenya who have gone through this experience. I have decided that for now that I … well I’m going to blow a lot of my personal capital. I pride myself on knowing one or two people in almost any place you can imagine, and definitely almost anywhere these girls will be going. And I know one or two people from different but similar backgrounds. So instead of calling in favors for myself, I think I may have to call in my favors to get these people to act as points of contact, support, second families, mentors to these girls.

And that’ll be incredibly important given that I have a few students I was shocked to see. 10 of the 60 girls in my class are from the Kenyan Muslim minority, but not the urban Muslims. These girls are from a dislocated nomadic tribe of very intensely observant Muslims called the Dago (spelling? they pronounced it daa-go). God knows how, but apparently they had to fight their families tooth and nail to get out of arranged marriages at least long enough to come here and attempt to get a scholarship and higher education. Perhaps I’ve developed a weird soft spot for Muslims, I don’t know, but right know these are the students I’m most fond of and most worried about in part because they seem to be the most bold in class and in part because many of them have already encountered intense familial opposition to their dreams. I feel an intense duty towards them especially right now, to make sure that the bravery and difficulty it took to make it to Nairobi and to follow their own desires at times at great personal cost … to make sure that they get to achieve what they want to, that none of them feel that they can’t hack it and have to drop out.

In more concrete terms, I assigned a practice essay for the end of the week, so we being small group lessons (breaking them into six groups of ten based on strengths and weaknesses in their essays and on the practice test I’m administering today). The rest of the week is basically orientation, practice testing, and some basics about rhetoric, convincing them that they might have to think outside of their previous education and getting them to feel that it will be possible to learn to think about writing and to write and argue differently within even such a short time.

Ahhhhhhhh that was long, long, long … well was that all the detail you wanted? The EVERYTHING? Hah, or have I overwhelmed you with saccharine shit and minutia?

And on a far more technical side, an e-mail written to my … I suppose supervisor? in America discussing some of the organizational difficulties I’ve encountered here:

You were quite right that there is no strategic plan here. I’ve requested a series of documents, etc. so that I can start to make a thorough analysis of the state of the organization and craft a measured, pragmatic plan for growth and development. What you noticed regarding the small schools–I understand why they focus on these schools (the ease of getting a full scholarship for the girls), but I’ve noticed that their conception of what is and isn’t a good school is a bit off. I’m going through and reorganizing their list today, then adding 40 schools they should have a relationship with but don’t, and fleshing out the profiles they have for each school to better place the girls. I should be able to leave an electronic database of that as well as records of the curriculum for SAT and writing (college apps and essays) courses I’m organizing. They should be fully replicable. But before that even matters, there are some serious concerns that I’ll need to address in the coming weeks:

1) The program requires girls to come to Nairobi for months on end. Distance learning/communications are low. That and a lack of ability to interface with rural families–their application numbers have been falling and they are not necessarily capturing the most needy students.
2) There is a pragmatic hostility among the board of directors towards non-traditional majors. Despite being entrepreneurial people, they seem to find it inconceivable that the creative application of skills gained through a more personally engaging or off-beat major could be used for the good of the nation. This and the organization seems to consciously discourage in subtle to outright ways the long-term pursuit of education in law and medicine.
3) Especially among Muslim students, the isolation, social pressures, etc. of education is producing a backlash, with a non-negligible number of girls reneging on the Zawadi pledge, seeking to take the money from the scholarship and run. The rate of return to their communities will not be seen for a few years, but I expect it to be lower than expected and disheartening to investors.
This could be counteracted if the girls had support networks/mentoring systems not necessarily with the directors, etc., from whom they seem to sometimes feel alienated, but instead if they had points of regular contact with individuals from similar background who had gone through similar experiences. This may only be feasible once a healthy batch of girls have graduated and returned to Kenya, meaning a few lean and difficult years for a young NGO. But I believe an ad hoc network of individuals from similar backgrounds/experiences but different nations in America/at the same university ideally could be used as an effective compliment to the existing system in order to reduce the alienation and the chance of a reneg on the non-binding Zawadi pledge.
There is also push-back from the board against the idea of stronger binding conditionality on the scholarship, but everyone involved directly with the girls seems to think it is necessary. The most popular idea (and one that I think may be necessary) is conditionality for cooperation–if the girls fail to renew their pledge and fail to cooperate with the requirements of the organization, there should be financial consequences–harsh as it seems, it may be the only truly effective way of maintaining the legitimacy of the organization in the long term and, beyond just increasing the caliber of the schools the girls are admitted to (which I am currently working on), it may be the best tactic to ensure a long term brand of both excellence in academics and excellence in returns to the nation(s) for the organization.
Also popular among the staff, but not among the board, is the idea of including a contract within the scholarship stating that if the girls do reneg on their pledge and fail to return, instead establishing themselves in the West and using the scholarship, in the end, for their own personal gain, they should be obligated to repay at least the costs that the organization spent on them–a proof of sustainability and accountability to potential donors.
4) Due to the corruption in the nation as a whole, donors are hostile right now to investing time or money into the organization itself, but would rather donate directly to the girls. This is fine and good to an extent, but it limits the growth of the organization to its current point. Little more can be achieved without the finances to hire at least one administrator per office and at least one development/strategic officer for the organization as a whole (preferable one per office, actually, but let’s not go overboard given the limited resources at hand). The development/strategic officer should preferably have a background in education.
A healthy flow of interns from America (only necessary as a means of educating students and local staff in the nuances of American education/university systems, in the SAT and other parts of the application, and for use in pre-arrival cultural expectation training for the girls [also necessary to cut down on the shock and alienation that is affecting a non-negligible portion of the girls to some extent]) can be established for this office, and could be for the other offices, but only once a steady staff is created.
The board of directors cannot sink the time or finances into any further offices, nor can the local contacts. Donor investment is needed and so a system of accountability in donations is needed–a receipt and preferably a visual showing what money has gone towards to fight the conception of corruption while the organization grows, develops its brand and credibility. Ideally there would be a grant writer here, realistically an intern, but a dedicated individual is needed to develop the donor relations and financial resources to establish these offices.
Wangari and I can create the basis for this, but given the amount of time we are here, if the human capital is not present in the organization, then there are not enough man hours in the office to effectively continue this project at an adequate pace. An increase in local volunteers may be an adequate answer to this lack of manpower necessary for the short term development of the initial goals for the development of the organization, but will require stronger managerial skills, clearer goals, and a more regimented and clear series of steps towards those goals to help in managing the volunteers/interns without sapping all the time of the administrators.
5) There’s a lack of fact sheets and documents for use by the girls and for use as media packages, or solicitation materials for potential donors. That can be improved with minimal effort.
Getting on well with Valerie and Iris (the volunteer). Rose is away for a time; Valerie will be leaving for Switzerland to pursue a lead for grad school as soon as Rose returns. Have me Eva Muraya, the final authority on all efforts to be made by the Kenyan office. She seems amenable enough, but it will take a great deal of effort and lobbying, I suspect, to convince her to adopt the strategic plan once it is developed. My good relations with the staff and the girls thus far has helped in ascertaining the current situation of the organization. Conversations have been forthcoming, nuanced, and self-critical, and the staff makes no pretenses about their relationship with the board, concerns for the growth of the organization, perceptions of the status of the Uganda, Malawi offices, etc.
My work is cut out for me. More to come later.
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