From snow to Dr. Seuss: What Newbery Medalist authors discussed with Kenyan kids
Author and illustrator Jerry Craft, who won a Newbery Medal for his graphic novel The New Kid, had never been to Africa. The New York City native had also never visited a school outside of the United States. So he had no clue what to expect from students when he arrived at Nyaani Primary School in the rural Kenyan village of Wamunyu in July.
"They were singing and dancing. And then we all stood up one by one and they gave us Swahili names," says Craft, who was dubbed "Nyeusi," which means "Black."
It was quite the introduction for Craft and the rest of the literacy team assembled by his buddy Kwame Alexander, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of 39 books, including Newbery Medal-winner The Undefeated. "Part of my job is speaking about books all around the world," says Alexander, whose enthusiasm for his mission has taken him to five continents. That includes 11 visits to Ghana, where he founded a literacy organization and created a library. So of course he said yes when Kenya Connect, a nonprofit that aims to empower students and teachers in rural Kenya, invited him to Wamunyu last year.
The trip was so inspiring that he decided to return this summer with some friends. "In my life, I have these visions and experiences that I want to share," Alexander says. "I wanted to make this opportunity available to other writers and educators." Plus, he knew they had valuable advice to share to promote literacy. "This year, I brought reinforcements," he adds.
His crew of 22 was a mix of experts and advocates who were prepared to cover a wide array of topics. "He has a way of curating humans. Everybody was so distinct in their work," says Kassandra Minor, who runs a New York City-based organization with her husband dedicated to building school communities. They came with the mindset that they were also recipients, notes novelist Stacy Hawkins Adams, who was thrilled to participate in conversations with Kenyans about what books excited them. And their group stood out as predominantly African-American, notes Craft. "One thing we were told in quite a few settings is they think of white Americans but not African-Americans," he says – American volunteers frequently come but usually they're white.
Craft had an endless list of questions for the kids he encountered. "I'd heard so many things, but I didn't know what to believe," he says. "Are lions just walking down the street?" The answer to that was no, but most of the students he met told him they had been bitten by scorpions or snakes. He also learned that the kids not only spoke English and Swahili but often other indigenous languages too. When Craft challenged a trilingual 12-year-old to a read-off of the Dr. Seuss classic Fox in Socks, he was blown away by her performance. "That's one long tongue twister," he says. "I'm glad she didn't say, 'Now read this book in Swahili.'"
The biggest surprise for Craft came when he first entered a classroom. "I look for the light switch. There is no light switch," he remembers. That's when it dawned on him that there was no electricity. He also found himself in front of a very confused group of kids when he mentioned the word, "snow."
"You don't know what snow is?" Craft asked. The teacher intervened to help him out with the local example of Mt. Kenya: "On top of the mountain, we have some white stuff known as snow. OK children?"
"Yes teacher," they replied in chorus. Craft explained to the amazed group of faces that in America, during the winter, snow can go up to your knees.
Culturally, of course, there are some notable differences too. "What I've found within African countries colonized by the British is this disciplined, orderly, 'don't talk' environment," Alexander says. "But I'm very interactive when speaking with kids. I'm encouraging them to call and respond to me." It took a little time for them to lose their inhibitions, but soon they were opening up.
Alexander was mostly reminded of how similar the students are in Kenya to other children he's encountered. "They're still kids who want to imagine a better world," he says. "When you give them permission to start saying something, it is worth hearing. And I think that makes them feel valued, and it makes them feel that they matter."
It also opens their minds to the idea that they could be authors one day too. "They taught us how to nurture our talents," says Christine Kabunde, a 13-year-old in grade 7, who was intrigued by the possible opportunities. "They have taught us how you can visit the world and see many things. I have learned that with just writing I can also earn some money. Hope to achieve this one day in my life."
Angel Mueni, also in grade 7, says the experience encouraged her to read more in school and with her parents. "I need to see snow too one day," she adds with a smile.
These interactions and the lasting memories they create are why such visits are critical for children, explains Gabriel Dinda, executive director of Writers Guild Kenya. "When an international author comes, it energizes everyone locally," he says. Book clubs and other kinds of programs that introduce children to books are growing gradually in Kenya. But he would like to see the country invite more authors to visit schools.
Many of the folks from this trip are certain to return. "I can see how people make this a life's calling and go back every year," Craft says. And Alexander and several educators in the group have been sketching out plans for a global literacy summit in Kenya. "When you have a mission, you don't have the luxury of not doing it," Alexander says. "It becomes part of your life."
Thomas Bwire is a co-founder and editor at Habari Kibra, a news hub that focuses on reporting stories from the Kibera community. He previously worked as a radio journalist at Pamoja FM, a community-based radio station in Kibera.
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.
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