In this Guest Post, we introduce you to Dr. Utheri Kanayo. Dr. Kanayo holds a Ph.D. in Education and is an alumna of Kenyatta University, the University of Nairobi, and Newnham College, University of Cambridge. Her work has included conducting educational research with schools in impoverished neighborhoods in Africa and redesigning curriculum and educational models to shape citizens and innovations based on what Africa needs. Dr. Kanayo believes in a New Africa that will rise as a global leader. While she worked as a researcher at the University of Cambridge for several years, in 2013 she returned to Kenya to focus full time on Children in Freedom School, which she founded with her husband Eng Oku Kanayo. In this work, she mentors children to embrace who they are, own their African heritage, live their purpose, dream big, and use their talents to create and innovate.
Originally, we set up Children In Freedom as a charity that ran a scholarship and mentorship program. We focused mostly on the former, however, we soon realized that helping children attend schools that continued to use the same curriculum–that had not worked in decolonising children’s minds–would not produce the type of Africans we wanted to see. As a result, we created the Mentorship for Freedom program, which uses an Afrocentric approach to bring about behaviour change. This lens focuses on including positive African histories, culture, and literature within curriculums; decreasing the amount of exposure to Eurocentric and American narratives in lessons. For example, we researched and learned about African innovators and leaders, such as Mansa Mussa, the king of Mali approximately 700 years ago and still the richest man to ever live; and Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel prize.
The impact of the mentorship program on our 79 scholarship students was evident, so we started brainstorming how we could reach other students, not just in Kenya but Africa and the world. We started fundraising with government ministries, local curriculum developers, donors etc. so that we could train teachers on our curriculum. Despite a large amount of interest, however, we were unable to raise the funds we needed. Instead, we decided to use our own savings to implement a project solely focused on our own vision, which is how we ended up building and founding Children In Freedom School, the only Afrocentric school in East Africa.
Construction of the school started in 2017, and we officially opened in January 2018. Our school is a local private and boarding school which uses the Kenyan curriculum, but follows an Afro-centric model. For example, when looking at a Eurocentric text, we replace the foreign names or activity with a relevant local reference. This allows us to meet the curriculum standards while building African culture, history, and one’s own voice into lessons. We call ourselves by our African names, rather than our English names. We also teach mother tongue languages and allow students to take exams in their native language. We also nurture talents by creating opportunities where children are exposed to various activities such as cooking, programming, dancing, scientific experiments, gymnastics, fashion and design etc.
We operate using the Ubuntu ideology, “I am because you are,” meaning that we work collectively rather than individually. This inspires our school’s principles, such as love, consideration, integrity, trustworthiness, accountability, responsibility, respect, and honor. Our students have created their own peer accountability system where they pursue actions for the good of the group, rather than becoming jealous or acting out. Led by a Student Ubuntu Baraza committee, the students suggest what penalties a certain indiscipline would attract. This follows the African traditional practice of group law and therapy – Ubuntu. The school uses global thinking and action, such as introducing technology at the age of five, allowing children to use tablets to play and learn to code, how to work powerpoint, and to type. We have normalized technology and see it as the future and a tool to use.
More recently, we have started to combine our previous scholarship approach with our current school program. Our school is fee-based, so with those funds, we are able to give students with more limited resources the opportunity to attend our school. So far, we have been able to host five scholarship recipients, however, we just received a foundation grant from a U.S. organization which has helped us reach ten more children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The name “Children in Freedom School” means that we want to live in our African freedom, growing to the greatest extent possible and not letting the world’s limitations for Black people determine our capabilities. We introduce children early to understanding the global racial power hierarchy for Africans so that they are not only aware of this dynamic, but can start criticizing and critiquing the validity of such notions. For example, we teach them about the importance of loving their black skin (full of melanin) and heritage, with the understanding that at one point they will be exposed to the world’s antipathy to darker coloured skin and Africa in general. From this exposure, the children can start building solutions and networks.
When searching for teachers to staff our school, we look for educators with a spark and similar values. During the interview process, we ask them about their vision for African and we look for creativity and flexibility. Our recruitment methods focus on getting a feel for the teacher’s spirit, character, personality, love for Africa, and their potential for embracing an Afrocentric training approach. We host training every term, as well as refresher workshops for teachers each week. I serve as the principal, and then we have kindergarten, lower, and upper primary coordinators who help motivate their teams each week and identify gaps that need to be addressed with additional training. In training, we not only cover the syllabus but also impart that our school is focused on bringing out the highest potential for and of African children. We do not teach math just to pass an exam, but also include references from Africa to enhance the lesson, such as the Ishango bone, which mathematicians used near the river Zaire many centuries ago to do multiplication and addition. We often sit-in during teachers’ lessons, watch, and give feedback to identify areas for improvement.
For the last three years, we have been building the foundation of this innovative approach, but now I have started sharing about what we are doing by reaching out and attending conferences. Our hope is to package and print out the curriculum to be used as a toolkit or module for other teachers to learn from, but this will likely take between a few months and a year to complete. We have already established the kindergarten and primary schools, and in two years we plan to open a Pan-African Afrocentric boarding secondary school, which we are currently raising funds for. Children from anywhere in Africa and the diaspora who would like an Afrocentric education for their children are welcome. All we need now are partnerships and support for the innovative approach we have taken to education. We hope that this model can be translated to other Kenyan and African schools, as well as American and British schools to improve awareness and change mentalities.