Teaching social studies in Minnesota does not necessarily prepare you for everything NRCA camp has to offer. Last August I traveled to camp for the 5th time to help out. More and more this means that I again become humbled by everything I still don’t know about Swahili and Kenyan culture, so I get to look to the best guides available: our amazing Kenyan staff and students.
I often lead a simulation activity with students who are learning about government in my Civics classes in Minnesota. I tell them we all live in a place called Sheeptown together; impenetrable and scary Mountains of Death surround us, but we have everything we need in our town: sheep, grass, trees, fresh water, and each other. One morning, we wake up to find that one of the students is missing a sheep (we start with 20) – and in its place is a spot of blood on the grass and a few tufts of fur snagged on the trees. Wolves.
Students then have to talk out their plan. My only purpose is to advance the story for them based on their choose-your-own-adventure discussion. The punchline is that however they decide to deal with the wolves, they usually wind up creating a governmental structure of some kind without realizing it – and thus they (hopefully) learn the purpose of government. I claim no credit for this lesson. I filched it from another teacher and the kids always do all the work. But at Leadership Camp, Sheeptown was a whole new ball game.
First, it became immediately apparent that our NRCA student leaders are experts on the natural world. They sat in a circle facing each other and threw out ideas almost faster than I could process them. We’re talking great ideas: protect the sheep with a fence or a hut; hunt the wolves; set traps for the wolves; dig a moat around Sheeptown; set watches at night; and so on. Everyone listened and seemed to feel heard. Students got enthusiastic about the ideas of others, then added thoughts of their own. They obviously regard each other with a great deal of respect.
When the story advances, they learn that their first few attempts don’t work; the wolves are still a threat. This forces them to be smarter about how they spend their scant assets. Our student leaders are experts at learning quickly and managing limited resources. The conversation sped up as lines of influence emerged among them. Certain students pulled ahead as clear authority figures, proposing new plans and taking input from their peers. These leaders made difficult decisions, but only advanced an idea when everyone was on board. Justifications were explained, argued, and agreed upon. The governmental structure they had pieced together gained cohesion. The wolves receded as their problem-solving ability grew and they regained control of Sheeptown.
I have never seen students do as well in this activity as I did that day in Nanyuki. The wolves of the real world don’t stand a chance against our NRCA student leaders.
Walking across a bouncy bridge suspended dozens of feet above the forest floor is not the way I envisioned spending each day of Seniors Camp, but I got used to it quickly enough. The fact that the see-through walkway looked like it was made of paper clips hooked together seemed to be a strong deterrent to many of our students. Who was to say this thing would hold together when each of them stepped out with one foot, then the other, placing all their weight upon it along with the handful of their peers in front of them? Their anxiety was palpable. This felt life-threatening to some of the kids.
One might expect some students to give up. Remain on the ground, or make it up the first set of stairs only to turn around and crawl right back down to safety. Or perhaps some cajoling from the staff: Come on. It’s not so bad. You’ll be fine. And then a panic attack halfway through with some kind of emergency rescue.
None of these things happened. One by one, over the 4 days of our field trip to Ngare Ndare Forest Park, students took deep breaths, strengthened their resolve, and decided this fear would not defeat them. Backs straight and knuckles white, they stepped out onto the bridge, holding the guiding wiring as tightly as possible. We heard no complaints or verbal expressions of fear from any students, only words of encouragement and support. The treetop path is 450 meters long, and step by step they made their way.
Each time someone reached the end, they cheered and joined the rest, seeming giddy that they had completed such a task. It wasn’t fearlessness they all demonstrated, exactly – it was bravery. Who could be better than our NRCA students at facing down their fears to overcome a new challenge?
I’m an obsessive distance runner – I try to tackle 3-4 miles almost every day. During our crazy games days at camp, I participate in the adult demos for running events, thinking that surely I can at least compete with the Kenyan staff. I knew I wouldn’t win.
As we crouched at the starting line last August, campers cheering for us, I thought maybe this would be the year all my running would finally give me a good sprint. I had never run faster than any Kenyan in my life, but I allowed myself to consider the possibility this time. Who knows?
Kelvin blew his whistle and our caseworkers shot ahead of my best sprint like they had rocket boosters. I didn’t have a chance from the beginning, of course. I did my best and finally reached the finish line to find the Kenyan staff already chatting with each other, postures relaxed, ready to high-five me. I laughed at myself.
Just like in running, the NRCA caseworkers are miles ahead in terms of how much more they know about the students in our program. Assumptions I make about students turn out to be wrong more often than not. It makes sense – Callen and Norah and the rest have had leagues more time to get to know these kids than I have.
More than that, the caseworkers are empathetic and talented. Tunda and Mary anticipate student needs and respond with diligence and love. Our students know that if they need a little extra food, Mama Kamau will usually dish something up. If they need adult support, Joy and Saidi will listen and respond in kind. If they need encouragement (which they almost never seem to need at all), George is there to offer it, his success story resonating quietly in the background.
Together they make an unstoppable team. It’s incredible to work alongside these amazing humans. They’ve put in countless hours to make sure each student in NRCA is successful, and the students are keenly aware of that. A child’s caseworker may be the only reliable adult relationship in their life (aside from their sponsor, of course) – so when Tunda does home visits and works at the Saturday program all year long, then comes to camp ready for more, her students truly feel loved and supported in a way they may not have without her.
The bus ride back to Nairobi is always full of loud music and happy chatter, but also a sense of sadness that camp is over. The goodbyes are difficult for all of us as we remember that we can’t always spend each day together. But inherently comforting is the knowledge that the caseworkers are the heart and soul of NRCA. They serve kids with great care. The students deserve nothing less.