A Life-Changing Trip to the Nambale Magnet School

My name is Sarah Elconin. Last summer I was a high school graduate on a gap year, and in  August and September spent time at the Nambale Magnet School in Kenya. The school is near the Uganda border, a two-hour car ride from the nearest airport in Kisumu and two hours from Victoria Falls.

There were many notable things about my time at the school. Most endearing was the sense of community throughout. Teachers, students, chefs, farm hands, and security guards were all friendly and welcoming. When I first arrived, a smiling group of boys came running over and helped carry my quite large and heavy bags from the entrance to the guest house where I was staying. One of the bags was filled with various art supplies, board games, and sports equipment donated by friends and family from back home.

I woke up for breakfast early the next morning and was a bit nervous with the anticipation of meeting everyone, but my nerves didn’t last. Upon entering the dining hall packed with students, some barely taller than my knees and others heads taller than me, a table in the corner filled with smiling teachers was waving me over. They all introduced themselves and asked me my name and where I was from and about my family and my town. They were all very curious and friendly and I was no longer nervous.

I started teaching later that day, and I was immediately excited by the enthusiasm in the hallways. Walking to the classroom, I got smiles and waves from all who passed by. Upon entering the classroom, all the 4th graders stood up, said hello, and welcomed me. Throughout the whole “maths” lesson I was warmed by the students’ eagerness to participate. Every student raised their hand, and wriggled in their seat with the desire to be called on in front of the class. In each and every lesson I taught I encountered the same enthusiasm – the children were unbelievably keen to learn and participate and share. They were also very well behaved. Later that same day, I observed the first of many classes I would have the privilege to see. In these lessons, I watched how caring the relationship between the students and the teachers was. Throughout the lessons they were all smiling, laughing, and still eagerly participating.

The true depth of caring in these relationships wasn’t revealed to me until later in the day, though. Students would run up and embrace teachers upon going home or going to bed, saying “goodbye” or “goodnight” or “see you tomorrow.”  For some of the pupils,  the Nambale Magnet School is the only home they have ever known, and the only family they have. To all these kids, NMS is more than a school. It is a haven filled with support and people who care about them and their futures.

I am incredibly appreciative of the time I spent in Kenya, and the people I met. Going into this experience, I was very nervous; it was my first time traveling alone, and Nambale is very very far from New York! As the first step of my solo travel journey it would set a precedent, good or bad. It was then my job, a tricky job, to take that good or bad and go back out into the world.

Around the third week of my trip I experienced a medical issue that sent me home several weeks before I intended. I was devastated to leave, and embarrassed to be going back prematurely. When I announced my early departure to the teachers and students, I was met with nothing but sympathy and gratitude for all they felt I contributed to their school. The words and kindness of everyone at the school allowed me to feel positive and proud of what I was able to give to the school during my time there, and it was especially helpful and comforting to hear after I felt so badly about having to leave. They made me a part of their school family, and I said some very sad goodbyes. Going into the rest of my gap year and then college life, I carry the encouraging words of the individuals I became friends with inside me.

When we spoke I was envious of their optimism and faith that things would always work themselves out in the end. I admired how they shared their optimism, so much so that I’ve decided to start carrying it with me. The outlook on life at the Nambale Magnet School inspired me to adapt my own views. I’m now able to see that life is coming from me, and not at me. Volunteering at the Nambale Magnet School was a life changing experience, filled with people I will never forget, and feelings and experiences I will always remember.

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