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Waldorf Education Meets an Old Tradition

On the African continent Waldorf Education clashes with an outdated education system. Left with an old, repetitive style of education inherited from western countries in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, children that grow up can do but little with their lives. Only children from wealthier families, who send their children to private or international schools, have a chance to participate effectively in economic or professional circles.

There is excitement and loud ‘hellos’ every time another training module is about to begin. Teachers from many different places in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have travelled through the night in buses, that have had to negotiate the mostly terrible roads to Nairobi, to make their way to the Rudolf Steiner School just outside the city. But they are prepared to go through this ordeal every time, to come for their two weeks to gain new insights, new skills and ever-widening inspiration for their teaching.

Why do they do this? These teachers are fired with the wish to give the children in their care what they themselves never had - an education that will give the young ones a future in a changing world, an education that will enable them to direct their own lives out of an understanding what it is to be human, in the widest sense of the word.

Many of these teachers come from young initiatives, either kindergartens or primary schools, catering for local children whose parents earn very little. They often have orphan children in their classes, where there is no one to pay for the school fees of these children. These are little private schools that have grown out of the community’s need for education, as government schools are few and are generally felt to provide poor education.

But Africa also has hope. More and more people are concerned about the educational situation and want to improve it. Although still a relatively small movement, those teachers who have come into contact with Waldorf Education are spreading its approaches, not only through their initiative kindergartens and primary schools, but also more widely in their areas.

The Maasai Discover Waldorf Education...

There is one initiative which is of special interest, in that the people concerned are still living according to their own traditional culture. A group of Maasai, living close to the Kenya/Tanzania border, became interested in Waldorf Education. As they are still herding animals, they are struggling to survive in the onslaught of western economic living. Because they inevitably have to move around with their cattle to find grazing land, they have not benefitted from development programs in Kenya, and many of their children have not been able to attend school on a regular basis.

They realise, however, that their traditional way of living holds a very uncertain future for them, especially due to climatic changes in which periods of droughts are becoming longer and longer. During the recent three-year drought of 2007 – 2009 many of their animals died, causing severe hardship for the Maasai people. Even though the rains in 2010 were plentiful, and the grazing lands have recovered, it will take several years for them to build up their stocks of animals again so they can afford to live a reasonable life.

In the uncertainty about the future, many families are turning to the education of their children as their only hope of survival in the long run. This particular group of Maasai were fortunate in that a number of their children were sponsored to be enrolled in the Rudolf Steiner School in Nairobi, where they live as boarders in the school’s boarding home during term times, and go home during the school holidays.

The parents of these children were surprised at the changes in their children, whenever they came home. They radiated self-confidence, spoke well, and seemed to have learnt very well. Their eyes shone with life, and the parents wondered how this transformation had been made possible.

…At The Nairobi Waldorf School

This led to the starting of an initiative, jointly set up by a leader of this group’s local committee and the Rudolf Steiner School, and supported by the International Hulpfonds in the Netherlands through Truus Warrink, its Africa representative. The community selected four teachers to participate in the Waldorf teacher training program held during school holidays at the Rudolf Steiner School, three of which are undergoing kindergarten training, and one primary training.In the near future, these teachers will need mentoring, and assistance in creating an education for their children that is in harmony with their cultural background, celebrating their uniqueness and yet enabling them to survive in an increasingly changing world.

The first of these tasks is to bring back the ancient tradition of story-telling, and to find those stories that were told around the fire at night to the family, or community, that were gathered together. These stories were the education of ancient times, and bound the community together in a common understanding of life. This understanding had great depth, and a spiritual awareness that brought meaning and purpose to life in those days. In the kindergarten training, a thorough exploration of child development enables the teachers to select age-appropriate stories and songs for their morning rings, local craft activities and ideas for festivals from the rich traditions of African life.

Teachers are encouraged to find the child in themselves, the playful, magic being each one of us once was. Using the imagination to make up stories, then playing them with puppets and with movement and gesture, and later losing themselves in the swirl of colour in wet-on-wet painting, all help the teachers to meet their children with an understanding of the things that motivate the way they are.

It leads them to an understanding of how and why children play .....and play ............and play! Play materials that echo the environment and the culture are collected and made and added to the more usual equipment of a Waldorf kindergarten.

A Project for Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya

In the primary training, it is a real challenge to bring African elements into the daily lessons. Of course, African stories are used according to the age of the children, whether fairy tales, animal fables, or folk tales that fit with the lessons they are given. The history of Africa, in all its cultural diversity, and the Geography of Africa, is brought to the young minds of children, so they find their roots as Africans. However, there are areas of research that need to be undertaken to enhance the ‘African-ness’ of their schools, rather than taking the European curriculum without question as the basis for teaching in East Africa.

A new project has now been established to support both the established and the young initiative kindergartens and primary schools in the three East African countries. This will bring mentorship in the classrooms to those teachers who have been on the training modules, so that they are supported in the application of what they have learnt on the training modules and in their further development as Waldorf teachers. There are 3 new initiative kindergartens in Tanzania, 7 new kindergarten/primary schools and 2 more kindergartens in Uganda, and 2 kindergarten/primary schools and 8 kindergarten initiatives in Kenya that need mentoring.

Ann Sharfman (kindergarten) and Peter van Alphen (primary school), who have had extensive experience in working in African communities in South Africa, have been the main trainers of these teachers for the past 12 years, and will be carrying out this project over the next five years, thanks to donations from the Friends of Waldorf Education.

The aim of this project is to develop in-depth understanding and practice of Waldorf Education in the schools of these three countries, and to move towards making them independent of foreign trainers in the future. Once there are large numbers of well-developed Waldorf teachers, it will become possible for the schools to run their own training programmes in their respective countries.

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