Grading student papers in his Nairobi school, former UCLA Fulbright Scholar Erustus Ouko epitomizes cross-cultural exchange ““ his beaded Maasai bracelet showcases his Kenyan pride, while his blue-and-white striped UCLA polo shirt hints at his time spent as a Bruin.Hanging on the wall behind him are two clocks ““ one displaying local Kenyan time, and the other labeled, “Los Angeles” ““ bridging the vast distance between Nairobi and Westwood, Ouko’s home away from home.“At many Kenyan schools, the teacher gives information, and the students absorb it, word-for-word. But in my classroom at AKIN, teaching is about people exchanging information, in a participatory fashion,” Ouko said.
This educational model, which Ouko said he observed at UCLA, has been implemented at the Nairobi school, where he is one of two full-time teachers.
According to Kenya Wildlife Service Director Julius Kipng’etich, it is exactly this kind of discussion-based teaching that the Kenyan education system needs.
“In our schools, students are taught to reproduce, not think independently,” he said, speaking at a lecture held by the League of Young Professionals, of which Ouko is an officer. “Kenya needs to create thinkers, not merely people who can reproduce notes.”
In addition to incorporating participatory teaching methods, Ouko blends traditional academic instruction with interactive activities, which include dancing, writing to Californian pen pals and taking field trips to soccer games, among other experiences.
However, cultural exchange is a two-way street: While the AKIN school has benefited from Ouko’s application of his UCLA education, members of the UCLA community likewise learned about Kenya through interaction with Ouko, both in and out of the classroom. He did a public lecture titled “What America Needs to Know About Africa” . He also took UCLA students out to eat Kenyan food, such as ugali, a dough-like staple food made from maize flour, and sukuma wiki, a vegetable dish usually made with kale.
While introducing Kenyan culture and cuisine to his students and classmates, Ouko also learned about the American way of life, which was, at first, surprising.
“The first day, I thought America was plastic ““ it was so clean, so organized,” he said.
But through his observations, both at UCLA and while traveling throughout the country, his initial culture shock wore off, and his perception of America changed.
“Most Kenyans believe that life in America is glamorous ““ that you will automatically have a good life and make lots of money,” he said. “But I realized that even in America, you have to work hard to be successful.”
According to his colleagues, Ouko will inevitably find success no matter which direction his life takes him in.
“Erustus is the kind of guy who wants to accomplish what he has started, and he wants to do it well,” said Walter Ong’ala, AKIN project manager. “He has a heart for needy kids and will even stay at the school late into the night because of his passion for helping kids.” Whenever Ouko speaks, the room is engulfed with the children’s laughter. “I’m a jolly teacher ““ the kind of teacher that can carry kids on my back,” he said. “When I teach, I try to shed the image of the “˜mean’ teacher, and bring joy to the children.”