“Our lives are indeed a series of stories. Some that stretch out from the beginning to the end and others that end before they really begin.” – Laura Manni, Mukwashi Trust School, Zambia
Innovator, compassionate, visionary and humble…these are just few of the words I would use to describe my friend and former colleague, Laura Manni.
Laura and I met in Lusaka, Zambia six years ago as teachers at the American International School of Lusaka, Zambia. Little did we know that our journey together, initially as colleagues, would take us through personal and professional growth that would help make us the people and friends we are today.
I have asked Laura to share her story, one that begins with tragedy and uncertainty and then flourishes into one of personal and professional triumphs. It is a story that still continues, and will continue, as a result of her infectious passion for change, compassion and thinking.
Laura is inspiring, and has inspired many, both educators and students alike, to take their thinking and make it visible.
Mukwashi Trust School: A Culture of Change, Compassion and Thinking
by Laura Manni
Our lives are indeed a series of stories. Some that stretch out from the beginning to the end and others that end before they really begin. Some inspiring, others exhausting, many joyful and others tragic. My own story of Mukwashi is a combination of all these. Starting with loss and weaving back and forth in all directions.
Where is Zambia? Was my first question.
But it didn’t matter what the answer was because I was going… because all I wanted was to be anywhere (preferably nowhere) but where I was. Which was without Greg. He was my love and a beautiful story all of it’s own. On 10th March 2006 he suffered cardiac arrest at 29 years and 38 days of age. And on 19th March after his 29 years and 47 days on earth, he was gone. The time between that day and the day I arrived at Mukwashi Trust School in July 2006 are foggy and tangled.
Mukwashi Trust was 2 school blocks comprised of 4 bare classrooms, a head teacher’s office and 2 empty store rooms. Judah Sikamikami, the (still today) head teacher had been hired, along with Teacher Mwangala Sikamikami, (his wife). And 90 children ranging in age from 4 to 17 had been registered.
Today, nearly 8 years later, there are 3 school blocks, 9 teachers, over 370 students ranging from pre-school to grade 9, teacher housing and a very real plan to build a final school block and make Mukwashi Trust an Early Childhood to Grade 12 school.
But more than all of this, the children, teachers, families and friends of Mukwashi Trust School have grown into a community of love and hope.
Let’s rewind back to 2006. I arrived on the farm in Lusaka West 5 months after Greg died. Raw. My flight home was already booked. Early November. I intended to stay 3 months. It was an escape. A wish to disappear. Altruistic? Things don’t always go as planned. 2006 was filled with broken plans.
I remember standing in one of the 4 classrooms – empty, save for the big desks and a chalkboard. Echo in hand. Judah by my side. What now?
First day led to the second and then first week. Inspiring. Overwhelming. Exhausting. Amazing.
Kids registered. Kids shuffled. Many having never stepped into a classroom before. I learned too much and not enough. My own personal experiences in life and in school were so different from the teachers and children at Mukwashi Trust. I had all these ‘great’ ideas but I had to push them aside and learn to generate new ones with the help of every adult and child at Mukwashi. And every encounter. What did I know about what the teachers and children in Lusaka West, Zambia needed? I forgot to ask at first. You find out quickly that you get no where without asking where people want to go. They won’t follow you (not for long anyway) in your direction. Even if they do, the minute you leave disorientation sets in and no one knows how to navigate.
In 2006, and for some time after that, there was a reluctance amongst parents and community members to get involved at Mukwashi. Perhaps it was their own unpleasant experiences with education that led to the seeming indifference. Maybe a feeling of powerlessness. Or possibly a vulnerability. Many of the parents of the children at Mukwashi did not finish their own schooling, too many never had the chance to go and many of those who did, reported absent teachers, limited to no resources and overflowing classrooms. So why would Mukwashi Trust School be any different?
Hard question to answer because only time can tell. But the answer did eventually emerge.
It turns out, it’s all because of the teachers and students (and eventually parents’) inclination for change. So a map of sorts was crafted from conversations and observations and out of frustrations and mini-triumphs. The children have gone from passive recipients of dated and unchanging content to animated participants developing an awareness of just how much there is to discover.
We have a long way to go. We all do. And at Mukwashi we recalculate a lot as we diverge – but we’ve never veered off of our goal of creating a culture of compassion. One that acknowledges that the Mukwashi children come to school with their own stories – joyous, tragic and all the emotions in between. I believe that we all need to listen to each other more closely and really hear what we are saying (or not saying). It may make all the difference.
Project Zero: Creating a Culture of Thinking
In 2010, I attended Harvard’s Project Zero Summer Institute. I left inspired. But was aware of the pronoun and wanted to share it with my colleagues at Mukwashi. They too saw the beauty and importance of helping students develop dispositions for life long learning. They too wanted to make thinking a central focus of their classrooms.
So over the past 4 years, Mukwashi teachers have been focused on creating a Culture of Thinking at the school. What has this meant to the teachers and students of Mukwashi?
I think Judah, the head teacher’s words, express it best:
“…I am now seeing teaching in a different dimension. You know at first we thought that teaching is only about content, we thought that children had to receive from us as teachers. But now I realize, no. Our job is not to give. Our job is to help the children think and activate their own way of thinking…I want this programme not to end here at Mukwashi. I want this programme first of all to have the home here at Mukwashi as a model. Thereafter I want this to expand to all parts of Zambia. Because this is the best way of teaching. Because once a child is able to be involved in something, the child will not forget. What makes children forget and sometimes become passive? It’s because we think we’re supposed to give them. And what we give they forget. But once they participate and think their brain seeding will keep it forever.”
Words to end… for now
And perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned through it all is the importance of looking and really seeing …. of recognizing and acknowledging that learning is never one sided. I never left a Mukwashi classroom or teacher meeting or workshop or informal conversation unchanged. Looking back, I know that Mukwashi and it’s teachers and children brought me back to life.
And there is still so much to look forward to.
Share what inspires you and step back to see where it leads to.
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