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Life lessons from Africa's best teacher

 Africa Union Best Teacher 2023 Rosemary Onyancha. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Rosemary Bosibori Onyancha has a commanding presence. At almost six feet, she walks with elegance and grace, confidence written all over her face.

But Onyancha is also smart. In early October last year, she beat over 100 teachers drawn from 54 African countries to emerge the winner of the 2023 African Union’s Continental Best Teacher Award.

The win followed a rigorous process that began with the government, through the Teachers Service Commission nominating teachers who were then presented to an interviewing panel. The final names from each region in Africa were then vetted again by AU before the winners were announced. 

“I was not expecting to win,” says Onyancha, whose prowess at instilling the love of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to her students at Moi Forces Academy in Lanet, Nakuru, has won her accolades both at home and abroad.

She remembers the day in September 2023 when she got the news of her triumph. She was still asleep despite the tiny slivers of light filtering through her bedroom.

“I was in bed when someone from the African Union texted me,” she recalls. “I can see you have not read your emails.”

Onyancha opened her email and responded immediately. She was now the top teacher in Africa. 

“I was on top of the world. When you win, it affects the people around you, the school, which is like your family. The win is also about gender equality regardless of where you come from.”

It is mid-morning on a Wednesday and we are seated on a bench on the manicured lawns of a top Nairobi hotel.

The previous day, she was in the same hotel championing the need for digital education in our public schools through her role as the brand ambassador for Epson, the global technological company that is donating printers, projectors and visualisers to 80 schools in the country.

This day she has on a grey power suit and heels. With little cloud cover, the sun comes down hard, forcing us to shift to the shade of a nearby Ravenala madagascariensis, or traveller’s palm.

With a cool breeze filtering through the broad leaves, she enumerates her life of self-sacrifice that has made her work go beyond the traditional roles of a teacher.

Onyancha, an Education Science, Computer Studies and Mathematics graduate from Kabarak University is a full-time class teacher in the school that was dear to the late President Daniel Moi. She is also pursuing a Master’s degree in Education Technology from Kenyatta University. Her computer classes have become popular with the number taking them increasing from 70 to 150 between 2022 and 2023. As the head of the ICT club in the school, training the next generation of innovators ranks high in her diary.

“We Just finished a course in design challenge learning where we try to solve a specific challenge with students coming up with a solution. Recently we made a glider out of recyclable materials such as cartons, masking tapes and rubber strands to teach them about the laws of gravity. The glider worked by flinging over a dozen ping pong balls into the air. Such experiments can be scaled up to solve bigger mobility problems,” she says.

But it is Onyancha’s schedule outside of the classroom that has added more feathers to her already colourful hat: she is a virtual judge at the Diamond Challenge, a global entrepreneurship competition for high school students; an award leader with President’s Award Kenya where she volunteers to make sure children are world ready; works as an agent in Nakuru county with ekitabu, a forum that aims to increase accessibility and lower the cost of content for quality education and sensitizes students to participate in digital ace competitions covering English, Kiswahili, French, German, art and design and Kenyan Sign Language.

She is also a swimming coach for girls in the Rift Valley, volunteers in hackathon activities, and guides educators, students, and the general public on the use of online tools.

She is a Google and Microsoft certified educator and as an online safety ambassador, ensures those interacting with digital technology landscape are safe.

In her school, she chairs the virtual talent search committee and heads the technical and applied department in addition to being a member of the Robotic Society of Kenya.

She has also teamed up with other winners such as Peter Tabichi in organising Raspberry Pi Jam programmes that help students and teachers understand STEM and coding techniques.

“Is there anything you don’t do?” we asked her. “Yes. I am never idle.”

The second last born in a family of four boys and four girls hails from  Sironga, Nyamira County, although she was born and raised in Nakuru. Her father was a  director of social services.

Her family is the foundation and the inspiration behind her success. And despite her tight schedule, she prioritises spending time with her husband, John (also a teacher), and their three daughters.  

“John is very supportive and understands all my responsibilities. I learned most of the things I teach from him,” she says.

 Rosemary with her husband John and their three daughters.

Their firstborn daughter is a university student while the other two are students at Moi Forces Academy.

“I have to be their role model.  I have so much confidence in my school that I had to lead by example by enrolling my children here,” she says.

And despite the often negative views about teaching, she sees the profession as an opportunity to interact and change lives “with the different personalities making life beautiful”.

She prefers to keep a positive mental attitude and talks little about any challenges her busy life brings her way.

“I am always looking for what I can learn in any challenge and use that as a building block. I celebrate failure because I now know of one way that may not work. Teaching is about sacrificing and giving back to society.  If you have a skill, use it to impact others. I will do this as long as opportunities to make a difference exist.” 

And where would she rather be away from the chalk, hackathons and all things technology?

“Swim and hang out with friends. And I won’t mind a visit to Cape Town,” she says.

Still, tech is never far away from her, hence her dream destination can only be one, Silicon Valley, the global home of innovation. 

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