The cocked white haired head is tilted at an angle towards the source of a roar, which has just shattered the serenity in the flower garden and disrupted the animated discussions therein.
The deafening noise of a helicopter had also violated the mood set by a fragment of the poem, prominently displayed at the entrance of the porch. The poem had somehow idolised the world around Muthaiga as a shrine of peace, away from Nairobi’s maddening din.
“The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
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One is nearer God’s heart in a garden,
Than anywhere else on earth.”
Consequently, this excerpt from Dorothy Frances Gurney’s poem, ‘The Lord God Planted A Garden‘ was momentarily forgotten by the host and her guests.
Oblivious of the nature of the discussion, the helicopter with its suspended banner emblazoned ‘Kenya @ 55’ faded into the horizon, swallowed by the gigantic trees of Karura Forest.
Only then did the owner of the angelic garden get an opportunity to continue with her story. This story too is part of Kenya’s heritage although different from the conventional history being displayed by the helicopter whose crew were practising for the Jamuhuri Day celebrations.
Mary Epsom has lived through some of the world’s and Kenya’s most traumatising conflicts.
She was born only four years after Kenya was declared a colony and lived through the Second World War, a period when a father deemed it his duty to teach his daughter how to shoot from the hip and play poker so that she could spot and deal with tricksters.
And now at 94, Epsom no longer has a gun her father trained her to shoot with although she is poker player. Her mastery of poker, it appears, is inadequate to deal with the technocrats who are determined that she loses one of her life’s gambles.
In Kenya, Epsom is belatedly learning that technocrats are no respecters of history or traditions and their actions at times defy logic. In just one year, her lifetime achievements have been recognised by the highest office, but are now about to be tossed into the trash bin.
Consider this excerpt from her citation prepared last year:
“From 1977 to the present Mrs Epsom, now aged 93, still trains kindergarten teachers as she strongly believes in good education foundation for young children which is achievable through good, well trained teachers. Mrs Epsom has made Kenya her home since 1950 and is a Kenyan citizen.”
Convinced that Epsom had made invaluable contributions to the field of education, the President gave her a Head of State Commendation.
Earlier on March 12, 1983, the Director of Basic Education had written to Epsom in appreciation of her role in enhancement of nursery education.
“I am pleased to inform you that the ministry has decided to recognise your teachers’ training college. Please accept my compliments,” reads the letter signed by Dr Olouch.
But even as the Head of State was heaping praises on the pioneer teacher and her work, some government functionaries were undoing Epsom’s hard work of over 40 years, in effect rendering the over 2,000 teachers she had trained jobless.
At 94, and a year later after the presidential award, Epsom is still trying to read the poker faces of the technocrats.
Although she passed on the mantle of KinderHeads College last year to Anne Osore who is now its principal, Epsom is not yet done with her calling which she adopted in 1945 when she graduated from Exeter University as a teacher.
She had started off teaching in Gibraltar after graduating in Britain, but ultimately landed in Kenya in 1950. At the time, the colonial administration was preparing for a showdown with the natives who were demanding for freedom.
The beginning of her school, which would later turn out to be cradle for Kenya’s kindergarten education, was however not a walk in the park.
“In 1950, I was qualified as a teacher but I had no money so I had to devise a way of fending for my three children,” she says.
The planning authorities in Nairobi, which would later be elevated into a city, had a strict policy that nobody could accommodate more than nine children in premise if there was no public toilet.
This made it impossible for teachers and entrepreneurs to establish kindergartens or day care centres.
Determined to make a living out of her profession, the pioneer teacher moved to St Mark’s Church Hall in Westlands where she established what would later become one of the most sought after kindergartens in the city.
At that period, kindergartens were strictly for European children who were taught by teachers from Britain. It was unimaginable for African children to seek admission to such facilities.
There were about 10 such kindergartens and Epsom favoured a model started by Fredrick Froebel between 1782-1852, which was anchored on the principle that the best teacher is a mother and the best way of teaching a child is through play in a motherly, natural environment.
At St Mark’s, Epsom would arrive early in the morning to receive her nine learners in the church hall.
Using what she describes as an open plan where she had a class at each corner, she would then teach her charges through play and a motherly way, following the philosophy of Froebel.
“I only conducted morning lessons. In the afternoon, I would lock up my stuff and surrender the hall to the church.”
With time word went round Nairobi and in a year her class grew to 80 children.
When Kenya got independence in 1963, things changed and it became problematic for kindergarten teachers from Britain to get work permits in Kenya. Others, unsure of what the future held for them in the new republic, jetted out of the country.
It is against this background that five headmistresses of kindergartens, at Epsom’s invitation, got together in 1973 and started Kindergarten Headmistress Association (KHA). The association later gave birth to KinderHeads College for training teachers for their schools.
And for the last 41 years this college has been running, training teachers who are later absorbed by high-end schools in Nairobi and around the country. Although the college was not registered the certificates KHA awarded its trainees were recognised by the government.
Osore traced the college’s tribulation to 2014 when one day she received a call from the Ministry of Education informing her that all colleges must be registered.
This has led to a series of events, among them submission of their curriculum to the government, but ultimately the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) refused to recognise the kindergarten teachers trained by KHA.
“In 2015, we submitted our curriculum but it has not been approved. The Kenya National Examinations Council too says our teachers must sit their examinations so that they are recognised by TSC,“ Osore says.
Ironically, most of the content that has been used to develop the competence-based curriculum, which is now being widely used by all training colleges training kindergarten teachers, was borrowed from KHA.
“We have been in the field for over 40 years even when the country had no kindergartens. With a stroke of a pen they have now rendered all our teachers jobless. This pains me a lot,” Epsom said.
But Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development Chief Executive Officer Julius Jwan says his organisation was not in existence when KHA was first told to submit their curriculum for approval.
“If we have not approved a curriculum, it is illegal. It does not matter how many years it has been used. They should bring it to us so that we evaluate whether it is in line with our country’s policy,” says Dr Jwan.
The nightmare being experienced by the kindergarten teachers mirrors the confusion in the entire education system as the country grapples with the complexities of replacing the 34-year-old 8-4-4 system.
The country, like Epsom, is reeling in shock, following a declaration by Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed that the rollout of the new competence-based curriculum will not take place in January as teachers have not been appropriately trained.