By Dr Sanneta Myrie, Miss Jamaica World 2015
25 March 2016
Bright-eyed, the students at St. Theresa Ngora-Okoboi Primary School gave us a grand welcome. The head girl led them gleefully in a welcome song that contained the familiar Swahili phrase, “Hakuna Matata.” We all joined in and then made our way to the partially roofed classroom that served as the meeting hall for our welcome ceremony.
The School Management Committee (SMC) welcomed us and expressed their appreciation for our visit and our interest in helping the school and its children. They were eager for us to interact with the students and presented reports from the various stakeholders at the school. We met with the Head Teacher, the Chairman of the PTA, the head of the SMC, Father Robert Ecogu, our host. After a round of introductions and a brief overview of the day, we greeted the students. They were already lined up, anxiously waiting to welcome us.
Once the formalities were out of the way, it was time for some entertainment, which the students prepared. The choir performed a splendid selection of songs accompanied by masterful drumming. We were also treated to a poem titled “African Child,” which spoke to the challenges facing African students as they grow up. It was heartwarming to see that, despite their challenges, they were engaged in extracurricular activities like the performing arts.
After the welcome ceremony, the students returned to their regularly scheduled day of classes and we were taken on a tour of the classrooms one by one, with the chance to have a brief chat with each of them. Though each classroom had room from improvement, some were in more urgent need than others. It was clear that, in every class, both students and teachers were determined to make the most of their resources in the name of education.
The welcome that we received belied the serious needs of the school. The students, despite their joy and song, were adorned in worn uniforms and tattered shoes and slippers. The more time I spent in the school, the more I noticed the degree to which it was in dire need of improvements, especially compared to the others we had visited on the Africa Service tour. As we made our way to the Head Teacher’s office, I was transfixed by the adjacent classrooms—exposed redbrick, nearly roofless structures. The classrooms were bereft of the colorful decor one would expect in those of primary-level students. Instead, they were hollow rooms with bare walls and old wooden desks which would accommodate four children each.
After meeting with the final group of students, our first day at Ngora Okoboi was complete with a promise to return after the weekend, on Monday, to have further interaction with the students.
On Saturday, the contractors began work on the interior renovation for two of the classrooms, for which the roof had already been replaced. Our goal was to complete the masonry work during the weekend break while the students were out of school and paint the classroom on Monday.
We also toured the extensive property of the parish and its various facilities, including the church, convent, and two primary schools (including the one Shashamane was focused on), a high school, a vocational school, teachers’ collage, a medical clinic, and even a small hammock factory. There was clearly a foundation to allow for sustainable growth in the community, but they needed outside help to supplement their efforts.
On Sunday we were invited to attend mass in the Catholic Church at the heart the parish. I was amazed to see the entire community come out, eager to worship. The people seemed so deeply rooted in their faith. We also took the opportunity to visit the magnificent Sipi Falls later that day, truly one of the wonders of this beautiful country.
By Monday, it was time for painting the classrooms and school cleanup. The Shashamane team wanted to drive home the concept of full participation: everybody works together to take care of their environment. The whole school, teachers included, was buzzing with excitement. It must have been the energy the Shash team injected coupled with the strides made by the workers to get the classroom ready. I rolled up my sleeves and helped with the painting. After proudly completing a wall, I continued with my scheduled activities with the students.
For the older classes who were more familiar with English, I gave a short workshop in Jamaican dance. But before I could begin I had a difficult task: I needed to explain where Jamaica was. I tried relying on the names of famous Jamaicans to help me orient the students—but names like Bob Marley and Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, only yielded fixed stares of bewilderment.
I began to fully appreciate how limited their exposure was to the global community. With no electricity, they had to finish homework by torchlight. Needless to say, they didn’t have access to television, so there was very little of they could see outside their small, rural community. I proceeded with my dance workshop and at first the moves proved challenging for them to fully grasp, but they tried their best and laughed their way through it. At the end we give the students the opportunity to freestyle and they came more into their element. It was a fulfilling day, one that put smiles on many of their faces.
Our final day in Ngora had arrived, but to avoid the inevitable sadness of our imminent departure, we decided to make it a day of Prize-Giving. We gave special prizes to the students who participated in our discussions on the first day. To the entire school, we issued much-needed school supplies, like books, pencils, pens, and erasers. The teachers were not left out: a special award was issued to the instructor with the best track record. But at last, the goodbyes had to come. Each child came to give one last hand shake and appreciative smile. As we headed through the school gates, they started to sing the welcome song from the first day to remind us that we are always welcome to Ngora, Hakuna Matata.