A short drive from Kenya’s southern coast, Joyce Walowe Ng’ara teaches children who are visually impaired with multiple disabilities. She conducts home visits, too, helping families better understand the needs of their children. A fierce advocate for her students, she’s also engaged at the policy level, persistently calling on her school district and government for new resources.
It’s a multi-pronged job, but one she performs with strong conviction.
“It’s so important,” she says, “because these children belong to the whole world.”
Walowe Ng’ara is also one of eight from her country who have graduated from Perkins School for the Blind’s renowned international teacher training course, the Educational Leadership Program (ELP). So while she works in Kwale County, seven other Perkins-trained professionals are doing similarly multi-faceted work throughout the East African nation. And the impact they’re having is profound.
“ELP grads have been a great resource in Kenya,” says Angela Affran, Regional Director for Perkins International in Africa. “They’re using what they learned at Perkins to change school systems and improve the lives of vulnerable children.”
In addition to teachers like Walowe Ng’ara (ELP ‘15), the program has graduated medical practitioners who assess children who aren’t in the classroom before referring them to nearby schools with strong support services. There are Perkins-trained field workers, too, who comb largely impoverished communities to identify children in need, screen them for visual impairment and other disabilities and then connect their families with medical, educational and welfare opportunities.
This representation across a variety of professional fields is critical to maximizing their influence, adds Affran. “They’re sustaining their gains by imparting knowledge [to] teachers, caregivers, families and government workers alike,” she says. As importantly, other program graduates who have long worked in the field say that level of collaboration represents a departure from how things are typically done.
“It used to be just a teacher working alone,” says Enock Ombok (ELP ‘18), who teaches at a school for the deaf and deafblind near the western edge of the country. “After going through the program, we’re now involving all these other people.”
In Kenya and elsewhere, the ELP supports Perkins International’s broader mission to ensure underserved children and young adults with visual impairment and additional disabilities receive high-quality education services no matter where they live. Today, there are more than 300 graduates working all around the world, using their expertise to establish inclusive classrooms, connect families with all manner of support and push for legislative progress.
At the same time, every country faces different challenges. In Kenya, some of the most pressing revolve around school staffing and student matriculation.
“In this nation, education is compulsory,” says Fred Haga, Deputy Director of special needs education with Kenya’s Ministry of Education (Haga, who is blind himself, also completed an unrelated fellowship at Perkins in 2015). “But we’re still faced with low enrollment, and we need more trained staff to help those with visual impairment and additional disabilities.”
Accordingly, Kenya’s network of ELP grads do a lot of work to address those problems in particular.
Professionals like Edwin Mwaura (ELP ‘14) facilitate clinical and educational assessments of children who often aren’t known at all to governing bodies, school systems or medical organizations. Meanwhile, teachers like Mary Maragia (ELP ‘12) are embedded in schools, sharing their training with peers to shape exemplary programs from the ground up for students who are blind, deafblind or have multiple disabilities.
Still others have developed a focus on addressing hyper-local needs. Having studied brailler repair in the Perkins workshop during his tenure, Ombok has become a go-to source for mechanical maintenance in his immediate community while still fulfilling his teaching duties.
For all the diversity in their work, though, they all labor, physically separated by the enormity of Kenya itself, in pursuit of a shared goal. As Walowe Ng’ara puts it, “We have the skills. Now we want to change the classroom in this country.”