Seven years ago, a girls school founded by two Northern Illinois University professors opened its doors to its first eleven students in rural western Kenya. Now, 160 girls attend the school that has a goal of being “good enough for the richest, open to the poorest.” The school added music to its curriculum this year, and that created a mutual opportunity for one DeKalb native. On this week’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Susan Stephens sits down with Nelle Conley before she heads back to Kenya.
Nelle Conley was destined for a career in music. Her mother’s from a family of seven musicians, and Nelle grew up singing in a trio with her mom and sister. The DeKalb native graduated from Augustana College in May with a degree in music education.
“And I had been thinking I wanted to do something a little different after graduation other than just find a job,” Conley said. “Because I know that once I enter the workforce, I will be there forever. So I wanted to do something interesting with what I learned at Augustana.”
And her inspiration came during a visit to her mother’s church. Every year, Mayfield Church in Sycamore sponsors a girl who attends the Jane Adeny Memorial School, known as JAMS, in rural Kenya. Conley asked the school’s founders if they needed a music teacher. NIU professors and Kenyan natives Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno said “yes!”
But let’s take a step back. What is the Jane Adeny Memorial School? It’s named after co-founder Teresa Wasonga’s mother and is accredited by the Kenyan Ministry of Education. JAMS focuses on active learning and independent thinking. Nelle Conley says that’s not what most schoolgirls in rural Kenya experience.
“JAMS is really different,” she explained. “It’s a lot of student-run education, and they ask a lot of questions, they do science experiments, they’re more in control of their own future and kind of their own path of learning.”
Education is expensive -- prohibitively expensive for many families. Students at JAMS are there on scholarship, thanks to funds raised through the not-for-profit group Friends of Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls. $800 covers a year of education, dormitory housing, food, travel, medical care, clothing, everything for one girl. Conley raised money to buy musical instruments and her round-trip ticket to Kenya. Then it was time to put her music education degree to work.
The school didn’t really have a music program -- it was more of a music club before she got there. “They got together and sang songs, listened to music,” Conley said. “We had a ukulele ensemble, we had recorders, we had a choir, and then I taught general music. Before this year none of them knew how to read music. Many of them never played a musical instrument. So that was kind of a big deal for them to get to learn.”
Conley says it was great to see what an important role music plays in Kenyan culture -- she says music is valued on an informal level, but when it comes to learning it formally, people need convincing. Conley said they sang all the time -- before school, in church, as entertainment on a Saturday night -- but they didn’t know what the point of “learning the notes” was.
It wasn’t just putting together a music curriculum from scratch that was a challenge for Conley. In fact, she said her education at Augustana prepared her well for that part. But nothing could have prepared her for the cultural differences. She said her students struggled with her accent, so she combated the blank stares by writing things out or having students she was closer to repeat her words to the rest of the class. She’ll use those lessons to be more productive when she heads back to teach January 7th. Another big adjustment was understanding how education was appreciated by Kenyans. Conley said, “Here, kids have to be forced to go to school -- and then they hate it! There was a girl I asked to tell me about something that makes her really, really happy. Her answer? To 'sit in a classroom and learn!’”
There were more stark societal differences, too. “I couldn’t be prepared for the amount of poverty there,” Conley said. “We have it here, but we have resources. Not there. If you are in poverty, you are stuck, especially as a woman with children.” She saw women carrying water from a river that was three miles away. She gained an appreciation for America’s ubiquitous drinking fountains and laundromats.
Nelle Conley went into the teaching job in Kenya feeling like it would “be a cool experience for me.” Half a year later, she feels “needed” by her students at JAMS -- at least a few of them. Ruth is one of them.
“Ruth ended up being one of my favorites. Not only as a music student, but as one of the coolest humans I’ve ever met,” Conley said. “She has gone through hardships I cannot even fathom.” The 16-year-old lives in a 10 x 10 tin hut with her sister and father. Poverty and abuse led to a lot of school absences, but still, she remained near the top of her class. And in spite of her lack of musical training, she became Conley’s first -- and best -- student this year. She excelled at ukulele and piano.
“She was so hopeful, so happy, so good at music!” Conley said. “When things were hard for me and I struggled and missed my family, I was happy I got to give music to Ruth.”
Nelle Conley heads back to the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls January 7th. She hopes this experience will open other doors for teaching internationally in the future. And she says reality tells her she needs to start hunting for an elementary school job closer to home when she gets back from Kenya in a few months. But she’s planning on summers spent working at what she calls her “home away from home” – JAMS school for girls.