Combating dyslexia in Kenya

Society & Culture | By Nancy Munyi, Special Education Teacher | 09 May 2015

Amazing discovery
In 2000, my five year old son joined pre-unit, his teacher happened to be his mother. He was a fine and brilliant looking boy who could not meet the academic expectation. Something was not right, he couldn’t spell words like his age mates, he showed no interest with kids’ songs or rhymes. Things started getting out of hand when he started spelling words with mirror reflection and reading them right, like yod-boy, toad-boat. His spelling was always phonetically done. Skull for school, buk for book etc no matter how much effort you put to correct him. Identifying colours was a night mare. I tried one on one and I started seeing some progress.

One on one session
This prompted many questions which had no answers. In the same class I had several other kids who had the same characteristic. In search for an answer, I joined Kenya institute of special education and at the same time my nephew who was in pre-unit started showing the same characteristic. My sister was equally worried of how her bright child couldn’t read well. They could easily blame the teacher for not teaching their son well but I had no one to blame. I was the teacher and his mother. I was the best teacher in reading but I failed to teach my son. My sister and I embarked on looking for solutions. I turned to training and my sister turned to Internet; she came across the word dyslexia at the same time I learned about the specific learning difficulty called dyslexia.

The characteristic fitted my son and my nephew as they were being screened. After learning about the conditions, characteristics and the presentation, I started identifying many children with the condition. I felt like I could stand on a roof top and shout that my son is not stupid but he is a different learner. I discovered that not only did the teachers not know anything about the condition but the parents hadn’t heard about it either. With the help of the internet and the training, my sister and I focused ourselves on helping our sons. With a positive attitude and the knowledge, I started seeing my son as a different learner. I started helping him discover himself and encouraging him to work hard on mathematics, the subject he had no problem with. I started recording progress in his work. We thought of how we could help the children with dyslexia, parents and teachers of children with the same condition.

In 2009, we registered a dyslexia organization with the NGO. We wanted to have a platform where we could reach as many teachers and parents to talk about dyslexia. We started holding workshops and seminars on identifying and intervention for learners with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. By 2010 the number of audiences had grown. Through the media, television, radio and word of mouth we were able to reach many parents. The parents were very much interested. It was the first time someone talked about dyslexia in Kenya. Learners with difficulties are often marginalised in schools. They are not seen as hard workers even though their unique personality makes them orally bright, which unsettles their teachers. How a learner could look so clever and yet not be able to read, spell, write and comprehend printed materials is amazing.

Seminar at Ukunda
After holding seminars, parents came forward with learners who were already pushed out of school for poor performance. In December 2011, our office was giving remedial lessons to 12 children whose enrolment the following year at school hung in the balance. They were chased out of school and their parents did not know what to do. I was challenged to help them get another school. The main challenge was in each and every school, they were required to pass interviews which were in the form of a written exam. These learners could not pass a written exam. It was not easy for us to shoulder the responsibility by parents who trusted us to know what to do. We were left with no choice but to start a school. This is how Rare-gem Talent school was born in 2012.  

Rare-gem in three bed roomed house
The Rare-gem means a gem you do not get anywhere. We confidently took the challenge since we had an appreciation for the children and the skills they needed. Unfortunately, we did not have land, furniture and all that a school requires. We started the school in a rented three bed roomed house in a very hostile environment. The neighbours didn’t want school or any business in their neighbourhood. Worse still, they kept on saying that our children are not normal since they could not read even at grade 4. Financial problems dogged us whilst trained teachers came asking for high salaries. We weren’t able to pay them as we didn’t have any support apart from the fees paid by parents. The fees had to be divided to pay the rent, teachers and buy food and other expenses.

The parents had already negotiated with the school management board for their children to be allowed to repeat classes. Therefore, they did not join us immediately and some did not have enough faith in Rare- gem. We started the school with learners who came from far away countries; most of whom had been committed to mental institutions. At the end of our first year in 2012, we had 10 students and had moved from the hostile neighbourhood. It required a tough skin to be able to stand these financial challenges, doubt and pressure from the parents who wanted miracles to happen on their children. The parents hoped that their children’s condition would be eradicated after being taken care of by the experts, but Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. It is managed by positive teaching and understanding. Encouraging the learners to bring out the best in them.
At Rare-gem we teach the children the best way they can learn. We allow them to learn at their own pace as well as encouraging them to work hard on the talents that we discover. We know that despite being faced with learning difficulties, each student has a talent that needs to be discovered and nurtured. At Rare-gem we make sure that every child’s talent is exploited and guided to be of future benefit to the learner. Three years later, we have a total of 62 students. The school is an inclusive institution where student have different type of difficulties and others without any difficulties. We develop individual education program (IEP) especially for student with learning difficulties.