The classroom is packed with tiny desks, resembling a family of sardines. The walls are covered with colorful manila papers, stickers that proudly display key learning points, and perhaps some infantile graffiti that adds a touch of youthful exuberance. An image of a clock, a cow, and a bus are displayed in different corners of the room. There is a blackboard with arithmetic homework on another wall.
This is Synthia Awuor’s class; she is a 26-year-old fellow at Teach for Kenya in her first year of fellowship. To her, these young learners are not just students; they are her children. Her days are woven with theirs, and their bond is undeniable. Their mornings follow a heartwarming routine—singing, reciting class rules, and high-fiving each other as they arrive between 7:00 and 7:30 AM. It’s a ritual that signifies their unity. In the months she has been their teacher at Ben Rose Academy in Kasarani, Nairobi, she has instilled in them that they are not just a class but a family united in their pursuit of knowledge and a brighter future.
Synthia Awuor’s passion for her community has deep roots, nurtured through her academic journey at Kisii University, where she studied Community Development. But it was a pivotal moment during her college days that truly set her on the path to becoming a fellow at Teach for Kenya. During her internship program at a children’s home in Keumbu, a small artery that pulses through the heart of Kisii, Synthia’s life was forever changed. Keumbu, where bananas are seemingly endless and rain accompanies breakfast, became the backdrop to her awakening.
In the span of six months, double the compulsory three-month commitment, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the children’s home. She was told they had run out of food on her first day.
Armed with just a meager one thousand shillings, she made a profound choice. Together with the children, they bought and boiled bananas, turning that simple meal into a shared experience of love.
“That, for me, isn’t just a meal I share with the children. I accept that part of my purpose is to impact every life I chance upon.”
Her unwavering dedication to making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate led her to Teach for Kenya, where her passion for education and her love for the community converge into a powerful force for change. To qualify for the two-year fellowship program, she underwent rigorous tests to evaluate her suitability, and it was one particular morning, amidst her cleaning duties (or, let’s be honest, her morning ritual of reading all the good morning texts she received), that Teach for Kenya delivered the life-changing news – she had earned her place in the program.
Teach for Kenya’s fellowship program is designed to transform university graduates from diverse disciplines into educators for schools in Kenya’s low-income areas. While her journey began, Synthia couldn’t help but reminisce about the sausages and tea served during her onboarding training. She cheekily adds, “Not to say I didn’t love the ndumas. No offense to ndumas; they’re great – but this isn’t a nduma ad,” punctuating it with a playful giggle. “I called my best friend to tell her that if I went through this program and had nothing to remember, I would remember the tea and sausages.” Synthia’s assignment led her to teach grade one and two learners, whose innocent faces filled her heart with love and a burning desire to teach.
Many of these children came from disadvantaged backgrounds, where school was their anchor. For her, it was love at first sight, and from the day she joined, not a moment passed without her thinking about her students.
The fellowship demanded much more than time; it required a mortgage from her personal life and career. While it’s easy to express the desire to impact lives and communities, the road becomes rugged when you witness the conditions in some of the schools, and the personal sacrifices demanded. Synthia reflects on what she’s had to relinquish during her fellowship journey, saying, “My social life took a deep dive. As a teacher, I give my full attention to my children, going for long hours without looking at my phone. I’ve missed calls, texts, and reminders, which has created distance from some of my friends, especially because I used to be very prompt in responding before I joined the program. I’ve learned that in this season, to fully achieve what I want, I must let go of some things I was used to. I must reimagine my life and structure it around my new reality.”
Beyond being an educator, Synthia also imparts valuable life lessons to her young students. A particularly touching moment highlights the extent of her influence. A child came to school with a scarred hand from being punished harshly at home for spilling milk meant to make tea for the entire family. Synthia became a source of comfort and support for the child, acting as a therapist and lending an empathetic ear for the child to express their pain. Taking matters into her own hands, Synthia summoned the child's mother to school, initiating a lengthy and emotionally charged discussion. She had received no formal training but navigated it gracefully and compassionately.
Synthia describes this experience as her first heartbreak as a fellow at Teach for Kenya.
“You prepare for the lesson and draw a lesson plan, but you are never ready for out-of-syllabus lessons that situations will teach you. You are not prepared to learn from your learners.”
Despite the challenges, she finds solace and purpose in that each day brings opportunities to learn and, in her own small way, fulfill her purpose by imparting life itself to her beloved children.
June 3, 2023, marked a day of profound heartbreak for Synthia and everyone connected to her – Teach for Kenya, Ben Rose Academy, and her family. Life took an unexpected turn, and it felt like the universe had thrown a heavy hardcover book at her. The clouds hung lower that overcast day in Nairobi, and even for someone as warm-hearted as Synthia, the air felt unusually cold.
Synthia returned home from school, tired from a long day, and lay down on her couch, especially as she was preparing her students for the Ministry of Education-organized music festivals, a first-ever for the school. Her learners had made it to the regionals, an impressive feat for debutants. An accident disrupted it all. In recounting the incident, she began with a moment of whimsy, admiring cars at a butchery’s parking lot, where she often playfully pointed out the car she’d love to own someday. Her students shared the endearing habit of telling her they would buy her a car one day.
However, the scene suddenly descended into chaos as a police raid occurred, and a commotion sent a sea of people rushing toward the exit.
Synthia continues, “I think there was a stampede. I felt like something had ruptured my lower back. Like a compressed balloon that gives way to pressure and bursts with a loud bang.” Her lower back had succumbed to the force of the accident. “I knew I was alive because I could see things and feel parts of my body. Suddenly, shiny high boots worn by policemen and women stood over me.”
In that vulnerable moment, a kind stranger handed her purse, and she attempted to call loved ones, choosing not to alarm her mother too much. She couldn’t feel her lower body at this point.
She was placed in the back of a police vehicle, and looking back; she wondered if her fragile state should have been handled more delicately.
The subsequent weeks were a whirlwind of hospital transfers, calls to family and friends, and uncertainty. Ultimately, she was admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital with a T12 fracture.
Not only was her heart fractured, but her spine had also suffered the same fate, foreshadowing a future marked by the potential for immobility and disability. While recovery from numerous challenges is conceivable, how does one mend a heart that seems eternally shattered? What fate befalls a life reduced to mere fragments of its former self? While confined to the hospital, Synthia expressed a strong desire to connect with her beloved students from school, even to teach them from her bed. Many couldn’t fathom her determination to teach while bedridden, but it gave her hope.
During their virtual connections, her students, oblivious to her condition, were eager as they inquired about her return and the possibility of visiting her. In every call, they echoed the same question, “Teacher, when will you come back to school?” Synthia’s response remained steadfast, always stating, “Tomorrow.” Yet, beneath this unwavering reply, a haunting question loomed, testing her faith: “What if tomorrow never arrives?”
Unable to visit her in the hospital, her students began sending her letters, paintings, get-well cards, and flowers. Synthia clutched a blue bag filled with these tokens, gifts from every learner, teacher, and friend. She fought back tears, explaining, “This here is my life. They brought my life back. I am eternally indebted to my children, colleagues, and friends”
During her journey, she had to deal with numerous uncertainties and ‘what ifs.’ There was a moment of great emotional turmoil when she almost gave up entirely. Exhausted and drained, she turned to her mother for comfort and shared her innermost thoughts. Although her mother’s prayers provided solace, a nagging question lingered: “Would giving up on my children be the ultimate betrayal?” After a series of medical examinations, the possibility of surgery became more and more likely. However, a turning point emerged unexpectedly. She confided in another patient her deep desire to walk again and took a brave step forward. Against all odds, she managed to walk again.
Today, while she walks with a slight limp and endures discomfort when sitting, nothing compares to the joy of reuniting with her children. They gather around her like moths drawn to a lit bulb. She remains a beacon of happiness and a magnet for positivity who once had a bad day but refuses to let that define her journey on this earth. She lives today as if tomorrow may never come. Synthia is a testament to the power of determination and the enduring impact of a devoted teacher. So, if tomorrow never comes, Synthia stood tall today. And it matters a lot that she stood tall today.