More than words

MARSHALL – The best way to teach students might be a melding of educational structures, said a local Southwest Minnesota State University graduate student.

Elaine Zarzana of Marshall spent a good part of August in East Africa teaching English to eager students and getting to know the East African culture and school system.

Zarzana, who has undergraduate degrees in English and Arabic studies from Notre Dame, is currently pursuing her master’s degree in education with a focus on teaching English as a Second Language.

“I would like to teach at public schools here and internationally,” she said.

Zarzana has a passion for world cultures which led her to pursue an internship in East Africa this summer.

She communicated with the executive director of the Hamomi school, Susie Marks, and made arrangements to teach there. Hamomi Children’s Centre is a sponsored project of Lift Up Africa which works to improve the lives of orphaned and vulnerable children in Nairobi, Kenya. She left for Africa on Aug. 3 and came back Aug. 21.

Her traveling partner was her boyfriend, Gada Roba, who lives in Minneapolis now, but is originally from Ethiopia and also lived in Nairobi, Kenya, when he was younger.

Zarzana taught in Nairobi but also visited Ethiopia to see Roba’s land of origin.

The two were in Nairobi at the time of the Nairobi airport fire. The fire, which was later determined to be electrical, gutted the arrivals hall at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Zarzana and Roba flew in and out of that airport, which remained in use flying to and from Ethiopia.

“Part of the terminal was destroyed,” she said. “They set up a big tent in the waiting area. It didn’t cause much of a delay.”

Zarzana enjoyed her visit to Ethiopia, especially the food.

“Ethiopian food is the best in the world,” she said. “The butter, local honey, are delicious. We were at a number of different areas and saw wildlife where there isn’t anyplace else in the world.”

Volunteers who go to the Hamomi School to teach must bring donations with them. Zarzana brought a soccer ball, books and money.

“I raised $500 in donations from family and friends before I went,” she said.

Zarzana taught sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders reading activities including poetry and a journalism article featuring local issues. She was impressed with their level of sophistication with the subject matter.

“It was really amazing,” Zarzana said. “I thought what topics they thought were news would be sports, horoscopes, but they were economics, finance, tourism, natural disaster, health and well-being – it blew my mind. One kid wrote about value-added tax. They were so engaged with sharing information about their community. They asked their neighbors different questions, interviewed each other and then they wrote their article. They really took it seriously.”

Zarzana said the children get two meals a day at the school. “Nobody misses a day of school,” she said. “And they don’t have an allowance to spend for extra food.”

Despite their impoverished lifestyle, the children “don’t feel like a victim, they don’t act downtrodden,” she said.

Zarzana said that Kenya has a “really large population of refugees, displaced by election violence in ’07 and for economic reasons. People on the farm go to live in the slums.”

Zarzana said she observed that refugees with “recent roots to a functioning community have a better chance for success in life.”

Long-term, generational poverty is more problematic.

“Nutrition goes down, it’s a more dangerous environment, there’s a feeling of no hope,” she said.

Multinational companies that use the natural resources of the land need to do more to ensure a stable life for the inhabitants, she said.

“Why don’t these families have a crop?” she said. “A lot of corporations are not giving back.”

In addition to teaching in Nairobi, Zarzana toured parts of Ethiopia including a school, Imagine1day. “It’s in probably one of the more underserved parts of the world. They don’t have a high school. They can’t go to high school because it’s really far away. Fifty or 60 village leaders gathered over $4,000 in donations which is a huge commitment to getting education for their children.”

Zarzana is going to use her observations for her master’s thesis. She is interested in finding out what works best, what makes an educational system so successful.

Kenya’s school system is “top-down,” she said, “authoritative, but the children are respectful, cooperative really know discipline problems, but they weren’t repressed. It would be good to strike a balance. I would personally (go back) or help line up a researcher to study what’s working so well.”

She said the two schools, Imagine1day, and Hamomi, represent a hope for Africa’s future.

“There is a lot of positive work being done,” Zarzana said. “I invite people to support Hamomi children’s center,”

To help: Make checks out to Lift Up Africa with a memo for Hamomi and send to:

Hamomi Children’s Centre, 1517 12th Ave Suite 101, Seattle, WA 98122. Or visit for more information.