Seven Thousand Miles to Find a New Friend

What role can Quaker education play in building bridges of understanding across the world? To answer that question, fourth grade students at Moses Brown School, a Friends school in Providence, Rhode Island, spent a year corresponding with Quaker students in elementary schools near Kakamega, Kenya. This project, which was the leading of Kenyan teacher Elphas Wambani and Moses Brown’s director of Friends education Galen McNemar Hamann, used Quaker testimonies to help students move beyond traditional pen-pal relationships and develop genuine cross-cultural understanding.

One sticky afternoon in June 2009, three U.S. teachers and a professor from Kenya sat in a classroom in Providence. Students had left for summer vacation, but the teachers were hard at work, excited about the prospect of a unique learning opportunity that would engage children living 7,000 miles— and worlds—apart.

I n t e g r i t y

Integrity means doing the right thing at the right time.
—Salome, from Kenya

Together, these teachers forged the beginnings of a partnership between their classrooms. Their goal was for students to make a connection, share what was important to them, learn from each other, and learn something about Quaker values. The teachers hoped that the work would be engaging and fun, and that during the process the students would become better researchers and writers. They also hoped that the students would dig deep to find commonalities among them.

The collaboration faced enormous obstacles from the start. Items often taken for granted in the United States— computers, Internet access, cameras, and even common school supplies— were rare or unknown to the Kenyan children living in the Western Province town of Kakamega. The delivery of mail in Kenya was unreliable. Elphas wondered if he could even find enough teachers and students willing to put the extra time and effort into this partnership.

Moses Brown fourth grade teacher Carolyn Garth reflects, “Sensing the uniqueness of the opportunity, we knew we had to persist, despite a real chance of failure. The possibility that we might succeed was just too compelling.”

Because of the students’ Quaker connection— those in Providence attend a Friends school, while those in Kenya are part of Quaker communities—they shared a common language: Friends testimonies. The teachers believed that these could form the foundation for their work.

S i m p l i c i t y

I am happy with whatever we have: not more, not less.
—Jason, from Kenya

The idea was simple in many ways. Through letters, students at Moses Brown shared details about their families, school, and hopes and dreams with the children in Kenya, who shared the same details in return. Elizabeth Grumbach, Moses Brown’s other fourth grade teacher, marveled, “It was exciting to see how curious the students were about each other, and how openly they asked and answered questions.” What is your name? What is your town/village like? Do you like school? What will you do when you are older?

To deepen the exchange, the U.S. teachers took advantage of an offer from New England Yearly Meeting’s executive secretary, Jonathan Vogel-Borne, to deliver disposable cameras to the Kenyan children. Although most had never used a camera before, they were eager to learn how to take pictures of their communities, families, and homes. After hitchhiking a ride back to the United States with another traveler, the photographs were developed.

Each Moses Brown fourth grader studied the photos from his or her Kenyan friend, learning more about the child to whom they were growing attached. At the same time, the U.S. students sent photos of themselves, their school, and their families. As letters continued crossing the ocean, students in both locations began to understand and appreciate what they were seeing.

C o m m u n i t y

Community means where people live, who people live with, what we do: liking one another and working together.
—Andrew, from Kenya

When the U.S. students first saw the photos of their Kenyan friends, the differences in material circumstances and in their lives in general were most noticeable. With utter sincerity, one student said, “I noticed that his house was made mostly from mud.”

The teachers helped the students to process these initial reactions. Carolyn, one of the teachers, said, “When students were surprised by pictures of rural life in Kakamega, we asked them to dig deeper.”

When another round of letters shared experiences about siblings, the pen pals discovered that brothers and sisters everywhere argue about chores and who gets to play with particular toys. They learned that they share some of the same hopes and dreams. One Moses Brown student and her Kenyan friend both want to be doctors when they grow up, and two others want to be teachers. Through this exchange, students learned to acknowledge material differences while building a partnership based on common human experience.

Here the shared Quaker heritage became invaluable. Conversations at both locations focused on trying to recognize and appreciate the Inner Light of one’s friends. Elizabeth Grumbach explained, “We framed queries for the students around core Quaker testimonies: What images of peace do you find here? Is there an example of integrity in this image? What might simplicity mean to you and what do you think it means to your Quaker friend?”

After looking at images of his Kenyan friends’ homes, one Moses Brown student decided, “I think that these pictures relate to equality because they have a home and we have a home and it doesn’t matter how big or small a house is.” A classmate responded, “I notice that these homes are smaller than ours but that our friends seem to be happy and that is all that matters.”

E q u a l i t y

Equality to me means having no boundary when it comes to sharing what I have with my friends.
—Shirlene, from Kenya

Most remarkable about the Moses Brown-Kakamega partnership was the mutual benefit for all involved. The Moses Brown and Kakamega students, along with their teachers, had the opportunity to grow as global citizens by experiencing a meaningful connection to others who seemed very different at first glance.

Using Quaker testimonies allowed the students to follow up on their natural curiosity, and transcend patent differences by discovering latent similarities. It turns out that ten-year-olds in both Kenya and the United States have the same basic hopes for peace, health, and happiness within their families and their communities.

The teachers learned important lessons as well. Galen Hamann explained, “Quaker education, like the religion itself, is experiential. We believe in the continuing revelation of the truth. Of course we can tell students about Quaker values, or teach them the testimonies through the acronym SPICES (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship), but that doesn’t always lead to genuine learning. A hands-on project like this allows students to discover their own truth through shared understanding of the testimonies in a lasting way.”

S e r v i c e

I want to be a servant and not a master, to serve both the church and the community. That is why I prefer to be a teacher.
—Eugine, from Kenya

The final stage of the project involved the production of a book—or, more properly, a photo essay. The students at Moses Brown chose photos and wrote captions and text to explain what they had learned about their new friends. The book is organized around the testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. Supplementing a grant from the Obadiah Brown Fund, parents pooled resources to pay for printing 500 copies, which are being sold at school events. All proceeds will be sent to the schools in Kenya. Future iterations of this project will involve opportunities for students to publish their work even more broadly, such as through a Facebook page or website.

P e a c e

Peace simply means living without disrupting.
—Samuel, from Kenya

Discovering that children and families everywhere have similar thoughts and hopes about peace was a key message of the project. When asked to look at the photographs and letters from the perspective of peace, the children focused on happy and calm moments, the peacefulness of a scene, the peacefulness of a settled mind. Through this lens, our young students were able to recognize the value and importance of inner peace.

As teachers in a Friends school, we know that all children have the potential to be tomorrow’s leaders. It is our hope that they will be able to find that common ground and need for peace among all people, while respecting and appreciating differences.

Note: A few months after this article was written, Elphas Wambani died unexpectedly from a heart attack. We feel fortunate to have been able to work with him and witness his ministry. As a community we remain committed to the spirit of the work and collaboration he began.


Carolyn Garth

Carolyn Garth, an attender at Westport (Mass.) Meeting, teaches fourth grade at Moses Brown School and serves on the school’s Global Studies Task Force, which has been instrumental in the Kenya partnership. Elizabeth Grumbach also teaches fourth grade at the school and serves as co-clerk of the All- School Diversity Committee. She has self-published a series of children’s travel books. Matt Glendinning, head of Moses Brown School, has previously served at Moorestown Friends and Germantown Friends schools. Moses Brown is a day school in Providence, R.I., that enrolls 785 students.