x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Students untangle web in Kenya

Pupils' hunger for knowledge leads Zayed University trio to appreciate own education.

Zayed University student Khadija al Abbas works with the schoolgirls in Kajiado, Kenya. Courtesy Nada Ali Ibrahim
Zayed University student Khadija al Abbas works with the schoolgirls in Kajiado, Kenya. Courtesy Nada Ali Ibrahim

DUBAI // Three Emirati students say their trip to rural Kenya to teach Masai schoolchildren how to use the internet has taught them to appreciate their own education.

Arwa al Mazrooie, 20, Khadija al Abbas, 20, and Fatima al Sayegh, 21, recently visited Kajiado, a town of 8,000 people near the Tanzanian border.

The students from Zayed University in Dubai taught 45 secondary schoolgirls how to use social media to further their education.

"We bonded with the girls," said Ms al Mazrooie. "To be able to do that in five days is amazing."

Ms al Sayegh said: "We taught them how to open their e-mail accounts. They took the bull by the horns and began to research for themselves. Medicine scholarships, how to learn Chinese - every one of them wanted more websites to learn from."

The Kenyan girls' thirst for knowledge was increased by their exposure to the internet's wealth of e-books, videos and tutorials.

"They're so eager to learn," Ms al Mazrooie said. "We didn't want to overwhelm them with information but they started to challenge us right away."

Female empowerment was also on the agenda, said Ms al Sayegh.

"The girls need to believe that they can be empowered," she said. "I asked them if they believed they had the potential to change their country as women. Some said yes, some no, because they believed that as women they wouldn't be allowed to.

"We kept reassuring them that just because they're women, it didn't mean that they couldn't make a substantial difference. It was so striking how similar their lives are to ours."

Ms al Abbas agreed: "To them, a women's place is in the kitchen or their house, or raising kids and getting married.

"We told them that was exactly what we were thinking when we were in high school. But we told them that we were inspired by our older generation, our teachers and parents and I hope we changed their opinion."

The school there is run by Al Maktoum Foundation of Dubai and offers free classes for girls. Until now, most of the visitors from the UAE had been much older managers.

"I think the foundation got a younger feel to their programmes and their schools," Ms al Abbas said. "Previously it was older men travelling to Africa, unveiling a school and becoming very formal. But we connected with the girls."

The foundation sponsored the whole trip. "We were like their daughters. They really took care of us," said Ms al Sayegh.

The women launched a website called Al Bedaya, or "The Start", a blog and a Twitter feed that was streamed live on Zayed University's student website. And they feel it was a success.

"One teacher told us, 'I teach them about computer sciences but you gave them the wings to fly and help them with their education'," said Ms al Mazrooie.

But the visit carried a little disappointment for some of the girls.

"They were disappointed that scholarships weren't offered to the UAE," said Ms al Mazrooie. "One girl told us that if you want a relationship with other countries you should open your colleges to them."

Although there are no immediate plans to repeat the programme, Al Maktoum Foundation has asked the women if they could do it in Rwanda.

"If anyone is willing to do it again, we're ready. If other foundations would like to do it again, we'd like them to adopt this idea," said Ms al Mazrooie.

The visit, she said, has changed their perspectives since they returned on May 22.

"I can't live my life as I used to," Ms al Mazrooie said. "To understand the value of what you have - you appreciate things more and your values change. You learn to make the most of it.

"It's not that we were obsessed with shallow things before but those girls wanted to use everything they had to improve.

"When we complain about our education I now realise we should be making the most of it and how proud we are of Zayed University."

hhamid@thenational.ae