No canes, no threats: My children can finally enjoy studies at home

Mary Magdalene facilitates a lesson for her children, Talia Zawadi,14, and David Baraka, 11, at their home in Fedha Estate, Nairobi, on August 24, 2020.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Mary Magdalene, a mother of two, strongly disapproves of caning children as a way to make them pass exams.  
  • She believes learning should be a pleasant experience; one that is free from intimidation.

When schools shut down abruptly in March this year following the confirmation of Kenya’s first coronavirus case, most parents thought it would be a few weeks at most before schools reopened.

Several months later, children are still stuck at home as the Ministry of Education remains vague on opening dates.

With no preamble, parents were left to bridge the learning gap to the best of their knowledge. They have been forced to embrace home-schooling as part of efforts to keep their young ones abreast with their studies.

However, for Mary Magdalene, home schooling was a decision she made way before the pandemic struck.

The mother of two found it impossible to put up with the horrible experiences her children went through in school.

“My children attended a school that believed in beating pupils so they may perform well in exams. They would be caned for not meeting the pass mark, not completing their homework which was always too much. I hardly spent time with them since they would be up as early as 5:30am to prepare for school.”

Her youngest son, David ,11, was once beaten for scoring a B grade in Kiswahili and failing to meet the set target of A grade. On the other hand, his sister Talia burnt the midnight oil several nights a week to clear loads of homework due the following week.

At first, she transferred them from the school hoping the situation would improve. At the time, David was in Class Two and Talia Class Six.

“I found a school that offered both the 8-4-4 system and British Curriculum. It seemed quite posh and progressive. I felt they would know better than to cane children so they pass exams.”

Just to be sure, Mary Magdalene paid the school director a visit and explained the circumstances that led to the transfer from the previous school.

“I don’t believe in beating kids to perform well instead you teach them, if they are not getting, you teach them again. I shared this with the directors insisting that children shouldn’t be pressured simply because a school wants to post great scores. They said, here, we don’t beat kids, we believe in nurturing their talents.” 

She left the office reassured and confident that her children were on the verge of a pleasant school experience. She was wrong.

The school believed in setting performance targets for the pupils and failure to meet these warranted canning.

Talia took to complaining about the terror that reigned in the classroom. Her heart would start beating hard when she approached school and she always had knots in her stomach. She was constantly weighed down by the amount of homework given every day.

“I remember making another trip to the school, this time to ask the teacher if it was possible to reduce the homework issued on school nights. I was informed it was necessary for her to do lots of homework in order to perform well.

So here were my kids, revising in fear and doing their exam in fear. I am a counsellor and from a professional point of view I could tell my children were not okay. The system was not working for them.”

Mary Magdalene facilitates a lesson for her children, Talia Zawadi,14, and David Baraka, 11, at their home in Fedha Estate, Nairobi, on August 24, 2020.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Vigorous research

Disappointed, Mary Magdalene embarked on vigorous research on alternative schooling. She went to the internet and did as much digging as she could on home-schooling. She supplemented this with talking to parents who were already home-schooling their children.

“The more I researched the more confusing it got. However, one look at my children renewed my energy. I decided to dive into home schooling and figure it out along the way.”

The first months were quite an eye opener. Mary Magdalene began noticing certain behaviour in her daughter that was quite unbecoming.

“She had this preteen attitude they get from peers in school, a don’t care attitude. A few other things I had missed before surfaced as well.”

There was some friction between them at first as Mary Magdalene sought to correct Talia’s attitude.

“I taught her how to be respectful, how to be more sensitive to home dynamics, that there is a way you talk to your mum, to your brother.”

She admits were it not for the home-schooling, there are many things that would have missed her and perhaps she would have caught on when it was already too late.

“It feels like I snatched her from an unacceptable path just in the nick of time. Our relationship is more open now. She can consult me as opposed to relying on her peers for advice.”

David has become more outspoken. While attending regular school, David barely spoke to people including friends and relatives.

Mary Magdalene found out the children used to be caned for talking and this instilled so much fear in David that he opted to just stay quiet always to be safe.

“There was a time we went to get an internet connection and David quickly picked up a conversation with the sales guy. I took the back seat and watched him negotiate a very good deal for us. The sales person was visibly impressed and commended David for his confidence. This made me so happy, such moments make me feel I am moving in the right direction.”

According to Mary Magdalene’s observation, her children become happier, more expressive and confident over the past two years that she has been home-schooling them.

“At home they learn without being caned or shouted at. They are just themselves and they have blossomed like a flower.”

Not without challenges

Despite the numerous joys, it has not been an easy journey for Mary Magdalene. There was a lot of scepticism from relatives and those around her. Some family members even offered to help her raise school fees as they assumed she must have been experiencing financial constraints.

“At first, I felt the need to explain myself to them but after a while I stopped. It was my decision to home-school because I felt it was in the best interests of my children.”

However, the hardest part for Mary Magdalene even now is drawing the line between being a teacher and being a mum. Sometimes David wants to join her in the kitchen and chat during class hours.

“He comes in the kitchen and when I try to get him back to class, he tells me ‘mum, I want to learn the art of hugging,’ and he hugs me so tightly. How can I be tough when he is so sweet?”

Mary Magdalene uses three websites to teach. Two are free and one costs her Sh4000 per month for both students. Other expenses include purchasing exercise books and biros. She rarely spends money on textbooks as most of the content is available online.

“I had to switch to the British Curriculum which has more content online compared to the 8-4-4 system.”

Class on Monday starts at around 11 am because of the hustle and bustle that is the weekend. The other days, school starts at 9 am and ends at 4 pm. Before breakfast, the kids have to fix their rooms, make their bed and tidy up. After school, they wash their clothes if there are any dirty ones.

TV time is at 4 pm, only if they have finished school work.

“I always tell them if you drag your feet during the day, it eats into your TV time, none of them wants that, so they organize themselves such that by 4 pm, all assignments are done.”

Mary Magdalene facilitates a lesson for her children, Talia Zawadi,14, and David Baraka, 11, at their home in Fedha Estate, Nairobi, on August 24, 2020.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Life skills

Dinner preparation starts at 6pm, which they do together. Phones are only used at lunch time and after school for a few hours.

“Right now I don’t even hover around them checking if they have washed their clothes. If we have a trip to the mall and you don’t have any clean cloth to wear, I tell them, that’s a sign that you did not plan yourself well.” 

These life skills, Mary reckons will help them survive anywhere in the world.

She has also learnt to have financial transparency at home. When any finances come in, she calls them and they budget the money together.

“We put aside money for rent, for grocery, for their clothes and they get their share of pocket money which they decide how much to save, tithe and buy their favourite snacks.”

Before the pandemic, David and Talia used to attend meet ups with other homeschoolers at the Korean Church on Thika Road. Here, they socialised and took practical lessons like poetry, painting, dancing, drawing, ICT lessons, and spoken word.

“They would meet, about 20 children in total and interact, make friends and have fun. Talia and David are also very active in church. In fact most of their friends are from church. They participate in dancing and acting.”

Contrary to a popular belief held mostly by those who frown upon home-schooling, the children are not alienated from their peers. Parents can seek off-school platforms where children can interact, make friends and learn to live harmoniously with members of the community.

Do home-schoolers transition, say from primary school to high school?

Yes. Talia is about to join at a study centre which is the equivalent of secondary school. Study centres mainly facilitate practical subjects such as Biology, Chemistry and Physics for home-schoolers.

Mary Magdalene says the journey has been worth it as the kids are now the best version of themselves. She is keen to check what the children like, because that is what will most likely be their career in future.

“I try to nurture their hobbies, Talia loves fashion design and David is into computers and he is also learning French using the Play store app called Duolingo. Tomorrow they may love something else and it is okay, it is a journey of discovery.”

When she is not facilitating school, Mary Magdalene offers online counselling on relationships and emotional wellness through her page Life Lessons For Women or through the email


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