From Nairobi to North Carolina: A Kenyan Teacher's Journey

03 January, 2017

One day in May 2015, James Gitau Mwangi was reading in the library at the American Reference Center in Nairobi. He did not know that a conversation he overheard there would change his life.

The American Reference Center's Assistant Director, Nashon Akello, was calling English teachers to come to a webinar. Mwangi offered to attend the webinar. He told Akello, "I'm an English teacher!" Soon he was sitting with a group of Kenyan English teachers. They were watching two American teachers give an online teleconference.

The webinar was organized by the U.S. Embassy in cooperation with VOA Learning English. Called "Writing for the Internet," the course explained how to write factual stories in a simple style of journalism, like the stories here on Learning English. The teachers at the webinar were invited to write a story for a contest. The winning stories would be published on VOA's website and on the U.S. Embassy's site.

While at the U.S. Embassy, the teachers heard about other programs of the U.S. Department of State. One was the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. Open to young teachers of English with a college degree, the program sends teachers to teach their home language and culture to American students in universities. At the same time, they learn language teaching methods that will improve their English teaching skills when they return home.

Mwangi says the program was interesting to his fellow teachers.

"But you need to be under 30 years. So, most of my friends were like, 'you go -- go and do it! Because - it's a great thing but we can't do it.' So, I applied, I followed through the process - it was very hard - but I was so happy when they called me back in August, the same year. They told me, 'you have to do a TOEFL' (Test of English as a Foreign Language) ... We had to wait almost a year again for them to get back to us."

James Mwangi and students in Nairobi
James Mwangi and students in Nairobi

Mwangi went back to teaching and directing the Mavens Education & Chess Centre. He started the school with fellow teacher Tom Amwai. At first, they did not have space to have all of the students at the same time. "We started with an adult education center, and a reading area, and a library. During the holidays, we invite other students from other schools for holiday tuition."

Mwangi wrote a story about how students must deal with the terrible traffic in Nairobi. Then, he entered it in the writing contest. He was surprised to hear that his story was chosen as the first-place winner. You can read it in Learning English's Dispatch from Kenya section.

When Mwangi saw the article online, he noticed that there were comments from people all over the world.

"That's when it hit me - like, this is big, because when someone from Vietnam, someone from places like Madagascar talk to you, that was really refreshing."

He came back to the embassy to get the award and started connecting with the other teachers who attended the webinar.

"We had a very fantastic ceremony. I was given my certificate. We talked about having an association for English teachers."

Mwangi was inspired by the course to keep writing in English, although he had started with little confidence in his writing.

"I continued writing after that - I never believed in myself in terms of writing - it's ironical because you're an English teacher; you're teaching students to write. But you, when you're asked to write, it's not easy, but you keep on telling your students, 'You're supposed to write like that.' So, I decided to learn through the process the way I did it before."

In September 2015, Mwangi wrote his second story for VOA, on the teachers' strike in Kenya.

"I remember it was during September we had a teachers' strike. It was taking a toll on the student who were really suffering. And then again, we talked with Ms. Jill and I worked with her on an article that later on was published. It was talking about the strike."

When Mwangi found out he had received a Fulbright grant, he had to make a hard choice: leave the school for a year, or stay in Kenya. His business partner, Amwai, encouraged him to go to teach in the U.S.

While Mwangi is away, Amwai is using his experience as a chess champion to teach students how to play the game and enter chess competitions.

"Now we've introduced something that is helping us in terms of the revenue, which is a chess center. We have so many students who are playing chess - they come after classes. We have a lot of champions ... chess has been proven to be one of the best mind games that students can use."

During his winter vacation from Bennett College, Mwangi is touring universities like Harvard University in Massachusetts. He will return to Kenya at the end of the school year in May. He plans to use his experience to improve his school.

"I want to go back with all of these things that I have and experience and just build that...I want to go back and build the school now. I hope when I go back that dream will come to life."

VOA Learning English gave another webinar in May of 2016, on the topic of "Writing Science in Plain English." The wining essays from that contest are also in the Dispatch from Kenya section.

Teachers who want to learn more about the Fulbright programs can visit their website,

I'm Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

Would you like to go and live in another country for a year? Where would you like to go? What would you like to do there? Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

teleconference – n. the use of telephones and video equipment to have a meeting with people who are in different places

cooperation - n. a situation in which people work together to do something

journalism - n. the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

style - n. a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed

inspire - v. to make (someone) want to do something or to give (someone) an idea about what to do or create

competition - n. the act or process of trying to get or win something (such as a prize or a higher level of success) that someone else is also trying to get or win