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Ruth Ndesandjo on investing in children

Ruth Ndesandjo

Founder of Madari Kindergarten, Ruth Ndesandjo, has lived life as it should be- with passion, purpose and meaning. The American born educationist, businesswoman, mother of three and grandmother of three is an exceptional pianist, passionate tennis player and avid reader.

She shares some of the wisdom she has accumulated over the years with Damaris Agweyu.

Normally I start off these interviews by asking people how they started their professional journeys. I won’t do that with you- because you have such a big story.

I do have a big story.

And so much wisdom to share.

Really?

38 years of educating children is not a small thing, you’ve created quite a legacy.

I didn’t even realise I’d made such an impression, I’m getting a lot of feedback now. I have people coming up to me and saying, “oh my child was with you, thank you so much“, that sort of thing. It’s very humbling.

Did you ever get tired of it? 38 years is a long time to spend in one job.

I loved Madari, I loved what I did so it never felt like it was a job. I never thought of retiring until recently and even then, a lot of things conspired to make it happen. I fell ill for a while went to get treatment in China where my first-born son lives. While I was there, I had a very good teacher come in and take over the running of the school and during this period, I was convinced by my other son, who lives in America, to retire and sell the school. It was time.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you end up in Kenya in the first place?

I was born in America and I love America but I have spent the bulk of my years in Kenya which I equally love, I’m a dual citizen. When I was 27 and living in America, I went to a party and met a man named Barack Obama senior, he was called Barack Obama then. We fell in love. He had a lot of intelligence and charisma. He swept me off my feet.  Within 3 weeks of dating, he asked me to come to Kenya. He said if I liked it then we would get married. I came. And I liked it. So we got married in December 1964. In February 1965, I got pregnant with my first child. But the marriage wasn’t good so I went back to America. Barack came after me and said he would be better. So I came back. He didn’t become better. I divorced him after 6 years. Then I met my second husband, Simeon Ndesandjo, he was a very good man and loved me very much. I’m the marrying type so we got married and then I had 2 more children. I have 3 children in total.

You had just the one child with Barack Obama senior?

I had 2. The second one died in motorcycle accident- that is the one regret I have in life- losing that child. It was very hard. But I am forever grateful for the 3 that I have.

Where are they now?

My first born, Mark, lives in China, Richard lives here in Kenya with me and my last born, Joseph lives in Nairobi. I also live with one of my grandchildren, Tracy, she’s lovely. She’s 12.

Are you close to your children?

Yes, I love all my children very much and like most parents, would do anything for them.

How did you get into education?

When I came to Kenya, I started working as a secretary because I had qualified as one. But I had taught in America for 1 year in a grade school and had a teaching certificate. I used to spend a lot of time playing tennis and my husband Simeon asked me what I wanted to do you with my life. I knew it was to teach children. We started looking for options. I didn’t want to work for anybody and luckily we had the means to be able to start a school of our own. We had a friend who had a nice property in a lovely, secure area on Riverside and was ready to sell it to us. We bought it and Simeon built the school. It was purpose-built as a kindergarten. We didn’t know if it would take off but I didn’t care, I was just happy that I could do what I liked which was teaching children.

Well take off it did, and it worked for 38 years.

Yes. We started in 1980 with 7 children and one of them was Joseph, my third born. My first teacher was unsatisfactory so she didn’t stay long. My second teacher who also happened to be a very good friend of mine and still is; her name is Shariffa Keshavjee, had run a school in Canada so she understood the business. She was a godsend because I’d never run a school. I didn’t know anything about that because my decision to start the school hadn’t been calculated, it had been emotional.

“Your decision was not calculated but emotional”, can we dig a little deeper into that statement?

I didn’t get into education to make money or create a business, I did it because it was what I was passionate about. And over the years, the way I ran the school wasn’t the way other schools were run. I did what I instinctively felt was right. I was lucky that I could do this. Madari Kindergarten was, for that matter, different from many other schools.

What exactly was it that made Madari different?

Too many of these schools are too academic. They don’t even think about what’s good for the children, they just think about this stupid exam business- that’s the wrong thing for early childhood.

And what is the right thing for early childhood?

The most important thing is play. This is what I focused on at Madari. That worked against me because for many years when people heard about Madari they would say, “oh they just play there”. I didn’t get many children in the beginning because people didn’t think there was any learning going on. But the funny thing is, at that age, you learn more through play than you do by a teacher who is sitting you down and writing on a chalkboard.

I combined play with academics in a happy way and you know what? My system proved itself because the children who went from ‘playing’ in Madari excelled in primary school. You can tell a Madari child in a group because they are not afraid, they are confident, they have good social skills and that is what matters.

Did people’s perceptions about the school ever weigh down on you?

Many times I felt depressed because people didn’t appreciate what we did but since I wasn’t just looking for money, I could keep doing it. I made money but I wasn’t JUST looking to do that. I was looking for the best for my children. We did a lot of art, play, games and music- there was a lot of music.

And you are quite the piano player

I love playing the piano. The centre of my school was music because very few schools have a person who knows it as I do. Through music, children learn language and new ideas and they have fun doing it. We would sing French songs, Japanese songs, German songs, Swahili songs. I could have 60 children in a room and you know children, they are going to make noise and jump around and scream and yell but the minute I put my finger on the piano there would be complete silence and focus from the children. And you know another thing about music? It goes hand in hand with intelligence.

Does it?

Yes. I have known in my life very many intelligent people who have gone to top schools and mostly they can play an instrument- may be the piano or violin. Like this girl I recently met, she was one of my students, she’s a 14 years old now and is an expert violinist- she’s very intelligent. She’s now at ISK on scholarship; she’ll probably get a scholarship for university as well because she’s very very clever.

And here I was thinking it’s a question of talent?

Well yes, there is that but also the part of the brain that works for intelligence works for music. There are so many things that go into a person- parents are important but I think genes are more important. You are born with certain talents. You can give your child art lessons, it doesn’t mean they will be creative, does it?

No.

It’s the whole nature versus nurture debate. Everybody has an opinion about it but I think about 60% of a person is nature and 40% is nurture, although I know many children come from horrible families and still make a success of their lives and then there are children who come from so-called ‘great families’ but they are the biggest failures you’ve ever met- so what’s happening here? There is something inside that drives you to where you’re going. It has to come from within; the child needs their own ambition. And that’s another thing about education- a lot of schools try to impose education on children rather than create an environment that stimulates the child’s own ideas. 

Educari. The word itself means ‘coming from within’ in Latin. You have teachers standing in front of children telling them to do this and that but where’s the creativity? Where’s the imagination? Where’s the uniqueness? Children should be encouraged to think for themselves and especially in the world we live in today. It’s not the people who have ‘education’ that are succeeding, its people who are creative, those doing something different. You have to have a background that gives you the confidence that lets you do that so you can succeed in work.

And life in general

Yes.

Ruth, her late husband Simeon Ndesandjo and one of their grandchildren
What were the highlights of your profession?

Everyday was a highlight. I loved teaching the children. I also enjoyed talking with parents. I do have a lot of wisdom as far as small totos (children) go and would share my knowledge with many parents. They were free to pop in at any time for a  chat. With a lot of schools, the Headmistress doesn’t have time for the parent, you have to make an appointment. I don’t believe in all that formality, I think it’s ridiculous when you are dealing with small children.

At Madari, we were a very open school and even our opening times were flexible. Children could come at 7, 8 and even 9, it didn’t matter. I don’t want you pulling your child out of bed to come to school, education should not be a punishment! Many of my children would even tell their parents that they want to come to school on the weekend.

Because they loved school so much.

Exactly! And the parents would actually have to come to Madari to show the child that the school was closed. And this is a positive thing because we were aligning a love of something with education. That’s the way education should be, something you like to do, not something you fear or have a bad feeling about. The research has been done and you can look it up. A universal assessment of schools all over the world showed the best performers come from Finland and you know why? Their children can go to school at 8.30 or 9 and formal teaching starts from around 9 am and ends at 1.30 pm. Then they focus on play, sports, art, music, exploring their environment. These children have the best performance on universal exams because they are happy! That’s the proof of the pudding!

Do motivated teachers also have anything to do with it?

Yes, the teachers are highly motivated and very much respected in that society. They are also very well educated. But the teachers’ motivation is not necessarily linked to pay. Yes it’s reasonable but it’s nothing extravagant, teachers teach because they want to teach, not because they lack other choices.

Would you say that the recent spate of arson-related incidents in Kenyan schools can be attributed to unhappy children?

Yes. The problems with schools here is that they are too rigid, too exam-oriented. Many children face serious repercussions at home if they don’t do well in exams. Children have committed suicide and even been killed because of exams! One exam is going to determine the rest of your life? At the age of 12? Oh please! It’s ridiculous. Teachers end up focusing on teaching what’s going to be tested. But that is only a limited amount of knowledge. Why not have a discussion about nature? Take a walk and look at plants? Not just those that will be in the test but all types of plants; encourage reading many types of books…

There has been too much pressure on children and they are fighting back. Why do children need to get up at 5 am, have a cold shower, study, get drilled by teachers, then study some more or rather memorise information to pass exams? When these children finish their final test they never look at a book again, so they are ignorant! Because everyday something new is happening in this world and if you’re not a reader you will be left behind.

It looks like we are finally getting our act together with the recent changes in the education system.

It’s looking positive. Matiangi had the right idea, you know his child was in my school and I talked with his wife many times about this and we completely agreed. I was thinking maybe she’s influenced her husband that this system is not the right system for our children (laughs).

You have to find time for your children- you owe it to them and it’s good for you.

Ruth Ndesandjo
Let’s revisit the subject of reading; Most Kenyans are not big on reading.

Well if you’ve been taught to only read to pass exams, how can you enjoy reading? And a lot of schools don’t have libraries- how can you have a school without a library? That is the centre of learning. I had books all over the place in my school and emphasized reading. Because if you’re a reader, you will not be ignorant, you will not stagnate. You don’t have to go to a fancy school for that- you’ll be more knowledgeable than those who go to the fancy schools but don’t read.

I once visited Emory University in Atlanta where my son was sponsored to go for his executive MBA, it has an amazing library. You could spend your whole life in there; there are so many books on every type of information you’d ever want- it’s a reader’s heaven- and this is one of the world’s best universities which should tell you something.

Does reading on a Kindle count?

Here, I am talking about early childhood, the first 6 or 7 years: I don’t believe that reading on a Kindle will teach you as much as an old-fashioned book- just in the same way you don’t learn as much from typing letters on a computer as you do from writing with your hand or doing maths using a calculator.

What is your take on technology as far as our children are concerned?

I’m glad you brought that up because before I retired I had a meeting with parents to talk about this. I had been reading about it a lot. Technology is like anything in life- yin and yang, right and left, up and down, man and woman, everything has a balance. Technology has its yin and yang. It has a lot of good but needs to be regulated. It can be very dangerous particularly for children for two reasons.

One, children are very innocent and can be pulled into some very bad things- how do you know the person you are talking to on Facebook isn’t a pervert, or someone with terrible ideas, or a murderer?

Two, children can be easily addicted to technology because it stimulates something in their baby brains that becomes addictive and children who are addicted to technology become asocial. Even Bill Gates, who can be considered one of the fathers of technology, has banned mobile phones from the school he owns in America up to the age of 16.

And even in homes, these things have to be monitored and regulated. In Madari, my children would have productive mornings in school but when they got home, they would be on the iPad for the rest of the day- because it’s a baby sitter. But this is a country where sports are at our fingertips, why isn’t your child learning how to swim? Doing dance classes? Having an art class? Going for walk? Cooking? Doing constructive things for Goodness sake! It’s wrong and it’s lazy. And those are the people who have the money even- so they can afford a driver that could take the child to a pool or a place they could learn tennis. If you want your child to be productive, you have to regulate their actions.

How do you navigate the murky waters of disciplining children?

There is a simple and constructive way to discipline a child. Every child likes something- take it away! I don’t believe in physical discipline.  I have never hit my boys. Mark was passionate about music so if he was frustrated that was his outlet and Joseph and Richard’s outlets were tennis.

They all took your passions?

Each of them is a chip off the old block.

Did your parents ever beat you?

No. I had very kind parents but once, I was slapped by my father. I came home late from watching a movie and he was worried- he told me never to lie to him and after that I never did.

Parents are role models, you see. I saw how mine were so I copied them. I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I love books and now my granddaughter who is living with me has exploded into books. I have been pushing it for 10 years and she has seen me reading all this time. Now she reads and I know she’ll be ok.

People want their children to read and you go into their house and don’t even see a book! The parent is always watching TV. I mean give me a break! You want your child to be a reader and they don’t see you reading? No, it’s not going to happen.

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you would give a parent?

You have to find time for your children- you owe it to them and it’s good for you.

Very simple and yet so profound

Yes. Find time especially in the formative years- or don’t have children at all.

Is parenting for everyone?

Some people take to parenting and some don’t. And it’s important to note that it all starts from inception. If a mother is a happy person the baby is affected, same thing if she is depressed. The effects last a lifetime- most problems come from childhood. 

In some countries they school mothers on how to parent- I think it was Brazil I read about- if you educate the young mums, children have a better chance…because who is the main teacher of the child? The mother! And the difference between an educated and uneducated mums can be seen in their children. Educated mums have the wisdom, they have some understanding of psychology, they realise that talking with a child is positive,  they spend time with them –  poor parents, well they are focusing on making money to have some food for the day; where’s the time for conversation? Where’s the time to read a book? They are just trying to survive.

This thing of feeding children should be a priority with any government- the brain can’t function optimally with malnutrition- this happens during pregnancy and the first few years- those mothers and their babies should be fed well, that’s more important than fancy universities- because by then, it’s too late.

That is very powerful

Is it? I don’t know. I am just telling you what I think.

What impact do you believe you’ve had in this world?

I don’t know about impact but I have had former students bringing their children to my school because they loved Madari.

That says a lot.

I think so. Also, on the admission forms I used, there was the question ‘how did you hear about Madari’, the answers were almost always: from a friend or from a relative or my aunt went there. I’m not a marketer in the classic sense. I got my students from word of mouth so I must have been doing something right. And when I meet a lot of ex- Madari students who are now doing outstandingly well in life it validates the work I did.

Those first 6 years were crucial

Yes. Countries put so much money into secondary school or university- but that’s too late. The person is already formed.

So now you’re retired, what next?

I have had some offers from people who want to buy the school so I will sell it and focus on enjoying retirement.

Do you miss the school?

No. I am moving on in a different way that still uses my passions. I recently mentored a previous parent who is now starting her own Kindergarten. I am helping one of my previous teachers, Mrs Keshavjee, I mentioned her earlier, with teaching underprivileged girls. I can entertain with my piano when requested and when appropriate, in other words, I’m taking things easy. This morning I went to The East African Women’s League – it’s a gathering for mostly women, although men are welcome, every Friday, to come together and buy things from each other, socialize, get products at discounted prices- any money made goes to charity. I couldn’t do this kind of stuff when I was in school because I was so busy, but now I have time.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about life?

I believe in two things: kindness and humility. I don’t believe anybody should be proud. You know there are people who think they are the centre of the world, that they are so important. Pride is stupid. What you are isn’t all you; it’s a little bit of luck, a little bit of God and a little bit of your own work. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring, to be proud is foolish. But to be kind to others is really important.

The Dalai Lama says it doesn’t matter if you go to church or if you worship- we know people who go to church but they lead lousy lives and are cruel to people around them. Be kind to others and help them as much as you can. I believe in social service.

I tell my grandchild, Tracy, that education is the most important thing. Once you have an education, you will be able to have whatever you want and, also, you will be able to help other people- that’s what children should be taught. Everybody should think of the world and not just themselves. And in this country, we have opportunities to help every minute- so be kind, I’m not saying be stupid, just be kind.

What advice would you give to your 40-year-old self?

Follow your own ideas, don’t listen to others, a lot of people talk rubbish and don’t even know what they are saying. I had people saying Madari was lousy but maybe it was their child or their home that had the problem- people like to blame others but find it hard to look inwards, we have egos, it’s hard to criticize yourself.

My other piece of advice would be: Find something you really like to do. I was a secretary when I first came here and was good at it but if I had to do that for the rest of my life, I would have died. I loved Madari. I felt like I was doing something useful, we all need to feel useful.

You are wearing your age very well

Am I? Thank you.

What’s your secret?

For 38 years of my life, I was happy doing what I was doing. I wasn’t under any pressure, I had a healthy environment. I mean sure there were totos sneezing and coughing all over the place sometimes, but I enjoyed what I did. I enjoyed sitting out in the yard with the trees and grass surrounding me, it was peaceful, those kinds of things keep you young.

I can’t leave you without asking this. What relationship do you have with former President Barack Obama?

It’s just a fluke that I was married to his dad. He first married a Kenyan woman with whom he got his first 2 children, Auma and Malik, then he went to The University of Hawaii, met and married Ann Dunham who was the president’s mother; they divorced, then he came to Boston and that’s how we met.

He came here to my house once, before he was a senator…When my husband died 6 and a half years ago he sent me a condolence… I got a special invitation to his Inauguration. My firstborn Mark and he have the same father so they’re very similar- they are both brilliant, charismatic, went to top schools… but their backgrounds were different so their lives took different directions. Mark is well known because anybody related to Obama would be famous, wouldn’t they? But he’s also very accomplished. He knows himself and doesn’t want to sit on the tail of Barack who is so famous. He never wants to appear to be getting his shine from Barack.


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