On their somewhat harrowing drive through Kenya, Africa, Wrighton and her husband, and Watchman International volunteer staff, William Carver and Jeanne Brown, stepped into a land abuzz with social activity, with vendors lining the streets to sell their fresh fruit, just-caught fish, and hand-carved wood adornments. Giant piles of clothing for purchase could be found dotting the roadsides, where families come and pull from the pile the items they want. Infrastructure consisted of macadam, dirt, and muddy roads, with a mix of cars, vans, scooters, and taxi-motorcycles (called Boda-bodas) moving swiftly and dangerously in a driving free-for-all. People carried items on their heads, and others pulled carts. No matter what hour of the day (or night), people were in the streets, laughing, talking, selling, working.
Half a world away from the classrooms of the U.S. are the dirt floor schoolrooms of Kenya, Africa, where Dr. Char and her husband Bill traveled to see. Children trudge through muddy and unpaved roads in their brightly-colored, homemade uniforms, arriving at their classrooms, where sheets of corrugated metal stand for the outside walls and adobe bricks insulate the interior. Little to nothing lines the classroom walls in the way of educational materials. In the lower grades, there are no games to play, no books to read, no paper on which to write, and no pencils to write with! In the corrugated-fenced and dirt playground, children had two old tires to roll. However, it didn’t stop children from singing, laughing and running around happily. In the classrooms, children crowd together on benches and there may or may not be tables for children to work on, depending on the school. And yet, there is a spirit of joy there, with dozens of smiling faces on both children and teachers.
This is a typical poverty-level school in Africa. However, there are little children who walk back and forth in front of the schools with no uniforms and nowhere to go because they cannot afford to attend one of these “poverty” schools. These schools look like mansions to them. They can only hope that someday they’ll be sponsored to attend.
“Seeing the real Africa was amazing and so touching to me. Thirty-four years ago, my sister and special education teacher, Gigi Bradshaw, artist Irene Clark, and I, also a special education teacher made an imaginative trek to Africa as we developed Zoo-phonics,” says the company’s founder, co-author, and CEO Dr. Charlene Wrighton, describing the backstory of the Zoo-phonics Mnemonic and Multisensory Language Arts Program. Enchanted by the beauty of the land and culture, the Program utilizes a variety of African animals as well as animals from all over the world to teach letters and sounds of the alphabet to young children. The Program’s main character, Zoophonia, is a classroom teacher from the United Kingdom, who decided to teach children in Africa once she retired. In the Zoo-phonics’ poem, song, and story, Zoophonia sees a little boy crying. She dries his eyes and asks him why. “These words are one big blur,” he sobs. Zoophonia promises to help him. She and Zeke Zebra get the idea to gather 26 animals from all over the world and these become the Animal Letters that are the foundation of Zoo-phonics!
“To actually drive through the countryside, see a herd of zebras on the side of the road, and meet the precious children and teachers that were in our imaginations thirty-four years ago was a dream come true. I only wish my two partners where there to share it with me.”
Dr. Char and husband Bill, carried four suitcases containing hundreds of pounds of Zoo-phonics materials, school supplies, balls, jump ropes, frisbees and kites, and set off for Kenya. Their mission was to visit the African schools that had implemented the Zoo-phonics Program six years ago through Watchman International, a Christian missions organization. William Carver and Jeanne Brown, have been to many 11 countries in Africa establishing 21 schools, bringing 450 huge water purifiers for the communities and schools, as well introducing the Zoo-phonics Program to 6 of them.
She presented a two-day workshop in Eldoret, Kenya where teachers and pastors from five African countries (Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, and South Sudan). The workshop participants took three- and four-day bus trips just to get there. “We had the best time,” stated Wrighton. “At first, I thought I was going to have to stop every few sentences in order for the pastors to translate my words, however, Zoo-phonics is so visual and playful, the teachers caught on quickly and were soon doing the gestures to match the Animal Letters and playing the myriad of games Zoo-phonics uses to teach the alphabet, reading, spelling and writing. “It was one of the most joyful experiences of my life,” stated Wrighton. While Dr. Char was teaching teachers and children in the schools, husband Bill was outside with other children throwing frisbees, jumping rope, and toss Nerf® footballs. Even the pastors and their sons came out to play!
Presently, Kenya suffers from a 70% illiteracy rate, bringing with it all the trappings that the lack of education brings— crime, drug use, suicide, corruption, and health epidemics. While in Katali, a small town in Kenya, a neighborhood celebration was happening. Besides musical entertainment and spontaneous audience-participating dances, the Minister of Education and the High Commissioner (speaking for the president of Kenya) spoke to the people impressing upon parents and grandparents how important education is and how change is critical. Shared Wrighton, “Pastor Anthony, headmaster of two schools, preschool through high school, has used Zoo-phonics for six year. He was recognized for lowering the devasting illiteracy rate down to 30%. William Carver was also recognized for his work in Kenya.
Positive change is obviously happening here and it was recognized. Church leaders, local teachers, and foreign church ministries are all working together to improve student performance. The hardest part is, not all children can go to school, and neighborhood schools are impoverished, needing much in the way of infrastructure, school supplies, and technology. What they do have, however is heart.
While most people might not see much hope or promise in these schools, Dr. Char sees a different picture. Having an indirect and yet significant hand in improving literacy in some of Africa’s poorest schools through Zoo-phonics, she wants to go back and help further train teachers and children. Her husband, a building contractor, would love to help re-structure the buildings, making them safer. “Technology is needed desperately but some schools don’t even have electricity!” said Dr. Char.
Besides the herd of zebras and a family of five on one motorcycle, the most amazing thing that Dr. Char saw was a shoe-shiner and his chair, sitting in the middle of a muddy, unpaved, rain-soaked road, with a gentleman sitting there getting his shoes shined. It was the height of hope and it symbolized, for her, Africa. “The people smile and graciously give you their very best even when they have so little materially,” shared Dr. Char.