My name is Lucia and I am a middle school student in California and an Assistant Editor for Pencils for Africa.
Here is my interview with Karim, who is the founder of Pencils for Africa and who was born in Africa.
Karim Ajania is the author of The Badgers Stories which are featured on this website, The British Toast Rack.
The name comes from the fact that Karim’s nickname when he was in school in London, England was “Badgers”.
This is because they thought he said he liked to eat ‘badgers’. They misheard him. Karim actually said to his English school friends that he liked “bhajias” – a kind of Indian snack. He said “bhajias’ and they heard “badgers”!
He got that nickname of Badgers after he arrived in England from Kenya, where he was born.
While he was in school in Kenya, his friends back there had another nickname for him which was “Deer” – because they thought he looked like a ‘deer’. Karim explains this nickname of Deer in my interview so please do read it so you can know more about this nickname as well.
How was it being born and going to school in Kenya?
I absolutely loved growing up and going to school in Nairobi, Kenya. What I loved about going to school in Kenya was that my school friends and I learned much about Nature. Our school had many field trips that taught us about the magnificent wildlife, landscape, flora and fauna.
My memories of my school field trips are filled with vibrant colors: the clear, sparkling blue of a lake in the African wilderness, and the bright pink feathers of the flamingoes wading through that blue lake.
Of camping trips where my classmates and I would emerge from our overnight tents in the early morning and see the most dramatic African dawn painting the sky with yellows and maroons and violets and amber. And while you are watching this incredible painting in the sky, you hear the wildlife waking up: elephants blowing their trumpets and hyenas cackling and colorful African birds singing and squawking and soaring.
My memories of my school field trips are filled with a cacophony of beautiful sounds and colors.
There was also a very serious and studious aspect of this because our teachers really understood the natural world and were expert in wilderness tracking and foraging.
We all had notebooks filled with drawings and scribbled notes about the many different species of flowers, birds, small animals, snakes, trees and shrubs that we were encouraged to study.
We also would meet with African village tribespeople and elders on our school field trips.
We would learn from these tribes how they grazed cattle, sheep and goats, and of their methods of making textiles and their arts and crafts of woodcarving and pottery. Most of all, we learned valuable information from these tribespeople, who have such a respect for nature, about how they conserve water and other environmental resources.
How was the difference from moving from Kenya to England?
Moving from Nairobi, Kenya to London, England could not be more different.
It was a complete contrast in almost every way.
First, just in terms of the way my memory is colored.
I mentioned that in Kenya my memories were filled with vibrant colors. However, when I think of the colors in England, when I first moved there at the age of seven, I just see dark shades of grey, blue, green, chestnut and red.
The red brick building which was my school in London and the chestnuts in the green park next to my school and the grey clouds of the fall weather with the grey socks and grey sweater that was part of my school uniform, and the navy blue blazer and blue and grey tie which was also part of my school uniform.
Second, the entire landscape had changed.
Whereas in Kenya, there was so much Nature and outdoor life, in London it was very much an urban city life.
Bright red double-decker buses, and fast-moving underground trains and cluttered car traffic and people walking in a hurry.
What were some expectations?
When I was seven years old and moved to England, the big expectation that my parents had of me is that I might learn English and receive an English education.
I spoke very broken and very little English until I was seven. They used to call that “Pidgin English”. However, I was proficient in several African and Indian languages.
Another big expectation of immigrant families such as ours was to keep alive our storytelling tradition which was part of our immigrant legacy.
Although many immigrants leave their homeland – sometimes with few if any possessions – to find a new home in a new country, the one thing they can always carry with them is their storytelling tradition.
So, although I was now living in London, England, often, when I sat with my parents at our kitchen table, they would tell me stories of far off lands where our forefathers lived.
The stories would keep our immigrant history alive.
My father, who was born in East Africa, would tell me about his own father, who was born in a tiny village in India, and who dreamed of emigrating to East Africa.
My mother, who was also born in East Africa, would tell me about her own father, who was born Gwader, near modern-day Pakistan, and whose family emigrated to Oman in the Persian Gulf and then emigrated to the East African island of Zanzibar.
I have always loved this immigrant ethic of maintaining our storytelling tradition and have passed this on to my own children, just as my parents passed these traditions on to me.
How did it feel moving to England?
I arrived in England in the winter to go to school and I had never known such cold weather growing up in warm and sunny Kenya. I also missed my friends back home in Kenya.
However, I eventually made new friends in England, some of whom are still my friends today.
I have happy memories of foraging in the London parks for chestnuts, sometimes in the snow.
I had never seen snow in Kenya and I think that is one of my fondest memories when I first got to England: seeing the snow fall for the first time.
Seeing how the snow seemed to refresh and lighten the landscape as it fell on the brown, leafless tress, and found its way within the gaps of the bricks that walled of my school building, and fell so evenly upon the slanted roof of our school building. Snow also fell onto our school playground which meant we could make and throw snowballs at each other and watch them crash and crumble on each others school uniform blue blazers.
What is the difference between the middle schools in Kenya and in England?
In Kenya, we had a lot of focus on outdoor life, wildlife and Nature.In England, we spent a lot of time indoors, particularly during the winter months, studying very hard. I had to study extra hard when I was in school in England because I did not speak or write English nearly as well as my fellow classmates.
My teachers, Mrs Miller and Mr Baird, would spend extra time with me after school to help me with my reading because I was such a slow reader. I was very slow because I had to look up new words constantly in the dictionary. Eventually, I learned English better and relied less on the dictionary and less on extra help from my teachers.
Why did you move to England?
Immigrant families throughout history have a desire to move to a new country because of better opportunities for education and quality of life.
This was certainly true of my family, which is why we moved to England.
My family had a tradition of the immigrant. My grandparents’s family on my father’s side, had moved to Kenya from a village in Gujarat in India.
Meantime, my grandparent’s family from my mother’s side, had moved to Kenya from a place called Gwader which is bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, Oman, Pakistan and India.
This meant that my ears were filled from a young age, while sitting at the kitchen table with family members, with languages and dialects from all sorts of far flung places and regions.
I had African friends in Kenya who spoke Swahili and Kikuyu. I heard one set of grandparents speak dialects from Gujarat in India, such as the dialect of Kuchi. Another set of grandparents spoke dialects from Afghanistan and Persia. Amongst our diverse family and relatives at the kitchen table, several languages were often being spoken simultaneously including: Hindi, Arabic, Pashtun, Panjabi and Urdu.
It really was fascinating! The rhythms and tones of all these languages was much less formal and much more musical and theatrical than the more low key English language.
So, although I moved to England to receive a better education and to learn English, I missed the many languages and dialects that I grew up with before I arrived in England.
My grandmother was a big influence in all our family’s lives because she was the first one that had moved to England at a young age to get a teaching credential.
She eventually became a school teacher and school principal and always told me that it was very important that I move to England and improve my language and educational skills.
Click here to read an article I wrote about my inspiring and pioneering grandmother.
Was it hard to move to England?
Leaving my friends and family was the hardest part of the move to England, and probably the hardest part of any immigrant experience.
At the same time, you learn to make new friends and have a new sense of family once you settle into a new life. This was also true of my experience moving to England. I think this is also the rewarding part of many immigrant experiences. Building a new life in a new country is not easy for any immigrant family but it can also be immensely rewarding.
Did you feel that when you were in England you belonged there?
No, not at first. At first I did not think I belonged there at all.
When I first arrived in England it was very confusing, especially because I did not speak much English. I felt I belonged in Kenya and not in England when I first arrived there.
Back home in Kenya, I had a nickname: “Deer”.
My friends at school in Nairobi called me Deer because they said I had a long pointy nose and ears that stuck out really far from my head and they said all that reminded them of how a deer looks and so they called me Deer. My friends at school would say, as I entered our school classroom in Nairobi: “Oh look, here comes the Deer!”
On my very first day at school in London, one of the first things I remember was how it felt wearing woolen clothing. Back home in Nairobi, it was always warm and so I had only worn cotton shirts and cotton shorts and trousers.
For the first time in my life, at age seven, here I was wearing all this woolen clothing.
A grey woolen sweater, grey woolen socks and shorts, and a navy blue woolen jacket, which they call a ‘blazer’ in England. Not only did I feel I did not belong in England, I did not feel I belonged within my own woolen clothing. It felt so different and uncomfortable to wear wool instead of cotton. It seemed like a constant reminder that I did not belong.
As I arrived at the school on the first day, the school principal was standing by the doorway of the school, greeting all the children as they entered the school. She was so friendly and she greeted me with a big warm smile and she said to me:
Then, when I got upstairs to my classroom, my classroom teacher, Mrs Miller, greeted me at the classroom doorway and she said:
“Hello dear! Come in, dear.”
That evening, after my first day at school, I asked my parents to sit down with me at the kitchen table because I had an important question to ask them. My question was this:
“How did my school principal and teacher know my nickname back home in Kenya was Deer?”
Why did you come to America?
I came to America on a scholarship when I was 17 years old, to study for a degree at the University of San Francisco. I think it is in the nature of immigrants to want to improve their education and quality of life as well as, perhaps, experience the sense of adventure and challenge which comes from building your life in a new country.
I was always, from a very young age, fascinated by the idea of coming to America and it was always my childhood dream to come here.
When I was a young boy growing up in Nairobi, my parents and all my grandparents and I huddled closely in front of a very fuzzy black and white television set to watch the American astronaut Neil Armstrong land and then walk on the moon. To me, the idea of America and the idea of this brave and pioneering astronaut was one and the same.
I thought to myself as a young boy growing up in Kenya:
“What an incredible country America must be. Anything is possible in America. Even sending a man to the moon! I want to go there one day. That is my dream.”
That is why I came to America.