Njeri Wangari, right, a poet from Nairobi, Kenya, works with sixth-grader Anna Chase at Stillwater Middle School on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Wangari came to Stillwater to teach a two-week session on poetry, at Oak-Land and Stillwater Middle schools. Credit: Courtesy/Chris Freichels.

Kenyan poet and writer Njeri Wangarĩ got a rare opportunity to share her passion for poetry writing and spoken word performance with over 600 students aged 10-12 years in two middle-schools in Minnesota, USA during a two-week programme where she was invited as a visiting poet.

For the last two weeks, Njeri was the visiting poet at Oak-land and Stillwater Middle schools where she shared about her journey into discovering poetry, writing, becoming a spoken word poet as well as about her culture, her continent and country to 5th & 6th graders, most of whom had never heard of Kenya before studying her works.

The genesis of Njeri’s visit dates back to two years ago when her poem ‘Words and Guns’ which she had published on her blog www.kenyanpoet.com piqued the interest of Dr Jim Hainlen – a volunteer poetry teacher at Stillwater Middle school. He requested permission to study the poem with his class 5th & 6th Graders. The poem was studied again in the 2018 class in which Njeri, through a Skype call was able to tune in to the debate session prompted by the poem on which yields more power; guns or words.

Dr Hainlen approached the two principals at Oak-land middle school and Stillwater Middle school; Andrew Fields and Eric Vanscoy with the idea of having a visiting poet which he believed would have a great impact on the students as most had been studying Njeri’s work.

“Being able to bring a living poet who, despite having come from Africa was speaking on issues relatable to our everyday reality was a great opportunity which I felt would have a great and lasting impact on the students, her being there in person, to speak about their work and hear the student’s interpretation of her work would be a rare privilege and experience for them,” said Dr Hainlen.

Njeri’s hope as she started the two-week program was that she would change the perception of the young students who admitted at the onset that they found poetry boring and un-relatable. They had never even considered that they could appreciate it or even enjoy writing and performing it. Her mission was to work with the students for them to realize the power and beauty of words in self-expression.

The two-week teaching experience culminated in an evening of poetry reading & performance by 22 of the students who wrote and read their own poems. Njeri performed her three studied poems from her collection as well as a new one she had written during her visit; an ode to Prince – the celebrated award-winning musician who is a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The students studied literary tools such as metaphor, alliteration, simile, rhyme and rhythm as they debated and reinterpreted poems such as ‘When Change comes’, My Hair, Fire she Said and ‘My Spoken Words’ from Njeri’s first collection; Mines and Mind Fields, my spoken words and the poem ‘Words and Guns’ from her upcoming second poetry book.

“I had a wonderful time teaching, talking & sharing the beauty of words and power of poetry with all your students in what was for me, a time to have my work taken apart. To bear witness to how each student interpreted the words to their world was one of the most joyous moments of life as a poet. Njeri said upon her return to Kenya last week.

The Oak-land Principal, Andrew Fields had this to say following Njeri’s one-week teaching stay

“We loved having you in our building and working with our students. You exceeded my expectations! We will need to think of how to partner with you again!” said Andy Fields, Principal, Oak-Land MiddleSchool, Stillwater, Minnesota

The project to have a visiting poet teach was the first of its kind for the two schools and was sponsored by the Partnership Plan, a nonprofit that funds extra programmes in Stillwater Area Schools.

Njeri stayed at the home of Mary Wangui Ries & Darin Ries. Their daughter Makena Ries had been in Dr Hainlen’s 2018 class. It is during the class Skype session, that Mary and Njeri got to meet. Mary was instrumental in making Njeri’s travel and stay smooth.

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Having lived in the US for over 20 years, she welcomed Njeri into her home with open arms treating her like her own daughter. Njeri described her stay at the Ries’ residence as a home away from home during the school poetry performance evening as she gave some remarks.

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