A Passion for Carpentry
Francis Shikwa Ambani from Kenya has a turbulent history. Thanks to the Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM for Vocationally Qualified People, the carpenter did a two-month training in Karlsruhe, Germany. He now passes on his experience to his trainees in Kenya.
Even when Francis Shikwa Ambani is riding his motorcycle, the Kenyan always has a pen stuck in his short dreadlocks – and a yardstick in the side pocket of his work trousers. It's like the 24-year-old carpenter can't wait to get back to work. Now, at mid-morning, Ambani and eight teenagers are standing around a workbench in Karai Children's Vocational Centre, a home for orphans and street kids in Kikuyu, a small town approximately 20 km away from the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Attached to the home are an elementary school and a vocational training centre, which also offers a training programme for carpenters. With alert eyes, Ambani watches “his” trainees. Right now, he's describing the task for this morning: ‘You are to establish a simple connection between two pieces of wood’, he explains to his protégés in the national language, Kiswahili. ‘Just put together two short pieces of wood to create a cross.’ In order to give the trainees a better idea of the task, he hands out a sheet of paper that pictures the individual work steps. The accompanying text is written in German – Ambani brought the task sheet from Karlsruhe at the end of 2018. Thanks to the Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM for Vocationally Qualified People, he was able to do a two-month training at Heinrich Hübsch Vocational School in Karlsruhe. ‘What we're doing today was my first ever task in Karlsruhe’, he explains. He couldn't read the German instruction, but his trainer, Peter Winklhofer, patiently translated this and other texts into English for him. It is obvious that Ambani is immensely grateful to Peter Winklhofer, whom he has known for many years. ‘He is like a father to me’, the young carpenter says.
A Difficult Start into Life
The implications of this sentence only become evident when you know the history of Ambani. He grew up in the very same home where he now works as a carpenter and trains young people – not yet as workshop manager or certified vocational teacher, but as an experienced carpenter who frequently helps out with the practical training. He has no memory of his biological father. His mother was frequently drunk and obviously unable to cope with life – she didn't care for Francis and his older brother. ‘Eventually I ran away and did my own thing’, he recounts soberly. He was only four or five years old then. What followed were years on the street, back then still in Eldoret, a town in the West of Kenya. Francis stole and begged for food, but he was ‘always hungry’. In order to forget the hunger and all the rest, he sniffed glue. He once almost didn't survive the consequences of the hunger: When he snatched a corn cob from someone's barbecue, he was caught, and the mob chased after him – lynchings, even of children, are prevalent in Kenya. ‘They almost beat me to death’, says Francis, who was six or seven years old at the time, he doesn't know exactly. However, he remembers the fear of death very well. While the mob was beating him, he thought that his chances of survival were 50%. To demonstrate the seriousness of the incident, he spreads the hair at the back of his head a little so a scar becomes visible: One of his pursuers hacked at him with a machete and hit his head.
But Francis was lucky: A police officer intervened, rescued him from the mob – and put him into jail. He had to share a cell with a group of other boys for a year. The children received no care, let alone school lessons. After about one year, the boys had a visit in jail: Employees of a children's home in Eldoret had some free places. Francis was among the chosen ones, but he was anything but grateful for the soft bed and the regular meals in his new home at first. ‘I wasn't used to all that’, he says. ‘After one week I wanted to run away’. During the first weeks, he tried to escape several times, but was always caught and brought back – until he gave up. ‘From then on I thought: “I'm here anyway, so I might as well pay attention and learn something”'.
From Street Child to Mentor
That was the turning point. After primary school, which comprises eight years in Kenya, Francis decided to start a vocational training. His grades weren't good enough for secondary school. Of the subjects offered at Karai Vocational Centre, he was most interested in carpentry. Apparently, he has really found his vocation. While standing between the young people whom he wants to teach this morning, he appears much older than his 24 years, very mature and responsible. When one of the trainees is stuck, Ambani explains patiently and with a very warm gaze how to solve the problem. ‘He always stays kind, and often he's funny’, says the 22-year-old Jared Amusavi, who started his training only a couple of weeks ago. ‘He is my mentor; I pick up a lot from him’. That also means handling tools and machines carefully – this was emphasised during Ambani's two-month training in Karlsruhe, which he was able to do thanks to the Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM. The contact to Heinrich Hübsch Vocational School in Karlsruhe had been established in 2015 when Peter Winklhofer came to Kenya for two months to teach the carpentry course at Karai Children's Vocational Centre. Francis was told about the possibility to apply for a scholarship by Sarah Müller from Germany, who teaches tailoring at Karai Vocational Centre and is a Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM alumna herself.
The carpentry workshop is clean; all the tools hang at their spots or are neatly placed in drawers. Ambani also keeps an eye on the valuable machine tools; he cleans and grinds them so they last for as long as possible. When he has a problem that he can't solve himself, he calls his mentor Peter Winklhofer in Karlsruhe. ‘He always finds a solution’. Meanwhile, the first trainees have completed their task. Ambani looks at the results and offers suggestions here and there. The teenagers listen to him carefully; it is obvious that they trust the older person. They also often tell him of sorrows that have nothing to do with the training. They confide in him when a teacher was strict with them, when they are despondent, when they have financial problems. Many of them live in the home and have a similar life story. Since they sense that Francis didn't have an easy life either, they take his advice seriously. But Francis demands quite a lot from his trainees. ‘I tell them again and again to try hard and no to give up’, he says. ‘I tell them that it's up to them what they do with their lives. Everybody's got their future in their hands and their brains’. While he's talking with the trainees, Ambani appears to be relaxed and content. ‘I've come a long way’, he confirms. ‘And I'm happy about that’. However, that's not a reason to be satisfied with what he has achieved up to now. ‘My dream is to have my own workshop’. Then he wants to train even more trainees and pass on his knowledge and his confidence.
Report: Bettina Rühl. Photos: Kevin Ouma.
Published in: Perspektive 01/2019. Find this article and more at https://perspektive-bw.de/
The Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM for Vocationally Qualified People offers exciting insights into the manner of working, business structures and management concepts of related industries in the Southwest of Germany. It is aimed at young vocationally qualified people who have completed non-academic professional training for which they received an outstanding grade. Based on the principle of reciprocity, the Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM for Vocationally Qualified People is designed to enable applicants from Baden-Württemberg and other countries to undertake a placement abroad in the form of work experience or further training. Not only the young vocationally qualified people profit from these experiences abroad and the newly acquired skills, but also the firms in the scholarship holders' own countries.