School environment and school development
Nairobi Waldorf School is located in the well-situated Karen district. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is on the one hand marked by the extremes of the glittering facades of the 'global players' and by the largest African slum on the other. The school was founded by German immigrants. Today, it takes in children from predominantly prosperous families from all continents: members of the four main world religions, various cultures and Kenyan tribes. The Waldorf teachers nowadays are all native Kenyans. Compared to Europe, they live - like the teachers of Kusi Kawsay, Peru - in very modest circumstances.
After the foundation of Nairobi Waldorf School, the traditional Christian-European Waldorf annual festivals were celebrated for a number of years. These had little or no correlation with local geographic and climatic conditions. As time went by, the multicultural and multi-religious parents of the school asked for festivals that would meet these different cultural and seasonal circumstances. As a result, a search began for new forms of festivals. This search took place in separate ways in school and kindergarten and led to different results.
Example of an annual festival: The Festival of Light
The Festival of Light is a festival celebrated both in school and kindergarten. There was a growing awareness of the school´s mixture of children from all continents. In search for an element which would connect the most important festivals of the four world religions – and to which atheists would also have access - the metaphor 'Light' emerged as an essential element of the main annual festivals of the four world religions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. Thus `Light´ is now celebrated - every year in a different way - as the principal motive of this festival, with a storyline that makes it possible to metaphorically experience the transformation of a "dark" element into light through integrated scenic and artistic contributions by each class. In the celebrations of the Festivals of Light there are always elements of each of those four world religions present. This festival of "togetherness", as a teacher put it, is celebrated in early December.
Other festivals in the school
The two other most important festivals in school life have been created by a process of transformation of the Easter and Michaelmas Christian festivals.
All the classes and teachers as well as the entire staff of the school participate in the Easter Brunch. In the week leading up to the celebration, the school community implements child-friendly fasting. The money thus saved in the school kitchen is donated to a refugee project connected to the school. On the day of the Easter brunch, each class takes lovingly prepared dishes for another class to school. They then decorate a table for their allocated class and the teachers. The kitchen staff also contribute to a lovingly set table in the large community tent, - cafeteria and celebration hall at the same time. Renouncing and sharing, caring for others and celebrating a meal, these are universally transformed Easter motives and members of every culture and religion, even atheists, can fill this festival with meaning and joy. Following a process of transformation, the school´s numerous cleaners and cooks, the caretakers and guards are now also invited to the festival.
In the Festival of Courage the famous Waldorf Michaelmas motives are very present. All over the school grounds, a lot of really challenging tests of courage are installed. The children experience how each year they master ever more difficult tests of courage, which they were still afraid of the year before. Thus, they experience their individual growth and mental maturation which, from year to year, engenders a growing, healthy self-confidence.
Development of festivals in the kindergarten
In the kindergarten, the developmental process was more subconscious, as the kindergarten teachers were actually satisfied with their European-oriented festivals. An Australian Waldorf mentor initiated the process, which began with a long intensive period of nature observation through all seasons and with a corresponding diary of every kindergarten teacher. These observations were exchanged weekly in the conference. This long, unconstrained, open-minded observation of nature and the environment went on for two years. Only then did the mentor raise the question as to whether or not these observations could be taken as a starting point for a reorganization of the annual festivals in which the children could experience a more direct connection with local nature. Could they for example find a motive which would allow the children to have something like an Easter experience? This was the starting point for a personal experience which a kindergarten teacher describes as "It was like a kind of magic, it just jumped out ..." She had grown up with the natural phenomena, but only the process of conscious observation and formulation, as well as the mentor´s subsequent question brought to consciousness a prominent motive of this season and region: in April, after the extreme, hostile summer heat and drought, the rain comes to Nairobi. The sun hides behind the clouds. But whenever it comes up, countless rainbows appear in the sky. The relief of the rains was described as a kind of resurrection, and the motive which the children could relate to directly was the rainbows. This is how the colourful and cheerful Rainbow Festival was created.
The annual festival of the Nairobi Waldorf School Kindergartens
Festival of Light: is celebrated similarly than in school but adapted for toddlers
Rainbow Festival: (see above)
Lantern Festival: Celebrated in June. It is winter in Nairobi and cold and grey outside. It is celebrated in the same way as the European lantern festivals in honour of St Martin, one week before the Shambani Festival.
Shambani Festival (Kiswahili for garden): Celebrated in the grey-cool deep winter, in July, at the end of the long rainy season. The gardens are overflowing with fruit and vegetables. The festival is a harvest festival in a double sense. On the first day, the school children are seen off with a spiral of candles and with verses. They take, so to speak, their light and skills, to let them shine in a new place. On the following day, the garden is harvested and the vegetables are processed to a common meal.
Flower Festival: Celebrated in October (spring) at the beginning of the short rainy season (Nairobi has a short and a long rainy season). The cold greys of winter are past, birds are chirping and the flowers begin to bloom in great abundance. The flowers of the Jacaranda trees form a delicate purple sea of colour on the trees themselves and on the school grounds. The festival is celebrated in the classrooms with baking and handicrafts (all related to flowers, birds and insects) and outdoors with dancing and floral wreaths.
"Togetherness" and "Interconnectedness"
A teacher sees "togetherness" as a major motive for the transformation of the traditional Waldorf School festivals in Nairobi Waldorf School. She describes the efforts of the school community to involve all families with their diverse multicultural and multi-religious backgrounds. I was able to experience this feeling of community in the celebration of the Festival of Light.
What is meant by "interconnectedness" can only be indicated tentatively. In the sense used here, it points to the connectedness with the surrounding nature which developed through the kindergarten teachers´ process of nature observation which had remained subconscious until then. The implementation into festive themes enables the children in the kindergarten to find an appropriate connection with the surrounding nature. This had not been possible with the traditional European-oriented annual festivals.
The kindergarten teacher describes the quality of the Rainbow Festival as a comprehensive, holistic connection with almost spiritual character. The concept of colour enables a metaphorical sense of connectedness that embraces the whole colourful school community. In addition, everybody can experience this feeling of connectedness, so she says. It possibly can even include an individual experience of a divine, but it does not have to. The latter was important to the teacher, so that atheists could also identify with the festival.
Sticking wings on a caterpillar and calling it a butterfly?
I refer to the picture of Neil Boland (1), New Zealand, who is concerned with questions about the Eurocentrism of the Waldorf curriculum and how to overcome it. Where can I find the metamorphosis of the festivals at the Nairobi Waldorf School?
No one will doubt the metamorphosis in the case of the "new" Waldorf annual festivals in kindergarten. But also in the school festivals, especially in the Festival of Light, a real inner transformation has taken place. In some festivals there is no need for inner transformation because the underlying motives are universal, as in the Festival of Courage. In this case, the deliberate detachment of a religiously appointed name has not produced a direct metamorphosis, but a transformation that enables a cross-cultural identification with this annual festival. And in all contemporary cultures and religions we need this courage. The caterpillar has undergone its transformation and the butterfly can fly in Nairobi.
Vera Hoffmann has been a class teacher for the past 25 years. She is currently working in Switzerland. For seven years she was the head of a small, multicultural Waldorf school in Spain. During Vera's time, the school moved away from its Middle European roots and developed into a Spanish speaking school. Vera is particularly interested in the changes within the international Waldorf movement. She is enthusiastic about developments which scrutinize traditions and habits, which are oriented towards contemporary needs and local circumstances and which explore new Waldorf pedagogical methods. In her current class there are families from twelve nationalities, four continents and three world religions. Vera tries to implement her interest in her own class on a small scale.
(1) Boland, N. (2014). Sticking wings on a caterpillar? Journal of Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner Education, 16(2).