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Kenya-born engineer tells students of his homeland ANNE ARUNDEL EDUCATION


Fred Ateto wants county students to know that life here isn't all that different from life in Kenya.

There are schools, hospitals, clinics, middle-class towns, markets, cities and slums, just like in the United States. There's even a branch of the Lions Club -- and he isn't talking about wild animals.

"They could just pick up a book and read about Kenya," said Mr. Ateto, who came to the United States from Kenya in 1962 when the Unitarian Universalist Church guaranteed him a high school education. "But it's good for kids to hear first-hand about it, and to see that the world is full of all kinds of different people."

Mr. Ateto stayed in America after he graduated from high school in Pennsylvania, and attended Widener University on scholarships. Later, he brought his brothers to America so they, too, could get a good education. Eventually, he moved to Maryland.

"My father was a railroad engineer, and before they had diesel trains there were steam locomotives," said Mr. Ateto, an engineer with the county Department of Public Works who lives in Glen Burnie. "He always said, 'I never want my child to do this kind of work,' because he had seen people burned to death by the steam in train accidents. In Kenya, parents put a lot of emphasis on school."

He lets the students judge life in Kenya for themselves as he shows them slides of life in villages, towns and cities, and passes around samples of Kenyan currency, art work, native dress and other items.

"There's a hospital," he says, pointing toward a slide now on the screen. "There's no difference between this and North Arundel Hospital. And these houses in the towns, they look just like the ones around here."

Life in a town, he says, "is more the same as here. You get a job, you get paid, you go the Giant, or to a movie for entertainment."

His visits to George Fox Middle School started with a request from his friend Karen Muir, a geography teacher who also is a member of his church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Anne Arundel County.

That was nine years ago. Each year since then he has taken a vacation day to visit the students and talk about his homeland.

"When you say geography, everybody thinks of maps and places, but it's really about people and how they live," Mrs. Muir said. "The students also have a lot of stereotypes -- that the land is all jungle, and there are no cities and people are either very rich or very poor. I think it's better for them to get information from someone who can tell about Kenya from the perspective of having grown up there and who has been back to visit since living here."

Mr. Ateto keeps coming back because he believes his visits make an impression. "Some of the kids I spoke to the first time I came here are now in college or grown up," said Mr. Ateto. "I think there are some things that remain with you for a long time, and I think meeting someone from another country and talking about it is one of them."

Friday's session was certainly an eye-opener for students in classes taught by Mrs. Muir, Kathy Naseth and Manny SanGabino.

"I thought everyone would wear brightly-colored clothes; they're clothes are much duller than I thought they would be," said Debbie Morris, 12. "And I thought all the schools would look like George Fox."

They don't.

Jessica Keeler, 12, said she wasn't even sure children in Kenya attended schools unless they lived in a town or city -- even students in villages get some schooling.

And Chris Hettinger, 12, was surprised by the architecture in cities such as Nairobi, where some buildings are constructed in a circular shape.

But they would have been shocked to hear about the classes Mr. Ateto attended as a youth in Kenya. He said American students get away with much more than he ever did as a student.

"In Kenya, they give you speed tests. One hundred problems. And for every one you get wrong, you get caned," he said. "And when you get home, Dad wants to look at what you've done, and if you've done bad, guess what? You get caned."

The discipline is aimed at instilling the importance of a good education, he said. "When I was living there, school was not mandatory, and you had to pay to go," he recalled, explaining that schooling through eighth grade is now available for free. "You can see the point, if I'm paying $200 for you to go to school and you're goofing around, I'm going to be upset. Parents want you to get a good education and have a good job, not the same kind of job your father has."

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