Ruth Smith was recently named the Barclays Inspirational Woman of the Year for her work with children in Africa. She tells David Edbrooke about how education can change lives – as well as attitudes towards women.
When most mothers attend parents’ evenings in Britain, the worst they can expect to be told is that their beloved offspring needs to buck up their ideas to pass their exams.
Contrast that with the message teacher Ruth Smith was recently forced to impart to a group of mothers at a school in the town of Malindi, Kenya – that they must ensure their young daughters adhere to a strict evening curfew to guard against the risk of being raped.
‘There’s no electricity in the villages surrounding Malindi and when it gets dark it’s not unusual for girls to get raped by gangs of village boys and men,’ says Ruth (67), who lives in St Peter with her partner of two years, David.
‘So my message to the parents when we had a parents’ meeting the other week was that you must get your girls inside before it’s dark because there are no street lights in these villages.’
Kenya’s severe HIV epidemic only exacerbates the danger.
‘Some of the children at St Clement’s School in Malindi are HIV positive,’ explains Ruth, who was named the Barclays Inspirational Woman of the Year earlier this month for the work she has done to promote children’s education in Kenya.
‘They are on medicines, but they also need good nutrition and that’s one of the reasons why I want to get a lunch programme for the children firmly established.’
The likelihood of Ruth achieving this is high. A mother of two grown-up daughters who has lived in Jersey for 45 years, she has already achieved a number of notable successes in progressing educational opportunities for Kenyan children.
Her African odyssey began in 2014, five years after her husband of 36 years, Peter, passed away.
She took a gap year to go travelling and six months into her globe-trotting adventure, Ruth embarked on a voluntary teaching project in Malindi, Kenya. There, the rector of St Clement’s Parish, the Reverend Canon David Shaw, had built a small church and a school – also called St Clement’s – with the help of Jersey Overseas Aid.
Within the first week she had rekindled a defunct scheme to provide porridge breakfasts for the children.
‘Two days after getting to the school I noticed the children became very lethargic by 9 am. I thought it was the heat but then one of the teachers said, “they probably haven’t had anything to eat for two days”.
‘So I emailed Rev Shaw and told him that although you’ve got wonderful teachers and buildings out here, the children can’t learn because they are running on empty.
‘He managed to secure funds from generous Jersey donors and I got new breakfast equipment and recruited a cook. Within five days of my arrival at the school, we had the porridge going again for all the children.’
Although the parents of pupils at the school only had to pay a nominal fee for their kids’ education, Ruth quickly expanded a sponsorship scheme that was already in existence, to enable the poorest families to send their children there.
‘We managed to grow it from 50 children to 165 with the help of Jersey donors and UK residents. The sponsorship scheme pays the children’s school fees and the parents pay for their uniform and books.’
She also raised the money to build two new houses for families living in shacks, and embarked on a number of agricultural projects.
‘Howard Davis Farm Trust gave me £7,000 to put up additional rain water collection tanks at the school so we could start to grow mangos, maize and banana trees, and the Jersey Scouts funded a new kitchen for the school.’
Ruth even managed to return two children to the school who had been forced to fend for themselves, after their father had walked out on the family.
‘I found these children on a farm and they were wearing old uniforms. The boy was ten and minding cattle, his sister was eight and she was looking after toddlers – they did these jobs for just a few shillings.
‘I said to them, “would you like to come back to school if I can get you sponsored”. The boy replied, “oh, yes please” and his sister Habiba didn’t speak – just one great big tear rolled down her face. ‘Fortunately, within two days I’d got sponsors for them in Jersey and got them back into school.’
During her time in Malindi, Ruth noticed that a vast number of the local children could not fit into the overcrowded government primary schools or afford to attend them because of hidden fees.
Once St Clement’s School became full, she decided to set up her own self-funded school – Malindi Bright Future Academy – as an additional facility to enable even more Kenyan children to enjoy an education.
‘At the big government-run schools they still have to buy books, uniform, food, pay a registration fee and the head teachers charge the pupils things like “desk fees”,’ explains Ruth.
‘And because St Clement’s School had become full by 2015, I set up MBFA. It is my own school and I fund that privately, but my main charity work is still focused on St Clement’s.’
Ruth regularly returns to Malindi to help out at St Clement’s School and her own. She admits it can be difficult to undertake voluntary work in a country where the majority of women are seen as subordinate by men.
‘I overheard a meeting of men in a village near Malindi recently and they were talking about whether it was better to slap a woman or hit her with a stick.’
She lets out an incredulous gasp.
‘I thought, “this is a joke”. I actually asked them, “Is this a joke?” and they said “No”. But they are the uneducated village guys whereas if you interviewed men who work in banks in Malindi they would not share that view.
‘Hopefully the next generation of boys at St Clement’s and my own school are seeing girls as their equals because all the children get social education lessons and they are taught about the importance of equality.’
Across the world, women have been fighting back against a tide of sexual abuse in all its forms. The #MeToo campaign, which has been spreading virally on social media since October 2017, was created to encourage females to speak up against instances of sexual violence and harassment, from the bedroom to the boardroom.
‘I think there is an issue worldwide with sexual violence and women should be able to speak up,’ adds Ruth.
‘People can do whatever they like, as long as it doesn’t affect somebody else. As soon as it starts affecting someone, it’s wrong and it has to stop – whether that’s in the workplace where somebody might be verbally bullying a work colleague, or in a Kenyan village where boys and men think it’s acceptable to rape a young girl.’
In the western world, stories of inequality in pay between genders have also been making the headlines in recent times. In the UK, all companies with more than 250 employees are obliged to report any disparities in pay between the genders by 4 April.
And in the United States, the New York Times recently ran an article stating that ‘the gender pay gap is largely because of motherhood’.
However, Ruth rubbishes any suggestion that women generally work less once they have children.
‘I spent years working from 9 pm until 11 pm because I had to come out of school early – at 3.30 pm – to collect my children. In my experience, women who have children don’t take loads of time off. Most people get back to work before their baby is a year old and in the big scheme of things, [maternity leave] shouldn’t matter. Women, like men, have got very long working lives and that window we take for having children is comparatively small.’
Ruth is adamant there is plenty still to do to bring about true equality in the workplace.
‘There’s still a long way to go in terms of achieving equality in employment – there’s a glass ceiling.
‘And I think when women are at work they still have to pretend they haven’t got children and when they’re at home they have to pretend they are not at work.
‘When my children were small it felt like I had to justify picking them up from school.
‘Later on when they were older, I would stay much later at work and I wondered if I was neglecting my family at home. There are still not that many women in board rooms and I think it’s a practical issue of having to work long hours and travel – people who are in high-end positions often have to go away quite a bit for work.’
Ruth is no stranger to broadening the mind through travel. Well before she ever set foot in Kenya, she spent an eye-opening nine months in Canada as part of her four-year undergraduate degree.
‘I’d actually got a place at Durham to read English in the late 1960s and when I told my father I was going to Bath University to read psychology and sociology he remarked, “You’ll never get employment”,’ admits Ruth, who was born and brought up in Yorkshire.
‘He thought I would end up being a “ban the bomb”, flower-power marcher.’
Trusting her own intuition, Ruth headed to Bath, and when the time came to journey to Canada on her placement, she found herself helping girls from difficult backgrounds pursue the right path.
‘I spent some time working at a young offenders’ centre and then I worked at a girls’ group home, where the girls were basically on parole.’
While in Canada, she led five teenage tearaways on an outward-bound expedition in the mountainous, bear-ridden Haliburton Highlands in Ontario.
‘The ladies who ran the group home dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, at a log cabin in the Haliburton Highlands with these five teenage girls who were quite challenging.
‘They had been caught for shoplifting and things like that, but they had come from terrible homes and had run away. The ladies said, “Right, we’ll see you all in five weeks”.
‘I was only 22 and I thought, “oh my goodness” because these girls were really hard nuts – they’d been living in warehouses in cities and getting food out of rubbish bins.
‘But it turned out to be the most amazing experience. We had to swim in the lake, light oil lamps at night, walk four miles to get to the nearest shop and generally commune with nature. That brought them back to being children again and we’d sit around the little camp fire every night and they’d tell their stories.
‘I had thought I would probably have a career in HR, but this experience changed my viewpoint and made me want to work with young people with problems.’
After graduating, in 1973 Ruth secured a job in Jersey as a full-time youth worker at the Hermitage Club, a youth club affiliated to St Helier Boys School.
‘I was quite surprised to find that there were some very poor children in Jersey with some challenging lives. I put on theatre shows with them because I was big into singing and drama, and took the children on camping weekends.’
After becoming a full-time teacher at the school, she took on a position at the Secondary Tutorial Unit – the forerunner to Greenfields.
‘It was for children of secondary age who were seen as unteachable – a unit for disruptive pupils,’ explains Ruth, who was chairwoman of the Jersey Dyslexia Association for ten years.
‘It was at the STU where I started on the road to teaching dyslexic pupils after school. I remember testing these children and half of them couldn’t read and yet they were very intelligent and bright in other ways. I thought, “I’d be disruptive too if I couldn’t read”.’
After lecturing in psychology at Highlands College, she worked at Victoria College as an English teacher before moving to Grainville, where she spent 19 years as a special needs teacher and became the head of upper school.
Ruth, who has also taught at Victoria College and St Michael’s, ran Gorey Youth Club for the Jersey Youth Service for several years and headed up Trinity Youth Club during the 1990s in a voluntary capacity.
She currently works as a private teacher, giving children who require additional support – including those with dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – after-school lessons.
‘My big mission is to give to the kids, including those in Kenya, self-belief – if you can get both girls and boys fully believing in themselves, then they can achieve anything they want.’