Director and Teacher-in-Residence, Amka Afrika School
2013 Alumni Achievement Award Winner
It was only after Ann McConachie '71 wound her way through the rugged,
crimson walls of the Grand Canyon via the rocky waters of the Colorado River that she began to ask herself, "What's next?" Back of her lay not only the canyons made by patience and force, but also trips to China and Egypt, in addition to more than 35 years teaching in an elementary school, where she worked with students with learning disabilities in a regular classroom setting. But after all of this, McConachie still wondered whether there was more.
Fast-forward to March 2011, when McConachie went on a safari in Tanzania. As a part of the trip, her tour group visited a newly established primary school called Amka Afrika (which means "Wake Up Africa" in Swahili), but this school didn't look much at all like the schools McConachie had known back home.
"The school consisted of two dirt-floored rooms with no windows or door," said McConachie. "There were no books, art supplies, puzzles, science equipment, maps and globes, gym equipment, or other typical school supplies."
But things were about to change. A discussion with the owner and developer of Amka School inspired McConachie to come back to the U.S. in order to form the Amka Afrika School Foundation, which, in a matter of months, not only donated furniture and supplies but also remodeled the school building, adding features like new toilets and a rainwater tank. McConachie spent most of 2012 teaching at the school herself -- along with Knox students Hannah Black '14 and Max Pottoff '14 -- and in February 2013, she returned to continue her work with the Amka School.
"As a director and teacher in residence, I can make a difference," she said.
Knox Magazine: Describe your Knox experience.
Ann McConachie: In 1967, Knox took a chance on me. I was admitted to the college and in the fall moved into Whiting Hall. Several times during the next four years I came dangerously close to squandering that chance as I struggled academically but had an incredibly good time socially. Some of the highlights: being freed from having "hours" at Whiting Hall by an Abe Lincoln lookalike; being a freshman counselor and lobbying for equal pay for men and women counselors; forming Gamma Rho, a local sorority that admitted anyone who expressed the desire to join; and watching the campus go through the pangs of the 60s without the danger of being teargased or shot. Knox was a place to try your wings in countless ways.
KM: How has that experience affected your life?
AM: First and foremost, Knox helped me achieve my goal of becoming a teacher. Without giving me the chance to come and try and struggle and try again, I would have missed the opportunity to do what I was born to do. The people I met at Knox, faculty and friends, are the other great gift I received from the college.
KM: What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
AM: I am so proud of my twin daughters, Sarah and Megan, now 28 and outstanding young women. My work at Amka School has recently consumed my life and filled it with challenges and wonder. Plus, I have been having so much fun there! However, I really feel that the 35 years of teaching kids who were at risk for school failure is my most notable achievement. All these endeavors have allowed me to touch the future.
KM: What will you do to celebrate your Alumni Achievement Award?
AM: Whatever I do, I'm sure it will include champagne. Being honored by Knox College feels like the wind at my back as I return to Amka. I hope to welcome others, perhaps more Knox students and also retired teachers who can share their talents with the students and staff at the school. I would like to go on another safari, to travel north from Amka up the Great Rift Valley to Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti National Parks and see again the amazing animals of Tanzania.
KM: What words of advice would you offer to current Knox students?
AM: In the 21st century, you never know where you are going to wind up or what you are going to be doing. Be ready for surprises! Then, refusing to give up and being willing to try again and again are life skills that can lead to succeeding at whatever you decide to do.