Six years ago, Kim Eung-soo, a retired Air Force colonel, wanted to do something that would make a difference.
Teaching Korean language and culture to foreign laborers in Korea seemed like a worthwhile thing to do, so he took an intensive training course to become a Korean language lecturer. After graduation, however, he made an unusual choice ― opening a Korean language class in Nairobi, Kenya, not Seoul.
“There was no one there to teach Korean but Kenyan people wanted someone to be there. And I decided to go, alone,” Kim said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.
None of his family and colleagues were happy about his “new job” in Kenya. But he didn’t look back.
This file photo shows Kim Eung-soo (center), a retired Air Force colonel, and his students at Sejong Institute in Nairobi.(The International Korean Language Foundation)
“Children don’t have proper shoes to wear and are dressed poor just like I was when I was young. But when I look into their bright, shining eyes, I become the happiest man in the world,“ said the teacher, who is now 66.
With the help of Korean residents in Nairobi, Kim started to teach Korean language, starting with eight students in 2008 and six months later, 15.
The number of students quickly rose. But Kim had difficulties raising fund from Korean companies stationed in the city because they were also suffering from economic crisis.
Kim thought he would have to close his classes, but just then the Korean government’s Sejong Hakdang project that reached him there.
“In 2011, I established Sejong Institute in Nairobi and the number of students grew even more. We now have 100 in total, consisting of children who dream of going to Korea to study and also some others who want to work for Korean companies here,” Kim said.
Kim, who was a fighter pilot for 27 years, runs the institute by himself. But with kids growing learning Korean and becoming more interested in Korean culture, he has no thoughts of quitting.
“You can never imagine how much effort kids put in to learn Korean. It really touches my heart.”
Kenyans in general are not familiar with Korean culture. But the Sejong kids in Nairobi are in love with K-pop and dramas.
“They are interested in Korean epic drama ‘Jumong’ and ‘Winter Sonata’ and know much more about K-pop than me. … And they really like to eat Korean food,” he said.
Some of the graduates from Kim’s classes grabbed an unexpected educational opportunity in Korea. Ten students received full scholarships from Korean universities while another eight are attending a vocational school run by the Seoul City government.
There are many things that Kim wants to teach kids about his country’s culture such as gayageum, a traditional music instrument. But it is not easy to do, he said
“It is really difficult to teach students about Korean traditional culture without the instrument. I wish someone could help us with that.”
By Cho Chung-un (email@example.com