Dr. Marjorie Mambo never wanted to be a teacher.
She wanted to be a veterinarian or medical artist. She thought she was too quiet to be a good teacher.
Her thousands of students, in Pennsylvania and Africa, are glad she changed her mind.
“I always loved art,” Mambo says, “but I didn't know that I was eventually going to major in it.”
Mambo is now a professor of art at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her journey to becoming a tenured professor has taken her much farther than she ever envisioned from her hometown of Olean, N.Y.
She has taught since she graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University. Yet, the memories of her journey, and especially the students who took part in it, are forever ingrained in her mind.
“Some of those have been wonderful and very inspiring for me,” Mambo says.
After college graduation, Mambo was unsure about her plans until she met her future husband, Dr. Robert Makonde Mambo, an international student from Kenya. Soon after this meeting, she was in Kenya with her husband, teaching art at three schools.
She had no teaching certification, but there was no doubt she loved her students. They loved her in return.
“By that time,” Mambo says, “teaching was really my calling.”
Mambo taught at Kenya High School and Ngara, a secondary level girls boarding school. Kenya High School was originally a school for European girls and followed the strict British education system, says Mambo. It was a private school which Mambo described as Eden.
According to Mambo, the living environment at Ngara was Spartan. The girls slept on cots above concrete floors. The ceilings were wrought iron. There was no janitor. Mambo says the girls spent Saturdays cleaning the dorms under teacher supervision.
“They would compete for the cleaning,” Mambo says, “and someone would give them a prize for the week.”
The girls were fed cabbage and rice and didn't complain.
“Even that food was more than they would get at home,” Mambo says. “They were very poor, but they didn't feel poor.”
Meat was a delicacy. Tea was a treat that kept them excited through the busy classwork. Bread and butter, or “ubandarized bread,” was consumed with glee at break time. Any break from the ordinary was utopian.
Mambo took the girls, along with another professor, to Mombasa to perform a play about Noah's ark. They made masks and even took a prop tree with them in a truck.
“The girls stood up in that truck the whole way – 150 miles in the hot sun – singing the whole way. They were very strong and very tough.”
Soon the joyful chorus would be drowned out by shouts of anger and screams of fear. When Mambo taught at Kenyatta University, political strife was rampant across Kenya. According to Mambo, a political candidate was murdered by the government and the pristine mountain landscape of Ngara had morphed into a raucous backdrop for impassioned riots. Even in this chaos, the love between students and teacher was evident.
One of her students was a hunchback after suffering childhood tuberculosis. He crossed the campus to Mambo's office, where she was alone.
“He told me to get my car out of there, and to get out of there because students were going to burn cars,” Mambo said. “That just touched me so much because he was so caring to do that.”
Mambo's teaching experiences in Kenya were a dichotomy between joy and pain. Yet throughout, her enduring desire was for the success of her students.
In Kenya, Mambo was hospitalized following a tubal pregnancy. This condition occurs when a fetus is implanted in the fallopian tubes. A tubal pregnancy is known to be risky and painful, and Mambo nearly died.
Yet, in recalling this event, she didn't recount the pain. She recalled that she was so happy to see a former student working in the hospital.
“It was just wonderful to see that she had succeeded.” Mambo says.
Both of Mambo's daughters, Anita Kadama and Melanie Kakala, were named after their Kenyan grandmothers. The grandmother Kakala received her name to fool the gods. She was born sickly, and no one thought she would live. Her name means, “the one who will not live.” The name was meant to serve as a ploy to prevent the gods from taking her mortal soul too soon. It worked.
Mambo always wanted to have many children.
“You have to have a lot of children,” says Mambo, “because some of them might not make it.”
Mambo gave birth to four children. Only two are still living. One child, a son, died recently after suffering from schizophrenia. Her daughter died at age 5 and never grew larger than a baby.
“That was very hard,” Mambo says.
But Mambo never quit teaching. Back in Pennsylvania, she taught art at the University School, a former private institution at IUP for children grades one through six. She also taught college classes at IUP, and was thrilled to teach her daughters. Her teaching methods for young students were revolutionary. Students had nearly free reign to use their creative power.
“The only trouble I had was getting the little ones to understand that they had to make art,” Mambo says.“They couldn't just make a house for their hamster in the sculpture center or a blanket for their Barbie.”
She had nine stations for students to form art with different mediums, and only two rules.
“I said that there could be no more than three at a center, and that they had to finish something,” Mambo says. “Otherwise, they'd run all over and do another thing.”
Now, a full-time professor at IUP, she uses similar methods to guide the college students to success and creativity. One of her students, Nicole Sozynski, says that Mambo's teaching approach is to act as a guide.
“Other teachers do a direct approach,” Sozynski says. “She tries to get us more involved so that we can come to the conclusions on our own.”
Her students love her, and she loves them. Only a few feet from her office, she keeps one eye constantly on her door, just in case her students need her. Passing students smile and wave, seeking her out whenever in the vicinity.
“Dr. Mambo's warmth, kindness and generosity are irreplaceable,” says Irene Kabala, Mambo's friend and fellow professor. “Coupled with her kindness is a strong determination to get things done, which makes her contributions to department committees invaluable. She devotes herself to ensuring that students succeed.”
Her love for her students surpasses any other concerns. It is strong enough that her student, crippled but motivated, would risk his life to assure her safety. It is strong enough that Mambo, while lying on the bed which nearly became a death bed, would take the time to appreciate the success of a student.
Mambo always wanted to have many children. She does. She has thousands across New York, Pennsylvania and Kenya.