Why Kenyan teacher chose to break world record for longest science lesson

Friday February 16 2024

The timer reading 50 hours since teacher Rose Tata Wafula started teaching a science lesson at MultiMedia University in Nairobi, Kenya on February 14, 2023. PHOTO | NMG


It is 11pm on Valentine’s Day. As Kenyans share love and chemistry with their loved ones in different ways, one teacher is teaching real chemistry in a laboratory.

The lab coat-clad Rose Tata Wafula is teaching as cameras roll. The lesson is being live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook. A timer is running. 

Some of her students look like they are questioning their life choices as they appear to be fighting sleep. Spirit, willing; flesh, weak.

She is there talking about chemical reactions and bonds and whatnot. You might call Tata a killjoy or even a certain word that ends with “block” if you weren’t versed with what she is up to on this day when love is diffusing in the air and when some other bonds would be ideal.

She wants to enter the Guinness World Records for teaching a science class for the longest time.

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The timer reads 30:12:53 at 11.03pm on Valentine’s Day. That means that this marathon class which started on Wednesday has gone on for 30 hours and 12 minutes.

Her target is 50 hours.

The 50 hours are expected to end at 7pm Thursday, February 15, but they aim to hit 60 hours to compensate for the breaks.

A lot is to be covered. There are a lot of chemicals and chemical reactions to be spoken about. The periodic table to be cited. A lot of biology to be explained.

It is 10am on the day after Valentine’s. Tata finally gets to take a break and she looks ever so eager to get some rest.

Outside the laboratory is her husband Victor Wekesa Wafula who hugs her passionately and whispers some things into her ear. She looks at him lovingly as she takes the stairs down to her room. She has about 20 minutes to take a shower, eat, visit the toilet, change clothes, get a massage, get medical tests, among other things.

Every minute is precious.

Her husband doesn’t follow her there. She is under the care of Mercy Macharia, a security company director who has come to volunteer support for her friend.

We then pull Mr Wafula aside. We have a lot of questions to ask the telecommunication engineer who works with Nokia. How does he feel that this year’s Valentine’s found his wife in a lab? Is he worried his wife may collapse for attempting to be awake for four solid days? How are their children reacting to this?

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Tata, born in 1987, is a teacher at St Austin’s Academy in Lavington, an institution that offers the international curriculum. She teaches Year 7-11 classes at the institution.

Mr Wafula starts by telling us how all this started. His wife of 11 years, with whom they have three daughters, conceptualised the idea late last year and contacted Guinness World Records (GWR), the body that records extraordinary human feats.

Her first application to hold the longest chemistry class was rejected.

“Then she applied for the science lesson, in which she included chemistry, biology and physics. So, science in itself is what caused her to be approved for this attempt,” says Mr Wafula.

No one in the world holds the record for the longest science class, so it means Tata is like an athlete competing in a new race. GWR told her to hold the marathon lesson for at least 24 hours to qualify for a record. She chose to do 50.

She is allowed a five-minute break every hour. She has chosen to accumulate the hours so as to have a longer break, for instance teaching non-stop for four hours then taking a 20-minute break.

The rules require that at any given time, there should be at least 10 students in the class, actively taking part.

“The moment the number of students goes below 10, the event is declared unsuccessful immediately, whether you upload evidence later or not, because if we have to upload evidence after this — the continuous videos for them to review,” says Mr Wafula.

“They have to be awake and active and participating,” he adds. “I think our students are around 24. So, they have been going for health breaks and coming back. But at a given time, we’ve not had less than 15 in the class. That has ensured that the class continues.”

We attend the class and it emerges that Tata is a skilled teacher who knows when to throw a light-hearted word to keep her class glued.

At 8.26am on February 15, she makes the remark: “Some of you are looking at me with one eye.”

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The class bursts into laughter.

Her students are all university students, the bulk of them from Multimedia University (MMU), whose laboratory in the physics and chemistry labs is being used for the record attempt.

Guinness World Record

Rose Tata Wafula, a teacher at St Austin’s Academy in Lavington, Nairobi, Kenya want to break the Guinness World Record (GWR) for the longest science lesson. PHOTO | NMG

She teaches concepts that range from secondary level to university entry-level.

“We are using theory and practical blended in the same venue and time, and this is to enhance the students’ engagement and focus and also to maintain their interest in the subject area,” says Dr Eric Njogu, a chemistry lecturer at MMU.

“(She) has been very methodical in teaching. The students have remained always engaged. They are asking questions. They are following the instructions to carry out the practical aspects of the learning, with a lot of attention to detail,” he adds.

Another rule they have to follow is that there has to be at least one camera on the timer all the time.

“The moment the stopwatch pauses or stops, then you start afresh. So, it has to be on throughout, counting seconds, minutes, until the last time. The moment it’s paused or stopped, then that’s the end of the record,” says Mr Wafula.

In one corner of the laboratory is a makeshift studio where feed from the two cameras in the room is mixed, alongside the audio from a wireless microphone Tata wears all the time, to generate the livestream.

Guinness World Records did not send its own team to the event, but it stipulated that there have to be at least two independent witnesses at any given time. So, they have four who are working in shifts. We find two seated at the back of the laboratory, observing every detail.

The class also includes first-aid providers, and there is an ambulance waiting not too far.

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“You need to have timekeepers also, who are working in shifts of two-two,” says Mr Wekesa.

After getting the approval from GWR, they approached various institutions to host the event but could not secure space for one reason or another, including the price being asked for. That is why they found MMU to be the most ideal.

According to Prof Livingstone Ngoo, the acting vice chancellor, the university saw it wise to host the event because of its philosophy.

“The university recognises that science is a key pillar in the national development agenda,” he tells Nation. “We believe in riding on technology and inspiring innovation. And therefore, we embraced our partner and that’s why the event is taking place from Tuesday (to Friday).”

“MMU has full confidence in the team and wishes them all the best,” he adds.

Prior to this attempt, Tata’s husband says she had two rehearsals where she stayed awake for 50-plus hours.

“I know that she’s prepared, and I think she’s been militarised now to take a shower in two minutes, to eat in five minutes, to try and dress up quickly in two or three minutes,” says Mr Wafula. “At the end of the event, the moment the stopwatch is stopped, the record that she has broken is not inclusive of the breaks. They will exclude the breaks and count the actual time that she taught.”

As such, he doesn’t fear that she can fail to hit the 50-hour mark.

“She’s a strong woman,” says Ms Macharia, Tata’s friend.

Ms Macharia is the woman behind Tamca Security Services, which has offered security for Churchill Show live events among others.

As the head of the security arrangements for the record attempt, she is in touch with every aspect of the process.

She tells us that Tata does not do coffee or energy drinks during breaks.

“She always just takes tea and water,” says Ms Macharia. “She has never napped. The only thing that she does is freshening up, changing, going for a medical check-up, and back to class.”

Surely, then, Tata must be chowing down mountains of ugali to give her the energy, no?

No, says Ms Macharia.

“She hasn’t even eaten ugali. She has eaten potatoes, she has eaten rice. And she eats a very small portion. I’m the one who is pushing her to eat,” she says.

Mr Wafula and Tata’s children are aged 9, 7, and 3. The father says they are following the proceedings via the livestream.

The initial budget for the record attempt was Sh3 million, Mr Wafula says. Thanks to well-wishers, about three-quarters of the budget was met.

“I can say that God has been faithful, and we are not in a place where we are stranded,” says Mr Wafula.

He brought Tata a chocolate for Valentine’s. They will have time to do a proper one after this, he notes.

“Next week, we will try to rest as much as we can, recover and do our Valentine’s properly,” he says.

We leave the venue while students at MMU go about their classes and Tata keeps teaching concepts in class. She wants her students, who have name tags on them, to know the difference between alkalis and bases. How to tell the right from the left ventricle. How to identify the adaptations of a fish. How acids announce themselves in testers.

“I came to realise that it will actually boost her career and expose her to international platforms and give her more opportunities as a science teacher to be able to fulfil her dream,” says Mr Wafula. “She really wants to inspire not only girls, but everyone who has a negative perception about science that this is actually an enjoyable thing; that it can be taught and it can be understood.”

Unlike the chemicals in Tata’s class, we have no reaction to those sentiments.