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Koolamundo: Edutainer Kimberley Kleckza on making education be fun

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Kimberley Kleczka puts her experience to use making the world a little better one cow, dog and chicken at a time. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Kimberley Kleczka looks like a motherly educator at first glance: quick with a self-deprecating joke – about looking like a Smurf in her vibrant ‘get up,’ about fading looks – and effusive in her speech, demanding you pay attention. But make no mistake, she has an agenda involving chickens and cows and dragons, and not a lick of shame about it.

“I didn’t want to be an author, I wanted to be an ‘edutainer,’” she begins, describing how she marries her extensive entertainment background to education for her Koolamundo series of reading books, activity books and puppets for children up to six. Kimberley’s the first to admit she’s not a teacher, but she is the kind of person who should be writing kids’ books – good-humoured, chatty, vivacious, and eager to ask about everyone else.

It’s fun to be around Kimberley. She can drop flawless Xhosa at a whim. She has a friend who’s a yodeller… As she sees it, formal education is too over the top. “Don’t get me wrong, education is important. But there has to be some fun in it. It’s not all about what comes out of a book.”

Showbiz-y credentials

A UK native, Kimberley left England when she was eight, and has been on the road ever since. Stopping first in South Africa, she lived in Nairobi and Abidjan (in Côte d’Ivoire) before returning to Europe in 1983. Along the way she met her husband, Tim, a former marine and eventually settled down in California long enough to get a journalism degree. Then it was off to the Netherlands and New Zealand. Tim entered the private sector a year ago, which brought the couple to Hong Kong. “That’s kind of how I’m here. I piggy-backed along quite happily,” Kimberley cracks.

While Tim was guarding embassies, Kimberley embarked on several showbiz-y careers, including voiceover work, casting, media training, talent management and broadcasting (she interned with the stalwart Entertainment Tonight before starting her own magazine show Orange County News). She was ahead of the curve when she founded a plus-size modelling agency during her stint in New Zealand. “I did a varnish commercial that ran for about 10 years. I did well on that one,” she says with a laugh.

Most interesting, though, is her work in the pageant industry, for organisations like Miss Universe and Miss America. Pageants are having a hard go of it PR-wise these days, and Kimberley herself admits to having a different opinion of them now than she did in the mid-90s. “If you asked me would I do it again? No. They are good in some ways and in other ways they can be detrimental. I wouldn’t get rid of them. They should change. When I was with Miss America we tried to get rid of the swimsuit competition,” she recalls, pointing out that segment has been under fire for some time. “But pageants are a vehicle for a lot of women to get an education, to be ambassadors for their countries, to get their platforms out there.”

It’s a cool world

Kimberley finally started focusing on writing in 2012 while living in the Netherlands (her kids – Keanan, 29, working in Switzerland and Kaylah, 24, pursuing a PhD in London – were long gone), and the move to Discovery Bay last year provided her with the perfect opportunity to really dig in. “I needed somewhere quiet where I could write. I do a lotof my own greenscreening and voiceovers. Hong Kong is all *******,” she says, using sound effects to make the point. “I go over to the island two or three times a week, and I love it, but I do like coming back here to get on with my stuff.”

Is DB home for good? Who can say? “We’re definitely global nomads. And the problem is now, where do we retire to? We have no clue, because neither of us has any roots anywhere,” Kimberley ponders. But it’s home right now, and it feels right. “[DB] is very multicultural. For me to live someplace that’s got one culture? I don’t get it.”

Kimberley plans on expanding her Koolamundo project next year (what’s ready can be viewed at www.koolamundo.com), and she has a Bookazine event on December 2 (Christmas songs) and others to follow early in 2019. There will be brightly illustrated books, songs, apps, videos, puppets, backpacks, notebooks and t-shirts emblazoned with Koolamundo protagonists like Zagon the Dragon, Chuck the Chook, a dog, a bird, an old goat and, of course, Klara the Cow.

So why should kids read Kimberley’s adventure stories instead of a book by a triple-doctorate holding early childhood education expert? “Because of my, let’s say, education [gained] by travelling around the world. I think I can educate on a different spectrum,” she says. “I wouldn’t go into schools and teach fourth and fifth graders, but I think I can reach the little ones. No, I don’t have a master’s degree… but I do think I’ve got enough education to put forward my experiences.”

Kimberley also has an important message to get across, and today’s ugly social climate has inspired her to pick up the pace on getting Koolamundo out there. “Clara the Cow’s about love and friendship and understanding and acceptance. Koolamundo is all about understanding who people are, and what people are. I do it through animals. My tagline is ‘It’s a cool world.’ Because it is.”

Kimberley may not need to find a place to retire if she realises her Partridge Family goals in a travelling Koolamundo lounge bus stocked with music and books. “That’s what I’d like to do, get on this bus and go around the world and take this bus to places where they don’t have libraries and the Internet,” she finishes. “Koolamundo’s all about being happy, about laugher, caring. It’s important to smile.” Now more than ever.

Photo by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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