By Sylvia Wong, Education Officer, Concern Worldwide US
Last month, I was in Kenya visiting Concern’s education and nutrition programs with high school students and teachers. The drought crisis in the Horn of Africa still hadn’t hit international headlines, but one week after we left the US that changed and news spread around the globe that “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” was upon us. The most severe drought in 60 years along with record highs in food and fuel costs meant that over 12 million people were facing extreme hunger and potential starvation in East Africa.
In Kenya, 3.5 million are currently in danger of food insecurity with children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers increasingly suffering from acute malnutrition. While the spotlight has been on the drought crisis in rural areas to the north, a “silent emergency” is also emerging in Nairobi’s urban slums. The marginalized urban poor—who can find work—already struggle to survive on $2 a day or less. Rising food prices have forced families to withdraw their children from school because they can’t afford the fees and need all the help they can get to earn income
I visited a primary school in Mathare slum, Nairobi and met with Lydia, principal and founder of Future Kids School, an ambitious project with humble beginnings. Lydia started taking care of children in her community to provide a service to parents who needed childcare while they went out to look for casual work. What started as four children in her home has now turned into a primary school serving 266 students from Kindergarten to the 8th grade in their own building.
A “building” is a loose term in the slums. Most schools for example consist of tin roofs with chalk boards serving as wall dividers between classrooms. In fact, Lydia says that infrastructure was the biggest challenge facing the school in the beginning. When the current school building was purchased in 2007, it was in very poor condition. There was sewage all over and no ventilation or light in the classrooms. Six children shared one desk, and some even sat on stones and everyone in the “school” shared just one toilet. But perhaps the biggest problem was having unstable boards as classroom partitions as they frequently fell on students and disrupted learning.
Concern helped to support the rehabilitation of the school, including draining the sewage, repairing the roof from leakages, and providing ventilation for fresh air to come into classrooms. Desks were put into the classrooms to accommodate all students and special round tables and chairs were replaced for the youngest children in Kindergarten. Six toilets were built with separate ones for boys and girls and even one for teachers and most importantly, stable partitioning was made to separate classrooms so learning could continue for all the students in different grades. “Walls” can be a luxury for a school in the slums.
The biggest improvements, however, came with the provision of an energy-saving stove and two water tanks to support the school feeding program. Without a stove to cook porridge, the school would spend 500 shillings a day ($5) on firewood that caused a lot of smoke and was funded from teacher salaries. Now the school has an energy-saving stove which only costs 100 shillings a day ($1) to run.
When I spoke with Joshua, an eighth-grade student who has attended the school since first grade, he also lamented the unstable partitions, but said the biggest challenge was access to water. In January and February this year when the area experienced water shortages, older students had to wait in line to purchase the school’s needs, often missing out on morning classes. With the recent provision of two large water tanks, children now have access to fresh running water that they can use for cooking and cleaning. In January and February, the school spent 28,600 shillings ($300) on water. That money is now being used to pay teacher salaries instead.
As for the future of Future Kids School, principal Lydia hopes to expand the building to four stories and provide secondary education for her students. Her aim is to pay her teachers adequately, so they stay for the long term. In the dire state that many families face living in urban slums with income-generation being the most critical, I asked Lydia how she convinces parents and students living in these communities that education is so crucial. She responded: “Even if you don’t get a job after leaving school, you can start a small business and you can survive in a society because you have knowledge. Without knowledge, you cannot survive. Education is vital because with it, you have a way forward.”