Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Bringing education to the Nairobi slums

Published By: The Independent - 25 Oct 2007

The track into the slums of Mukuru leads over a toxic turquoise river where plastic bags of human excrement mound up almost knee deep on either bank. The ground is spongy with detritus, and the smell is awful. Every morning thousands of children cross this rickety footbridge for school in makeshift classrooms on the other side, but this afternoon a small group of English primary teachers is going the other way, to try and understand what conditions in this squalid settlement close to the heart of Nairobi, in Kenya, are really like.
They walk the narrow lanes between the close-packed cardboard and tin shacks in shocked silence, stepping over open sewers, and peering into dark doorways, while local social workers explain that Mukuru has no sanitation and residents have to buy their water, bucket by bucket. They are told that respiratory infections are common, that fires break out frequently because of the open stoves people cook on in their tiny rooms, and that the whole place floods every time it rains. Unemployment is endemic, HIV/AIDS a major problem, and violence and abuse commonplace. By the end of the tour, several of the teachers have been close to tears. “No-one should have to live like this today,” bursts out Jan Blair, one of the group. “No-one!”
Four teachers and the headmaster of Heathrow Primary School, in west London, are visiting Kenya to explore the possibility of developing a partnership with a group of primary schools that serves this slum area. The link is that their school, like these schools, sits close by their national airport – they’ve been flown out by British Airways – but there the similarity ends. Heathrow School is a modern, successful British primary school recently declared outstanding by school inspectors. The four Mukuru schools are iron shacks, with bare-earth classrooms, Victorian wooden desks, and pitiful resources.
The question is whether this huge gulf can be bridged in any meaningful way. The majority of British primary schools now boast some sort of link with schools overseas, but this often amounts to little more than pupils e-mailing each other about their families and the weather. The Heathrow teachers have something very different in mind. If they commit to Mukuru, it will be for the long term, to work closely and professionally with their Kenyan colleagues. But John Hobbs, the long-time head of Heathrow is cautious. “We’re here to listen and look. None of us have really been in the third world before, so how can we know if we can support them until we know what their needs are?”
They soon find that out their needs are for absolutely everything. Although Kenya introduced free primary education a few years ago, this barely touches the illegal slum settlements. So the Makuru Promotion Centre, a church-based voluntary organisation, runs four schools in the area, educating more than 4,000 children, as well as running an orphanage, a rehabilitation centre for street boys, and medical clinic with an HIV testing centre.
The project takes a holistic view of children’s needs, and teachers often find themselves supporting pupils with appalling problems. “I am a counsellor and I often have girls coming to me because they have been raped, or because someone in their family is abusing them,” says Jane Kerubo, an English teacher at St Bakhita’s School. “This can start at the age of eight, or younger. And, you know, some people think nothing about it. I had a father here recently so angry because he said it was none of my business what he did at home!”
The centre is run by the Sisters of Mercy, an Irish Catholic order, although the schools have no overt religious bias. “What we want to do,” says Sam Guamba, the deputy director of the centre, “is make these children feel they are part of the world, part of society, like everyone else.”
BA has been involved with the centre for more than a decade, ever since an aircrew member met one of the Sisters of Mercy at mass and started fundraising for it. The company has now built a skills and computer centre on the site of one of the schools, with a hairdressing salon and rooms to teach knitting and sewing, and plans to create computer centres at all four schools. Cisco Systems and Microsoft are helping to equip and network them, but the challenge is also to train Kenyan teachers, whose teaching methods need to develop alongside the new technology – something well understood by Mary Barry, the company’s community relations manager, who is a former teacher and educational researcher. “It’s no good setting something up and walking away. We have to be sure that everything we do is of real long-term value.”
But Jim Wynn, director of emerging markets at Cisco Systems, who is closely involved with the project (and -- not coincidentally -- Mary Barry’s husband) knows this takes time. As a former secondary school head and educational consultant, he understands the demands that technology make on traditionally-trained teachers. “You can’t have someone standing at the front of the class saying ‘This is a mouse, and this is how you use it.’ People have to change, but they can’t do it overnight.”
However the bursting excitement with which the slum children squash together in front of the colourful new screens shows that the pressure for change is urgent. Pupils ask their teachers every day when it will be their turn the computer room.
And Noah Wekesa, Kenya’s Minister for Science and Technology, who turns up to thank BA for its commitment, reminds the Mukuru teachers that they are lucky to have such opportunities. “Many of the schools in my constituency, up near the border of Uganda, still take place under trees.”
Over three days the Heathrow teachers meet former street boys who are now learning woodwork and sign writing. They talk to dinner ladies who are stirring a giant pot over an open fire and learn that, for many children, the solid lump of maize porridge they get at lunchtime, paid for by the World Food Programme, is their only meal. And they are shocked to hear that some of the Kenyan teachers live in the same slums that their pupils come from.
In the classrooms, they discover that, while the Kenyan national curriculum seems old-fashioned to British eyes, the standards expected in subjects such as maths are high. They are taken aback by the barrenness of the rooms and the enormous size of classes but impressed by the way that the children behave. Kenyan pupils, they say, often seem more mature and sensible than their babied British counterparts.
Everywhere they warmly welcomed with dances and parades of Scouts and Guides – the St Elizabeth’s school choir, they decide, is easily good enough for the Albert Hall -- and quickly fall to chatting with their Kenyan counterparts.
In fact they already know some of them. A group of Mukuru teachers and administrators recently flew to England and visited Heathrow School. And these friendships deepen as the British teachers discover more about of the challenging conditions they are seeing – bare-earth floors, for example, are not only dirty and unsightly, but also allow fleas to breed.
“I got it so wrong!” says Sally Bailey, an assistant head, towards the end of the visit. “I was thinking about how we could help with ICT and useful websites and things like that, but when I asked one teacher what she most needed she said, ‘Sanitary towels.’ ” In areas where hygiene is a problem, girls often stay off school when they have their periods.
But Virginia Njugo, a teacher at St Bakhitas who visited Heathrow School found travelling to the UK a valuable professional experience. “I liked the way the teachers shared the learning objectives with the children. Here, these are only for the teacher. But now I share the learning objective with my class. I would say that London definitely brightened our brains.”
By the end of the visit, the British teachers are moving beyond the immediate shock of seeing such poverty into discussing how they can help. Could they provide the Kenyan teachers with display boards? Could they collaborate on health education lessons? How about some teachers coming over to the UK for a week to work alongside them on lesson planning and delivery?
“We have lots of ideas, and these will evolve, but we’ve got to take it from them,” says Sally Bailey. “But we know people now, we’ve made friends, and we can talk together.”
“I’ve been really struck how dedicated some of the teachers are,” says Hilary Stone. “Being here’s reinforced all the reasons why I went into teaching in the first place.”
“I’m determined that the children in our school will realise the responsibility they have towards others,” says Alison Lee, an assistant head.
While for John Hobbs caution has been replaced by quiet determination. “We are definitely committed now. We have a much clearer picture. We’ve met the teachers, we know names and faces, and we’ve now got a lot of talking to do about what might be possible.”