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KENYA | Monday, 7 December 2009 | Views [1102] | Comments [1]

Last Thursday 4 Dec I accompanied a friend Michaela to the closing day for the school where she has been teaching for the past three months, located in the Mathare slum. Mathare - slightly smaller than Kibera but still home to over 500,000 people - is one of the five major slums in Nairobi, zigzagging through the Mathare Valley for seven miles. Like Kibera it has a long history, and has been in existence since the 1960s when it was established to house the thousands of people moving to the city from rural areas in search of work. Again like Kibera it is a cheerful place, although the obvious poverty and the violence embedded in its recent history cannot be ignored. Mathare was a prominent site of the 2007 post-election violence where thousands of people were killed, and although there is now no threat for residents or visitors, those violent times have left their mark on the community.

For the 50,000 school-aged children living in Mathare there are only two government schools, catering for only 1,000 students. The remaining 49,000 students either attend non-formal NGO-run schools or do not attend at all. It is the trend of non-attendance that schools like the one we visited are trying to break. This school, called Jafrest Care Centre School, was established in 2008 by a teacher from Nairobi called Frederick, who was only 24 at the time! Frederick explained to us that when children are not in school they are out on the street, picking through garbage for food, idle, and that is when they turn to crime. Educating children is the best way of preventing further crime and violence in the area.

Since its humble beginnings with two students, the school has grown to cater for over 200 students, and hopes to extend further, although Fred told us that once enrolment reaches 350 they will have to stop taking students as they will have reached capacity. The classrooms, like those in Kibera, are shacks pieced together from corrugated iron with dirt floors, and despite attempts to keep class sizes down the younger classes often have over 80 students. Fred's school charges a lower fee than the government or "public" schools (around A$20 a year), however it is still often too much for parents to pay, especially when they have up to seven children attending classes. Finding the funds to pay the teachers enough to live on and buy resources is a constant struggle, and Fred was hoping that the closing day ceremony would be a good opportunity to encourage parents and the community to support the school in any way they can, but preferably by giving a Sh.50 ($A1) donation.

During the ceremony, held in a local community hall that Michaela had organised to hire for the occasion, several classes of children got up and gave performances, ranging from gangster rap to insightful political satire to an fantastic gospel choir that simply blew us away with their beautiful harmonies! The kids were all students from Jafrest and from a neighbouring school, and it was amazing to see how much work they had put into the day. One stand out performance was at the very beginning, by a 14 year old boy who is possibly the best dancer I have ever seen, seemingly able to move each part of his body independently, with some bottom jiggling second to none!

Following the dances there were lengthy speeches and unbeknownst to Michaela and the three of us who had come with her (myself, Stan and David), we were expected to speak as well! Stringing a couple of words together, we each thanked the school for having us and expressed our wish that it would be able to continue into the future, an outcome dependent on donor and community support. Despite living in Nairobi all their lives, this was the first time that Stan and David had visited Mathare, and they were blown away by the difference between their lives and those of the Mathare residents. As they are both in a well known Nairobian rock band, they decided to hold a benefit gig to raise funds for the school in the new year.

After this the local politician arrived, recognisable by his flashy clothes and equally flashy manner. I have no time for politicians at the best of times, and although he had brought exercise books to donate and the not-so-royal sum of Sh.2000 (A$40, a meagre amount considering what Kenyan politicians earn), he treated the occasion as the opportunity to capitalise on this attentive audience, and so it became more of a show than a serious awards ceremony. After all of the top students had been awarded their exercise book, he suggested the hilarious idea of dragging all of the kids who came last in their class up on stage and awarding them an exercise book as well, something I imagine was quite embarrassing for the kids involved and frustrating for those who had tried but not come top of their class, who were left with nothing. In the end he was awarding prizes to the smallest child, the tallest child, and then he waved a Sh.1000 note in the air and said that anyone who could pronounce his name correctly would be given it on the spot. While this may sound generous, consider the fact that these children are so poor that their parents cannot afford to pay their Sh.200 school fee once a term- Sh.1000 was a huge amount of money and here he was just waving the note around in the air. In addition, needless to say nobody could pronounce his name correctly, not half because (as David and Stan told me), he was actually changing the pronounciation each time he said it!!

After both Fred and the politician had made further lengthy speeches (respectively genuine and not so genuine) about the importance of children's education, we were officially farewelled and after trudging back through the mud caught a matatu back to the city - only 20 minutes yet seemingly a world away from where we had been.



Hi Beth,

I didn't get a chance to meet you in Melbourne but I've read some of your posts (sorry I haven't read them all but they are truly detailed, which is a good thing though) and it's been inspiring to hear the work that people are doing over that. Thanks for been our eyes over there.

Henry Lim

  Henry Lim Dec 10, 2009 6:37 PM



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