In the middle of the disorder of an informal settlement, accompanied by musty scents from the never ending sewer in the labyrinth of the drainage trenches and hips of solid waste that occasionally harbour human waste in the name of flying toilets, lies a troubling environment. This honourable oasis had renewed the hope of the inhabitants of Mukuru Kayaba, sending most minds and bodies reeling at its sight. It had this effect on the most of them who were comfortable in iron makeshifts and could only see stone buildings in DJ Afro movies.
Mukuru Kayaba is one of Kenya’s well known informal settlements found in Nairobi. It is said informal settlements mushroom out of the ground to offer cheap labour to industries and nearby middle class settlements. This was the case with Mukuru Kayaba, it is located in the heart of the industrial area of Nairobi, and is home to thousands of people that provide cheap labour to dozens of nearby factories.
In the middle of this slum lies Mukuru Primary School. Since 1985, this school was the only source of formal education for both adults and children from Mukuru slums.
Mornings in Mukuru are characterized by hasty movement of workers making their way to industries on foot in order to save their meagre wages. As their parents eke out a living through any means necessary, children are often left to their own devices. Many end up in idle existence at best and violent crime at worst. It is against this backdrop that Mukuru Primary School strives to offer invaluable education.
Over the years, the school has managed to nurture great talent that includes Vincent Ateya of Royal Media, Eunice Mwende a nurse at a prominent hospital, Jeff Muli a sports journalist, and Catherine Wanjiru a leading advocate and renowned feminist.
The year 2007 was the year that saw the flimsy structure that had for a long time supported what was called a school for the longest time get dismantled by hammers and indignant glances from users who were fed up. Students used to enjoy the rainy seasons the most, the iron sheet roof would put an unexpected end to long boring classes, giving them time to share stories from home about a battered wife, about the marriage of a drop out, about a foetus found lying in the clogged drainages. The iron-walled structures also made it easy to avoid punishments as they could easily spy on teacher through gaping holes in the walls.
By the time the school was receiving a face-lift, it had been providing both education and food to thousands of children. The school had become an asylum where children from tough homes had their anger mollified through child play and the tales of Aladdin and the gini. The school had also become a safe haven from social evils such as drug abuse, sexual abuse, early child marriages, and robbery.
The face-lift gave the school a new face - storey buildings neatly arranged to allow for the brief playing ground that could only be utilized for catching the 10 am sunshine. Hoarding untold stories from both students who represented their parents’ view of the whole matter and the teachers who did not have the slightest idea of how it got there.
During my last visit to the school I met John who stood in a corner outside his classroom as the other pupils played happily. John was a class eight pupil and at his age he ought to have been engaging in the same manner of play. The thought of a bright future crossed his mind, evidenced by a microscopic smile that would be dismissed the moment it tried to mess with his intelligence. His hand slipped to a plastic Rosary given to him by his mum. The only parent he and his siblings had ever known.
When I asked John why he chose to isolate himself, his answer was soft and hesitant, “a lot is at stake for me to pretend I needed to play for the mere reason of being a child.”
His mind was focused on securing one of the highly competitive scholarship slots. Eighty students had to compete for the only two scholarships that were available. These scholarships were offered by local corporates like banks plus both local and international donors..
Despite the efforts of these children to perform, very few transitioned to the next level of education. The stone building had turned well wishers against them. To an outsider, the school was now a state of the art and therefore its students had changed with the changing times as well. The truth of the matter was that these pupils still had to put up with the darkness that came with poverty.
The reduced number of scholarships was one of the benefits trampled underfoot. In addition, the health of the students was threatened by diarrhoea and other water borne diseases from the poorly managed drainage that often resulted in sewage mixing with drinking water. The emotional well being of these students who are forced to adapt to situations that extend into their adult life is wanting as well. All these alarming conditions have made the stone building in the middle of Mukuru Kayaba a mockery or is it the copper snake that people look at and assume wellness.
This building has left residents wondering whether the success of education is evaluated by improving structures or by improved overall quality of education.
This is the plight of John the class 8 student. If he doesn’t get one of the two scholarships, he will move from life beyond the glittering school structures will be mired in the slum’s squalor.