Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Kwa Watoto School

I wish all of you had been with me today as I entered the Mathere slum here in Nairobi.  My visit was extraordinary, and I will try to give you a feel for the experience.  I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to meet such wonderful people.
The slum where Kwa Watoto is located is a concentration of over a million people who live in very difficult conditions.  The dust rises as we drive through the dirt pathways.  Most people are on foot.  

The houses are simple, often made of corrugated metal which is sometimes bare and rusted, some houses are several stories high and laundry hangs from every balcony.  Makeshift antennae bristle on the roofs
 There are dusty stalls where food is for sale.  Chickens pick at the ground beside potatoes, tomatoes and bunches of bananas.  
Some of the small shacks have names painted on them. As improbable as it sounds there is a hotel, a chemist, a hairdresser.  Children wander the streets.  
In contrast, Kwa Watoto  is a clean and happy place where students want to learn.  Children here are loved and cared for.  My contact, Ajema welcomed me warmly and introduced me to Michael, the extraordinary young director of the school.  He took me on a tour to visit each of the classes.  
First we visited the sewing room and hairdresser shop.  Because many families have no skills with which to earn income, the school has a program to teach the parents marketable skills.  The sewing classes for parents also make school uniforms.
The kitchen staff was busy preparing meals.  They serve the students porridge (see below) at 11a.m. and a noon meal at 1p.m.  This may be all some children eat in a day.  The food is healthy and substantial.
The classrooms are tiny.  There is barely room for the students to sit at tables or desks, but they are focused and attentive.  Each class had prepared a song and a Bible verse to recite.  They did this with gusto.  The school follows the National curriculum which includes:  English, Kiswahili, Social Studies, Christian Religion, Math and Science.  The schoolbooks and a small library were in a tightly packed reading room where students could sit on benches to read. This is where they have access to computers which they use once a day.
The teachers are strict about homework and students have to complete it as soon as they get home.  They have no electricity in many homes.
After visiting classes from preschool through 6th grade and getting some lessons I Kiswahili, I met all the teachers in the Library where I gave them the flash drives sent by the Waring students.  We got out the computers and the teachers were immediately immersed in looking at the flash drives and the photos of Waring students.  I encouraged them to be creative with how they responded, and assured them that many of the Waring students would answer if they wrote back.
We finished the visit with physical education for the whole school.  The Salvation Army has a building and dusty field, which they allow Kwa Watoto to use.  The teachers are in charge of activities for their classes.  Soon the kids were doing jumping jacks, stretching, running and skipping rope.  The slum has no other place where they can run, and they loved it.  They ran like they were training for the Boston Marathon!
Finally it was story time.  One class gathered around me as I told the stories of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood.  Two of the kids told stories:  The Boy Who Liked Animals and Three Girls and the Giant.  We had a lot of fun together.
As I talked with Michael at the end I was struck by how much the culture of learning is like that at Waring.  He said he encouraged the teachers to take ownership of their classes and develop relationships with their students.  The teachers love their classes and work very hard.  It was amazing to see a similar culture of learning in spite of the huge difference in living situations. It was beautiful to see how learning can transcend both poverty and wealth.  
On Friday I go to the Gentle Bells school in Longonot, an hour outside of Nairobi.  Stay tuned.


  1. What wonderful pictures... and so much of what you're doing and seeing and writing about seems to have connections to our Core Humanities curriculum here at Waring. Not entirely coincidental, I'm sure! I love your posts, and check the blog every day. I have a few questions from kids:

    Sophie: How old are the kids in the pictures from the Kwa Watoto School?

    Maddie and Aly: Why do so many of the kids have their heads shaved?

    Benny: How well do they speak English?

    Quin: Where do all their books come from?

    Ian: Do they have pens and pencils?

    Charlotte: How did the kids react to you?

    And from me: What elements of the British colonial period are still in evidence? What have you heard or read locally about reactions to the British apology to Kenya for their torture of Kenyans during the Mau-Mau revolt?

    Keep the posts coming!

    1. The kids in the photos are of various ages because I visited all the classes from preschool to 6th grade. The younger kids were very enthusiastic and crowded around me. The older kids were more shy but when I started to ask them to teach me some words in Kiswahili they opened up and laughed when I made mistakes. The kids finishing 5th grade in November are from 10-12 years old. The school year begins in January.

    2. The school asks that the kids shave their heads because hair braiding is expensive and some families can't afford it. The school uses hair rules and uniforms so that all kids relate equally regardless of their family's income.

    3. The kids speak pretty good English. They begin in preschool so by the time they are in second grade they do pretty well. I tried to speak clearly but they followed me easily. I told them the stories of Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood which they loved.

    4. The kids only used pencils as far as I could see. They had textbooks which look like manuals, and theses are kept in the library room. There are also books that have been sent from the US for the 9-14 year old age group. Reading really helps their grammar and they like to do it.

    5. The topic of colonialism is an interesting one. It was especially obvious when we visited the Railway Museum. My guide, Kariuki said that the British did a lot of good , but they did it in the wrong way. Someone else commented that the British did more for their colonies than the French. The comments about the Mau Maunuprising are mostly about how the guerrilla fighters are now considered highly instead of as terrorists.