As the end of our first full week in Kenya draws to a close exhilarated and exhausted can’t even begin to describe how we feel. This is the first chance we’ve had to sit and reflect about the process of bringing The Kibera School for Girls to life. Every moment since we first stepped off the plane has been consumed by this project which truly has a life of it’s own. This week we have interviewed over 350 students, visited their homes, and painstakingly selected 45 to start off our school with 15 students in pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade. We have also worked extensively with our incredibly experienced headmistress, as well as selected three outstanding teachers, held two community meetings and one parent/student meeting and workshop. We’ve begun plans for our sustainable garden, and last but not least… construction is well underway! All in all, it’s been a good week.
Our typical days begin at 6:30 a.m. We are at the Shining Hope for Community Office in Kibera by 7:30 a.m. each day and don't leave before 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. On the five days that we did student interviews the office was full by 8:00 a.m. with over 50 parents with children waiting patiently in line. Over the past several days more than 350 students have waited in line for a chance to go to The Kibera School for Girls. The tension has been high, as in all seriousness these children are waiting in line for a shot at having a very different life. The desperate need for a free school for at-risk girls is staggering. As I call child after child for their interviews I can’t help but wish that we could have three schools so we could take everyone who has an urgent need and desire for an education.
Our selection process has been governed by democratic principles. After each child is interviewed a staff member from Kibera goes to visit their home. As our school targets children who would have no way to pay school fees without us, it is important that we verify each child’s financial and living situation so that we serve those who need us the most. Much of the time the report from this staff member is heart breaking. Most of our applicants live in houses made of cardboard or discarded wood with such gaping holes that they might as well be living outside. Furthermore, inside these houses there are no beds, no furniture, and most do not even have cooking utensils. All of our accepted students own a single pair of clothes. In the interviews themselves we, along with our headmistress, lead the child through a series of simple tests that gauge fine motor, cognitive processing, and verbal skills given to us by our education specialist Melissa Dearborn. From there, we just talk to the child and ask why they want to go to our school, and if they could learn about anything what it is they would choose to learn about. Finally, we interview their parents or guardians to find out more about the family and the financial situation, as well as about if the child has been involved in prostitution, has been sexually abused, or is at risk. After this extensive interview process to ensure that we accept the most driven and at-risk students, we put the names of qualified children into a hat and selected randomly. After we randomly select we also look to make sure that there is diversity of both religious and ethnic representation. The result is that we have forty-five girls whose lives have been changed and who could not be more excited about starting at The Kibera School for Girls. I’d like to take a moment to introduce a few of our students:
Ashley Adhiambo is four years old and although she has never before gone to school, she taught herself how to write the alphabet. She is curious about everything, and told us that if she could take a trip anywhere in the world it would be to “a real school.”
Ashley’s mother is single and only twenty-years-old. Her father left as soon as he found out that he was about to have a child. Ashley’s mother does not have a job, she survives by washing clothes whenever she can get work and earns only 300 shillings per month (the equivalent of $4). She leaves to look for work early every morning and doesn’t return until late at night, and says that she often worries about Ashley’s safety, as she is left alone and vulnerable in an area of Kibera infamous for rape and abuse of young girls. Now Ashley’s dream of visiting a real school is coming true along with her mother’s dream of finding a way to give her daughter a life that will be different from her own.
Maureen Nyatichi is five years old. Because her mother cannot pay for her to go to school she spends her days in her house caring for her three younger siblings while her single unemployed mother hustles for a way to feed her children. Maureen's family own only a single towel, one pair of clothes each, and a discarded fairy tale book that Maureen found in the garbage. Although she cannot read, Maureen often makes up elaborate tales as she pretends to read from this book in the hopes of distracting herself and her siblings from their pangs of hunger while they hope that their mother will return with something to eat. Overwhelmed by the difficulty of taking care of her children without any help, Maureen's mother planned to abandon her children at an orphanage to try and survive on her own. Now that Maureen has been accepted at The Kibera School for Girls her mother will continue to struggle because Maureen and the school have restored her ability to hope.
Susan Akoth is six years old. The youngest in a family of eight children, Susan was the first in her family to ever attend school through the support of an older sibling, as both of her parents are unemployed and living with HIV/AIDS. However, after she finished kindergarten the family stumbled upon further misfortune when her oldest brother took poison. Instead of killing him as he had hoped the posion put her brother in the hospital for two months. As her family is unable to pay the medical fees, Susan had to stop school. Despite the struggles her family has faced to survive, Susan never gave up hope that one day she might return to school. When she was walking through Kibera searching through the garbage for something to eat she saw a sign advertising a free school for girls.
On Wednesday we had our first meeting with accepted students and their parents. At this meeting the neighbor/guardian of five-year-old orphan Alvin Moraa stood and began to cry. He said that he has spent his life watching the plight of girls in Kibera. He has stood by as little girls begin to trade sex for food, as five-year-old girls do the housework while their brothers go to school, and later as thirteen and fourteen year old girls begin to have babies of their own. He said that he looked at Alvin and felt powerless, as he is without money or any way to give her and other girls an education. He then said that The Kibera School for Girls has already changed Kibera by showing the community that there is another path that they can take. At this point all of the parents began to cheer as we stood back and saw the power of a project that truly belongs to the community it serves.
After this meeting, each parent and child came inside the office one by one to sign their contracts. Parents agree that instead of paying school fees, they will work for the school five weeks out of the year to run sustainable microfinance projects. They also sign a contract agreeing not to make their daughter do housework over homework, and to emotionally support their daughter as she gains an education. Students also sign a contract saying that they will try their best, respect themselves, respect other chidlren, and respect the school, giving them ownership in their education from day one. A few parents look on with bewilderment, as this is clearly not convention in Kibera but the children take the process very seriously. Four-year-old Ashley Adhiambo meticulously signs her name by drawing a cup.
The community has also rallied to construct the school itself. Every day over 100 community members, many of whom do not have children attending the school, have volunteered their time to help build. The community is excited for plans for a sustainable garden donated by Trees For The Future, and several workshops that will teach community members and parents how to grow vegetables in burlap sacks, called vertical gardens, which can be grown anywhere. The community is also looking forward to the opening of the first free health clinic, a space for women's microfinance projects, and the very first free school.
It has indeed been quite a week.