Those in a position to see first hand, know there is not always joy in the eyes of the residents of the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.
They crowd into mud huts and shacks built of scrap lumber or corrugated metal roofing panels. Water supplies for the million-plus people who live there are grossly inadequate. Sanitation conditions are atrocious. Water is sometimes obtained by tapping into a water line illegally. Sewage from the slums runs through open ditches into the Nairobi River. Significant health problems exist that include skin disease, typhoid and HIV/AIDS. There may be one common latrine for every 500 people. On a good day, an enterprising individual might make the equivalent of $1 or $2 selling vegetables. Some more fortunate work in the factories but still cannot earn enough to escape the harsh realities of the slums.
All of this poverty and hardship co-exists alongside one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Nairobi, with a population of 3-4 million people, a major banking and industrial center, is home to the Nairobi Stock Exchange and the African headquarters for General Electric, Young and Rubicam, Google, Coca Cola and Celtel. Yet for 40 years or more the principle slum cities of Kibera, Kawangware, Kangemi, and Korogocho have been home to Nairobi’s poor and refugees from other war-torn African countries. They now exceed well over one million in number and are growing at an alarming rate.
This is the world into which Amber Bruce, Anne Stoehr and David Chaves have immersed themselves for the past year though the sponsorship of Kenya Connection, an organization founded by The Falls Church. They work alongside schools, churches and community development programs in the slums of Nairobi. Each has made a commitment to return for another year following a brief visit home. They describe the people of Nairobi’s slums as having exceptionally good sprit and energy despite the hardship that characterizes their daily existence.
Amber and Anne both teach at the Akiba School, a primary and secondary school serving the children of the Kangemi slum, many of who are orphans or former street children. The school enrolls approximately 400 students each school year. The Falls Church provides scholarships for 80 students and has arrangements with other organizations to sponsor an additional 40 students.
Amber has several years experience teaching in Virginia elementary schools, Anne is an accountant who previously spent two months in Kenya in the summer of 2005. Amber, a 1998 graduate of J.E.B. Stuart High School, has taught arts & crafts and English over the past year. Anne teaches math and assists with coordinating sponsorships for new students each term.
All three have spent several hours studying Swahili but, fortunately, they all say, most of their communication is in English. Occasionally someone has to be called into serve as a translator, but for the most part they are able to communicate in English and through use of their rudimentary Swahili skills.
Secondary education in Kenya is only available for a price. The government recently made primary education available to all, meaning no tuition charges. However, the cost of a desk, books, uniforms, and other school supplies effectively means that even primary schooling is not available to Nairobi’s poorest citizens. High schools in Nairobi—private and public—charge tuition in addition to other incidental costs. Only children from Nairobi’s affluent class or those fortunate enough to obtain a scholarship or other financial assistance can afford to attend.
“Obviously there is no comparison between the Falls Church schools and those available in Kenya,” says Dave, a lifetime resident of the City and a product of the Falls Church school system, graduating from George Mason High School in 1996.
“The public primary schools in Nairobi are over crowded and understaffed. We frequently hear that one teacher has charge of as many as 90 to 100 students in a class. The system is just not reaching the most needy,” says Dave, also detailing that it is often the case a family may intentionally keep their youngest children out of the elementary school system because they are of more value as street-beggars.
Dave’s days are currently split between teaching computer classes at a job training center and working at Light & Power, a job center initially founded to serve the street children of the Kawangware slum. The project currently employs a small number of young men who make paper bags that are sold to various shops and businesses in Nairobi. The enterprise is now completely self-sustaining.
Dave says some of the men grew up in traditional homes, others spent their childhood on the streets bouncing from one home to another. Some graduated from high school and others have no formal education whatsoever. All of them are trying to escape destitute poverty and bring hope to the people of the slums of Nairobi.
Recently one of the men was accepted into the Kenyan army officer training school. He was one of 800 applicants to be selected for only six openings.
Anne, Amber and Dave have all worked with the board of directors of Light and Power to help stabilize the bag business, improve their accounting and marketing practices, in order to enhance the Centre’s impact on the surrounding community. Amber and Anne have also started a Saturday program with games and activities for children in the nearby slum. “These kids range in appearance, but most are dirty with clothes torn and falling off of them,” says Amber. “They are so excited to just have someone to play with and pay attention to them.”
Amber also tells of how she recently met two of “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” Amber recounted how the two told her that when war broke out in Sudan, a group of young men fled to Ethiopia on foot. Later, when fighting erupted there, they fled back to Sudan and later, to Kenya. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 16,000 boys made the journey walking for three straight months until they arrived in Kenya.
“It was pretty incredible to hear their story and see their lives now. One is finishing an undergraduate degree and the other is working on a masters. Both of them talked about how much hope they have for their country,” said Amber.
Now after a month back at home in the United States, with all of the conveniences most of us take for granted, Amber, Anne and Dave are set to return to Kenya and to the poorest of Nairobi’s residents for several additional months. Each is confident they are having a positive impact and are willing to accept the sacrifice and challenge of being thousands of miles from family and friends. All to help make someone else’s lot in life a little better.
To paraphrase the words of Amber, Northern Virginia may be home but Africa is their heart.
(For further information see www.kenyaconnection.org)