This word is defined by the economic condition of Kenya. The mission we serve within is an oasis, but there is a sea of sadness, misfortune, desperation and exhaustion just beyond the wall.
Last week we visited two primary schools that were the recipients of Rotary funding for a latrine project. In one of the schools, 1,800 children share 32 pit latrine toilets. The other school is home to 1,251 children who share 8 toilets. You can imagine the smell as you walk within 30 yards of the outhouses…doors hanging off hinges and sewage bubbling out of the pit hole. Even worse, with only two approved times per day that the entire school rushes to use the facilities, many children are exposed to a disgusting array of ailments due to lack of sanitation and hygiene. When you look a bit harder at the queue of students, you can see about 56 children between both schools that struggle to physically approach the latrine, or do not have the ability to use it by themselves. These are the special needs students, and they are the margin of the margin in Kenya.
In 2003 The Government of Kenya passed a policy for all public schools to establish special units for children with disabilities to be accommodated within the formal school environment. Though many schools in Kenya seek to achieve the statutes outlined in the policy, government funding is often inadequate to meet the structural and educational demands for special needs students. Through a needs assessment, NLM found that special needs students were unable to utilize the existing latrine facilities due to physical handicaps and time restraints on teachers to assist individuals. The facilities were not maintained to comply with hygiene standards; thus, a number of special needs students frequently skipped opportunities to use the bathroom, leading to increased risks for infection and illness. Days of class missed due to health factors impacts learning, and building infrastructure to support education was the primary objective of this bathroom project.
When education is the only ticket you have to moving out of a slum, missing school is detrimental. With such poor funding from the government for public schooling, head masters have no choice but to charge fees to families for uniforms, teacher salaries, food, and other resources. The notion of “free education for all primary students” that the government stands behind is indeed far from free.
At first glance, building new toilets for the marginalized special needs students is a great start to improving their academic experience. However, when we look at the dilapidated toilets next door for the rest of the children, we ask ourselves how this can be even the slightest bit acceptable. And worse yet, the school with some of the worst facilities is literally within 100 meters of the wealthiest neighborhood in Nairobi - reserved for the politicians, international NGO leaders, and the corrupt officials who are rarely held accountable.
Today we visited another expression of the poverty in this place. There are multiple slums in Kenya, and Kibera is among the most famous as it is the second largest in Africa. A smaller slum in Rongai is situated immediately behind New Life Mission, and a small creek of sewage is just on the other side of our fence (we don’t dare go near). In the morning, you can hear a call to prayer at the mosque nearby; in the afternoon, the slum is buzzing with activity and donkey karts stumble nosily over the bumpy dirt roads.
Walking through the slum with Virginia, director of the social welfare program at New Life, draws a lot of attention as we are the only Mizungu (whites) on the horizon. As part of the program, Virginia makes weekly welfare checks to prospective families in need of food, housing rent, or education assistance for primary school children. The amount of need for a single person seeking assistance is huge, and most of the time it is hard even to find a place to start.
Petrina is a single mother of three small children. A victim of spousal abuse, she left her home in Mombasa and moved to Rongai under the protection of her sister. When relations with her sister’s family became strained due to lack of resources and opportunity, she was left in the slum without money, community, a job or a school for her children. She has been here for four months now, and her children drift about the slum during hours they should be in school while she hopelessly looks for employment.
Petrina came to New Life Mission two weeks ago during the Tuesday open counseling group as a last resort. Virginia’s assessment today will provide initial resources for food, education and health care to get her on her feet. She may even take advantage of the micro-loan program Virginia started to help create jobs for the women of the slum. This is just one of the countless stories of those who are intercepted by New Life Mission, and there are hundreds and thousands of others who are in this situation on a daily basis. A small donation will provide another month’s rent for Petrina, Dominic, Patricia and Evan living in a corrugated metal shack that would barely pass as a storage shed in the United States.
The poverty in Kenya and in many parts of the world is severe, and the everyday norms people have accepted are inconceivable for us as Americans. It is hard to feel like we are making an impact with such vast needs and sustainable resources so limited. However, in light of our plans coming together for medical and nursing school, we are even more steadfast in our belief that everyone – from a special needs student to a slum dwelling family – should have the right to education and proper health care to fully partake in the joys of the human experience.
Blog by Sarah Rolfing, Team Agape Kenya
Sarah is pursuing her second degree in nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and will graduate in 2018. Health care access is her project of interest with Team Agape Kenya.