Last year, I had the experience of a lifetime, where I got the opportunity to work for an international development agency, Aga Khan Foundation. I was stationed in Nairobi Kenya, and helped to support the Foundation’s health, education and rural development programs. The first week I landed, I got to visit one of the primary schools that the Foundation’s programming supported, within one of the city’s poorest slum locales. 

It was a very bumpy ride to the school, the agency car meandering through narrow, unpaved dirt streets, with small stores, makeshift hotels and shacks, which help to earn a living and provide homes to those residing in the slum area. Children were running alongside, waving, smiling, and trying to catch a glimpse of the foreign-looking passengers in the backseat. Some areas were so rough and hilly, I was not sure if the car was going to make it. I was anticipating the tires getting stuck. But we made it through.

We were going to attend the last meeting of a group of teachers from the surrounding area, celebrating their completion of training of the EMACK (Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya) program. As we drove inside the gates, we saw a quaint two story building, with square classrooms and a yard, where children were playing during their lunch break, who all shyly ran inside upon our arrival.
We first went inside the administrative office, a tiny office, with enough chairs for us to squeeze in, where we met Stella, the head teacher. With pride, she told us the successes of the school. Thanks to the Reading to Learn approach of the EMACK program, all pupils in the school are able to read, teachers are now able to make more interactive and effective learning materials, and the school recently won a reading competition. This will be the first time standard 8 students from this school will sit in for the national exams to advance to secondary school, so a lot of progress has been made in a short time, thanks to the Foundation’s funding.

Next we went into the teacher’s lounge, where the staff were finishing up their midday meal of ugali (cornmeal staple) and sukuma wiki (collard greens/kale). The teachers graciously let us interrupt the classrooms. The first room was the nursery class, where the little pupils were all on the floor, squirming, fidgeting, huddled close together, trying to get cozy for their naptime! We then moved onto higher level classrooms, each identical, with wooden benches seating navy-uniform clad pupils looking at us curiously, amusingly, and greeting us in unison with shy, yet cheerful greetings. Some never heard of Canada; most giggled trying to pronounce our names! The grade 3 class demonstrated their reading capabilities, from the teaching tools known as “talking walls.” Finally, we attended the teacher’s training session, where I got to sit in on one of the group exercises where teachers wrote down the successes of the training they received to improve their profession. Some of the successes they listed included: improvements in pupils who are slower learners, improvements in teachers’ creativity in making learning materials, increase in parental involvement, and increased confidence of students.

I got the opportunity to chat with one of the teachers after the group exercise. He shared his reason for becoming a teacher, stating that even though some may see it as a lowly job; to him it is his calling. What he said next was heart-warming: Jesus was a teacher, so to him being a teacher meant being a prophet and an opportunity to be a role model; a foster parent to the pupils. While to some people in this society, people become teachers only for the money or a way of passing time, to him, it is more about helping the students achieve potential for their future.
We could not stay for the entire meeting; we hopped back onto the car early to beat the afternoon traffic, which gets crazy on a weekday in the bustling city of Nairobi! I took a final look around the school. Each classroom was only lit by one bulb, many students had little learning resources, and on one side of the small yard, there was a pile of pebbles and rocks, perhaps a makeshift playground that the students play in during recess. A woman was sweeping the dirt into the open sewer that zigzagged across the yard. Even with the limited resources, it was inspiring to see the teachers determined to continue teaching and making a difference, despite the endless challenges they face.

However, I still cannot shake off the look of sadness and hopelessness in Stella’s eyes when we were conversing with her. The program’s funding was ending, and despite the many successes the school had accomplished, it will be difficult to maintain the improvements with no further funding support. The Foundation strives to seek funding to continue supporting important educational programs and schools like these in the slums of Nairobi, in the hopes that marginalized students also have the chance for a decent education and a bright future.

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