Visiting SUAS in Nairobi, Kenya

We took a matatu into the centre of Nairobi to meet Mark from the Irish educational development organisation, SUAS. At a plush coffee house nestled beneath ultra modern glass towers on Kenyetta Avenue, he explained the work of SUAS in Kenya and India. Almost a hundred students from Ireland were helping in schools in Calcutta, Delhi, Mombasa and Nairobi.

SUAS brings Irish students to schools in poorer areas of these cities on a 10 week programme. The benefit is mutual. The students work with host NGOs, assist in classrooms and run extra curricular activities to enhance the education of deprived children. In return, they have the chance to experience a very different world to our own in a safe and positive way. Although the children’s education is greatly enhanced due to the short visits, I’m sure that it’s the Irish visitors who say goodbye with widely opened eyes.

We drove out to Makuru Kwa Reuban Village, Nairobi’s second largest slum, of about 90,000 people. Here, SUAS had volunteers in the Gatoto Community Primary School. It was the summer holidays but the school still swarmed with children. Donal, a volunteer from Schull, said “it’s like a little oasis for the children”. We walked past boys and girls playing football on the dry earth pitch, dressed in their smart blue uniforms.

On the corrugated iron classroom walls, there are a couple of dog eared calendars, a timetable, the National Anthem and a wide blackboard. Otherwise, it’s bare. There aren’t even light switches – there’s no electricity. The teacher has text books but the children only have copy books. The school is proud to have climbed from the bottom of the academic league tables. They jumped in performance a few years ago when the World Food Programme introduced a basic but nutritious school meal for each child. For some it’s their only regular meal.

Girls ate their unimix lunch beside us from margarine tubs. Some walked barefoot on the rough concrete floor. Many of the children don’t manage to pay the fees of two Euro per term. Some of the families living in the village earn less than one Euro a day. Donal is a third year medicine student at UCC. He was shocked to see children suffering from malnutrition and inadequate access to good medical care. At least one of the girls at the school is HIV positive and is on antiretroviral treatment.

The volunteers were mostly classroom assistants during term and when we visited, they were pretty much running a summer camp. Some took the time to show us around the village where these children live. The busy main street was wide enough for a car, but too busy and rough for one to squeeze through. It doesn’t matter. Nobody here has a car. Sinead O’Connor could be heard from a loud stereo from one of the tiny shops. We passed barbers, butchers, carpenters and food stalls selling roast corn on the cob, peeled baby pineapples and freshly fried chapatti.

Behind the busy streets of commerce, lie the quiet homes – one and two room huts. Boys were playing with a large lorry tyre. Girls sang out to us as we passed, “Angalia muzungu” (look at the white people). Our Irish guides recognised many children as we walked and saluted them by name.

The village is surrounded by large factories belching out black smoke. This means there are jobs nearby, but it also leaves the village in a permanent haze of pollution. We crossed over a purple river. “There’s a paint factory here. It’s a different colour every day of the week”, we were told.

Back at the school, we met the head teacher, Betty Nyagoha. She explained that in 1994 the village chief and elders organised classes in the local church to fill the need for a primary education. Since then, the present school has been built and there are now over 900 pupils. She says that Irish donors have been instrumental in the ongoing financing of the school. Few make it on to secondary school, not to mind third level, although she hopes that plans for a secondary school will soon come to fruition.

Outside, we met more Irish volunteers, surrounded by children. They were playing guitar and singing together. We admired a colourful mural they had painted on a gable wall. “We’re definitely coming back”, they answered when we asked. The school is a long way from even the most damp and dreary of Irish schools. The classrooms are minimal but adequate and through education there is hope. During the visit someone told us, “The fact that they were born and have been brought up in the slums does not mean it has to be their destiny”.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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