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Journals from Africa by Gloria Simoneaux
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Journal Eight

July 15, 2007

Paniel School and Urban School,
located in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya

In Kenya I worked with children at three “non-formal” schools (not subsidized or recognized by the government) located in the slums of Nairobi. They are commonly founded and run by individuals (often women, but not always) who saw the need and created a school. Many of them are more of a safe sanctuary for children during the day, rather than learning centers. The staff is usually made up of volunteers.

Half of Nairobi’s population lives in the slums…a place difficult to describe (desperation…total lack of dignity…I don’t know the best words) and even more difficult to imagine. Trash everywhere…unbearable stench…crowds sifting through mountains of trash with sticks and shovels…standing on top of it. The fortunate ones live in crowded, dirty tin roofed hovels and others pay someone a few cents to store a sheet of cardboard (their bed) and a piece of plastic (their blanket) for them during the day. There is dust and raw sewage everywhere and meanwhile everyone is trying to sell something.

My first school experience was The Paniel School and it was awful; three rooms packed with children and a backyard filled with trash. There is no water and the grounds smell like trash and urine. I don’t know what the children and staff (of two) do for toilets and washing. Jane, the head teacher, is extremely likeable, gentle and communicative. She has five siblings (4 boys and a girl), and while she was telling me about her family she took her pencil and wrote “4”, and then “5” on the blue door of the classroom, where we were standing. That struck me as odd, and I said, “Do you always write on doors?” She has two children of her own, she is an orphan and she is taking care of all of them (siblings and children). I liked her so much, until I saw her hit a few of the children in the head as they were posing for the group photo.

The children are not being taught, but they are being fed. It was depressing. They can’t spell or read and they clearly receive no encouragement to be creative or imaginative. Children in Ethiopia were so much closer to their creative nature. They had never painted, but they used the colors magically…as though they had been waiting their entire life to pick up a brush and put all the colors together in magnificent designs. They never looked at their neighbor to compare, or asked for any direction and their eyes sparkled while they painted (actually their eyes always sparkled). It took my breath away.

Back to Kenya…I said to the children, “You can paint anything that you want and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Feel free and just have a good time.” They looked at me like I was a crazy woman. All of them painted the alphabet, “A is for apple” (with a copied picture of an apple), “B is for boy” and on and on. Be free and paint anything? That meant nothing to them. While they were painting, the teachers walked around and took certain colors away from the children and gave them the “right” color. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thankfully, I was scheduled to lead a training for the teachers a few days later, and so I could gently introduce alternative ways to encourage self-expression. This is all so new for them…and the teachers are curious.

When I shared the DrawBridge books with the children, one of the teachers translated for me. Apparently he instructed the children to write, “Hallo from Kenya,” because that is what they all did. It took some explaining until he finally told them to come up with their own message, using their own words.

The next day I visited The Urban School, in another slum area. Traffic in and around Nairobi is so ghastly and roads approaching the slums are almost non-existent. It took my driver two hours to drive what should have taken twenty minutes. We kept coming across enormous potholes and impassable roads due to flooding and no maintenance. I took photos, thinking, “Nobody is going to believe this.” On three occasions we had to turn around, go back the way we had come, and look for another “road”…but we managed to arrive. It felt like the middle of absolute nowhere and I said to my driver, “Don’t even think about leaving me here alone.”

The Urban School is a lively place, overseen by Wilson, an earnest young man wearing a suit (I’m not sure why), who was affectionate with the children. Overall he seemed attentive and enthusiastic and I liked him immediately. The little school (and feeding program) serves more than 100 students, ranging in age from 2 to 17 and they were relaxed, like part of a big family. The children were crammed into the classrooms, often squished together on the hard benches. The tiny rooms for the smaller children had no chairs or tables and the children were literally sitting on top of one other, but they were smiling.

The school consists of three classrooms, a tiny room for the small children and outdoor passageways (open to the sky). There were desks in the passageways as well, occupied by some of the older students who were taking an exam. There was also another outdoor area in a corner of a passageway that was being used as a classroom by a teacher and his 8 students. At 1:00 everything comes to a halt and several enormous bowls of food are brought out and the children easily form a line. There is no pushing, and no complaining about the food or the amount given. Everyone patiently waits his or her turn and takes what is offered. Then they find a place (many of them on the dirt floor) to sit and eat…so happy for the food.

After lunch, I worked with the older children, again sharing the DrawBridge books and inviting them to make messages in response.

Some messages:

“Hi, my name is Patrick and I appreciate all your greetings. I would like to visit your lovely country America, and to have fun with you.”

One boy drew a colorful map of the African continent and said:

“Hallo, my name is Kenfrey from Africa. I would like to visit you there in California and have fun with you. I love you.”

“My name is Celine. I like drawing, I like my country Kenya. Come visit us cause you are the best. We love you. Welcome.”

“This is Eunice from Kenya. I want to tell that I love you very much. Thank you for sending us pictures and showing us how you love us. We love you the children who are in California. I love you very much.”

“My name is Dorothy. I am from Kenya. I am fifteen years old. I love singing and dancing and I want to tell you I would wish to come and visit you. I love you people very much. Education is the key of life. Bye bye.”

“My name is Cantwell. This is a beautifully flower (with a drawing). You should love others.”

Main thought for the day…children everywhere are compassionate and generous.

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