In Mathare, Nairobi’s second largest slum, informal schools act as centres for child protection. Children from three to 13 years-old benefit from the work of volunteers trying to provide them a classroom where learning primary education, a meal a day,s and a bathroom more or less stable. While non-formal education is not recognized by the government, schools exist as spaces to guarantee the rights of minors.
I visited Mathare to find out about these informal schools and the reality the children at them face.
Huma is seven-years-old and lives in a small shack with no electricity or running water in Mathare, which has an estimated population of 600,000 to 800,000. He has not been to school for a few days because of the holidays. His school is locked but when Austin Ajowi, one of the volunteers at the Destiny Junior Education Center, opens the door for urbanafrica, Huma and a dozen children playing in front of the school begin to run around the hallway and the different classes. Visitors are always welcomed, and children, throwing their hands up, rush to show me their classrooms.
The school is integrated into the physiology of the slum, made from sheet metal and dirt floor. It is not an official school, of course, but one of the informal schools that have been established in Mathare over the years to address the lack of education of children in the slums.
“We founded the school in 2013, after realising some kids couldn’t go to the schools in or outside Mathare,” explains Judith Odero, head teacher and one of the founders of Destiny. “On an average school day, our school exceeds 200 students between three and 13-years-old.”
According to different investigations, children in the slums suffer from health problems, including higher rates of diarrhoea and respiratory illness, malnutrition and lower vaccination rates. Some children are exploited for forced labor or sex work. In this context of child vulnerability, schools become safer places as long as they can provide food, a peaceful environment and ensure minimum rights to the child.
“There are public schools but the quality of education leaves much to be desired,” says Ajowi. “In a class of any public school, there are usually about 60 students and one teacher for all of them.”
Sometimes, teachers don’t go to work because they are sick or have an accident or death in the family and there are no substitute teachers for the students, he explains, noting that there are thousands of children who roam the streets of Nairobi without parents, without identity and without anyone to care of them. “So we could say that formal schools do not help much,” he says.
At the Destiny Junior Education Center there are children at risk of extreme poverty and 25 percent of the students are orphans, with some living with HIV, says Odero. The school survives with help from the community and does not receive help from government or NGOs, besides the Nia Childrens Foundation, which provides food for the children, most of whom are undernourished, she explains. “Our task would be impossible without the help of our volunteers, who usually reside in Mathare or are very sensitive to the social reality of this slum.”
Dinka, a Malaysian volunteer who is a regular volunteer at the school, says there is a project to build a bathroom only for the school children just in front of the centre. “Currently we only have a latrine, and all children go together. It is in very poor conditions and it’s difficult to maintain levels of health for children. But we hope that next year the project will be finished and all children will have access to two clean toilets: one for the girls and the other for the boys,” she says.
Due to a lack of recognition of informal schools, most informal students are not able to attain secondary education. That means that the poorest children in the slums will always be relegated to positions of less skilled jobs. Still, members of the school are waiting for policies to improve public schools in Kenya and want to focus on child security.
“The school provides students a minimum primary education, but above all we act as a centre for child protection,” says Ajowi. “Here, students are safe from the major problems facing children in the slums and, at least, we try to give them hope for their futures.”
Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.
Main photo: a child stands overlooking Nairobi’s Mathare slum, where some 800,000 people including thousands of children, live in extreme poverty. Gemma Soles.Read older posts from this section