A Sanctuary of Hope (Read More)

October 12, 2012
A Sanctuary of Hope (Read More)

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”

—    Nelson Mandela

On the wall of francisca Anyango’s office is a little sign that reads: “Children are like wet cement. Whatever touches them leaves a mark.” As head teacher of Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School (OLN), a Marianist-sponsored school in Mukuru — a slum in Nairobi, Kenya — she knows intimately how children at a tender age are marked by life. Hunger, abuse, loss of family members due to AIDS, biting poverty — all leave tell­- tale signs.

The Marianists are committed to leaving another kind of mark on these children — one filled with hope and possibility. The foundation of that hope is education. “They need a lot of hope,” says Kennedy Kamaranda, an administrator who left his blue-chip job in an international corporation to oversee the operation of the school. “I know that hope is never built without God, but comes from a deep knowing of God.

“If they are hope filled, then you can get them interested in school,” he adds. “They have reason to learn.”

Welcome to Mukuru

Hope is about the only thing Festus Ochoo had when he packed his belongings and headed to Nairobi with his small son, Stephen Omollo, in 1991. Having buried his wife, who died suddenly from an illness, he left the village of Katara in western Kenya to seek employment and a better education for his son.

His journey is like thousands of Kenyans who leave the small villages of their tribal homes in search of work and opportunity. But what most settle for is meager at best: income that barely sustains a life, a wooden shack for a home with a mud floor and a leaky tin roof, no running water, no sanitation system, no bathrooms, no electricity, and — for most — no hope for something better, and no way out. Welcome to the slums of Nairobi.

“These are some of the worst slums in the world,” says Sister Connie Khulie, a Sister of Mercy visiting Nairobi from South Africa. “I grew up in Soweto. These are much worse.”

It is well documented that Nairobi has some of the most densely populated and dangerous slums in the world. The United Nations recently reported that 85 percent of the population of Nairobi lives on 15 percent of the land. “This means that most of the population is living in a slum,” says Marianist Father Marty Solma, who has been serving in Africa since 1982.

The causes and conditions that created the slums are complicated. Political corruption, an economy that has failed to create jobs and a history of mismanagement of public housing are just some of the reasons. Most of the slums spring up around factories where people try their best to make a home nearby, enabling them to walk to work. Very few find that work.

These are the conditions that created the Mukuru slum, a village not found on any tourist map. This is an illegal enclave — a squatters camp that grew from a few tin huts less than seven years ago to a slum of about 250,000. It is one of six major slums in the city.

“This may shock you”

On the edge of the Mukuru encampment, on a street with no name, sits Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School. To drive to the school is to experience a kind of hell. The first thing a visitor notices are the smells — the pungent odors of excrement, wood fires, diesel fuel and gritty air.

Turning onto the rocky road that leads through the slum to the school, Father Marty routinely warns his visitors and guests: “What you’re about to see may shock you.”

Trash is everywhere. Plastic bags known as “flying toilets”— bags in which people defecate and fling them into the streets because it is too dangerous to go out at night — line the streets. The debris-infested thoroughfare is crowded with children playing, women going about their daily chores and shopkeepers selling their wares. Beyond the disturbing scene of ramshackle homes and shops are people who are mustering as much dignity and respect as possible, despite their surroundings. Even though the conditions are overwhelming, for them Mukuru is home.

It was here in 1997, the year that the Marianists took over administration of the school, that Festus Ochoo brought Stephen to enroll in the fifth grade. Having heard about OLN from a relative, he decided to take a chance.

“He had high hopes for me. That’s why he brought me here,” says Stephen, now 20 and an assistant at the school. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Mary’s school

The Marianists took over the operation of OLN, then known as St. Francis School, from the Sisters of Mercy who established it in the early 1990s to offer children classes in English, Swahili (the two official languages of Kenya) and math. At that time, the school provided instruction to children in grades one through six.

But there was great room for improvement. It was in sad shape, remembers Father Marty. “The first thing I said was, ‘We have to paint this place.’”

Today it provides classroom instruction to 1,500 children from kindergarten through eighth grade and is staffed with 45 full-time teachers, two computer teachers and five kindergarten teachers. Altogether, there are 60 on staff.

“The school grew because of the generosity of people,” says Father Marty, whose administrative talent and vision have guided its growth and development. Now serving as Marianist district superior of Eastern Africa, he has turned over day-to-day administration to the staff, but still has a hand in its development.

Since the Marianists took over, the school has added several classrooms, a library with more than 10,000 books and a computer lab. Last year, it improved the playground and playing fields by adding a basketball court, a netball court and a running track. This year, a new dining hall was added. All of the improvements have been donated by people who have taken an interest in the school.

More than a school

With tree-lined pathways and a well-planned school ground, OLN exudes a sense of calm and order. Compared to the madness of the slum, it is a little piece of heaven. More than improving the facilities and expanding the grade levels, the Marianists have provided an oasis for the children of Mukuru.

“They have created a school that is like a home. At the end of the day, these kids don’t want to leave,” says Consolata Wangui Nyururu, school counselor and social worker at OLN. “They are fed. It’s safe here. They feel secure.”

The feeding program is critical. Forty percent of the children receive their only meal of the day at OLN, according to Francisca. “When they return here on Mondays, many are weak from not eating during the weekends.”

Besides the food, many children say it’s the family atmosphere at the school that they appreciate most. With many orphans and children from single parent households, the family emphasis is important. Says eighth grader Francis Waraho, “When we come to school, we live as one big family — so we don’t feel so all alone.”

Because of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, the school has seen its share of orphans. There are about 50 children who have been orphaned because of AIDS, says Consolata. The number varies from month to month. As long as a child is living with an adult guardian, the child may remain at the school. However, it is not unusual for a child to have his or her guardian die, too, and be left with yet another guardian. “And then that guardian dies, too,” says Consolata. “This experience traumatizes a child. We have several here who have gone through this.”

High hopes

Marianist Brothers Angelo Nyaga and Joseph JeJe, both teachers at the school, believe the greatest benefit the children receive at OLN is of a spiritual nature. “They need an education that transforms them,” says Brother Angelo. “Our goal is to help them get out of the slum — help them grow mentally and spiritually — and provide an education that carries them for their whole life.”

For the brothers and many of the teachers, their greatest dream is that one day they will be able to provide a high school for the children of Mukuru. Some attend high schools in the area, but the dropout rate is high.

“If we could provide a quality secondary school, many of these children’s lives wouldn’t be wasted. We could keep them here until they are mature enough to handle the world,” says Francisca.

Right now, the best hope for a bright, serious child is to receive a scholarship to attend one of the better high schools in Nairobi. “This can transform them completely,” says Brother Joseph. “It is the one opportunity they have to leave the slum, and bring their families with them.”

The stuff that dreams are made of

When Festus Ochoo enrolled young Stephen Omollo in Our Lady of Nazareth, he was looking for someone to take an interest in his son. With encouragement from teachers at OLN, Stephen excelled and received a scholarship to attend high school. Still, life was an uphill climb. His story is similar to many children from the slums.

While in Nairobi, his father, Festus, remarried and conceived a second son named Kevin. But soon, Stephen’s life began to unravel.

“My stepmom used to sell vegetables,” says Stephen. “That was our only income. She died when I was in high school.”

By this time, Stephen’s younger brother was sent to live with a relative. “My dad got very depressed and began drinking. He wasn’t taking care of himself,” recalls Stephen, a sadness falling over him as he retells his story. “He died one day from TB when I was in the 10th grade.”

Now on his own, Stephen is parenting Kevin who is a sixth grader at OLN. “I am now a parent and a brother,” says Stephen, who is raising Kevin on a small stipend he receives from working at OLN.

Stephen’s future is looking brighter. Early this year he received a scholarship to attend nursing school at Nairobi Hospital. “I believe it is God who has helped me so far,” he says.

In almost a whisper, he adds, “I believe life will be better.”

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