An Appetite for Learning (Read More)

October 12, 2012
An Appetite for Learning (Read More)

Students at Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School, a Marianist-sponsored school in Nairobi, are eager to learn — once their hunger pangs have been satisfied. 

On a bright day last fall the entire student body of Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School, a Marianist-sponsored school in Kenya, marked a momentous event: Every student in the school ate breakfast. At a school in the developed world, the achievement would have passed unnoticed. At OLN, however, located in the heart of Mukuru — one of Nairobi’s largest slums — it was cause for celebration.

“For me, breakfast in the morning is a given. For them, it’s a victory,” says Chris Hill, a University of Dayton graduate and wildlife photographer who launched the school’s “Uji Porridge Program” in 2006. “I am overwhelmed when I realize how happy and grateful these kids are for something as simple as breakfast.”

OLN provides schooling for nearly 2,000 students — kindergarten through eighth-grade — who live in crushing poverty. More than half the population of Kenya lives on less than a dollar a day, and Nairobi’s squatter slums are crowded with dilapidated corrugated metal shacks lacking electricity, water and sanitation. Violence and disease come with the territory.

Against this backdrop, OLN is a sanctuary: A place where children can study and learn with the help of two meals a day and the support of a nurturing staff. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Pass the porridge, please

Chris Hill first visited the school in 2001 and after several visits approached Marianist Father Marty Solma with the idea of starting a morning nutrition program.

“Her first idea was to give the children a banana a couple times a week,” says Father Marty, former director of the school and now provincial of the Province of the United States. “At the time we had 1,600 students. That’s 3,200 banana peels a week. Can you imagine that? It was a good idea, but the logistics were a nightmare. I suggested she start with something simpler — a porridge program for the younger children.”

Chris took to the idea instantly. Her donation enabled OLN to purchase “uji,” a sweet porridge made from millet, corn and sorghum flour, and build a storage shed for the cooking equipment.

Originally, daily uji was available only to children in kindergarten through third grade, but the staff and teachers at OLN recognized that the other children also would do better with a full stomach — starting with breakfast.

Donors soon learned about the needs of the older children and lent their support. Corpus Christi, a Catholic parish in Wokingham, England, helped extend the program to children in the middle grades in 2009; last year, the Nairobi branch of Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, a global financial firm, made uji available to the seventh and eighth graders. All three donors have pledged their support for the uji program through 2012.

Donors take the lead

The donors have helped in a myriad of other ways. Chris underwrites the cost of an annual field trip for seventh graders — many of whom have never been outside the slum — and finances a graduation party for eighth graders. The parishioners at Corpus Christi have supported a variety of projects at OLN, including scholarships, a water program, construction of toilet facilities, a music center and a project to stock the library with 2,000 books by African writers.

Helping OLN is one of the most rewarding things he has ever done, says Corpus Christi parishioner Jeremy Best, who first learned of the school while working for Barclays Bank in Kenya. “It’s great to see our parish so enthused and supportive. Even though these children have been born into poverty, there is hope through education,” he says.

Today, thanks to a morning meal, the students of OLN are happier, have more energy, and are better able to learn. But they aren’t the only ones who have benefited from the program. On her most recent visit to Kenya, one of the school’s two uji cooks greeted Chris with a smile and a heartfelt “thank you.”

“Now I have a job,” the cook says. “Now I can feed my family.”

“In Kenya, I’ve learned about the immense strength of the human spirit — something not everyone gets a chance to experience,” says Chris, who the students have christened ‘Mama Uji.’

“They’ve taught me more about love in 15 minutes than I had learned in my entire life. It’s an amazing and humbling experience.”

Get to know a child and provide a lifeline of support.

In February 2012, Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School celebrated its 20th anniversary – 15 of those years under Marianist leadership – and recently received recognition for scoring the best national exams in the school’s history. Donors have been an integral part of the school’s success. In addition to the Uji Porridge Program, the school administers a Sponsorship Program funded by donors.

The two programs go hand-in-hand, says Jenipher Nywawera Kahuthu, who became the first alumna from OLN to graduate from medical school in December 2011. “Initially, I would go to OLN just so I could eat lunch,” says Jenipher, now 27, who remembers going to bed hungry many nights because her family was unable to provide food for her and her two siblings. “Looking back, that hot plate of githeri (maize and beans), however simple, was a lifesaver.”

With the help of her teachers at OLN, Jenipher began to concentrate on her education and did exceptionally well. She was awarded scholarships to attend high school, university training and medical school. “I thank God for the honor of being a doctor,” she says, “and I am so grateful for John and Vivienne Rathband, who paid for my education.”

Jenipher has been assigned to work in Guru Nanak Ramgarhia Sikh Hospital, a district hospital in Nairobi, starting in March 2012.

“There are many like Jenipher — ‘stars of Mukuru’ — who could use a little help,” says Marianist Brother Joseph Maricky, director of OLN and its sponsorship program. “A donation of $125 will pay for a year’s tuition at OLN, and a donation of $600 can send a deserving OLN graduate to high school for a year.”

One of the unique features of the program is that once a donation of $125 is made, donors receive the name and photo of the child they are sponsoring. Throughout the year, the student sends at least two letters to update their sponsors on how they are doing. “This enables you or your family or church group to know the child you are assisting,” says Brother Joseph. “This kind of personal involvement can make a huge difference — for the child and the donors.”

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