Tomorrow we are going to visit a school in Mathare – one of the largest “slums” in Nairobi with a population of over 600,000. The kids that attend this school are poor. Many have not been able to pay their tuition for years. The founder of the school, Vincent Enos, is a young man who had trouble going to school and college himself because he didn’t have money to pay his tuition, and is now giving back. The school year has just started – today is the first day.
This evening I am working with Evan so that he is prepared to say a few things about himself and ask the 4th graders at the school some questions if the opportunity to do so presents itself. If he isn’t prepared in advance, the chances of him ad libbing are close to zero. I really want him to have some interaction with the students at the school. Opportunities like this are rare. When Evan doesn’t make much progress by himself I decide it’s time to get more involved. I ask him to write down 5 points about himself, his school, and his life, so he can speak for about one minute. He really doesn’t want to. There are tears. It takes us an hour. I am impatient. He is miserable. I am rethinking the wisdom of dragging two ungrateful privileged turds around the world.
Next morning we both feel better. The family grabs a quick breakfast and we Uber to a cafe at a posh development next to Mathare where we meet Vincent. He drives us to the school in Mathare. It looks like a hole in the wall. We walk into the first class which is probably 10 x 10 feet and has more than 15 kids and two teachers. These are the littlest ones and are in pre-k. The kids burst into a song about welcoming us to their school. We look down at their desks and see tiny letters made from play dough. This is how they learn their letters. The teacher tells us that by the end of the year the kids will be able to read. The medium of instruction is English. They kids also learn Swahili at school. And they speak their mother tongue at home. They will be tri-lingual, like most Kenyans we meet, with almost first language proficiency in three languages. When it’s time to say thank you and move on to the next class, I shake hands with this beautiful bright faced student in front of me. Then we quickly realize that all four of us are going to have to shake hands with every kid in class : – ). I worry that Jo is going to never leave. Everyone is shyly smiling and electricity is passing around the room.
Vivian talks to the 7th graders a bit. She shows them how she draws amine faces and eyes. The class only has eight kids. Two say they want to be doctors. Two pilots. One engineer. One football player. They are quiet and shy.
Vincent shows me the bathrooms. They are clean but I have to try hard to not gag from the smell of the sewers. Infrastructure and slums don’t go together. Across from the bathrooms is one long room that houses four classes next to each other. Blackboard are painted on to the walls. There are four teachers. We spend quite a bit of time here. Vivian and Jo chat with the kids and the teachers.
I pick up a text book and ask the student in the front row is she’d come up to the blackboard and solve the problem on the open page in her textbook. She is very serious and with a little help gets the problem right. The teacher, Mr. Edwin, gentle, smiling, tall and bony is his threadbare suit jacket, reminds me that it is only the second day of the school year. Later we find out that Edwin is related to Obama.
Vivian shows the kids some of her sketches on an iPhone. They are intrigued. I am amazed by how easily Vivian gets into discussions with them – even when she’s having to lead and do most of the talking. She discusses school and volleyball and art with the kids. She asks if they have hobbies. One boy about her age gets up from the back and walks over to the blackboard. He’s got a grin on his face. He hikes up his torn shorts and does something between a dance and a strut. Everyone chuckles.
Jo and I occasionally try to get Evan involved. He loosens up and chats a bit here and there. We coax him into saying a few words in Spanish and Mandarin. We discuss what everyone’s favorite subject is (a reliable ice-breaker). Evan says his is recess. Not everyone understand. Then Evan adds that his second favorite subject is lunch. The class erupts into laughter. Jo asks him if he wants to show them how he does the floss. He does a quick demo. Then another kid walks up beside him and they do the floss together.
And just like that it could be Evan and a friend at Magellan back in Austin. Thousands of miles apart in every way, yet so similar in an unguarded moment.
Later we go chat with the staff. They tell us many students live with one adult, often an older sibling. A lot of them come to the school hungry and rely on the school lunch for their one meal of the day. They can’t afford text books. The principal explains that when you are reading from a passage, it’s hard when there are only two textbooks in the classroom. He says that there are very limited options for showing the kids experiments and doing any practical learning. I think back at Magellan and how Evan and his classmates do a couple of hands-on project for every unit of inquiry. But he says that kids do well after they graduate. The teachers help to get the students placed at high schools and find funds for their continuing tuition. The biggest challenge? Money. This week there isn’t enough for the all important lunch. The school is behind on its payroll and teachers haven’t got paid. “At the end of the day we have to go back to our homes and our families.” adds a teacher. I find out that the school has about 280 students from pre-k to 8th grade. Its annual budget is about $75,000.
Later that day we meet some Kenyan entrepreneurs. When they hear about our morning adventures they are curious to know what Vivian and Evan thought about the school. Vivian says that she was impressed about how badly the students want to learn. Back home we have everything and we aren’t really serious about school or learning, she adds. Evan nods in agreement. That realization may be the most interesting and important thing our kids have deduced during our travels so far.
I don’t often use god quotes, being an atheist and all, but here is a fitting one from Karen Blixen, author of “Out of Africa”. God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.
We’ve been on the road for month and it is already further down then I had been able to see from Austin or even last night.