This is worse than I imagined. Why is it so dark? Where are the teachers? Are there enough desks for all of us? 6:45 am…only 11 hours of this.

These were my first impressions of Kenyan school. A few weeks ago I decided to spend the day with one of Zana Africa’s EmpowerNet classes—not the one hour that we see each other in the afternoon, but an entire day. I wanted to experience Form Two (tenth grade) with these girls.

When I first asked the head teacher if I could attend class, he was confused but open to the idea. “Ahhh…ok. We start at 6:45 am. Karibu. You are most welcome.”

The sun coming up at the start of the school day

There were things that I already knew about this school. For one thing, it’s a community private school in Kibera slum, meaning that students must pay something to attend. A few years ago, the Kenyan government declared public school free. Then they stopped building them. In places like Kibera, three public schools serve a population of hundreds of thousands.

The solution is dozens of privately owned schools with low school fees. However, these schools fly under the radar. This school is one of many where the majority of students are not passing standardized exams.

The school can only afford minimal teacher salaries and has zero budget for supplies and maintenance. Hundreds of kids sit in classrooms of iron sheeting in crowded, broken desks while squinting through dim lighting at lessons on dilapidated chalkboards.

I knew all of this just from visiting, but it’s nothing compared to what I learned in one and a half days of class.

A Routine Ritual

After dragging myself across the slum as the sun was rising, I settled into my desk at 6:45 in the morning. Surprisingly, most of the students were there as well, wiping the dust off of their benches before sitting down in their well-worn uniforms. Promptness is typically not important here in Kenya, but I learned it definitely matters in school.

Students make do with whatever supplies are available

Shortly after 7:00, a teacher began marching a group of kids into the courtyard where they kneeled or laid down on their stomachs. He quickly moved from student to student, delivering lashes with a switch in a ritual that seemed routine.

The apparent confusion and horror on my face was answered with a soft, “They were late” coming from the table across the aisle. “What?” I said, turning towards Snyder—one of the ZanaA girls—as she relocated to my table. “We get punished for being late. Do they do this in your country?” she asked, as I looked back and forth between our classroom—waiting for a tardy teacher—and the kids outside.

“Um, they used to do something like it. It’s not really allowed anymore.” I said. She nodded understandingly and said, “Here too. It’s been outlawed by the government.”

Meet Snyder

The Kenyan government has also outlawed school on Saturday, but these students still go. They go to school from 6:45 am to 6:00 pm six days a week in order to cover eleven subjects. Their school seems to think that more time in the classroom will yield better education and better test scores.

However, after four hours in school I had only seen one lesson. Most of the morning we sat in the dark as students flipped through their notes or put their heads down on their desks to catch up on sleep.

Snyder

Snyder sat next to me all morning, gently explaining to me everything that was happening. She showed me the notebooks that every student buys for school and rebinds with newsprint to protect them, and she explained that the power is usually out like today, which is why everyone had brought their desks to the window.

Snyder is not a particularly friendly girl—she is guarded and soft-spoken, and I’ve witnessed her calmly yet harshly tell off the older boys who come to harass the Form Two students. She usually sits with her head on her desk and always looks at the ground when she smiles. However, she is naturally welcoming.

Her daily life is very similar to her classmates’. Every morning Snyder walks to school from her home where she lives with her father and a handful of her six siblings. Her mother works in a rural area outside of Nairobi—she hasn’t been home since January.

Every evening when Snyder returns home she prepares dinner and cleans alongside her older sisters before studying and falling into bed at 10:30 or 11:00 pm then wakes up at 5:00 to start again.

Is school really worth pursuing when circumstances are this rough?

Why?

Life revolves around school, which only added to my growing frustration as I sat in that classroom. The whole mission of ZanaA centers on keeping girls in school—in this place—by providing sanitary pads and knowledge.

Why? What good is coming from this? I thought.

Eventually, some students explained to me that because midterm exams were starting the next day, most teachers probably wouldn’t be teaching anything. I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation, but I was desperate to leave.

I walked away from school with more questions than answers. There was still so much I didn’t understand. As much as it I didn’t want to, I knew that I needed to go back…

Stay Tuned for Part II tomorrow!

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About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Dave Quigley said... 

    Reply

    July 25th, 2011 at 9:29 am  

    Great job Laura. Hard for us to realize the value of education when it comes so freely and so easily for us. Thanks for highlighting the needs and the hearts of the people of Kibera. Not many in this world
    do that for them.

  2. megan c said... 

    Reply

    July 25th, 2011 at 9:53 am  

    Wow to see the dedication these students have to continue an education that seems sub-par to us. Thanks Laura for your dedication to seeing all sides and aspects of the ZanaA project. Even these details which are hard to process. Looking forward to part 2!

  3. Josie Tilyou said... 

    Reply

    July 25th, 2011 at 10:02 am  

    That experience alone sounds like it could be a life altering moment for someone. It has made me realize how much I have taken for granted in our country. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Jenny Fitzgerald said... 

    Reply

    July 25th, 2011 at 1:13 pm  

    Laura~ thank you so much for sharing…as these posts often are…it was difficult to read and try to comprehend. Will be waiting for part II.

    Peace.

  5. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    July 25th, 2011 at 2:56 pm  

    Yeah, waiting for Part 2…but with some trepidation. Wow. I love what you all have been writing but I gotta tell you this has been tough. Thank you for bearing witness. We will be changed because of you being there for us.

  6. Phil Grizzard said... 

    Reply

    July 25th, 2011 at 2:56 pm  

    Laura,
    This is shocking, and makes the situation feel hopeless. It would be easier for us donors here to pat ourselves on the back and say, “we’re helping girls go to school, yay us.” But in order to provide the opportunity to make real change, we need to know what’s really going on.

    I think for the next several years – and maybe my whole life – I’ll find myself contributing to conversations with, “a friend of mine worked as a social justice intern in Kenya one summer, and she said…”

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