A primary school and community center creating change in one of Nairobi's most challenged slums.
Location: Kitui Ndogo Slum, Nairobi, Kenya
THE KITUI NDOGO SLUM, home to an estimated 50,000 residents, many of who survive on less than $1 USD/day, is situated 15-minutes to the east of Nairobi's bustling city center in the gritty Eastleigh district. Its entrance lies at the intersection of Muinami and Digo St.
The slum is located opposite a contrasted middle class housing complex, footsteps from the towering Masjid Noor, a mosque rumored to be a recruiting center for the Somali-based al-Shabaab militant group. A highly polluted Nairobi river, doubling as waste dumping site, flows through this densely populated maze of crudely constructed, dilapidated structures mostly fashioned out of corrugated iron sheets and mud.
The poverty in Kitui is borderline hopeless and the security threats, real. Eastleigh floats in and out of the UK's no-go zone for foreigners, as kidnappings for ransom can occur, as well as grenade attacks. Kitui is plagued by crime, violence, prostitution, and drug and alcohol abuse given how harsh life is and the extreme level of poverty—and there is little hope of relief in sight.
Less than a handful of NGOs work in the slum due to its hazardous sanitation problems, security issues, and its relatively small size (it competes for attention with Nairobi's infamous Kibera slum, where thousands of NGOs operate). It is likewise neglected by the local government administration, which does not have the resources nor willpower to address the numerous, complex challenges facing residents of this community.
What Can Be Done?
The question is best answered through the story of Kitui Ndogo community leader, Teacher Grace Kavoi.
Historically, children growing up in the slum have not been able to go to school, as 100% free schooling is not yet provided by the Kenyan government. Since parents can't afford private school fees and often haven't been educated themselves (and, understandably, don't fully grasp the value of an education), the vast majority of kids sit outside all day unattended. Their all too likely fate is to succumb to the negative influence of the environment and repeat the cycle of poverty.
In 1998, following a call to be of service to these vulnerable children, Teacher Grace Kavoi decided to start a free daycare program, which she would end up calling “Malezi,” meaning to care for/nurture in Kiswahili.
Teacher Grace, as she is known to her students, started Malezi in her tiny home with just two students teaching the basics of education. As more students enrolled, she ended up renting a 10'x10' building with no windows and no electricity. Attracted to her dynamism and because of her growing role in the community as a leader, over the years, Grace would eventually receive more students than the space could accommodate, well over 60.
All expenses for Malezi had been funded almost entirely out of Grace's own pocket, as she never asked for fees from her students. However, in 2008, she started receiving organizational and financial support from the Centre for Partnership and Civic Engagement Trust (CEPACET), a local NGO, and in 2012, I got involved.
The stories of impact and change Teacher Grace — true to her name — is responsible for, are too many to count.
She has inspired many of her students to pursue education despite their challenges, which has resulted in some even entering into college. More than that, she teaches the importance of a moral, responsible life and has altered the courses of lives headed for gangs, crime, and prostitution—creating a number of community volunteers and change agents who are following in her footsteps.
Additionally, Grace's sacrifice, dedication, and love for the community has had the effect of motivating parents and community members alike to participate more meaningfully in their personal and civic lives. As a result, this one dynamic woman is helping to create change in an environment where you would not think it to be possible.
What can be done? People can care, even when others don't. In faith, they can give great service from the heart and work hard without regard to their own immediate needs. Through this, change, even in the most desperate of circumstances, can come. That is the story of Malezi.
A New Malezi
In 2012, I worked with CEPACET, Teacher Grace, as well as Kitui Ndogo's Chairman, Kilonso Abraham, to help facilitate the construction of a sewage system, which solved a hazardous sanitation issue that was endangering the lives of 6,000 residents. With this urgent task resolved, we were asked if anything could be done to upgrade Grace's overly crowded center to make room for additional students.
Agreeing to the project, we envisioned a large, two-story structure with enough classrooms to comfortably seat 200 children across the Primary School grade levels. For sustainability purposes, we intended to purchase the land the school would be built on to avoid a monthly rent payment, as well as invest in a 10,000 liter water tank to sell clean water to the neighboring residents for income (given most of the students would not be able to afford much in the way of school fees).
The cost to launch? More than $20,000.
After an 11.5 month fundraising journey I led in 2013, the necessary funds were raised. On Christmas Eve of the same year, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the land, signaling the start of construction and a new chapter for the children and residents of the Kitui Ndogo slum.
The new and improved Malezi School and Community Centre was officially inaugurated on 28 January 2014 in the presence of parents, students, community members and leaders, as well as representatives from the local government administration.
Currently, Malezi School has more than 200 students enrolled and has been certified by the government as an official Complementary School. Due to its popularity, the space was expanded late in 2017 to include four new classrooms, which allows each primary school grade to now be taught (and the possibility for students to graduate and enroll in secondary school). These are dreams, just a short while ago, that were impossible to dream of.
Lunch and Urban Farm Launch
Hunger is a persistent challenge in Kitui Ndogo and among the school’s students. It is not uncommon for people to eat only one meal per deal and it is not uncommon for students to, at times, go several days without eating when money dries up at home. As a result, Malezi has regularly dealt with attendance issues, lack of engagement in the classroom, as well as poor exam performance—not to mention a few medical emergencies.
We have known since the relaunch that offering lunch to the entire student body and faculty would be essential, as you can’t have a proper school if your students are hungry. It’s just that this dream has always seemed out of reach because offering lunch is a relatively expensive endeavour, and there is no way to pass the costs on to the parents via increased school fees.
That was, until, we were connected to the Pema Chödrön Foundation, who graciously decided in 2018 to support the annual cost of offering lunch at Malezi. Now, all students and teachers are treated to a nutritious meal, Monday-Friday, lovingly cooked by two community members closely connected to the school. There is a rotating menu that includes, rice, kidney beans, green grams, chapati, ugali, and mixed veggies. Teachers, in the afternoon, are also treated to tea and biscuits, which helps to compensate for their relatively low pay and reduce the high turnover rate.
Coupled with a serving of breakfast millet porridge a donor-friend in the US has been supporting over the years, we have done all that we can toward eliminating the school’s hunger issues while, also, vastly increasing its standing and credibility in the community.
Thanks to the inspiration of some friends from Canada, the idea of launching an urban farm to grow vegetables and create a platform for teaching self-reliance and agriculture values with the students was hatched. With support from The People Bridge Charity in Toronto, the farm quickly became a reality early in 2018.
See for yourself. Here’s Teacher Andrew Matheka demonstrating the kale, carrots, and other vegetables being grown footsteps from the school.
Though the farm is located in a small plot, it is producing enough veggies for the lunch days that call for them. There are also a number of students involved with its maintenance, which is helping to fulfill the farm’s secondary mission of being a teaching tool.
A Platform for Change
Malezi began as a school but has grown into a center for community transformation, which is changing lives and gradually improving conditions in the slum.
For example, during an area survey, Malezi staff discovered that, "80% of the [Malezi students'] parents are poor single mothers and 20% (either the father or mother) are addicted to local alcohol or use drugs. Due to this, the parents are not able to take care of their children properly, including paying the little school fees of 350 Shillings ($3.50)/month."
In an effort to remedy this problem, the parents were invited to a meeting at the center so Malezi staff could better understand the challenges they were facing. During this meeting, under and unemployment was understood to be the most pressing issue.
For those willing to commit, an idea was proposed to start a collective chama (savings) program in order to save for the equipment necessary to start a small cake baking business, for which there is a viable market in the area and so the possibility of earning money in a dignified way. Out of the 40 parents who attended this meeting, 26 committed to the program. They named themselves MPI or the Malezi Parents Initiative and began the work ahead of them.
In addition to their own savings, the MPI members received outside support from LivingSmile supporters that enabled them to launch their "Upendo Café" well ahead of schedule. In addition to cakes, the café serves tea, as well as local snacks and staples. Though the group has a long way to go before each currently active member earns enough to subsist on, the café is meeting its monthly expenses and, at times, generates some profit.
This is how poverty is solved. Not only through creating viable income generating activities but, more importantly, by cultivating the right kind of values and commitment necessary to work through a challenge as a great as only earning $1/day with a family to feed.
Malezi has often been described as a "beam of light" in the community and we expect several other such stories to emerge, as its roots grow deeper.
Donate or Volunteer
For the latest news and updates, sign up with your email below.
If you are interested in supporting the center, click the donate button below. Or, be in touch to discuss specific projects to support or other ways to get involved, such as volunteering if you happen to be traveling in Nairobi.