Overcoming the challenges of life in Nairobi's slums

The recently established Dorothea Rescue Centre forms just one component of the Assumption Sisters of Eldoret’s response to the poverty of Nairobi’s slums, and the response of the Kenyan Church. This is the second article about Kenya by James Bradshaw. The first was published on Monday.

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At first glance, the poverty can easily be overlooked. Since achieving independence in 1963, Kenya has benefited from relative stability compared to its counterparts in east Africa, many of whom have been plagued by civil wars in the post-colonial era.

Visitors to the country’s capital arriving at the first-class Jomo Kenyatta International Airport can cruise into the city along the Nairobi Expressway toll road, recently constructed with Chinese funding.

Along the way, luxurious hotels and high-rise offices and apartment buildings make clear that this is a dynamic city, where affluent areas could easily be mistaken for areas of Europe or North America.

Yet there is another Nairobi which lags far behind. Of the city’s five million residents, around half live in slums.

Millions of people reside in ramshackle housing, without access to basic services and with little means of benefitting from the rising tide of economic growth.

Unsurprisingly, the children of the slums are particularly vulnerable to the social deprivation which surrounds them, and many find themselves homeless at a very young age.

In spite of the traditionalism of Kenyan society, family breakdown is common in these areas, as is physical and sexual abuse within family homes.

Widespread illegal drug use and the consumption of bootleg alcohol creates unsafe home environments, while also presenting temptation to children and teenagers who cannot see the potential drawbacks when even a sober life carries with it so much risk.

In such an environment, problems such as the severe regional food crisis fall hardest on people of limited means. Although the food crisis caused by several years of drought is more severe in isolated rural parts of the country, slum dwellers in this sprawling metropolis are being impacted.

Sister Mary Killeen is an Irish Sister of Mercy who has spent 46 years working among Nairobi’s poor. As director of the Mukuru Promotion Centre, she oversees four schools containing around 6,000 students, many of whom come from the Mukuru slum.

She says that children coming to her schools for the first time are often visibly malnourished. Although this soon changes thanks to the hot meals which are provided within the Centre, children often bring some of their lunch away in their pockets.

“One teacher found a boy taking home food in his pocket, and she said ‘why aren’t you eating your food?’ He said ‘because my mum and my brother are starving.’ When the teacher went there, she cried because she found the mother and the two children starving. And this little boy was bringing home a little bit of food - that’s all the food they were getting,” Sister Mary said.

According to Sister Caroline Ngatia, Director of Dorothea Rescue Centre, the push factors leading to homelessness differ between young boys and young girls who find themselves sleeping rough in outdoor shacks, between buildings or on the narrow strips of land which lie between busy highways and roundabouts.

Often, boys flee their homes to escape abusive fathers and stepfathers. On the other hand, girls tend to follow their mothers there, often to become mothers themselves at a very early age.

This intergenerational cycle of poverty and family breakdown is seen all across Kenya and is hard to break. The Assumption Sisters of Eldoret is just one group of many which has committed itself to trying to accomplish this feat.

Having first begun this work in the Morning Star rescue centre in the order’s home city of Eldoret, they now operate the Kwetu Home of Peace which caters for Nairobi’s street boys, as well as the more recently established Dorothea Rescue Centre to the east of the capital.

A similar approach is taken in each facility, with a strong focus on physical and mental rehabilitation in the first three months of a child’s stay, after which children can remain in the centres, be placed in boarding schools or foster homes, or returned to families where it is safe to do so.  

Reintegration to a safe and secure family environment is the ideal outcome, but one which often requires much hard work in assisting the family in creating such an environment where it did not exist before.

Due to this, the number of rescued children actually being housed in the Kwetu and Dorothea residential centres is dwarfed by the number of former residents who are now being aided in their second-level or third-level education.

In 2015, in partnership with others, the Assumption Sisters of Eldoret set up the Nyaatha Educational Endowment Fund in order to fund the education of children transitioning from rehabilitation centres.

A sign of the success of these efforts is the fact that Kwetu Home of Peace is currently supporting 125 boys in day schools or boarding schools and a growing number of alumni are now playing an active role in helping the next generation of street children to succeed.

Joseph Marka is a part time social worker in Kwetu who first passed through its doors in 2008, at a time when he was not actively participating in formal education.

Since then, he has been supported in his schooling all the way up to university, having earned a Bachelor of Commerce at the Strathmore University, which is located close to Kwetu. Though he has escaped the grinding poverty of the slums, he has not left Kwetu behind him, as he is now intent on helping younger people.

“Outside there,” he reflects, “I was not going to school, but now when I came here I was able to see that I was able to somehow realise my goals because I was able to access education.”

Other institutions in the educational or social sphere share the commitment of these nuns to building a better tomorrow. The authorities at Strathmore University, which is affiliated with Opus Dei, have made a particular effort to encourage young people from the slums to pursue education.

Their Macheo (Swahili for “Sunrise”) programme assists 150 secondary school students from seven schools in disadvantaged parts of the city.

These students come to the college for classes and mentoring each Saturday, with some of the mentors being ex-Macheo participants from the same areas of Nairobi.

Every year, around 10 or 12 Macheo students who have attained the high grades in the state exams apply to attend Strathmore, where support is available from the financial aid office and external donors.

In a country so populous, confronted by a seemingly intractable food crisis, it would be easy to despair. However, in places like Kwetu, Dorothea and Mukuru Promotion Centre, seeds are being planted which will surely reap a rich harvest.


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