Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me… – Psalm 23:1-4
In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of – Confucius
Mathare Valley, Nairobi, Kenya
I had the wonderful, and simultaneously heartbreaking, opportunity to visit the Mathare Valley in Nairobi, Kenya last week. Mathare Valley is an extremely large and violent slum, an unfortunate result of political, military, social and economic forces that combine to form a place of need and want unlike any other. Officially, 600,000 people live in three square miles of 6’x6′, sometimes 6’x8′, corrugated sheet metal shanties. Fires, violence, and hopelessness are common daily experiences. It is a pitiful place that no one should have to live in.
Yet people do live there. I met a woman who has lived there seventeen years. She is a widow with nine children including one who has blessed her with three grandchildren. This multi-generational family lives in one of the larger shanties, thankfully. The youngest sleep on the dirt floor at night. The conditions for living in Mathare valley are unimaginable to a first-worlder. While the wiki site for Mathare valley is thin on the details, the wiki site for Kibera, a sister slum in Nairobi, contains statistics that are similar to Mathare, including how it came to be in the first place and why it will likely never cease. Sometimes when people experience something like this, a singular experience, something spiritually charged and life changing, they call it a mountaintop experience. My experience was rather that of an infinitely deep chasm.
My purposes in traveling to the Valley are somewhat convoluted. A faith-based non-governmental organization (NGO) located in the Chicago area connected with local architects and engineers seeking design and construction assistance for a new school facility. Through a network of associates and friends of friends, I was invited to be a member of this Mathare Valley dream team because of my faith connection and experience designing educational facilities. A group of six of us, three design professionals and three NGO staff, traveled to Nairobi intending to meet the people working on the ground, establish personal relationships, and to conduct a bit of educational operations assessment, facility reconnaissance and forensics. Assistance in the design of a new facility was the lead ask by the NGO, but we expected an assessment of existing conditions might yield some additional questions and potential outcomes. I speak to some of these later in this preliminary post.
The NGO works alongside a local church/outreach program in the Valley. The church provides for the community in the Valley through its own resources and generous global food and services organizations including World Food Program, Samaritan’s Purse, Bright Hope, and others. The church provides food to children and community members, spiritual development to the community, and educational programs from babycare (their version of Western daycare/preschool) through secondary school.
The church runs four primary schools and a secondary school as part of their holistic outreach programs to serve the people of the Valley. The matriarch of the church explained to us that she began teaching the children in small educational settings, but found they were so hungry that they could not pay attention to her lessons. Thus began their children’s feeding program, porridge for breakfast, and boiled maize and beans for lunch, with some occasional variations, to strengthen malnourished children toward the goals of spiritual development and primary/secondary education. The ministry runs an orphanage as well, but I can’t talk about all of the tangential threads of the amazing impact of these caregivers. I will address some preliminary observations of existing conditions in the schools themselves.
Teacher A. What a privilege it was to sit in on this brilliant, dynamic teacher’s geometry class in secondary school.
The prototypical classrooms we observed were approximately 18′ wide and 24′ deep, sometimes oriented the other way. In the US, we would call this less than half a classroom, a room that would house perhaps twelve students and one teacher (though teachers and parents would argue this to be completely inadequate, as would the US Department of Education). In this very small space between forty and sixty students are housed with a single teacher, sometimes aided by a parent or other volunteer. Since the student populations thin as you get closer to the secondary levels, these classrooms become ironically, though perilously, more spacious (i.e. less upper level students remain in school which results in smaller numbers of students per class and per teacher).
The school we are charged with replacing is a well-intended, deeply bathed in love and care and devotion, exquisite corpse, a shanty added to shanty until eventually a whole school, babycare through Form 4 (the US version of 12th grade), emerged. I cannot say enough about the heart of those who realized these schools. They did so with nothing and they are educating children who have nothing. What motivates this love? The glimmer of hope in the midst of absolute hopelessness? One third of these children will likely die from AIDS. Some will die from too much of the toxic local brew, changaa. Most will experience and/or witness violence in various forms.
The school is a private school in the Valley, one of many faith-based outreach private schools. The government operates four schools for the community of 600,000. The supplemental private schools are the only hope of modest formal education for the vast majority of the people of the Valley. Education is not compulsory in Nairobi, many children do not attend any school at all. Since police do not enter the Valley, enforcing education wouldn’t be possible anyway. Private schools are expensive for parents in the Valley. Humanitarian aid from the outside is the only way education happens in the Valley at all.
Below are some images and descriptions of the current conditions of the school we are replacing. The funding for the school will likely come from US philanthropic efforts. While the conditions do not inspire, there is nonetheless inspirational work happening in this and other schools in the Valley. Children graduate from these schools and go on to technical programs and the universities. We met a former Mathare Valley resident who lives and works in Wisconsin on the flight home to O’hare! There is always hope, no matter how seemingly deep the valley.
A covered view window at student eye-level, a modestly effective high window for a limited daylight. This is the exterior of about 1/2 of a classroom beyond. The daylighting levels are about 5 foot-candles, the ideal in the US/EU is 25-30 fc. A single 4′ fluorescent tube light hangs in the space. Newly installed! God bless that recent visitor and visionary!
Thank God long span structural options are simply not possible with available materials and resources here (preventing accidental collapse and interfering with daylighting potential). The result are bar-shaped building forms, and in this case, an incidental triangular courtyard results (a function of a trapezoidal site), drawing modest amounts of incidental daylight into the core side of the classrooms on all three sides of the courtyard. The courtyard is flanked on the second floor with walkways that enter the classrooms. The construction materials are of such modest quality that at any moment I was expecting my foot to penetrate the walkway. Of course this has nothing to do with intent or design, but rather economic capacity and ability to provide for operations and maintenance. Some very well intended person regularly cares for these facilities! The courtyard is awful for acoustic control, of course. Since the kitchen is an open fire without any form of ventilation, mealtime smoke drifts into the public spaces and classroom indiscriminately.
A rather humble place to learn. Three pupils per bench. Three columns of five or six rows of pupils. Some daylight, some artificial light. No books, no visual aids, no entertainment! The kids have two things, a belly full of food and teachers who have hearts larger than the world.
This preliminary snap-shot of our recon visit will be followed up later this fall with an account of our programming process which is now underway. The dream team is eagerly considering the existing conditions, context, suitability, and potential of a new school in this environment. If, after reading this very long initial account, you know of successful case studies that lean toward resilient solutions that you could point us toward, we would be very grateful. We do not presume to be the only dreamers. Please contact me directly.
Life begins on the other side of despair – Jean Paul Sartre (wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Lord – Augustine)
Serving Lunch at Mathare 2016