Friday, July 31, 2009

Sharing this project


Left: Max helps to build.  

A very special component of this project so far has been sharing it with my family.  Max, my brother,  arrived in Kenya along with Kennedy and I and immediately jumped right into work on the school.  He and I interviewed over 20 teachers while Kennedy worked to put all of the nuts and bolts of the land and construction in place.  While Kennedy talked with the District Commissioner of Nairobi, the District Office of Kibera, and local gangs securing permission to build Max and I, along with our headmistress and teachers, interviewed hundreds of students.  There has simply been more work to do than what Kennedy and I can do by ourselves.  Every minute there is a phone call to make, an exciting new development, a meeting to attend, a school to construct.... there is no such thing as down time.  We've been so lucky to have Max dive right in and juggle some of the balls we'd surely drop on our own.  

And if sharing all of this with Max wasn't special enough, my family arrived in Kenya this week eager to lend a hand.  My mom will be doing a workshop with teachers and the principal on developmental psychology and helping with the special emotional needs of our students who live such difficult lives.  My dad will be helping to build furniture, and just lend a hand.  My little sister Raphae will be helping to set up classrooms, and pitch in where ever 
needed.  Sharing this work with my family has made this time even more meaningful.  

This week construction is wrapping up.  We're all but finished with everything except for cementing the floor, and finishing the leveling of the ground.  Teachers are busy reading a lot of material prepared by education specialist Melissa Dearborn, immersing themselves in this very different style.  The kids are so excited, they wish school would begin tomorrow.  On August 5th we will have our next meeting with students to hand out uniforms and interview students about their lives to share with all of you!  As soon as the construction finishes we will be adding our water tank, electricity, and exploring the possibility of building a biodigester and adding solar panels!  

Stay tuned!  

Below:  Kennedy directs the construction of the library.  

Below 2:  Kennedy sits with first grade student Beldin Atieno and her mother to go over Beldin's contract.  Beldin signed with a smile.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thanks to the community... construction is well underway!


 From left K/1 teacher Madahana Mable, Kennedy Odede, Jessica Posner, pre-school teacher Janet Olesi, Headmistress Joan Okumu, k/1 teacher Naomi Njuku 

Every morning at 5:30 a.m. our construction site is bustling with activity.  Late into the evening people are still at work, sometimes not stopping before 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.  Then all night several young men keep watch, guarding the materials and the site, protecting a project that has become so very important to this vibrant and needy community.  All day young men from the Kibera community saw, hammer, chip away at rocks to level the ground, building our beautiful school.  All the while, they laugh and joke--the air is alive with their excitement.  As the youths work women cook and laugh, commenting on the construction and giving their own instructions.  Children stand on the side watching the progress, barely able to contain their excitement.  In only six days our school has begin to take shape, thanks to an outpouring of generous support from the Kibera community.  

In the meantime many other pieces are beginning to fall into place.  We just received a shipment of over 30 boxes from the Americans Friends of Kenya containing incredible school, supplies, the makings of our library, and uniforms.  On August 14th
Trees for The Future will begin to plant our sustainable garden, along with the community.  On August 15th we are planning to paint a community mural to decorate the school building.  We have also been investigating the possibility of solar panels and a biodigester, in line with our eco-sustainable vision.  The District Commissioner of all of Nairobi has even heard about our project, and called to give his support.  As the construction continues teachers, parents, and our headmistress all chip in.  In addition, Jessica has been meeting with the teaching staff to discuss the differences between our curriculum and traditional Kenyan schools.  Our teachers are eager to learn about our style of education based on exploration, hands-on learning, and creativity and ready to make it their own.  They have questions, ideas, and come with a deep belief that Kenyan education is in desperate need of reform.  

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Kibera School For Girls: View from the Ground

Below: Students at The Kibera School for Girls

As the end of our first full week in Kenya draws to a close exhilarated and exhausted can’t even begin to describe how we feel.  This is the first chance we’ve had to sit and reflect about the process of bringing The Kibera School for Girls to life.   Every moment since we first stepped off the plane has been consumed by this project which truly has a life of  it’s own.  This week we have interviewed over 350 students, visited their homes, and painstakingly selected 45 to start off our school with 15 students in pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade.  We have also worked extensively with our incredibly experienced headmistress, as well as selected three outstanding teachers, held two community meetings and one parent/student meeting and workshop.  We’ve begun plans for our sustainable garden, and last but not least… construction is well underway!  All in all, it’s been a good week.

            Our typical days begin at 6:30 a.m.   We are at the Shining Hope for Community Office in Kibera by 7:30 a.m. each day and don't leave before 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.  On the five days that we did student interviews the office was full by 8:00 a.m. with over 50 parents with children waiting patiently in line.  Over the past several days more than 350 students have waited in line for a chance to go to The Kibera School for Girls.  The tension has been high, as in all seriousness these children are waiting in line for a shot at having a very different life.  The desperate need for a free school for at-risk girls is staggering.  As I call child after child for their interviews I can’t help but wish that we could have three schools so we could take everyone who has an urgent need and desire for an education. 

            Our selection process has been governed by democratic principles.  After each child is interviewed a staff member from Kibera goes to visit their home.  As our school targets children who would have no way to pay school fees without us, it is important that we verify each child’s financial and living situation so that we serve those who need us the most.  Much of the time the report from this staff member is heart breaking.  Most of our applicants live in houses made of cardboard or discarded wood with such gaping holes that they might as well be living outside.  Furthermore, inside these houses there are no beds, no furniture, and most do not even have cooking utensils.  All of our accepted students own a single pair of clothes.  In the interviews themselves we, along with our headmistress, lead the child through a series of simple tests that gauge fine motor, cognitive processing, and verbal skills given to us by our education specialist Melissa Dearborn.  From there, we just talk to the child and ask why they want to go to our school, and if they could learn about anything what it is they would choose to learn about.  Finally, we interview their parents or guardians to find out more about the family and the financial situation, as well as about if the child has been involved in prostitution, has been sexually abused, or is at risk.  After this extensive interview process to ensure that we accept the most driven and at-risk students, we put the names of qualified children into a hat and selected randomly.  After we randomly select we also look to make sure that there is diversity of both religious and ethnic representation. The result is that we have forty-five girls whose lives have been changed and who could not be more excited about starting at The Kibera School for Girls.  I’d like to take a moment to introduce a few of our students:

Ashley Adhiambo is four years old and although she has never before gone to school, she taught herself how to write the alphabet.  She is curious about everything, and told us that if she could take a trip anywhere in the world it would be to “a real school.” 

 Ashley’s mother is single and only twenty-years-old.  Her father left as soon as he found out that he was about to have a child.  Ashley’s mother does not have a job, she survives by washing clothes whenever she can get work and earns only 300 shillings per month (the equivalent of $4).  She leaves to look for work early every morning and doesn’t return until late at night, and says that she often worries about Ashley’s safety, as she is left alone and vulnerable in an area of Kibera infamous for rape and abuse of young girls.  Now Ashley’s dream of visiting a real school is coming true along with her mother’s dream of finding a way to give her daughter a life that will be different from her own.  

Maureen Nyatichi is five years old.  Because her mother cannot pay for her to go to school she spends her days in her house caring for her three younger siblings while her single unemployed mother hustles for a way to feed her children.  Maureen's family own only a single towel, one pair of clothes each, and a discarded fairy tale book that Maureen found in the garbage.  Although she cannot read, Maureen often makes up elaborate tales as she pretends to read from this book in the hopes of distracting herself and her siblings from their pangs of hunger while they hope that their mother will return with something to eat.  Overwhelmed by the difficulty of taking care of her children without any help, Maureen's mother planned to abandon her children at an orphanage to try and survive on her own.  Now that Maureen has been accepted at The Kibera School for Girls her mother will continue to struggle because Maureen and the school have restored her ability to hope.  

Susan Akoth is six years old.  The youngest in a family of eight children, Susan was the first in her family to ever attend school through the support of an older sibling, as both of her parents are unemployed and living with HIV/AIDS.  However, after she finished kindergarten the family stumbled upon further misfortune when her oldest brother took poison.  Instead of killing him as he had hoped the posion put her brother in the hospital for two months.  As her family is unable to pay the medical fees, Susan had to stop school.  Despite the struggles her family has faced to survive, Susan never gave up hope that one day she might return to school.  When she was walking through Kibera searching through the garbage for something to eat she saw a sign advertising a free school for girls. 

On Wednesday we had our first meeting with accepted students and their parents.  At this meeting the neighbor/guardian of five-year-old orphan Alvin Moraa stood and began to cry.  He said that he has spent his life watching the plight of girls in Kibera.  He has stood by as little girls begin to trade sex for food, as five-year-old girls do the housework while their brothers go to school, and later as thirteen and fourteen year old girls begin to have babies of their own.  He said that he looked at Alvin and felt powerless, as he is without money or any way to give her and other girls an education.  He then said that The Kibera School for Girls has already changed Kibera by showing the community that there is another path that they can take.  At this point all of the parents began to cheer as we stood back and saw the power of a project that truly belongs to the community it serves.  

After this meeting, each parent and child came inside the office one by one to sign their contracts.  Parents agree that instead of paying school fees, they will work for the school five weeks out of the year to run sustainable microfinance projects.  They also sign a contract agreeing not to make their daughter do housework over homework, and to emotionally support their daughter as she gains an education.  Students also sign a contract saying that they will try their best, respect themselves, respect other chidlren, and respect the school, giving them ownership in their education from day one.  A few parents look on with bewilderment, as this is clearly not convention in Kibera but the children take the process very seriously.  Four-year-old Ashley Adhiambo meticulously signs her name by drawing a cup.  

Left: Ashley Adhiambo signs her contract along with Headmistress Okumu.  

The community has also rallied to construct the school itself.  Every day over 100 community members, many of whom do not have children attending the school, have volunteered their time to help build.  The community is excited for plans for a sustainable garden donated by Trees For The Future, and several workshops that will teach community members and parents how to grow vegetables in burlap sacks, called vertical gardens, which can be grown anywhere.  The community is also looking forward to the opening of the first free health clinic, a space for women's microfinance projects, and the very first free school.  

It has indeed been quite a week.  

Below: Kennedy speaks at a community meeting.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Adventure Begins!

Dear Friends,  

Tomorrow we leave bright and early for Kenya to begin building The Kibera School for Girls and Shining Hope Community Compound.  This compound, a recent development thanks to the American Friends of Kenya, will include The Kibera School for Girls (the first school for girls and only free school in all of Kibera), the Kibera Free Health Clinic (the only free health clinic in the slum), the Dennis Silver Memorial Family Library, The Women's Microfinance Empowerment Center and the SHOFCO Youth Center.  

We're very excited about this amazing beginning.  Our time in Kenya will be non-stop.  We arrive late the 16th and begin meeting with teachers early in the morning on the 17th.  This time will also be tremendously satisfying, humbling, and filled with lessons.  We will keep you posted on all of the details.  Follow the play by play here!

Thanks for your support,

Jess and Kennedy 

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Getting Started!

The Kibera School for Girls is a community-based initiative in Kenya's Kibera slum run by Shining Hope for Communities (  The Kibera School for Girls is the FIRST school for girls and the ONLY free school in the Kibera Slum, the largest slum in Africa.  This blog will document the process of building and setting up the school!  Stay tuned and join us on this journey!