This is an excerpt from Ellie Roscher’s forthcoming book Slowly by Slowly, Spring 2017, Viva Editions, which chronicles a girls school started by Abdul in Kibera, a slum in Kenya.
Ellie Roscher is the Director of Youth and Story Development at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Twin Cities. Author of How Coffee Saved My Life and forthcoming Slowly by Slowly, she is also an editor, blogger, speaker and teacher. Ellie earned her MA in Theology from Luther Seminary and her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Minneapolis with her spouse and son, and you can find more of her work at ellieroscher.com.
If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.
When Asha’s father, Jaffar, was ten years old, his grandmother made him promise to name his first daughter after her. He lived up to his promise. Asha’s great-grandmother was a stern, independent woman who never had a husband. She didn’t give into societal pressure to marry, and instead raised her children and grandchildren on her own. Asha’s dad tells her she looks like her great-grandmother. “I even share some of her mannerisms and habits,” Asha said. “Like I caught her spirit. I am proud to be her namesake.”
Asha’s mother, Zubeda, was born in Uganda, the granddaughter of a parliament member. At age ten, she was forced to come to Kenya as a refugee during the Idi Amin era. Zubeda’s mother was very educated, but lost all her documents in the war and could not prove her status in Kenya. They lived in a tent provided by the UN in a refugee camp on the border of Uganda and Kenya for a few years where Khadijah taught her daughter Zubeda to plait hair and cook samosas to make money. Zubeda stopped going to school in the eighth grade. Khadijah opened a restaurant while her husband worked as a driver for the Saudi Arabian embassy. They sent Zubeda to Kibera to stay with relatives. There she met Jaffar and has stayed with him ever since. She never went back to school, but Asha remembers thinking her mother was very smart because she spoke English.
Asha asked, “Why did you leave school in the eighth grade?”
Zubeda said, “I don’t like talking about my past. Maybe you will look down on me because I am not educated.”
The war was hard on Asha’s mother. Zubeda says the sounds of bombs and gunshots are still in her head thirty years later. Asha worries about her.
“The life she lived, I understand,” Asha said. “She didn’t go to school. She was so young when she married my dad and had me. I think I trapped her in a life she didn’t want.”
Asha’s family, like many families in Kibera, did not have a toilet. Because Kibera is not recognized by the government as an official city, no public funds go into sanitation, and few individuals can afford to build their own toilet. It’s an issue of privacy, health and dignity. Asha and her siblings urinated on small pieces of used polythene and threw them out into the terrace. They defecated into small plastic bags and threw them on the ground. The nearest toilet they could use was a ten-minute walk from the house and cost five shillings ($0.06 USD) per use. The kids learned to relieve themselves just about anywhere they could, leaving an environment and a stench that neighbors with toilets complained about.
Asha shared a mattress with her sister Sherifa on the floor. When it rained, water came through the roof into their room. They’d fight over their shared blanket and cry from the cold.
There were stretches where Asha’s family didn’t have sufficient water. Asha got up at five, sometimes four when it was very scarce, to go find water. And that water needed to be boiled to be safe to drink. Her stomach ached from the water and from the hunger. They ate boiled maize, which didn’t suffice. When her siblings complained from hunger, she crept with them over to their neighbor’s trash bin to pull out pieces of fruit he threw into a dustbin. They sifted through the dustbin for the fruit, shook it off and sucked on the remaining strings of fiber. It was the same bin he threw his feces in. One day the neighbor wondered to Asha’s mom about why his dustbin was emptier every day.
“Maybe it’s the dogs,” Zubeda said.
When she realized it was her children, she beat them for their bad manners.
“We couldn’t help it,” Asha said. “We were hungry.”
Years later, Asha heard that her neighbor was HIV positive. She didn’t know much about the disease, and worried she could have contracted HIV by eating fruit with his saliva and feces on it. She was skinny and getting skinnier from lack of nutrition, taking black tea for breakfast and boiled maize for dinner. No meat, seldom milk. She got tested for HIV at school and was convinced she would test positive. When it came back negative, she danced around the room in relief.
Jaffar worked hard to maintain several rental properties for profit, and over the years built a toilet, built beds and expanded the house. Asha worried though, because she thought the stress of providing for his wife and six children would one day be too much.
She heard him say, “I just want to leave you people and go away because things are getting hard for me.”
So on nights when it reached midnight and he didn’t show up she told her siblings, “Maybe he left us.”
But he didn’t.
As the oldest, Asha cared for her five younger siblings while her parents worked. At night the kids would call for Asha, not their mother, to come comfort them. At age ten she was changing diapers, feeding babies, and kissing scraped knees. She grew up quickly. When her mother came home from work, if anything seemed amiss in the house, she beat Asha. Asha showed her swollen hands to her father when he came home from work.
“Is she really my mother?” Asha asked him.
She garnered her strength, proud she could be beaten without crying. At night, she asked God, “If you love your children, why do you let me suffer? If I’m supposed to love my parents, why doesn’t my mom love me back?”
One evening, before her father came home from work, her baby sister started fussing while her mother was making dinner. Asha couldn’t get her sister to calm down, and her mom snapped. Zubeda grabbed Asha by the arm and held her hand over the kerosene lamp until it burned. Instead of screaming in pain, Asha went straight to her room and skipped dinner out of sheer anger. The next morning, she showed her father her burned hand.
“Look what mom did to me,” she said. Then she left for school.
That same day Jaffar took her out of class at school.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Your aunt’s house,” he replied.
She lived with Zalikah, her aunt, for two years. Life was difficult there as well. Her three cousins teased her for being beaten and burned. One of Asha’s jobs was fetching charcoal for the jiko. She came back with the charcoal and tried to leave to shower and do her homework.
Her cousin refused to light the jiko saying, “I cannot touch charcoal. These are things you are used to doing. You are black like charcoal, so it won’t matter.”
This wasn’t the first time she had been compared to charcoal. She was born in Kenya, but her Nubian great-grandparents came from Southern Sudan. Asha’s skin is very dark. In Kibera, culture says the lighter the skin the better. In class at school, her teacher asked the class for examples of similes.
One student offered, “As dark as coal.”
Another added, “As dark as Asha.”
Lighter-skinned girls refused to sit by her. Boys called her black monkey. For as long as she can remember, Asha has associated her dark skin with dirtiness. She grew up hating her color.
Asha’s mother assumed that her kids would live a life similar to hers: go to school through primary, drop out, live in Kibera, raise families. Her grandmother also assumed this for Asha. Zubeda and Khadijah believed that as soon as a girl started menstruating she was ready to behave like a woman, get married and start having babies. Asha’s Islamic schoolteacher told her that girls have to start taking life seriously when they start menstruating. They have to start behaving in a way worthy of being a man’s wife. They have to learn to cook, care for babies, clean and be responsible. In the Nubian culture, it’s common for parents to sell their daughters off at a young age. A man will see a girl he likes and approach the parents of the girl with interest. When the girl starts menstruating, the parents will go to the family of the man and arrange the marriage. There are more and more women marrying by choice, but it is more difficult if the girl is poor.
“Some girls start menstruating at age nine. That is no time to be a wife!” She wanted more. She was determined to shock her whole community someday by announcing, “I am going to college.” But there is a distinct pressure starting when a girl begins menses. It becomes a fight to stay in school.
Asha feels lucky that she didn’t start menstruating until her second year at KGSA. But still, then, she did not feel ready to be married. She wanted to study. “Maybe if my mother were nice I wouldn’t know how to fight. But I have fight in me.”
On her first day at KGSA, Asha realized she bought the wrong uniform tie. Her tie matched the plaid of the skirt, and the other girls had a navy tie with white stripes. She also brought a desk painted bright yellow. Some girls poked fun at her, others commented on how tall she was. But she was undeterred. When teachers asked her to introduce herself to the class, she did so with a loud, crisp voice.
“Do you want to be here to continue your education or were you forced?” they asked.
“I want to come. It was my will to come to school.”
Many girls, when they join KGSA as first years, are timid and insecure. They haven’t found their voices yet. Asha was not like most girls. Teka remembers her raising her hand to speak repeatedly on her first day. When there was an opportunity to send some students to an HIV/AIDS awareness event in Machakos, then, Teka sent Asha with some third year students.
“Take Asha,” he said. “She knows how to speak her mind.”
It was her first time out of Nairobi. She met girls from schools outside of Kibera and thought, “I want to talk like those girls.”
Meeting girls from bigger schools who have lived very different lives than Asha inspired her. The next day at KGSA, she asked Teka if she could join the Journalism Club.
“Yes, grab a seat. Write about everything.”
Asha started KGSA in 2008, right after the post-election violence. During the violence, the government closed all the schools in Kenya for three weeks, so the 2008 school year started late. When school reconvened, there were twenty-five girls in third year, twenty-five in second year and thirty new first years. The school lost some students who had been displaced, but the violence also created more need in Kibera. Some families who could afford secondary tuition before the violence were no longer able.
With KGSA adding one more class each year, the budget swelled with more free lunches to serve, more free sanitary pads to distribute and more teachers to pay. Sporting Chance, Vision Africa and the MSID students in the United States paid for food and building the new school building on Konga’s land, but KGSA needed major funding partners. In 2008 they did just that. PADEM, or Programmes d’Aide et de Développement destinés aux Enfants du Monde, is a French NGO working to improve the quality of life of children by partnering with local civic groups in developing countries. They donated $22,000. In 2007, KGSA raised $3,575. Because of PADEM’s grant, in 2008 the budget was $26,500. PADEM found KGSA through a film featuring Abdul.
Abdul knew the girls’ lives were compelling, and some of the girls were eager to have their story heard. Abdul understood that to get money into Kibera, he had to get information about their standard of living out of Kibera. Film was an effective way to show people around the world how they were living.
One day Abdul’s friend called him and said, “I met these freelance film guys who are working for the UN making documentaries. You have to come meet them. Now.”
Abdul agreed, and met up with them. He told them the story of KGSA.
David Gough, the lead filmmaker, was interested immediately. He had been in Kibera a while but hadn’t yet found a local, charismatic storyteller like Abdul. David loved both Abdul and the concept of the school. KGSA was his missing puzzle piece.
Abdul knew enough about the UN to know this was not an opportunity to pass up. When David Gough asked to feature KGSA in his film about Kibera, Abdul agreed.
Hoping it would be KGSA’s first big break in the new location, Abdul put in sixteen hours on tape. He and David became fast friends. David trained him to be more effective on camera, considering eye contact, volume and enunciation. It is paying off to this day. At press time, KGSA has appeared in eight films over seven years.
The filmmakers don’t give money directly to the actors. The UN shows the documentaries in diplomatic circles all over the world, and funding may come from the film’s networking capabilities. The film team launched Slum Survivors at the UN-IRIN (United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks) offices at Gigiri in Nairobi. Abdul was invited to attend. At that point Abdul had not yet seen the film and had no idea what to expect.
It was exciting to see so many viewers, so much buzz about a film he appeared in. After segments on a mother with HIV, a man who had turned away from gang life full of drugs, stealing and violence, and a man who emptied latrines to provide for his family, Abdul appeared on screen. There he was, in a soccer jersey and jeans sitting by a barbed-wire fence with a trash-filled dirt road behind him, explaining his dream.
“I saw that there was no gender equity between the girl child and the boy child here in Kibera,” he said to the camera. “At that small level that I was at, I thought we should start making these girls do things that these men can do and they can do it fairly better. So we started a girls soccer team.”
He explained how his twelve- and thirteen-year-old players never went to secondary school. Some started getting pregnant, so he started the school. There’s footage of a new classroom being built, and he speaks of how bad he feels when he can’t pay the teachers. The film cuts to Christina, a KGSA student, brushing her teeth as the narrator explains how she cares for her five siblings and how she goes to KGSA against her father’s will.
“Staying at Abdul’s school, even though it is free, is a constant battle,” the narrator says. She points out that Abdul could use the land for something that makes him money, but he doesn’t. She quotes him adding, “The problems of the urban poor, he says, are everybody’s problems.”
As Abdul climbs onto a train to head out of Kibera to his job, his voiceover says, “Education is only replacing an empty mind with an open mind.”
The viewer sees Abdul, looking out of the train window to the slum. “If there was an equitable distribution of resources all over the world, chances are there would be a more peaceful world.”
David invited Abdul to address the crowd. The feedback on the film was positive. David told Abdul they distributed 8,000 copies of the film in hopes of spreading interest and concern to people around the world.
The making and launch of Slum Survivors was a turning point for Abdul. Kibera was not on the map, literally or figuratively. His dream of letting the world know that Kibera existed was coming true.
After it aired and started circulating in Europe, David wrote Abdul and said representatives from a French organization liked the film and asked him for Abdul’s contact information. Shortly after, Abdul received an email from a woman named Magali Getrey. She represented a group called PADEM, and she told Abdul she was coming to Kenya to see the school.
“Okay, now this is serious,” Abdul said aloud to his computer screen.
Magali and her husband came to see KGSA. They were a hit, bringing the whole student body out to dinner and dancing.
When they left, she told Abdul, “Keep your fingers crossed on July 13. That is the day of a decisive meeting. I will be in touch.”
After the meeting, Magali wrote Abdul and said, “Your program has gone through. We found you funding in France. We will send you 50,000 Euros ($64,250 USD) over three years. What are your priorities?”
The school had run for two years on less than $5,000. Abdul had been waiting for this day. He knew what the next step needed to be.
“I want to build. I want to expand the school.”
“Okay, can you get a contractor?”
“No, I want the people of Kibera to build this school.”
Abdul knew that if Kiberans built the school, a piece of them would remain with KGSA. He wanted the Kiberans to feel like they owned the school. They needed to keep growing. With PADEM’s money, KGSA started the final construction phase of a third classroom. The school logo, matching the emblem on the uniform sweaters, was painted on the wall. Desks were purchased for the entire third year classroom.
Every quarter Abdul wrote a report to PADEM, attached the receipts, and sent them by post. And every quarter PADEM sent another fourth of the annual funds promised. For the first time in the school’s history, Abdul breathed easier and looked around at what the school needed beyond teachers, food, sanitary pads and classrooms.
Abdul saw the effects of the post-election violence in the girls at school. Jamiah had a low KCPE score in primary in part because she missed three weeks of school after being shot. KGSA accepted Jamiah in spite of her low test scores, but she continued to struggle. She said she worried about who would keep her siblings safe while she was in class.
“Maybe if I wasn’t there to tell them to get inside, it would be them and not me getting shot.” Girls just started crying in class. Students who were usually attentive fell asleep. Abdul named a couch in the library “The Chill Out Zone” and told teachers to let girls just take a break from school to go and relax.
The kids started coming to school under a lot of pressure. The global financial crash of 2008 hit Kenya, specifically Kibera, hard. Food prices rose globally. Kiberans started buying bread by the slice, not the loaf. The government was slow at subsidizing milk and maize.
Abdul and Teka considered broader factors limiting the girls’ academic performance. If they wanted KGSA to thrive instead of just survive, Abdul and Teka rightly decided to address the parents. The better the parents are doing, the better the girls are doing. They expanded the circle of support, redefining who belonged to and benefitted from KGSA.
Abdul started visiting KGSA families to see what was happening. Many had lost property and businesses from looting. None of them could afford enough food. All of them were scared. Some parents unleashed anger on the kids. KGSA offers one free meal a day, and that was all a lot of the girls were eating. Abdul and Teka knew they had to financially support the parents so the girls could stay in school instead of getting married or starting work.
“There was again more pressure on the girls to earn money and drop out of school. We couldn’t have that. We needed to relieve the pressure at home so the girls could learn,” Abdul said.
“So I talked to PADEM, and they visited the girls in their homes, too. The students suggested that if the parents were given some money to start a business, they could support the kids to work hard in school. PADEM put in 2,000 Euro ($2,788 USD) for us to start a micro-finance program. We trained the parents and gave them a bit of money to get going again. And you know what? It worked. The kids stopped needing The Chill Out Zone. They came to school ready to learn.”
There were 100 people who came to the first micro-finance meeting, ninety percent were women. KGSA hired Faridah, the Girls Soccer in Kibera player, to help run the micro-finance program.
“My job is walking to see the businesses. I need to know where my clients live and what kind of business they do,” she said. “It’s hard to be an orphan and a single mom—it can get lonely. I’m much better off now that I have to go see people for my job.”
Faridah’s mom was sick for seven years before she died and couldn’t work. Faridah tells the KGSA parents her mom’s story to encourage them to be grateful to have work. Parents can ask for 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 shilling loans ($58.27, $116.55 or $174.82 USD) according to the size of their business. The groups each meet weekly and are trained on how to budget and save. It is a place to bring concerns, both personal and professional.
“We share as a family,” Faridah says. “The parents are part of KGSA. They share, and we find solutions.”
Part of the savings goes into a social fund to help the group pay for unexpected life expenses like medical bills. At the end of the year, the rest of the savings is given back to them. KGSA gives small loans from the savings. If a parent takes 1,000 shillings ($11.65 USD), she comes back with 200 ($2.33 USD) in interest. The interest is distributed to the parents at the end of the year.
“We also have a merry-go-round. Every meeting they come with 100 shillings ($1.17 USD). When it is your turn, the money is given to you.”
The micro-finance program for the KGSA parents is so essential because, as Teka said, “People don’t have access to banking services here in Kibera. No one from the outside trusts us or wants to deal with such small sums of money. Ultimately, my dream is to start a bank in Kibera for Kiberans. That is why I want to go to university for finance and commerce. Here, for a parent to be given a loan, she needs to have security. We rely on social security in our micro-finance program. We give the loan to the whole group, and the whole group needs to make sure that the loans are paid back.”
The tailoring businesses seem to be doing well, as are the food shops. In Kibera, the women like putting on good clothes and looking sharp, and people have to eat. Faridah says the biggest challenge is when parents have to take money away from their business for family expenses. It’s a big change for some of the mothers in the program to wait and trust that the capital will turn into profit. Saving is scary if one has never done it. Families also must adjust to have the women running a business.
“They used to be dependent on their husbands. The first meeting, I was calling the roster, and there was one parent missing. ‘Do you know where this person is?’
“’No,’ the others said.
“The next meeting, I called the roster again, and she was gone again. Now I was forced to call her.
“’Why are you not coming to the meeting?’ She told me she was not feeling well.
“Then the third meeting, I called the roster again, and she was not there. So I had to go see her. She was being beaten by her husband. That’s why she wasn’t coming. Her husband didn’t want her to go out of the house and start a business. She was supposed to stay home. I told the group, and we decided to pay her a visit. We went and her husband was there. We talked to him and changed his mind. Now he lets her come to the meetings. At times, the husbands think the wives are going to see other men. There’s a lot of insecurity as the women are learning business.”
There are fathers in the group as well. Phobian Odinga took his 10,000 shilling loan ($116.55 USD) and started buying and selling eggs. He makes bread for people in the morning and sells cigarettes in the afternoon. In the evening he sells kale and tomatoes.
“With the profit I get from the small business, I buy books for my children. I had a worn shoe, and now thanks to the micro-finance, I’m able to buy a new shoe and sustain myself and life,” he says. “I was able to start a worthy life. They visit me at my house and track my wellbeing. This is a school, and yet they care that my business is going well, too.”
Teka said, “We had only 100,000 shillings ($1,165.49 USD) to give from the PADEM grant. It could not be enough to help everyone. But the ones who stayed are taking it very seriously. The difference was felt almost immediately.” KGSA was becoming more than a school.
Jamiah said now as a third year she is concentrating better in school. She wants to do better on her KCSE than on her KCPE. “I try to forget,” she said. “Life should begin.”
Faridah was not the only Girls Soccer in Kibera player hired at KGSA in 2008. Abdul got Claris to come back, too. Claris loved her boarding school experience in Kisumu, and there fell in love with math. In math class, after her teacher did an example on the board, Claris would ask to do the next one. At the board, she imagined being a teacher someday.
Claris was sure she was university material, but earned a C+ on her KCSE exam. With a C+, she’d have to pay tuition. With no hope for a college scholarship, she moved back into her mother’s home after graduation. While she was away, some of her siblings had gotten into prostitution or ended up on the streets. They came back sick, or with a child of their own. Without the geographical distance and no more studies to keep her busy, she started worrying. She had the most education, and her siblings were looking to her for support.
She stayed up at night wondering, “How will my family survive?”
When Claris’ boarding school was on holiday break, she’d visit Abdul and the girls at KGSA. She volunteered in the classroom, mentored the new goalies, and helped organize soccer matches.
When she graduated she went to Abdul at KGSA and said, “I can teach math and geography. The girls know me. They know where I come from. I can reach them.”
“Definitely. But you can’t teach in that track suit.”
He gave her some money and told her to buy clothes that would help her feel like a teacher. Her professional wardrobe gave her confidence to believe she could deliver. She taught classes at KGSA during the day, became a soccer official, and trained soccer goalies in Kibera in the evening. With an income, the first thing she did was buy furniture. She bought a few chairs and new beds for her mom’s house. One by one, her siblings moved back in.
She told her students proudly that on her teaching salary at KGSA she was supporting her mom and fourteen siblings.
“I told them that I’m holding my family together. I teach them math, but I also show them that staying in school pays off. They too, some day, will be able to buy furniture for their families and make their homes beautiful.”
After she provided some financial stability for her family, she decided to pay her own school fees. She couldn’t afford university, but started to take night classes at Kenya Institute of Management working toward her certificate in business management. That, too, did some effective modeling for her students. They were proud their math and geography teacher, Ms. Claris, who grew up in Kibera, was reaching beyond secondary for more education. Claris established herself and continues to be a stable female force at KGSA. Like Teka and Musa, she has stayed and grown tremendously as a teacher during her tenure. Her consistent presence is even more valuable considering it is harder to retain female teachers than male.
Another important addition to the KGSA faculty in 2008 was Josephat, Linet’s brother. Linet’s mom got sick with malaria while she was a third year. Linet started going without food more and more often because Alice was too sick to work and purchase food. To support her mom, Linet started doing laundry for small sums of money.
She asked neighbors, “Do you have anything else for me to wash so we can eat?”
At home, Alice shivered terribly while her body temperature continued to rise.
She worried aloud to Linet, “When I die, I am going to leave you in a bad state.”
Linet and Josephat were with Alice in her upcountry home when she died. With over a year of school left, Linet didn’t see how she could continue to attend KGSA and make enough money to survive.
“Come back to Nairobi,” Teka told her. “You have to finish school.”
Abdul hired Josephat as a teacher at KGSA so he could support Linet while she studied. He was not trained to be a teacher, but the students liked him, and they learned.
Abdul found people like Claris, Faridah and Josephat who needed the school as much as the school needed them. Hiring his own was an intentional decision. Instead of finding trained teachers in Nairobi, he preferred Josephat, Claris and Faridah because they understood what the girls and parents at KGSA were dealing with outside the classroom. They had instant rapport. It was these teachers who, despite the low pay, stayed year after year offering increased stability to the girls. The staff grew from eight to thirteen in 2008. Teacher salaries were raised to 4,000 shillings a month ($46.95 USD) in hopes of retaining them, compared to the 12,000 shilling salary of a government-run school teacher who is required to have a college degree. With the teachers and the parents doing well, the girls started to do better, too.
Two American women supported the staff of locals that year, Aisling and Anne. The MSID volunteer in 2008 was Aisling Culhane, a student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who loved soccer and photography.
“Kenya was overwhelming at first. It’s so colorful, loud, dirty and smelly. KGSA was a single one-story building and one two-story building with three very small, crowded classrooms. Then they had the teacher’s lounge—a room with one table in it—the beginnings of a computer lab, and one latrine.”
Teka asked Aisling to help with the Journalism Club.
“It was hard to get girls to stay after school. They had a very long day, and many girls played soccer. We did writing workshops and photography one day a week. There were only a few computers in the teacher’s lounge collecting dust because there was rarely electricity and never Internet access and no access to cameras.”
She assisted teachers, helped grade papers, made lunch, and supervised tests. When she wasn’t needed on testing days, she babysat the kids next door to the school so their mother could go wash clothes. She remembers the girls struggling in the classroom, scoring low on tests, in part because they are tested in English, a language many of the girls haven’t mastered. One day she went with Musa to his house to pick something up, and seeing his small, ten-by-twelve home in the slum made her fully realize the KGSA staff were barely compensated for their teaching.
The other American woman, Anne Baldwin, first came to Kenya with a study abroad trip through Kalamazoo College in 2008. She was connected with Carolina For Kibera (CFK), and her first task was to work at a donation tent in the middle of Kibera. CFK decided to host a 5K race and give out donated shoes to the runners as a prize at the end.
Anne was embarrassed to be working at an event that was so poorly planned by outsiders. “They didn’t provide water, food or childcare. So women were running the 5K without shoes, holding babies. There were more runners than shoes, so it ended in a riot— women crowding the tent and ripping shoes away from one another and fighting over T-shirts. It was awful.”
After the 5K, Anne decided CFK might not be a good fit. She did a Google search for other organizations and found KGSA.
She called Abdul and he said, “Great! Come to our soccer game this weekend!”
After the soccer game, Abdul took Anne on a tour of Kibera and to see the school. Anne remembers it taking hours because of how often Abdul was enthusiastically greeted and pulled aside by people—adults and kids alike—to talk. Most conversations ended with Abdul handing the person a few shillings. She saw how generous he was and knew she wanted to be with him every step of the way.
Anne was welcomed in and started teaching right away. She wrote her research paper for her study abroad program about the connection between soccer and science.
“The girls at KGSA had gotten so good at soccer and remembered the day when they weren’t allowed to play. They thought, ‘Girls can’t play soccer? We’ll show you!’ But they actually believed that girls can’t do science.”
Anne taught physics at KGSA, and at first it was hard. The girls laughed at her American accent and couldn’t understand her phrasing. English in Kenya is spoken differently, and for most girls it was their third language. One girl would eventually understand Anne and translate her words for the class. With time, Anne adjusted and improved. She talked about how hard it was to come up with real world examples to explain concepts to girls in a slum.
“How do you teach water pressure to a girl in Kibera? The book talks about the pressure you feel at the bottom of a pool. They don’t have a pool. Or static electricity: The book explains when you walk on carpet in socks and your hair stands on end. Ok, for one, that’s not Kenyan hair. And they don’t have carpet or socks!
“I wanted them to know that science is not only fun, but useful. I think math and science and computer science will get you a job. Teaching applied and practical science would put people in a slum ahead of people in a big public school teaching cut-and-dry textbook science. Without needing to get into a college program, girls could be mechanics or electricians and make good money.
“In 2008,” she said, “the school was still rough-and-tumble, outside the lines, informal and energetic. It was Abdul’s baby, still very much in formation. It was exciting to be a part of it.”
Anne returned from her six months in Kenya knowing she wanted to go back, and found a way in 2010.
Claris was correcting math papers in the office with Teka when a young girl walked in holding the hand of a man.
The man said, “This is my daughter. She wants to start school. Can you take her?”
“Are you ready for school?” Claris asked the girl.
“Of course I’m ready! I’ve been struggling to get to school.”
Teka looked at her intently and said, “Then at 10:00 a.m. be here with your plate, a spoon, and a pen to write.”
“How much do I pay?” she asked.
“You pay zero.”
She smiled at them both before darting out of the room. The girl went home, showered, tore out the pages in her notebook that had writing on it and put the bounded blank pages in a bag. She didn’t have chairs at home, only stools, so her dad went to where he worked to borrow a chair for her to bring. She got back to school by 10:00, and was directed to Claris’ math room. The girls in the class were bent over their desks, taking a test.
“You came back,” Claris smiled. “What’s your name?”
Claris handed Lynn a math book and said, “You’re behind. You have to take the exams the girls are taking right now. Read about decimals until you understand everything. Start cramming.”
Lynn read about decimals and closed her book. Claris handed her the test. She did all the calculations and handed it back to her new teacher.
Over the next few days, each teacher did with Lynn what Claris had done. They gave her the book, showed her the section, asked her to cram, and gave her the exam her classmates were taking.
In between tests, barely believing she was in school, Lynn looked around and saw that she was one of the only students not in uniform. She asked her dad to bring her to the market to have a uniform made. The first day she showed up in the KGSA uniform, the girls smiled at her.
When the results of the exams came back, Lynn was 16th out of 32 in the first year class. She passed. It was then Lynn told herself she would be in the top spot by the next exam period.
“If I can be number 16 without going to class, surely I can be number one when I do go.”
Asha approached Lynn one day at lunch, pointed to her chapati and asked, “Can I have some?”
“Yeah,” Lynn said, tearing off a quarter.
After lunch that day, Asha offered Lynn her desk. Lynn, without one, had been taking notes on her lap.
“Now this is yours. I will look for somewhere else to sit.”
“Thanks,” Lynn said.
Asha walked around the room asking girls to scoot and share their chairs with her. Asha and Lynn have been close friends ever since.
With her new goal to rise from 16th to first in her class, Lynn got up at 4:00 every morning and read until 5:30. And within one term, she was in the top academic spot. Her next goal was to stay in the top three every term at KGSA. Teka, seeing her tenacity, named her a prefect as well as secretary of the school board. Elated, Lynn didn’t tell anyone at KGSA her childhood story. She didn’t want their pity, she wanted their respect.
Lynn was born in Mombasa and lived at a corporate dumpsite bordering the ocean for five years. She ventured to the railway line to watch trains, played in the sand, swam in the ocean. The best treat she found in the rubble was macaroni.
Lynn moved to Kitale when she was five so she could start primary school, but with not money for fees, sold vegetables to neighbors instead. She ate the vegetable that were too old to sell and dreamed of sleeping on a bed. While her parents were away at work, Lynn was raped by a neighbor’s brother.
“I didn’t tell anyone. I thought maybe they wouldn’t believe me. Maybe I would be beaten up again. Maybe my dad would think that I was careless.”
She moved again, this time to her grandmother’s farm in Lokichogio, where she started third grade and stayed until eighth. She woke at 4:00 to do chores and start the long walk to school.
“If I missed class, I was in very big shit,” Lynn laughs.
Lynn’s third grade teacher was very harsh. She would hit the kids in the fingers for every answer they got wrong. Ten wrong meant ten strokes. This didn’t bode well for Lynn, who had never been to school before.
“I didn’t know how to read and write yet, so she’d beat the hell out of me when I made mistakes. On one math test, I got a ten percent, and she made me lay on a table. She took a blue and white rod and beat me in front of my classmates, who all laughed at me. Since that day I’ve never gotten less than 50% on a test.”
Home wasn’t much better. Her aunt beat her for sneaking candy. Her grandmother got angry from time to time about caring for Lynn without compensation. Lynn’s father hadn’t given Lynn’s grandmother her dowry price.
She’d yell, “If your dad does not give me cows, you are going to be miserable. You will never have a happy life. You just like to stress me, don’t you?”
Lynn kept her head down. She did well in school and got a 357 on her KCPE exam. That score could get her into provincial secondary school, but the 20,900 shillings ($244.59 USD) for secondary tuition was out of the question. Her grandmother called all Lynn’s aunts who were working and asked them for support. Her aunts said they couldn’t manage.
Lynn, her sister and her parents ended up in Kibera in 2007. She was supposed to start school right away. Her dad’s wages as an artist paid just enough for food and rent. Her mom met a man who offered her tuition money if she’d sleep with him, and she said no.
She came home and told Lynn, “I tried my best, but you have to stay home.”
Lynn resigned herself to the fact that she was not going to secondary school. She took a job as a live-in babysitter for a five-year-old girl. At the end of the month, the woman of the house took Lynn to the grocery store and told her she could have anything.
“Can I have food stamps to give my mom instead?” she asked.
Lynn’s second job was in the home of a wealthy Asian woman. Lynn washed utensils, cleaned the home, washed the clothes and took the kids on walks. She was paid 100 shillings ($1.17 USD) at the end of every day. After a few weeks, Lynn was let go because the family was traveling. She stayed at home and waited for the next job. Some days there was food, other days there wasn’t. The landlady started to threaten eviction. Her dad printed T-shirts for 100 shillings a day ($1.17 USD), and they survived on that for a year.
Lynn is markedly smart. She speaks well in three languages, loves to read and is curious. Rumors of her high KCPE scores floated around.
“What a shame she is not going to school,” neighbors shook their head, until one neighbor told Lynn about KGSA.
“It’s a girls school, and I think the fees are low.”
“Let’s try. If they ask for the money, just say we will pay later,” Lynn said.
Lynn’s dad took off work the next day to bring her by KGSA. When they arrived, she saw the mud walls and turned to her dad and said, “Is this the school?”
Moments later, Claris told her the school was free, and Teka told her she could start at 10:00.
Mud school or not, Lynn knew she wanted to get a good education. Her grandmother had told her over and over to stay in school, work hard, get a good job and help support her parents. Then and only then should she consider getting married and having her own family. Boys weren’t going to be a distraction to her learning. Lynn was focused. Men in Kibera tried to lure her—she is gorgeous and carries herself with an attractive confidence—but she ignored them completely.
Claris and Teka would sometimes use money to motivate their students.
“The first person to get a calculation is going to get a present.”
Lynn put her head down and worked to be the first one finished every time.
“If I was given 100 shillings ($1.17 USD) I was happy because I knew that for the next two weeks I could buy kerosene for my lantern. I could buy water for myself, or a candle and soap for washing my uniform. That is how I learned to love mathematics.”
The girls crowd the library. Some play Scrabble. Others practice “Hot Crossed Buns” on the keyboard that Ryan donated. At the four working computers, girls sit on each other’s laps or hook their chins on each other’s shoulders from behind so everyone can see the screen. The Internet is working today. They take turns checking Facebook and reading blogs. It’s an August morning— nearly the end of second term. Teachers sit in the lounge correcting papers and calculating scores. Exams have gone well. The teachers are in high spirits. On Friday, there will be a celebration, regardless of results. The top three in each class will receive small prizes. The graduate interns will take turns offering words of encouragement to the current students.
“Stay away from boys.”
“Focus on your dreams.”
“Look at me. I came from nothing. I passed, and now I am working. If I can do it, so can you.”
Rice and beans are served for lunch. Some of the girls have a few extra shillings and run around the corner to buy avocados. The girls who finish first move to the water station to clean their plates and hands. They then set up an intricate game of dodge ball in the broom-swept dirt courtyard. The slower eaters stand on the outskirts and lean on the walls. They offer an occasional friendly taunt to the game.
The Muslim girls grab stools from the lab and carry them around the corner to an open space safe from the game of dodge ball. Normally, lunch break is not separated by religion, but during Ramadan they separate since they are fasting. They chat and giggle, share lip-gloss, and stroll to the mosque for afternoon prayer. They coordinate their head coverings—today their scarves are black.
By the time the Muslim girls return from mosque, all of the bowls are clean and the impromptu dodge ball game winds down. Without any instruction from the adults, the girls separate into their individual classrooms. Each of the grades are tasked with creating a performance for Friday’s second-term closing ceremony. The first years need a little help from their class teacher, Godwin. They huddle around him and brainstorm ideas for a skit, talking over each other and letting their energy swell to chaos. The second years have elected a few representatives to sing a song and others to recite poetry. The third years have borrowed Teka’s laptop and are arguing over what song to choreograph a dance to. Three girls shake their hips to a techno piece before scrunching their faces in unison and requesting something else.
The fourth years’ practice is running smoothly. They have done this before, and know how to work together well. One young woman offers her phone to play music on. They decide to use a traditional Luo song. There are eight Luo girls in fourth year, and they stand up in front of the class together working out the details of the dance. The other girls slouch in desks and relax into the repetitive music. They lean their faces on their fists and watch their friends dance. Smiles gradually spread on their faces. Each time the dance is finished, a girl or two from the desks offer a suggestion or observation, and the eight Luo girls take it from the top.
The dancers have straight faces, serious, but not strained. Their eyes look out over their classmates. They have complete control over their bodies. Their hips move in rhythm with the repetitive, tribal music. Their movements are strong and sensual, yet unassuming. Violet wanders into the room and leans against the back wall. She smiles, and her hips start moving in unison with the girls.
The blackboard behind the dancers is almost clean. In the upper right corner, in yellow chalk, it says “88 Days Left.” This is the countdown to the KCSE exam. Some of the girls in the room will fail the KCSE. Some will pass, but not with high enough marks to get a college scholarship. For these girls, their education may be finished. They will go back into the world to look for jobs or start a family. Some of those who pass will be accepted and given scholarships to continue on in college. For all the girls in the room, the future is still unknown. The test haunts them all, a turning point in their lives that they have been working toward for four years. They want, hope, pray to perform well and pass. They believe their future depends on it. It does. The countdown looms over them in the corner. It is coming, but it is not here yet. Today, they dance.
Connect with Ellie:
Book: How Coffee Saved My Life
Forthcoming Book: Slowly by Slowly, Spring 2017, Viva Editions