Wednesday 28 January 2015

My 30-year mission to teach the slum children of Nairobi

An Irish nun, known as 'The Mother of Mukuru', has battled pimps, poverty and bureaucracy to provide the city's poor with an education. Paul O'Callaghan reports

It's tough being a teacher in Ireland today, as this week's conferences show clearly. A pay freeze for 2009, an average pension levy of 7.5pc, an appointment embargo on posts of responsibility, increased pupil-teacher ratios and the loss of up to 1,000 primary teaching posts can only dampen moods in already demoralised staffrooms.

Yet, despite these current hardships, spare a thought for Irish teachers abroad whose daily working conditions would cause all the teaching unions in Ireland to strike permanently.

One such teacher is Sr Mary Killen, a 'tough-as-nails' Irish Sister of Mercy from Phibsboro, Dublin, who has spent the past 30 years teaching and managing schools in Kenya.

When she first came to Nairobi in January 1976, her honeymoon period was short-lived.

She arrived in the city on Thursday, on Friday she was interviewed and by Monday morning she was acting school principal.

In Kenya this is a dawn-to-dusk duty, for primary schools open their gates at 6.30am to allow preparation time before the classes officially start at 8.15am.

Although officially classes end between 3pm and 4pm, supervised study, tuition, games and extra-curricular activities often mean pupils don't leave until after six in the evening.

Sr Mary spent 14 years in Our Lady of Mercy, a middle-class primary school, until disaster struck in 1985 when the Kenyan government introduced new regulations forcing parents to pay for an extra year of primary school. The result was swarms of slum children descending on the capital's streets with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

In an attempt to get 100 of these children off the streets and into her classrooms, Sr Mary introduced a radical integration policy in the school that greatly angered the middle-class parents.

"The mix didn't work well," she sighs.

Firstly, the slum children ran an alternative 'sex education' programme with a practical rather than theoretical focus. They introduced gambling to the school; using the tiled floor of the toilets as a board. Having sharpened their skills on the streets, they cleaned up all round them.

Some older children set up racketeering scams, forcing classmates to pay money to prevent being reported to the class teacher. Lastly, they introduced scabies, tapeworm and ringworm to the pupil population, much to the horror of the middle-class parents.

"Once ringworm gets into your house it is very difficult to get out. The children bring it home, then the parents get it, even the towels have it," she says.

To compound these problems, the teachers were inclined to blame the slum children for everything that went wrong. Whether it was missing footballs, ties or school stationery it was always the slum children that became the prime suspects.

There were other challenges besides. School uniforms were liable to be stolen in the Mukuru slum and, for many, arriving with polished black shoes and clean white socks was a step too far. In the rainy season school books were sometimes lost when children dropped them while wading through a swollen river to get to school. If the books didn't get wet they could be burnt when mothers used pages as kindling for the evening fire.

With an estimated 400,000 residents, the cardboard-and-tin slum of Mukuru is the second largest slum in Nairobi, but one of its poorest. Like all shantytowns, it is densely populated with inadequate sanitation and water services. It is prone to fires and flooding -- 30 people drowned last year when a flash-flood caused by heavy rains swept their shacks away.

In 1985, in response to these needs, the Irish Sisters of Mercy set up the Mukuru Promotion Centre. Today, assisted by Irish Christian Brothers and Marianist priests, over 6,000 slum children now receive an education and 60 street boys are taught a trade.

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