Education in Kenya: Challenges & More Challenges

In Kenya there is no such thing as a free education and the educational system relies heavily on an outdated British model of education. What does this mean for children from the many slums of Nairobi?

Though primary schools do not charge tuition, poor parents are required to buy uniforms, textbooks and, most importantly, remember to give the teacher a “monetary thank you gift” each term. The schools in the slums which are accessible to poor people are poorly run, staffed by uneducated teachers, are not accountable to any oversight groups, use beatings and berating as a way to encourage students, and often are set up to generate income for the head of the school. Parent’s who enroll their children in these schools want to ensure their children are getting an education but do not know enough to question the methods used. Except for an exceptional few, most of the kids get just enough education so they know to read, write and do basic math; but do not get the quality of education that will make a difference in their lives.

When I first started working in the Kawangware slums, I was happy our primary kids were in school, but a visit to the school left me upset because the conditions were so poor. I tolerated this for two years and finally, last year, I made the decision that something would have to change; if we were going to help the students they needed a much better primary education. After many discussions, mainly about how to pay for improved schools, the decision was reached to move the kids to a private primary school. So in 2018, we went from paying about $100 per year per primary student to paying $700 per year per student. Seeing the kids this year in a great learning environment, knowing they won’t be beaten or berated, and watching them become literate in English, in my mind, makes it worth every extra dollar we are spending.

At the end of primary school students sit for what is called the KCPE exam. Based on the results, students are qualified for one of the four levels of secondary education; with 1 being the best and 4 being the lowest. In the past most of the students from our program qualified for level 3 and 4 schools. These schools also use questionable methods for education as they are using a British model curriculum; our older students have struggled to do well in even these low level secondary schools. The problem is a lot to do with teaching methods and teaching subjects like physics to students who have low English comprehension when what the kids desire is to learn things that will help change their lives.

It is more of a challenge with our older secondary students, but we keep doing what we can. In April we introduced computer learning as a means to help students be able to review subjects where they are struggling. We have also hired tutors to work with the students during term breaks, with a special emphasis being put on math & science. Slowly these older students are improving enough that they should graduate with grades good enough to qualify for a technical school.

One major thing we did identify as causing all of our students to struggle in school is their poor comprehension of English. They know the words but they often don’t know the meaning, or the proper use of, the word. Not understanding English makes it especially challenging to do well in secondary school; Especially in English taught subjects like biology, geography, history and others. In November, I will be going to Nairobi for a few weeks, and with the help of a wonderful teacher, we are going to do several weeks of English comprehension. Doing this, especially for those entering secondary school in January, should make learning easier.

Then there is Kiswahili; It puzzled me that our students would get poor grades in their native language. After investigating, I learned that the kids speak a slang version of Swahili and in school they are taught and tested in formal Kiswahili. So we have now added books, newspapers and other education materials written in Kiswahili to our library. We will see after the late fall exams if this approach is working.

The more we work with our students who are preparing to enter secondary school, the better results. This year two of our students, Maureen and Bravin, did well enough on their KCPE exams to qualify for a tier 2 schools and, though much more expensive, the results we are seeing in these two bright young people makes this a wise investment.

Working with the Kenyan educational system is challenging especially when you see the negative impact on our students. Though it is easy to get discouraged, I find that whenever we are faced with a new challenge that the team working together is able to find solutions. Is our system perfect? No. But when I see Maureen reading “Great Expectations”, our primary students excelling in English comprehension, and know that next year we will have two more secondary students qualify for tier 2 schools; I know in our own small way we are making a difference.

I leave for Kenya on November 22 and as always look forward to spending time with the kids who have finally settled on a name for me, Boss Lady.

Update from Cheryl, July 2018

It has now been over five years since I started the Kawangware Kids foundation. A lot has happened/changed over the years and for me it has been an interesting learning curve. The most important thing I have had to learn is about the structure of the Kenyan education system and how it impacts the students we are trying to help. The invaluable contributions  of Luchiri, our Nairobi director, board members Bernard & Simon, and all the Kenyans who I ask questions of, has helped me to clearly understand the systemic educational challenges our students face.

What I have learned is that our students lack the the type of educational foundation that will make a difference. From families who struggle to feed their children, to poorly run schools in the slums, our students simply are not prepared for the rigors of a classic British secondary education designed for those who will go on to university. Thus they do poorly in secondary school and end up with low grades and a secondary certificate that does them little good in the challenging Nairobi job market. Identifying the issues of course is the first and easiest step, solving the problems is far more complex.

Realizing our students need a better educational foundation, we moved all of our primary students to a private parochial school where they are thriving. This of course comes at a cost as the private school is 6 times more expensive then the previous school; but in our mind it is money well spent and an investment in the future.

Our secondary student solutions are a bit more of a challenge. We finally determined that we needed tutors for all our secondary students and not just any tutor; but a quality educator who can really make a difference. Finally after much research Luchiri found Faith Alpha Court who holds degrees in science and math. Faith and I met when I was in Nairobi in April and discussed in depth how best to help our students. She has now done an assessment of our secondary students, tutored them for 3 weeks, and will be providing more tutoring during the August break. Students have reported to me that this is a good beginning and much appreciate what they are learning. Quality tutors are expensive but again money well spent and an investment in the future.

Another struggle our secondary students face is that classes are taught in English and we have found that many of out students do not comprehend much of what they are taught; they understand the words but often not the meaning. Teaching English comprehension has become a priority for us. In November/December of 2108 (what is called the long term break) myself, a tutor and hopefully a volunteer English teacher will focus on working with our students on English comprehension.

We have also introduced computer learning to our students. In April 2018, I spent almost three weeks in Nairobi where I set up a computer learning center and taught our students the fundamentals of using computers, from keyboarding  to server farms and most importantly how to research.  It is our intent to use the computers to bridge the gap between what our students learn in school and what they really need to know to succeed in life. It was amazing to watch how quickly the figured things out once they understood the basics. After being set up on the two program computers, the students took over my personal laptop and iPad;  this was a very engaged group of students.

How do you measure the success of these efforts? Samuel who is a first year secondary student failed his first term of physics because he couldn't understand the teacher and was afraid to ask for help when he got lost. One of the other students found the syllabus for the physics class and set it up on the computer for Samuel. For four hours Samuel sat at that computer, refused to stop for dinner, and finally completed his review of the entire first term of physics. At the end he looked at me and said "Now I understand."

My next trip to Nairobi will be in November 2018.










How I Became Involved

Cheryl and girls.jpg

Often people ask why I have chosen to work in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, so far from my home in Portland, Oregon.  Not a simple or easy question to answer but I will try.

Since I have been aware of the world around me, I have known that I care about justice for all people. One of my earliest experiences was taking a train from Detroit, Michigan to Atlanta, Georgia in 1957. As I stared out the window at train stations, I noted the deep rooted evidence of segregation - separate drinking fountains, toilets, and of course separate sections on the train. I was too young to really understand what all this meant but I instinctively knew something was wrong.

As life progressed I found myself protesting the Vietnam War, supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and simply caring about people who seemed to have so little. The injustices that I was witnessing as I moved through adulthood always weighed heavily on me but unfortunately the demands of making a living and raising a family left me little time to do much more then donate to causes and to care about people.

Fast forward in life and by 2005, I found myself in a place where I had time to start giving back. I joined several boards and spent more time helping causes I believed in including working on the 2008 Obama campaign. I also had the resources and the time to start traveling the world and it was during my travels that I became so aware of the extreme poverty that impacts the lives of so many.

By 2010 I was looking for a more active way to give back. Though I enjoyed the work I was doing by being on several boards; it was not enough for me. I started to look around at programs that were working overseas and quickly realized that I wanted to do more then give two weeks at a time. Realized for me that I was looking for a program where I could become a part of the team and participate regularly. Most important for me was to be around long enough to see the results of my efforts.

In May of 2013, I scheduled a trip to Kenya. A friend had a program in Migori, Kenya and they were looking for help. After spending a few days in Migori, I realized that the work being done there was not what I wanted. Though disappointed, I decided as long as I was there, I would really see Kenya. After two weeks of traveling, I was finally back in Nairobi and my friend set up a meeting with an American running a program in the Kawangware slums of Nairobi. Over lunch we talked a lot about his work in Kenya but unfortunately I had a plane to catch and so there was not time to visit his program.

After I returned to Portland, I contacted him again. I expressed my interest and we arranged a trip to Nairobi, Kenya August of 2013. It was during this visit in August that I met the kids and immediately I was hooked. I asked how I could help, and he said "just step in and you will find a way".

So step in I did and in October 2013 I went back to Nairobi on my own and began my work.

So back to the original question of why Nairobi, Kenya. I think for me in my travels, I have become more of a global person who sees all people as inhabitants of one earth. It makes no difference where I work,  for children in need no matter where they live, are still children in need. The kids in the Kawangware slums, are indeed kids who need help, and here I will make a difference.

Cheryl Meyers