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January 22, 2019

Lessons from a successful school in Mathare slum

Mawewa Standard 7 with teacher Mr Muli.
Mawewa Standard 7 with teacher Mr Muli.

Pastor Bob Kikuyu, the co-founder of Mawewa School in Nairobi’s Mathare slum, recently made a startling discovery. A parent told him that she had turned down a new job offer and the chance to move out of Mathare in order to keep her children at Mawewa. “She said, ‘I’ve given priority for my children to go to school and I want them in this school because I can see the difference this school is making in their lives,’” recalls Kikuyu.

For deputy head, Irene Macharia, the difference was noticeable from the first day. “When I joined, the first thing that I got was a very warm welcome from the kids and I felt I am in the right place,” remembers Macharia, who previously taught at a school in the upmarket Karen area.

Stella Ndiho, in-charge of the fundraising functions, heard positive feedback after educational outings to a coffee factory. “The staff of the factory were asking, ‘Where are these kids from? They’re so well behaved, asking questions and not rowdy’. People can actually tell the difference about these kids.”

Mathare Valley is the second largest slum in Nairobi with an estimated population of over 600,000 living and dozens of schools, yet Mawewa has somehow distinguished itself from the rest.

Starting from a simple, mud-walled nursery school of 20-odd children in 2006, Mawewa is now full primary school with an annual waiting list for enrollment. Their successful educational approach is founded on twin principles of individual transformation and institutional sustainability. “It’s educating the children in a transformational context and inculcating in them a new set of values,” said Ndiho.

The idea of Mawewa began when Adam Gould, a young American intern at Mavuno Church, got frustrated with too much paper-pushing and long office hours. Meanwhile, occasional visits to informal settlements around Nairobi left him disturbed. “I saw so many children during school hours wandering, and thought to myself, something isn’t right here,” remembers Gould.

At around the same time, Kikuyu was a pastor at Nairobi Chapel and a mentor to Gould. Coincidentally, he was having similar thoughts following years of personal charity work in the Korogocho slum. “That’s the stage where I was beginning to feel very discontent with what’s happening, why isn’t there more of an impact where it needs to be?” tells Kikuyu, who eventually resigned his post to pursue his passion for social justice.

Gould also stepped down from his internship to pursue a goal of education for slum children albeit clueless on how to begin. Through former Chapel connections, Kikuyu and Gould were introduced to Isaiah Kamau, pastor of the Believers Centre Mathare Church which ran a small pre-school and day care. “We began to meet with parents and asking them what they hoped for their children. We wanted to understand their desires, and their interests and make that our starting point,” says Gould.

“Our vision was very clear; we wanted to see transformation of the community through the education of the children,” said Kikuyu, who is also an executive director with EduKenya, the organisation that owns and manages Mawewa.

EduKenya has a mission to break the chronic cycle of poverty and transform lives and communities. But founding Mawewa School was not smooth sailing. “We faced resistance from parents who thought this was short-term and didn’t want to be taken advantage of,” says Kikuyu, thinking back on the initial committee meetings. “Also, they see a mzungu, they see money and want sitting allowances, this and that. We’ve had our fights with the parents.”

The administration had to contend with vigilante groups that hold sway in the informal settlements, making for uncertain business environments and downright risky for individual safety. “We have learned to develop a working relationship with them,” acknowledges Kikuyu. “They help give us inroads into the community, they watch our backs.”

Reaching an accord with the community, Kikuyu and Gould set about raising funds to grow the school year on year. They purchased a multi-storey building, relocated the school and adopted a unique sustainability model for developing additional finances. Part of the building is leased to residential tenants for rental revenue. “Our sustainability model sets us apart. The rent money generated by these rental properties goes back into the school and programmes and sustains them indefinitely,” said Gould.

Schooling at Mawewa is heavily subsidised but not entirely free of charge. “All these years I’ve worked in the slum, I’ve come to realise they have biggest sense of entitlement,” observed Kikuyu. “But we realised that when people don’t even chip in, they value what they’re being given less.”

Ndiho says another key principle is a strong emphasis on quality teaching staff. “A lot of these teachers have grown with us. Some of them didn’t even have the P1 teacher training. One of the other things we’ve been deliberate about encouraging our teachers is to increase their qualifications.” As an example, deputy head Macharia will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 2016.

But beyond academic qualifications, teachers are selected for their adaptability and their ability to be examples to the pupils. “We want our teachers to be role models. We want to pay them well so that children can see that at the very least I can aspire to be like my teacher,” says Kikuyu, who discloses that they pay their teachers higher than the market rates for the area. He is proud of the current faculty who are willing to put in an extra hour of tuition to keep the pupils off the streets or intervene when a case of child abuse comes to their attention.

And over the years, Kikuyu has added to his job description the default role of ‘grandfather’ because of his daily routine of socialising with the children at break time. They hang around his legs, poke him in the side or pull at his trousers. Kikuyu reveals why he indulges the youngsters. “I began to realise that a male presence was never a positive one for most of them. Their fathers are abusive, alcoholic, even boys around them had the same violence. They just didn’t have the right image of what a man could be. I was doing what a father, what a grandfather should do which is what I’ve become.”

Mawewa School has had to incorporate social programmes to meet the fundamental needs of children from low-income families, what Gould characterises as “the reality of what we do goes beyond school”. A medical camp held each term in conjunction with the Nairobi City Council, and the daily feeding programme, have drastically reduced non-attendance by pupils because of poor health and malnutrition, as Macharia came to discover. “There are those who depend on what we give them. These kids were very open. They tell you ‘last night I didn’t have supper’.”

Mawewa’s community empowerment programme provides skills training courses in hairdressing and tailoring at subsidised fees, particularly targeted at women with limited qualifications. “We recognised that if you’re not helping the parents come out of poverty then it’s just a longer process,” observed Ndiho. “The idea is transformation not just for the kids but for the parents.”

With a growing student body, EduKenya has recently raised funds to construct a new four-storey school block with an examinations hall, just in time for the first batch of standard eight pupils.

The mainstay curriculum is diversified with extra-curricula activities. Lack of sports facilities not withstanding, regular physical education lessons take place in a neighbourhood field belonging to the Salvation Army. Every class gets a library hour each week and this year the school participated in the Kenya Music Festival for the first time. As Gould sums it up, “We think about education differently — we think about it holistically.”

This holistic approach will underscore their next major project of establishing a boarding secondary school with facilities for sports and arts. Kikuyu explains that the choice of location outside Nairobi is very intentional. “The quicker we can pull them out of the slum and put them in a place where they can focus on their education, the higher our chances of success in terms of transformation and to broaden their horizons for a better future,” Kikuyu says.

He is optimistic about the pupils and he envisions raising a core group of youth that can foster community transformation and influence decisions in government policy-making. “They are brilliant! They just need a good education and to be exposed, and they will make it.”

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