Electine is a 12-year-old girl in my 8th Grade class in Kibera, an informal community in Nairobi once known as the largest and certainly most notorious slum in Kenya. According to her recent writing composition homework, Electine wants to be a pilot, so that she can travel the world and see places like the US, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In her words, “it is good to associate with different people and know more about them.” She also wants to make lots of money and buy her parents a house, build many schools and create an orphanage.
Even though life in the slums might make a dream like this seem impossible, Electine believes that her future is up to her, and that she has access to the tools that will help her. As she wrote in another composition assignment:
Education is the process of which knowledge is passed to the pupils by teachers. It is upon you to choose whether you want to gain by it or not. As for me, education will help me improve my living standard in the future.
Sheila, on the other hand, wants to be one of the country’s top broadcasters, “a critical career given that everyone relies on broadcasters for their information.” Like Electine, she is looking beyond her situation, and believes that education can unlock novel scenery for her and millions of others in slums like Kibera:
Education is the only way one is ever going to escape poverty and be ahead in life. It is a very helpful necessity that can improve lives of millions of people.
Throughout my four weeks volunteering and teaching in Kibera – both at Soweto Academy and several other primary and secondary schools – this hope and optimism in education was continually reaffirmed. At the same time, however, it was clear that the system was fundamentally flawed, failing to operate efficiently, failing to reach its potential of fulfilling dreams like Electine’s and Sheila’s.
Many of the failures were obvious, like the longest teacher strike that vacated government schools until just last week or the deteriorating/absent infrastructure. Others were less obvious, like the extremely low student enrollment rates (50%) in secondary school, the alarming amount of time (over 1/6 days per week) that teachers didn’t show up for their class, or the hyper focus on memorization and exit exams. In each case, it was clear that something more needs to be done.
In the words of Wendy Kopp:
Given that we know that education has the potential to be transformative, we must—for the sake of children and families, for our country, and for our collective well-being—do all that it takes to fulflill that potential.
Or, as Electine put it: it's up to us if we want [Kenya] to gain from education or not.
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