A beacon of hope

“Many years ago, a local District Officer gave a small plot for a non-formal school in the Mukuru slums of Nairobi…”. This is the beginning of a human story, with all the ingredients to make it beautifully magic. Its “title” is the name of an inspiring initiative: Mukuru Promotion Centre. The plot is easily told: there was a perceived need, someone decided to answer to it, and the miracle took place.

By Pauline Otieno

“I was born with a disability. I could not walk or move like my age mates. I faced rejection from both relatives and society. I almost lost hope in life. I saw no reason to go on living. Often I wished I would die. Yet, I kept praying, and God listened to my prayers and sent the Sisters of Mercy to me. They saw what I was going through. They paid for my surgery and ensured I got proper medication. Then they sponsored my schooling from primary school onwards. Today I am a student at Kenyatta University, pursuing a master’s degree in special needs. Moreover, as you can see, I can now walk and jump like other people. Yes, they put a smile on my face”.

When saying this, the face of Mark Peter is, indeed, wearing a smile. I smile in return, and I swear to myself that I would visit the magic place where the miracle has taken place: Mukuru Promotion Centre (MPC).

 In the beginning was a need…

The MPC is a faith-based and non-profit organisation, founded in 1985 by the Sisters of Mercy. The Centre is located in Mukuru, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, on the southern side of Enterprise Road. The run-down place, consisting mostly of closely packed, decrepit housing units in a situation of deteriorated or incomplete infrastructure, inhabited primarily by impoverished persons, is home to about 600,000 people. Women head most households.

In 1985, some parents from the slum approached the Sisters of Mercy and challenged them to start a school for their children. Sr. Mary Killeen, the present director of MPC, was the one who met them. She had come to Kenya from Ireland in 1976. She still remembers that moment as if it were yesterday: “There were no schools in Mukuru. Nothing could be done about the problem, because there were no government funds available. So, when the delegation of parents came to see me, I told them: ‘Build me a hut and I will teach your children’”. She advised them to ask the City Council for a plot. They did not need to be told twice. The got the site and immediately built a corrugated-iron- sheet hut and went back to Sr. Mary: “We have the school, but not the teachers”. “How could we say ‘no’?” says Sr. Mary: “So, together with Fr Manuel Gordejuila, I began to offer education to the slum children… But it was more than that: we were witnessing the beginnings of a community development”.

The initiative grew and grew… Within 10 years, thousands of children were accommodated in several separate schools, together with multiple other projects, covering health care, skills training and community development.

The organisation still operates under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy of the Kenyan Province, who are now supported by a Board of Management. A score of management team and other office holders surrounds Sr. Killeen.

In 1997, Trnava University, Slovakia, conferred an honorary doctorate on Sr. Mary Killeen for her work in Mukuru. In November 2015, she was chosen to address Pope Francis on his visit to Kenya. She spoke of the fight to provide education, health and welfare to a community oppressed by deep-seated corruption and land grabbing. Sr. Killeen said: “People are forced out of their homes during the night. They save their children but lose everything else. Children are forced to drop out of school. For people trying to climb out of poverty, eviction reduces them to dependence and destitution”.

… In addition, someone answered it

Sr. Lillian accepts to take me around the various initiatives of the MPC. She is in charge of the Child Protection Department. “When it all began, all over this place children were either loitering in the streets or engaging in small businesses, like selling groundnuts, to make ends meet. We began with a bunch of boys and girls. Today we are caring for thousands of them. That first initiative expanded with other projects, even outside the world of education. There are so many people around us in need of care and love! ».

Primary school education is still the flagship initiative of the sisters. “Even though the government of Kenya now financially supports primary education in the four schools initially started by us,we still assist in their running: we provide additional teachers and funds to enable students to participate in extra-curricular activities,such as music, sport and occasional outings”.

A flood of pupils

The four primary schools run by the MPC have an attendance of above 5,500 pupils. Each pupil is provided with lunch every day. World Food Program supplies the food. The children are also served porridge during break time every school day. These meals keep children in school, because back at home their parents rarely get food.

Kabaya Primary Schoolis located in the very heart of the slum. Sr. Lillian tells me: “This was the first school to be constructed. In 1985, it had an enrolment of 200 children. Today it caters for over 1,200 children. The German Government in collaboration with the Ministry of Education of Kenya built a new permanent school, in 2011”.

St. Bakhita’s Primary Schoolis located on the same site as the Head Office and the Skills Training Centre. It has an enrolment of about 1,000 pupils. The classrooms are built of iron sheets. Sr. Lillian: “Access to the school has been improved with the recent completion of the road and new bridge over the Ngong River. The river remains heavily polluted, because of the rubbish and sewage that are dumped into it. With one of our partners, Child Fund Kenya, we are implementing a safe water program in this school along with the other MPC schools”.

“This is the largest of our primary schools”, says Sr Lillian when we enter the compound of St Elizabeth Primary School, Lunga Lunga. “It was started in 1991, but it was rebuilt by the German Government in 2011. It serves over 1,300 pupils”. St. Catherine’s Primary Schoolhas an enrolment of about 1,000 children. It is situated on the same site as the Mary Immaculate Clinic and the Mary Immaculate Rehabilitation Centre. In recent years, St. Catherine’s pupils, both boys and girls, have been excelling in football.

 A secondary school

In 2008, St Michael’s Secondary School was inaugurated. Todays it is a two-streamed and mixed day school, with a population of above 360 students, all from Mukuru slums. They all are offered lunch every day. Sr. Lillian explains: “For a long time we kept faithful to our primitive inspiration: to provide basic education to as many children as possible. For those who finished primary school and could not afford to pay for secondary education, we first created a sponsorship programme, but eventually we decided to have a secondary school open to our children who passed the KCPE exams”.

The numbers, however, show clearly that the MPC is still targeting the children of the slums. “We literally recruit them. In each of our primary schools, we have an office for social workers whose work is to go around the slums looking for and inviting the children loitering in the streets to come to school and get education, either formal or informal. This enables them to make a difference in their lives. They are instructed to look also for anyone who wants to learn, to improve his or her life. Or even anyone who is looking for help”.

A constellation of caring activities

This explains the myriads of initiatives the MPC has launched. Space obliges us to limit ourselves to list them.

  • Our Lady of Mercy Vocational Training Centre– “Since not all the pupils of our primary schools are fit for secondary education – says Sr. Lillian – we opened for them a vocational training centre, where they can learn practical skills which help them to earn them a space in society”. There is something for everyone’s needs and tastes: course in dressmaking, hairdressing, knitting, beading, weaving, tie-dyeing, catering, computer studies, and self-awareness skills.
  • Adult Education Program– It is a wonder, indeed. “The slum is full of adults who have never been to school. If they want to learn, they are welcome. Some are able to sit for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) at the end of one year. The, if they wish, they can enter a secondary school, and, eventually, even a tertiary institution”. Three full-time teachers animate the centre, while some social workers help in providing guidance, counselling and even home-visiting those who need extra help throughout the year.
  • Mary Immaculate Rehabilitation Centre– Established in 1995 for street children, today it assists around 65 boys who participate in the year-long program. The younger boys are provided, besides accommodation, with non-formal primary education. The older ones, instead, can chose among carpentry and art. After lunch, they all engage in extracurricular activities such as music, football, gardening, scouting and craftwork. Sr. Lillian: “The goal of the program is to re-integrate the boys to family, if possible, or to a meaningful life off the streets, in boarding school or in employment. During their staying with us, the social workers contact the relatives of the children and prepare them for their children’s return”.
  • Mary Immaculate Clinic– It was initially set up to cater for the families of the pupils and students who attend the MPC schools. Now the clinic is open to all residents of Mukuru slums. The services offered include general preventive and curative medicine, maternal and child health (including prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV) and an anti-malnutrition unit.
  • The Community Based Health Service provides daily primary health care to residents in their own slum villages. Two nurses attend clinics in the 11 villages on a rotating basis. “From 2008, we have trained over 1,000 Community Health Workers, some of whom now contribute their voluntary services to assist the nurses who move around the villages to bring services close to the people”, says Sr. Lillian.

 Pay a visit…

Yes, find the time to go and see the many little and big pearls MPC has disseminated in Kukuru slums. Pleasant surprises are around every corner. We may encounter receptionists and secretaries, craft instructors, teachers and social servants who, years ago, were street children. You may attend a graduating ceremony of master carpenters and master welders who once were drug addicts. We may chance upon students of Kenyatta University, nearing graduation, who play football with pupils, or chat with the street children of the rehabilitation centre. Ask them who they are. The answer is most likely to be: “I was one of them. Here I was reborn”.

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