Adding a structure: another step toward sustainability


I’d like to do my best to describe the part of Kibera I’ve been working in, Soweto West. Each day I meet Truman or Bill at a place called Olympic, which is essentially an intersection of the main road, Kibera Drive, and a road that turns into a narrower lane as you get further into the slum. We walk down that road and take a right, past many dukas selling soda, fruit, cooked or uncooked meat, cell phone minutes, fried potatoes, etc., etc.

(Last week, about ten of these dukas burned down due to an electrical failure that caused a fire – all that was left was a heap of tin that used to be the shops’ roofs. That was Tuesday morning; by the end of the week the shops were rebuilt, repainted, and open for business. You don’t have time to grieve if you want to keep living.)

A little ways further, past a main junction where matatus, buses, turn around because they won’t go deeper, we take a right down a narrow lane, on the corner of which sits a Chemist’s shop, essentially a mini-medicine store. This is my favorite part of the walk – it’s where the real Kibera begins, and the contrast of natural beauty to the poverty residents endure is enough to give you a chill. Lining the sides of the lane are small rivers of sewage, in which pigs feast and an occasional child relieves herself. Plastic bags and wrappers have become part of the rugged terrain, and the stench forces you to take smaller breaths, as if it wraps around your throat and tugs just a bit. I remember walking that lane the first day and staring, unconsciously. Bill was talking to me about something, but I was too affected by the environment and its lack of effect on him to pay attention.

But when you do raise your eyes from the refuse, you look up to a hill, and further, the beginnings of Ngong forest. It’s incredible to see the natural beauty there, untarnished, and then just a few hundred feet away, endless tin shacks.

We come to the railroad tracks of the Kenya-Uganda railway, which are active but more known around these parts as a mark of location. Just over the tracks is a group of creative entrepreneurs whittling bone jewelry, from start to finish. As we proceed down a hill and through some lanes wide enough for only one person, shouts of “Mzungu, owahyou? Owahyou?” come from children inside the shacks. Turn our last corner onto a bit of a busier road – we usually take the shortcut I just described – and St. Catherine’s sits humbly, flanked on one side by a duka selling buckets of charcoal and on the other, a residence.

This is the main building, where five classrooms serve around 100 kids. Not a terrible ratio – but if you put all of the classrooms together, the space would be still less than the size of a normal classroom in the States. So the children squeeze onto tiny benches, share a few textbooks, and grant the teacher just enough space to stand at the front and write on a shabby chalkboard.

In a building down the road, a bigger space – maybe three quarters of the size of a US classroom – is partitioned into four classes to teach the younger children. Right now St. Catherine’s serves Class 1-7, but the school system here goes from Class 1-8 and then to secondary school, Form 1-4. Meaning, as it is, students finish Class 7 at St. Catherine’s, transition to another primary school for one year, and then transfer to another secondary school. For the boarders, home is St. Catherine’s, so it’s simply a difficult few years of transportation, new faces, and inconsistency.

As a result, the school wants to expand to include Class 8. But there are obvious space restraints, and because the school triples as a residence and kitchen/cafeteria, there is no new space to put incoming boarders. Included in the greenhouse vision is a new space specifically for boarders, who can help maintain the land as part of the deal for shelter. In the meantime, there is still a need for classroom space, particularly as more vulnerable children come into the school.

The solution to that one, Truman says, is to build on top of the current hall – the space where the younger children have class. That would free up some of the space downstairs and possibly allow for another few classrooms in the new space; in short, the kids could simply be dispersed across more space. Sounds easy enough, and with the right resources, the new space could be ready before the 2012 school year is finished. (In the meantime, they may partition the kitchen during the day to accommodate Class 8.)

Truman showed me the budget. Including electricity, the projection stands at just under $9,500USD. Again, doable. It is my goal to raise $25,000USD to help St. Catherine’s fund its two projects: the greenhouse and the upper hall. Through an account set up by Flying Kites Oasis, the money donated will be sure to be set aside for these bigger projects, while St. Catherine’s will continue to be responsible for their day-to-day costs. When an appropriate amount is available, we will transfer the money to St. Catherine’s for its projects. And within the next year and a half, St. Catherine’s will be able to be self-sustainable. Exciting stuff, yeah?

In the meantime, my trip comes to a close in only a few short weeks. I don’t want to leave; it has gone too fast, as I knew it would. I’ll be moving to Northfield, Minnesota to work at Carleton, but St. Catherine’s will always be close to my heart and I already can’t wait to come back. Summer 2012. Stay tuned, though, I’m not finished yet….

4 Responses to Adding a structure: another step toward sustainability

  1. Marilyn R. says:


    yYou mom forwarded you blog to me to read – what a noble project you are undertaking. I want to donate but the link is not working. Wanted to let you know so you can fix.

  2. Marilyn R. says:

    I meant to say YOUR mom — Can’t type well when I am in a hurry!

  3. Teta Gina says:

    What a moving description of your experience! If you could figure out how to set up a system to donate towards this greenhouse project, that would enable a more self-sufficient source of funds for St. Catherine’s, it would be great! Keep me posted!
    Lots of love, Peter!

  4. nikki says:

    stumbled across your site via flying kites.

    your description took me back to kibera instantly… i was there (for the 2nd time) just a month ago and love reading other people’s kenya/kibera experiences. looking forward to reading back into your archives.

Leave a Reply