At Mathare Community Education and Development Organization (MCEDO) the students take education very seriously.
“I have never been in a classroom where students are so committed to learning,” says Elizabeth Allen, a seventh-grade science teacher at MCEDO. “When I ask a question, nearly every student raises his or her hand, jumping at the chance to participate.”
However, MCEDO does not have linoleum floors, lockers and plastic chairs. Kids don’t arrive in yellow school buses. In fact, MCEDO isn’t officially an educational institution at all.
MCEDO is an informal school in Mathare, the second largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Since it was founded in 2000 as a feeding program it has expanded into the learning place of 580 students. In addition to educating children, the school now offers an after-school talent development program, provides student counseling, and holds classes about nutrition and sexual health.
Allen began working at MCEDO in October after spending the two years after her college graduation fulfilling Boren and Fullbright scholarships and earning her MPH from Imperial College London. Upon arriving to Mathare, Allen was shocked when she saw firsthand the quality of life in Mathare.
“I was most struck by the unhealthy environment and the overall state of informality in which Mathare’s residents live,” said Allen. “Mathare is unrecognized by the government, so people lack basic services like sewage drainage systems, clean water, electricity, and public schools. This means that the slum is cluttered with mounds of trash, streams of sewage run between homes, and tin homes barely offer people shelter from harsh weather.”
Though the living conditions were a shock to Allen, a bigger surprise was the strong community ties and the commitment to education that MCEDO teachers and students possess. Most of the teachers also grew up in the slum and strongly believe that education is the key to changing the lives of the Mathare residents.
“A strong sense of community is what motivates the teachers, many of whom have a college education, to continue teaching and living in Mathare,” says Allen. “They believe that education will open doors for their students and give them an opportunity to eventually move out of Mathare. The teachers continually reinforce the importance of education with their students and the students care deeply about their performance. They are satisfied with nothing less than perfect marks.”
While hope, motivation, and dedication have gone a long way, overcrowding and lack of financial support are an issue. The school is severely under-resourced and while students lack adequate classrooms and basic school supplies, one of the school’s biggest and most urgent needs is for textbooks. Teachers at MCEDO only have one textbook per high school subject that they must share with approximately 100 students.
It won’t be that way for long if Allen has anything to do with it. She has started a campaign to raise money for textbooks for the school; a campaign that she views as a great opportunity to make a difference.
“The school has no textbooks that align with the Kenyan curriculum, so the teachers identified this as the school’s highest priority need,” said Allen. “I realized that I had the incredible opportunity to help meet this need. My role was to simply act as the facilitator and share the school’s needs with friends and family. MCEDO’s donors, on the other hand, are equipping the school with the tools to give students in Mathare a higher quality education.”
With the funds raised through this campaign, she and the other teachers at MCEDO hope to buy textbooks to prepare the students for the national exams, thus giving them a better chance to break the cycle of poverty.
“While the number of students attending high school is growing, these students remain a minority in Mathare,” says Allen. “Without an opportunity to pursue higher education, many of these students will take jobs offering meager incomes or become involved in crime that is rampant in Mathare. This simply perpetuates the poverty cycle. Giving students the opportunity to pursue higher education and take control of their future can help break this poverty cycle.”
Having more textbooks means that students will be able to learn outside of class, reviewing and studying material on their own time. This also means that students have a better chance at becoming eligible for scholarships for college. Students who earn a college degree become role models for younger students in Mathare, showing them that their future is in their hands.
“Right now, if students don’t understand the material they are being taught the first time, they are not able to read and digest the material on their own time,” tells Allen. “They have no books to study in preparation for the national exam, which will determine their eligibility for college scholarships. By providing secondary school textbooks, we are giving students the chance to pass their final national exams and go to college. With a college education, these students will not only be able to eventually get better paying jobs, but also learn how to meet some of Mathare’s most pressing challenges and act as a role model for other students.”
Students recognize that there are many forces acting against them, says Allen. The need to start making an income to support their family, peer pressure to become involved with crime, and the lack of financial support is only the beginning. But this only motivates students at MCEDO to work even harder.
To Allen and the other teachers, the hope for overcoming these odds lies in the gift of education–a gift that they are desperately trying to give these motivated and promising students.
“As the teachers continually remind me, ‘Education is the key to changing Mathare,’” says Allen.
Visit her fundraising site here to learn about how your donation can help the cause.