Michelle is a 7th grade student at Jagiet School in Nairobi’s densely populated Kawangware slum-village in the Dagoretti district. Like her fellow students, she spent most of last year in her home unable to attend school for most of the 2020 school year because of the national Covid-19 shutdown.
Living in the Slums is Challenging
It’s hard for anyone not living here to imagine, but try if you might, to understand Michelle’s story. Michelle wakes up in the predawn hours on a mattress on the floor. Living on the equator, the sun rises and sets the same time everyday. You might think living on the equator means it’s warm outside, but this is Nairobi, Kenya, a place nearly a mile high in elevation. So the nights are cold.
Michelle’s home is an unheated, single room, lined with thin corrugated iron sheet walls that enclose a slum-typical 12 by 24 foot shared area. A fabric sheet is hung from the ceiling down the middle to create a sense that there are actually two rooms, separating the pubic from the private space. The place is packed with storage bins containing clothing, bedding, bulk food stuffs, water jugs, cookware, dishes, and some collectables that were brought from better times living in the country before the famines drove them to a place less isolated and desolate. The tightly packed quarters are organized but to a visitor it feels extremely cluttered, with only a narrow path to twist through.
The concrete slab floor has rugs strewn about to soften the surface. Michelle’s home has electricity, something not everyone living in the slums can access. There is no plumbing, no running water. Michelle pours water from a 20 liter jerry can or jug that was purchased for 10 Kenyan Shillings (about 10 cents, USD) and carried home earlier in the week. To make morning tea she pours water into a pan to heat on a kerosene or charcoal jiko stove. She uses some of it to wash. The compound’s outhouse, just a hole in the ground in a small enclosure, serves several families. Michelle’s home is among so many more, lined up side-by-side-by-side in gated neighborhood compounds. Living on about $2 (U.S. dollars) a day, more than 100,000 people live like this in the Kawangware slum.
Typically, Michelle would walk thirty minutes to school each morning. Her walk starts off chilly, as she starts of with her backpack strapped on and the school uniform sweater pulled down over her knuckles. Michelle’s first steps begin with shivers but her fast pace quickly warms her. The walk begins in the dark. As the orange sun quickly rises, the clay dirt street dust is whipped up from the bustling foot, car, truck and bus traffic, joining a smog you can almost taste. Michelle’s commute takes her from the dirt paths of her neighborhood, through the noisy streets, and eventually to the relatively pastoral setting of Jagiet School. The frantic noise of the morning’s urban hustle and bustle flips to the welcoming sounds of roosters crowing, footsteps shuffling, and children giggling.
At this same time, Michelle’s mother would be setting off to purchase fresh vegetables from the wholesale lot for the day, and then sell them from her small kiosk in the neighborhood.
COVID-19 Changed Everything in 2020
The pandemic changed everything, suddenly and dramatically. The Kenyan government took swift action upon the onset of the spreading Covid-19. There were no half measures. All schools closed. Almost all businesses closed, and those remaining open had very restricted hours. Transit systems were shut down. Those who worked in service and retail industries, which make up the vast majority of Kawangware residents, no longer had jobs nor income. Michelle, like everyone, stayed home socially distanced from friends and classmates. Michelle’s mother’s retail business struggled because vegetables were no longer being regularly shipped to wholesalers, and the loss of jobs meant people in the neighborhood could not buy food for their families. Michelle’s older sister who has a young child lost her service job and moved back in with Michelle and her mom. The family restricted their movements and stayed close to home.
Michelle had a limited ability to maintain her studies through distance learning administered through the school and organized by Ngong Road Children’s Foundation. She was able to pick up and drop off school lessons, materials and assignments using social distance practices. Her family also received the critical Food from Friends support, keeping her family nutritionally supported. These past months were a challenge, but Michelle and her family remain well and safe from the pandemic. Phenomenally, much of the Kenyan population has escaped contamination from Covid-19.
2021 is Spring Forward, No Summer Break Ahead
Starting in January, schools reopened with protective protocols in place. There remain concerns about the potential for the Covid “variant’ disease to reach Kenya and spread. So precautions going forward are critical. Michelle has her uniform and masks, and as of January has begun a new routine of returning to Jagiet School each day. Ngong Road Children’s Foundation senior case manager Tunda reports that the family is managing as they hope for even better days ahead.
Going forward, challenges are ahead. With the loss of a school year, the government’s plan is to compress the education schedule for the next two years. In 2021, Michelle and her fellow students will be attending four semesters in the usual three-semester year. The traditional month-long August break is cancelled. School will go straight through from January to December 2021. And, that schedule is planned to be repeated next year.
Michelle’s mother remains hopeful. She believes in her daughter’s commitment to education, and she feels more assured because their home has electricity and Michelle is, therefore, able to study even at night.
Michelle and her family wish to express that they are very grateful for the support of her sponsors, donors and the generosity of Friends of Ngong Road. The 2021 Spring Appeal is critical to maintaining support during this important time for them and others.