The track into the slums of Mukuru leads over a toxic, turquoise river where plastic bags of human excrement lie, ankle-deep, on either bank. The ground is spongy with detritus, and the smell is awful. Every morning, thousands of children cross this footbridge to makeshift classrooms on the other side, but this afternoon, a group of English primary school teachers is going the other way, to see for themselves the conditions in this squalid settlement near the heart of Nairobi.
They walk the narrow lanes between the cardboard and tin shacks in shocked silence, stepping over open sewers, and peering into dark doorways, while social workers explain that Mukuru has no sanitation and residents have to buy their water, bucket by bucket. They are told that respiratory infections are common, that fires break out frequently because of the open stoves people cook on in their tiny rooms, and that the whole place floods every time it rains. Unemployment is endemic, HIV/Aids a major problem, and violence and abuse commonplace. By the end of the tour, several of the teachers have been close to tears. "No one should have to live like this today," bursts out Jan Blair, a member of the group. "No one!"
Four teachers and the headmaster of Heathrow Primary School, in west London, are visiting Kenya with a view to developing a partnership with a group of primary schools that serves this slum area. The link is that their school, like the Kenyan ones, lie close by the national airport – they've been flown out by British Airways – but there the similarity ends. Heathrow School is a modern, successful British primary school recently declared outstanding by Ofsted inspectors. The four Mukuru schools are iron shacks, with bare-earth floors, Victorian wooden desks and a pitiful lack of resources.
The question is whether this huge gulf can be bridged in any meaningful way. Most British primary schools now have some sort of link with schools overseas, but this often amounts to little more than pupils emailing each other about their families and the weather. The Heathrow teachers have something different in mind. If they commit to Mukuru, it will be for the long term, to work closely and professionally with their Kenyan colleagues. But John Hobbs, the long-time head of Heathrow, is cautious. "We're here to listen and look. None of us have really been in the Third World before, so how can we know if we can support them until we know what their needs are?" he says.
They soon discover that they have a need for absolutely everything. Although Kenya introduced free primary education a few years ago, this barely touches the illegal slum settlements. So the Mukuru Promotion Centre, a church-based voluntary organisation, runs four schools in the area, educating more than 4,000 children, as well as an orphanage, a rehabilitation centre for street boys, and medical clinic with an HIV testing centre.
The project takes a holistic view of children's needs, and teachers often find themselves supporting pupils with appalling problems. "I am a counsellor and I often have girls coming to me because they have been raped, or because someone in their family is abusing them," says Jane Kerubo, an English teacher at St Bakhita's School. "This can start at the age of eight, or younger. And, you know, some people think nothing of it. I had a father here recently so angry because he said it was none of my business what he did at home!"
The centre is run by the Sisters of Mercy, an Irish Catholic order, although the schools do not have an overtly religious bias. "What we want to do," says Sam Guamba, the deputy director of the centre, "is make these children feel they are part of the world, part of society, like everyone else."
BA has been involved with the centre for more than a decade, ever since an air-crew member met one of the Sisters of Mercy at Mass and started fundraising for it. The company has now built a skills and computer centre on the site of one of the schools, with a hairdressing salon and rooms to teach knitting and sewing, and it plans to create computer centres at all four schools. Cisco Systems and Microsoft are helping to equip and network them, but the challenge is also to train Kenyan teachers, whose teaching methods need to develop alongside the new technology – something well-understood by Mary Barry, the company's community relations manager, who is herself a former teacher and educational researcher. "It's no good setting something up and walking away. We have to be sure that everything we do is of real long-term value."
But Jim Wynn, director of emerging markets at Cisco Systems, who is closely involved with the project, knows this takes time. As a former secondary school head and educational consultant, he understands the demands that technology make on traditionally-trained teachers. "You can't have someone standing at the front of the class saying, 'This is a mouse, and this is how you use it.' People have to change, but they can't do it overnight."
Meanwhile, the barely contained excitement as the slum children squash together in front of the colourful new screens shows that the pressure for change is urgent. Pupils ask their teachers every day when it will be their turn in the computer room.
And Noah Wekesa, Kenya's minister for science and technology, who turns up to thank BA for its commitment, reminds the Mukuru teachers that they are lucky to have such opportunities. "Many of the schools in my constituency, up near the border of Uganda, still take place under trees," he says.
Over the course of three days, the Heathrow teachers meet former street boys who are now learning woodwork and signwriting. They talk to dinner ladies, who are stirring a giant pot over an open fire, and learn that, for many children, the solid lump of maize porridge that they get at lunchtime, paid for by the World Food Programme, is their only meal. And they are shocked to hear that some of the Kenyan teachers live in the same slums that their pupils come from.
In the classrooms, they discover that, while the Kenyan national curriculum seems old-fashioned in British eyes, the standards expected in subjects such as maths are high. They are taken aback by the barrenness of the rooms and the enormous size of classes, but impressed by the way that the children behave. Kenyan pupils, they say, often seem more mature and sensible than their cosseted UK counterparts.
Everywhere, they are warmly welcomed with dances and parades of Scouts and Guides – the St Elizabeth's school choir, they decide, is easily good enough for the Royal Albert Hall – and fall to chatting with their Kenyan counterparts.
In fact, they already know some of them. A group of Mukuru teachers and administrators recently flew to England and visited Heathrow School. These friendships deepen as the British teachers discover more about the challenging conditions they are seeing – bare-earth floors, for example, are not only dirty and unsightly, but also allow fleas to breed.
"I got it so wrong!" says Sally Bailey, an assistant head, towards the end of the visit. "I was thinking about how we could help with ICT and useful websites, but when I asked one teacher what she most needed she said, 'Sanitary towels.'" In areas where hygiene is a problem, girls often stay off school when they have their periods.
Virginia Njugo, a teacher at St Bakhita's who visited Heathrow School, found travelling to the UK a valuable professional experience. "I liked the way that the teachers shared the learning objectives with the children," she says. "Here, these are only for the teacher. But now I share the learning objective with my class. I would say that London definitely brightened our brains."
By the end of the visit, the British teachers are moving beyond the immediate shock of seeing such poverty, to discussing how they can help. Could they provide the Kenyan teachers with display boards? Could they collaborate on health education lessons? How about some teachers coming over to the UK for a week to work alongside them on lesson-planning and delivery?
"We have lots of ideas, and these will evolve, but we've got to listen to [the Kenyan teachers]," says Bailey. "But we know people now, we've made friends, and we can talk together."
Hilary Stone adds: "I've been really struck by how dedicated some of the teachers are. Being here has reinforced all the reasons why I went in to teaching in the first place."
Alison Lee, an assistant head, says: "I'm determined that the children in our school will realise the responsibility they have towards others."
For John Hobbs, caution has been replaced by quiet determination. "We are definitely committed now. We have a much clearer picture. We've met the teachers, we know names and faces, and we've now got a lot of talking to do about what might be possible," he says.Reuse content