Independent Appeal: School's back, and a new life begins

Young girls from some of Nairobi's worst slums are being given back their childhood

The end of the school year means something different to Elizabeth Awuor than it does to most children. The 10-year-old was encouraged to record how she was feeling about in a "book of fears" given to her by her teacher. She wrote that she was looking forward to seeing the rest of her family but was anxious about her alcoholic and frequently violent father.

This nervous young girl has spent much of the past year at a boarding school like no other. It's the first school she had ever been to.

Her life before coming to Pendezeko Letu in the green hills of central Kenya was one of unimaginable misery. Along with her five siblings and her mother, she spent her days scavenging in the vast rubbish dump at Dandora in Nairobi. Picking through rotting trash for scrap metal or plastic she would sometimes be beaten by the older children and was forced to have sex with one of the men.

Along with 99 other Kenyan girls, she was moved from a life as a streetchild in Nairobi's slums to a refuge where some of her childhood has been recovered. The school is located on a working farm that helps to pay for the refuge it affords the girls who stay there. Each year the project – which is funded by ChildHope, one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – takes 100 girls who stay there for a year of intensive schooling and counselling while the organisation tries to work with the family they have left behind to ensure there's a better life to go to when they return home in January.

Elizabeth remembers her surprise at the move from a Kinyaru slum on the fringe of the dump to her current home: "When I came I was very excited that there was this wonderful place."

She lists the wonders on offer like a communal television and a "sofa set". The bathrooms were a mystery, she'd never used a shower before.

She won't be going home alone. The charity pays for a social worker who will pay daily visits to Elizabeth. They will also go to her school to ensure that her routine doesn't slide back into what it was before.

The first rule of Pendezeko Letu is in its name, says Sarah Wanjiru Mbira who has been working for the organisation since 1997.

It means "Our Choice" in Ki-wahili and "it means it's our choice to work with these families and their choice to work with us".

She oversees a network of six social workers who help to identify a handful of the most vulnerable children in the myriad of Nairobi's slums and find some who want to change their lives. Then, the child will introduce the social worker to the rest of the family and try to get their agreement to take part. Getting involved means a three-year commitment to try to transform the life of the whole family for the better.

"Often you have to persuade parents who have no education that children belong in schools, not begging or scavenging."

A mural on one of the school walls gives the sweep of what's offered. Colourfully painted characters sit above captions ranging from school feeding programmes and legal aid to family planning and micro-credit.

"You're dealing with people who have nothing," says Wanjiru Mbira the project's supervisor. "Elizabeth's home was a bare room. No mattresses, no utensils, no proper clothes. They would burn plastic to cook with, not knowing they were poisoning themselves."

Often the most basic things are needed: some help to buy basic household goods, some access to healthcare and counselling, or a small loan to start a business.

But it's the girls themselves who undergo the biggest change – moving into a world of hygiene, rules, rights and responsibilities.

"It can be hard for them, some try to run away during the first month but after that they settle down," says the supervisor. The class of 2010 is nearing the end of its time at the school. In the classrooms scores of girls aged between seven and 13, who a few months ago were suffering from serious behavioural problems, smile and greet visitors in the classic, collective whine of schoolchildren everywhere.

One of the school rooms has been turned into a beauty salon where 25 older girls, some of them Pendezeko alumni, are being taught one end of a pair of scissors from the other by the glamorous teacher Tekira Okaalo.

"Hair is everything and beauty is everything," she says. As girls blow dry, straighten, chop and polish away, the beautician explains that salon work is a marketable skill that "never goes away, there's always money."

From the five groups totalling 82 girls that have come through her programme, 59 girls are currently employed and seven of them have set up their own salons and even given jobs to other graduates.

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.



* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org



* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk



* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk

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