Volunteering in the Mukuru Slums.
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"From the moment we entered through the gates, we couldn’t help but return the children’s’ beaming smiles"
To try and bring some uniformity to the dozens of thoughts, feelings and memories of the short but incredible trip to Kenya that have constantly been buzzing around in my head since returning, I’ll try to write some of them down.
The trip was organised by my local Junior St Vincent de Paul Society, and six students from TY and 5th Year had the amazing opportunity to visit and volunteer in the second-largest slums in Nairobi, the Mukuru Slums, home to over 600,000 people.
We volunteered in four main facilities, the first being the Mary Immaculate Street Boys Centre. Here, we were greeted warmly by some 65 street boys; one of whom had come from being cast out on the streets with nothing to studying to be a doctor. We were inspired and in awe of the very challenging goals that students like these set themselves; it’s incredible how hard they are willing to work in order to make something of themselves with the limited resources they have.
What struck me about the boys is how outgoing and proud they all were of themselves! Each was more than willing to speak to us politely and honestly about his situation. In groups and as individuals they presented an array of dances, songs, poems, speeches, raps and even a drama about how they were recruited for the centre; it was truly inspiring.
Highlights of the trip
One day we visited St Catherine’s Primary School. This was perhaps the most uplifting experience of all. We visited each classroom with the stationary supplies so kindly donated to us, and interacted with the children. It brought us so much joy to watch their little faces light up with gratitude when we handed them the pencils or rulers or whatever it might have been. In their basic, dark iron-sheet classrooms where there’s no such thing as an interactive whiteboard which has fast become a ‘necessity’ here in Ireland, these kids were working twice as diligently and willingly as students in the best-equipped classrooms in the world might be.
At break-time, we ventured out into the children’s play yard and, to say the least, we were totally overwhelmed by the sea of little uniform-clad students smiling up at us! Each of them wanted to shake our hands, to touch our strange skin and hair, to know our names- but most of all to make us feel welcome. We played games with them, talked to them and took loads of photos, which they adored.
Another highlight was St. Marian Children’s Centre, which is an orphanage with ten children from the slums living there. We played card games, draughts and an eventful game of soccer with them, along with some drawing and colouring with their donated pencil sets. There was a huge schedule on the wall, consisting of early mornings, chores and schoolwork; however the children seemed so happy in such a warm and caring environment.
Children from St Catherine's Primary School, Nairobi, Kenya
We also met Eric, a fourteen-year-old boy who is unfortunately confined to a single mattress on the floor of a small room. This is due to his two severely fractured hipbones, which they have not yet been able to mend. Eric was especially quiet, but seemed to appreciate it when we talked to him about the differences between Kenya and home, and drew some pictures with him. It was heart breaking to see poor Eric’s situation, and we all hope that he will receive whatever treatment he needs soon.
Finally there was the Sanga-Belle School, which catered for children with mental and/or physical disabilities. From the moment we entered through the gates, we couldn’t help but return the children’s’ beaming smiles. We met a particularly special little girl named Celestine. It was only upon being told that we realised that her left leg was artificial, and she had no left arm. Her mother was cast away from her husband and village when she gave birth to Celestine as they thought it was witchcraft to have an unusual child. Thank goodness, her mother found Sanga-Belle, who were able to cater for Celestine’s needs and who confirmed that mentally, she was as capable and up to speed as any other child of her age.
Children from the Sanga-Belle school, Nairobi, Kenya.
The children greeted us with a special song for their visitors which warmed all of our hearts, and having shared out some donated colouring pencils they drew hands, fruit, buildings, flags, flowers and so many other things, and wrote their names and sentences describing their pictures too- some even put us to shame with their times tables! We were surprised at how developed these kids were- truly a credit to the school.
On our last day we left our mark at the school by painting a rusty classroom of iron sheets, white. We were so glad to have contributed in some small way to a centre that must be so vital in the lives of those children and their families. It can be hard to live with a disability in the most developed place in the world, so it’s hard to imagine how it must be for people who live in filthy, crowded slums on less than 100 shillings (about €1) a day. It was very sad to leave the children, but it was also clear that they were in very capable hands. It’s an impossible thing to ‘sum up’ such an incredible, inspirational, uplifting and unforgettable experience.
Nairobi is a place of stark contrast between the wealthy and the poor, and it was so strange to be immersed in a developing country that is so far removed from what we know at home. The people were welcoming, the sun was beaming, the markets were crazy and I would absolutely recommend a visit!