The first time I went there I thought, “Oh hell no.” It was an area of Nairobi I had been never been to before. Suddenly, I was thankful that my father had had none of my pathetic attempts at being Miss Independent, and had insisted that there was no way I would go by myself. When you’ve been sheltered all your life, you tend to be wary of places that don’t look like home. Dagoretti Corner Childcare Programme was further than Google Maps had let on. The buildings along the road had gradually became smaller and older, and the road dustier and narrower. The place looked like it belonged in its surroundings: small, run-down, dingy. The first time I went there, I regretted having committed myself to Pastor Enos. I regretted having heard him say that they needed me. I regretted refusing to do my community service at a more ‘upscale’ institution because I felt that I had made a promise to this home and that I couldn’t go back on it.
But today I regret my regret.
It is a Friday morning, my fifth week of community service. I am eager to leave and go home, the same way that I am eager to be done with my ten weeks. I am resentful that I had to wake up at 6 am on a day when I do not have class. I am frustrated because I did not actually wake up at 6 am; I was supposed to, but it was cold out and my blanket was warm and the snooze button is a thing that exists. I barely had enough time to shower and dress, and breakfast is a word whose meaning I no longer know. And you know that road to The Junction? The one that was constructed by agents of evil to break the wills of men? The one that lets you know just how unfit you are because by the time you get to the top of the hill you feel like you no longer have lungs and are sure you are going to pass out? The one that strengthens your faith because when you do make it to the top and are still standing you are prepared to testify of the Lord’s goodness? That hill, I climb it every day to get to DCCP. It is currently one of the greatest trials of my life. Your prayers will go a long way, thank you.
On this morning of great distress I am to interview the senior teacher here, Mr. Njoroge. I need content for my First Impressions paper, which is due in a week. First impressions about the site where I am serving. He once told me that he has been here since 1996 so, apart from Pastor Enos himself, whom I cannot ask because he intimidates me to levels I am not willing to admit, who better to ask?
I catch him— Mr. Njoroge— during his tea break. He has tea in a travel mug and unleashes a huge mandazi from a drawer in his desk. I focus my effort on ignoring the mandazi but my stomach is having none of it and I desperately hope nobody else can hear the rumbles. He is a slight man: not much taller than me, not much wider than me. His eyes don’t look tired. Not as tired as you would expect from someone whose day starts at 5 in the morning and ends at 9 pm; someone who spends his days working with 400 children with no pay; someone who has a degree in computer engineering but decided to teach biology and fasihi to students who didn’t get such a great start in life. He seems to me a man who is okay where he is, and with his decisions. He is not disturbed. “When did Pastor Enos establish this institution?” I begin.
I listen as he tells me how Pastor Enos came from Uganda and decided to start a feeding programme for street children in the area, how that programme developed into this place over time, how he began a school so that the children he had taken charge of could get an education, how the primary school grew and, thereafter the high school, because where else would the children go? I listen as he tells me that he grew up here, sleeping in the dorms above the staff room we are in, sitting in the classrooms where I teach thrice a week. “Why did you decide to stay here after you cleared your high school education?” He gives me an amused smile, like he does not understand how I can ask such a dumb question, and I am embarrassed. “How do I respond to that now?” he asks, “It’s like if I asked you why you go home…this is my home. I have no parents, this is where I grew up.” I am even more embarrassed. I move on quickly.
I ask him about the challenges that the institution faces and from the way he takes a deep breath before beginning, I know that I will be listening for a while. And they are many. I tap furiously on my phone as he talks, stopping at various points to look at him in amazement or shock. One such point is when he tells me that on several days during this term the students have been going without breakfast.
Guys. You remember when you were in primary school and would have break at around 11 am? And how you and your classmates would bust out an assortment of snacks that you carried from home. There were those ones who had bread with jam and small thermoses of tea, and I remember thinking that the tea always had a funny smell. I had classmates who brought their tea in ordinary water bottles and I could not for the life of me understand why their parents didn’t just buy them flasks…or give them juice to carry. What? I was young and privileged. Then there were the kids whose parents went all out. Kids who carried sijui Haribos and Krackles every day. And if you thought they were extra during normal school days, wait until you guys had a class trip. My Lord…entire factories of junk food were being fully funded by some parents. Meanwhile, my mother had declared that no children of hers were going to come back home after school trips with sore throats and whatnot because of eating too much junk. Our snacks never cost more than 300 bob and it was a matter of great distress to me.
So there I was, in my childhood, upset that I couldn’t get Krackles for snacks, when there are children here going without breakfast. Sema perspective. And by the way, while we are on this, do you remember buying this drink Bibo? The Pineapple guy that surfed and sijui there was an apple…? Lord, we were crazy about those things!
Teachers come in and out of the poorly lit staff room. None of them are paid a salary here. Most of them are university students doing education and on long holiday. They get between 200 and 300 shillings daily—bus fare, it is called. Some of them sit and listen in as Mr. Njoroge tells me how they cannot afford to keep a permanent teaching staff or buy textbooks. They watch me struggle to understand how students in Form Three and Four are taught literature and fasihi without the set books. There are 13 copies of Mstahiki Meya— a Kiswahili set book— in this school. And 70 Form Four students. The math fails. There are even fewer copies of Caucasian Chalk Circle and the other books. Do any of you remember how hard Chemistry was even with the textbooks and an abundance of past papers with which to revise? Can any of you imagine how much worse it would be without any textbook or paper at all? I can’t. Chemistry was once the greatest trial of my life. I once got 38 out of 80 and counted it a victory. And it wasn’t even one of those exams where everybody fails so you can make each other feel better. Uh-uh. This one I failed alone. Mrs. Otwello drew me a sad face on the last page of the paper, next to the word ‘why?’ God. The kind of tribulations we go through sometimes. Meanwhile, here are students stumbling through the unforgiving abyss that is chemistry with nothing to guide them but the effort of their teachers.
There is a lot else that Mr. Njoroge tells me on this morning of the regret of regret. Like how the current drought in the country has affected them, and how trying it can be when a student gets critically ill. But there is also a lot that he says that gleams with hope. Like how they hope to get their rugby, football and netball teams to the nationals this year, and how much better the Class Eights have been performing in KCPE in recent years. The mandazi is gone by now and I have his full attention. The other teachers are perched on the three desks, displaying amusement here, giving comments there. They are quick to defend themselves: not all of them stop coming when there is no money for bus fare; they give their best effort given the circumstances; they genuinely care about the kids they teach. I believe them.
Mr. Njoroge goes on with his stories and as I take notes, I think of Jecinta, the lovely girl who sits at the front of Class Five and raises her hand to answer questions even when she doesn’t know the answer. You don’t get that kind of eagerness in the classroom much after a certain point. I remember the time she told me that she had no parents and how she said it with a smile still on her face and how I didn’t know how to react to that and so ended up saying that she has a nice smile. She blushed and opted to change topic. I think of how similar the Class Five kids here are to the ones I’ve taught in a private school, and I wonder what exactly I was expecting. Of course they are similar; they are in the same developmental stage. They are at that delightful age where they are old enough to understand and follow instructions yet young enough to still be excited about being in school. The Class Eights are also the same as their more privileged counterparts. The girls have began to act restrained because they are conscious of their bodies and the presence of males. The boys have begun to stroke lovingly the one hair that has sprouted on their chins. And when you ask questions, instead of a frenzy of: “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” (pronounced ‘tcha’ and said in rapid succession), you get bored, vacant stares. I don’t know why I thought it would be different and once again, I am embarrassed.
I regret my initial privileged regret, and as Mr. Njoroge leaves me to see a lady who has come to seek admission for a child, I realize just how much I have had, and how much I have taken for granted.
This is the thing: many of us have a lot. Too much even. We eat everyday and get annoyed when our parents don’t give us as much pocket money as we would have liked. We complain bitterly when the WiFi connection in our homes fails and the KPLC social media pages are flooded with our insults when there is no power. We are distressed when we haven’t eaten pizza in a while or when Shonda Rhimes decides to lay waste to our emotional stability with the way she writes her shows. We have a lot.
This is the other thing: we can afford to give. I’m not even asking for much. Hell, these kids don’t need much. They need books and they need food. After high school, some of us burned our books. Others sold them. Others gave them to younger siblings or cousins. Others left them lying somewhere around the house. If you looked hard enough, you would find them. Please. Guys. Those books are needed and you have no idea how much they will be appreciated by a student somewhere whose equations just cannot and will not balance, a student who wouldn’t dare attempt the ‘dondoo’ question in Kiswahili paper three because they haven’t actually ever read Kidagaa Kimemwozea in its entirety. Kwanza those of you who left high school recently, you know what I’m talking about—the memory of your math papers being brought back after exams is still fresh in your minds. So if you fall into the category of people who have text books and set books lying around the house, or if you can spare a few hundred shillings to buy some, or to buy foodstuffs…there are children who would be very happy to receive from you. Plus you’ll feel pretty good afterwards, I promise. Get in touch, okay? Okay.
Besides, you know that you would have never had a shot in chemistry if you didn’t have a textbook…:-)