Kenya is like the Tower of Babylon except that someone has stolen the bricks. There are forty-two tribal languages in Kenya including Kiswahili, which is the most widely spoken language along with English – although increasing numbers of people speak Arabic amongst other languages so that there are now sixty-two languages spoken. However, to complicate communications further, slang Kiswahili (known as Sheng) is in some places so divergent as to be almost a different dialect while the pronunciation of Kenyan English and that of white Kenyans or academics is very different. Meanwhile corruption is rife throughout Kenya – including its education system – so that the Government’s pledge of free primary school education and more recently free secondary education is a bitter joke. These are the challenges faced by the average school in Kenya.
I spent June at Bosco Boys in Nairobi. This is a primary school designed for children taken from the streets and those from the poorest backgrounds. Therefore, the pupils not only have to contend with language difficulties but also extreme poverty to gain an education. It has made my own academic struggles seem small in comparison. Upon accepting my placement at Bosco Boys, I agreed to write an article on life there. Just before leaving I asked some of the boys to answer three questions and on their lives to act as a basis. I respect them all the more for their answers.
Despite the hardships that they have faced, the boys laugh and play like all children do. Most of the boys come from slums or “informal settlements” as they are more accurately called. Most of the employment is also within the “informal sector”. What can be inferred from the word “informal” is that anything encompassed by it does not officially exist; consequently the poorest people in Kenya spend their lives outside the boundaries of government recognition and subsequently receive next to no support. Therefore, much of the help for the most deprived areas has been instigated by NGOs in the place of government action. Don Bosco is an example of one such organisation by providing free schooling and considerable work with street children. The shacks that people dwell in within slums sometimes have electricity, but they have to cook with paraffin stoves, and are very squalid with sewage flowing through the streets. However, those boys without homes are considered almost feral by their communities and blamed for much of the criminality and drug abuse endemic there. This attitude towards them exacerbates their problems all the more, because it means that there is even less support for them.
The reason for many of the boys going to Bosco Boys is that they have nowhere else to go other than the streets. If they were homeless, they would be vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, drug pushers and physical as well as sexual abuse. In fact, most of the boys have experienced at least some of these problems. Those coming from this background do not come directly to Bosco Boys, but instead are taken to the Utume centre (very near Bosco Boys) or a similar site. There they are fed and – often for the first time in a long while – cared for. When their behaviour is seen as suitable enough to join Bosco Boys, they begin their more formal education. However, for the more fortunate boys who are usually scholars (i.e. they are not boarders), they are at Bosco Boys because it is the only chance to have an education. If the boys were not at school, they would have to be earning money to eat – probably working for small stalls where the pay is very bad.
Bosco Boys fulfils all the essential needs of the boys. They are fed, can bath and a have stability to their lives – which is vital – instead of constantly having to be on the look out for danger or their next meal. Equal to their physical needs is the love and compassion shown to them by the Salesians and other staff there. There was something very endearing about seeing the director, Fr. Sebastian play games with the boys. The whole community shows warmth and a playfulness that will always make Bosco Boys welcoming.
Bosco Boys does not purely look at the academic work of its pupils. There is a wide range of extra-curricular activities available from African dances to sports. These help promote the gifts of all individuals so that despite a lack of aptitude in their studies an individual can still succeed. This can be demonstrated by the regular attendance at national level competitions in African dances and poetry as well as boys appearing in national football and athletic teams.
Meanwhile academic studies are not without success so that the boys have realistic aspirations for secondary education and even university. This is helped by strong links with the Don Bosco secondary school in Embu as well as funding to some students to complete their studies. Also there is a polytechnic college run by Don Bosco, known as Boy’s Town, which is close to Bosco Boys. Here skills such as carpentry and typing are taught. Then Boy’s Town will help the boys find work or go onto apprenticeships.
The inevitable result of Don Bosco’s work in Kenya is to build a better Kenya, because not only is better education promoted but also honesty. These are both characteristics vital to a better future in Kenya. There are many difficulties faced by the Salesians in Bosco Boys and yet their successes are easy to see in all the achievements of the boys that study there. However, for Bosco Boys to continue to succeed in its good work it needs continued support to deal with the challenging issues faced everyday. There is no such thing as a problem, only obstacles to overcome.
Thank you to the whole of Bosco Boys – especially to Charles Ngonga Wanyoike, Benson Karanja, Boniface Mungai, Kelvin Gitera, Vincent Odhicuso, Peter Kimain and Evans Ochieng Odinga for their friendship that they gave so freely and their help in writing this article.