Young girls buzz with excitement on a dusty, sunny Saturday morning in Nairobi, Kenya. The small crowd is ebullient as the day’s agenda fuels their delight. Their newly renovated school, The Kibera School for Girls or KSG as it is sometimes called, is being formally introduced to the public for a May re-opening. These girls are anticipating the many new improvements to the school and the building in which it is housed. Each of the girls attending the event is being paired with a volunteer and given a task: paint or plant. On one of the building’s main floors, the mural of a large world map is being rendered in an array of rainbow colors. On the building’s rooftop, the girls will learn ecological literacy by planting a garden and tending it throughout the year.
KSG is part of an initiative created by Shining Hope For Communities (SHOFCO), an organization started by native son to Kibera, Kennedy Odede. Odede, 33, is the oldest of eight children. He grew up intimately familiar with the effects of abject poverty, violence, a dearth of professional options, and gender gap opportunities. Odede has been motivated by these disparities in Kibera, considered to be the biggest slum in Africa and one of the largest in the world. It’s estimated that there are approximately 500,000 to well over 1,000,000 people included in the slum’s greater population. Many of Kibera’s residents live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.00 per day.
Odede, a graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says he has spent most of his life hoping for Kibera’s improvement. The New York Times best-selling author and community organizer has since augmented his dream into reality. He expanded SHOFCO’s operations with assistance from another budding social activist, Jessica Posner, who is now his wife. Posner, 30, met Odede in 2007 and lived in Kibera. She too was moved by the extreme conditions she witnessed and experienced. Together, the two founded KSG in 2009 and coordinated SHOFCO’s outreach to Kenyan communities. It’s Kibera’s first free primary school for girls whose ages range from 5 to 14 years old.
The Odedes say they are dedicated to closing the disparities that Kenyan women face in education, health, and the job market. There is a focus on a science, technology, education, and math (S.T.E.M.) curriculum in this school, an area of education where women comprise the minority of positions in science and engineering fields in the U.S. at 39% with an even greater disparity percentage in Kenya. KSG features a computer center and science lab where staff members are currently examining cases of rising diabetes in the Kenyan population.
“I want to be a scientist,” says Janet, a nine-year-old and my partner for the day. “I want to be a pediatrician,” she says among other professions she admires including being a dancer and a journalist (after hearing about what I do). As we pick out our colors and where we are going to start brushing, Janet teaches me some key terms in Kiswahili, Kenya’s native language even though she is a proficient English speaker. Janet is like many of her colleagues from Kibera who are saddled with socioeconomic challenges but have hopes that they will leave KSG with the necessary skills to eventually go to university.
United States’ Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec was placed on vegetable duty. Godec says he’s committed to working on providing quality education for the young women who attend KSG as well as creating partnerships that tackle healthcare, economic empowerment, and security. He’s worked with the Odedes since they opened the school in 2009. Amid giggles and laughter coming from the girls and other volunteers, Godec planted lettuce and other vegetables in the school’s newly constructed rooftop garden. Teachers and students will maintain the sustainable garden as a supplement to their daily meals simultaneously learning about the environment.
While Godec gardens upstairs at the newly refurbished KSG, activity downstairs in the school is bustling as a smaller group of students and volunteers select their respective colors to decorate the map of the world mural. They are hurriedly making adjustments on the wall-sized painting before grabbing lunch and attending a special ceremony to mark the auspicious occasion. As we move from one room to another before the final convocation, Janet shouts, “Kufunga mlango!” She observes my befuddled look, and she tells me that she told me to shut the door. “Oh, OK! Asante sana!” I reply thank you very much, happy to learn a new Swahili phrase. We both laugh as we dip our paintbrushes into the orange paint to finalize our collective masterpiece.