Nairobi — The dusty road leading to the heart of the Mathare settlement in Nairobi's north-west corner passes metal-roofed homes that seem to spill down hillsides, packed closely together. On a recent Monday morning, the road is packed with noisy children. They pass a partially water-logged open field where a team of youngsters are playing football (soccer), as more children cheer them from the sidelines.
A visitor notices that those not interested in impromptu soccer are gathered alongside the road in small groups of different ages, either arguing about something that happened in popular culture or playing hide-and-seek.
But 41-year-old Celine Atieno Molo fears such a carefree lifestyle is becoming an ingredient for society's moral decay.
"There is a lot of peer pressure on our children to join social groups, because they are not in school. This has led to an increase in teenage pregnancies, rape cases, child kidnapping and even drug abuse among the youth," says the mother of five daughters.
After Kenya reported its first case of Covid-19 on March 13, schools were closed to prevent the spread of the [SarsCoV-2] virus that causes the disease, and the government issued a directive on the need for physical distancing and staying at home.
In Kenyan slums, where families live on less than a dollar a day and where most of the urban working population have lost their jobs, such directives by the government have been impossible to implement.
One reason for this is that families living here must continue to try to find ways of generating some income, or they starve. Another is because the living spaces are very small. It is common to find a family of five living in a 10x10 square foot structure.
"In such an environment it becomes very difficult to persuade children to remain indoors. They would rather be outside where there are bigger spaces and where their movements will not be restricted," says Molo.
Another reason is the increasing cases of domestic violence, according to Mercy Kasiti Indule, a head teacher working in Mathare.
Indule says that due to Covid-19, most parents in the slums lost jobs in shopping malls and wealthy neighbourhoods, where they used to do laundry and cleaning.
Without livelihoods, depressed adults find themselves squeezed into small living shelters with equally anxious children. Tensions and hostility have flared, along with declining mental health among both parents and children.
"Nobody had a plan for Covid-19. It has been common to hear of defilement (rape) cases or physical assaults on children where the perpetrators could be parents, due to frustrations, or a neighbor, due to conflicts in the neighbourhood," says Indule.
To mitigate these increasing pressures, parents have allowed their children to play on the streets. Indule worries that this is leading to lack of focus and the loss of a sense of purpose, especially for those who had been enrolled in school.
Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco) is responding to those concerns. A grassroots group working in eight informal settlements in Kenya, Shofco began in Kibera, Nairobi's largest informal settlement, when resident Kennedy Odede formed a youth football (soccer) league with nothing but a ball and a dream. Odede's drive and determination attracted attention. He won a scholarship to attend university in the United States, forging an alliance with fellow student Jessica Posner, who became his wife and partner.
While Odede studied, his dream of providing education to poor children - especially girls, who were most vulnerable to abuse - took shape. With a growing group of backers, including volunteer workers from the neighborhood and beyond, the Kibera School for Girls was born. Now, Shofco is serving hundreds of thousands of people across Kenya's poor urban communities.
"We're building urban promise from urban poverty" Shofco proclaims. Its work during the Covid pandmic supports children's intellectual and physical development and helps to keep them out of mischief, say the parents of the school children.
The organization has schools in slums that educate girls up to upper grade, says Hecky Odera, Shofco's director of education. It also has health centers in the communities, with medical services, and an adult literacy programme and skills training for entrepreneurs and those seeking employment. All these services are offered free of charge, although parents and other service recipients are expected to participate in helping others.
The pandemic, however, locked out some of these services, especially in the education sector. For many girls enrolled with Shofco schools, interventions based on remote learning were out of reach. Their families cannot afford Internet bundles, TVs, smartphones, or even meals, as their parents became jobless, says Odera.
But creative minds at the organization saw it develop innovative ways to keep girls learning. One of these was the government's proposed community-based learning. The government has tried to continue education through virtual classes, as well as TV and radio broadcasts, and Shofco was quick to find ways to collaborate.
"Immediately the government came up with the idea and released protocols that were to be observed during community learning, we decided to roll it out," said Odera, adding that Shofco schools adopted curricula to incorporate content shared by Kenya's Teachers Service Commission.
The adaptations for Covid build upon years of work in the communities. It was Shofco's commitment and creativity that attracted attention and helped it diversify its services and expand operations beyond Kibera. Donors include the Mastercard Foundation of Toronto, the Safaricom Foundation of Nairobi, the Ford Foundation of New York and the Peter Möhrle Stiftung of Hamburg . In 2018, Shofco received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
Now Shofco's Mathare School for Girls has over 300 student from pre-kindergarten to Grade 5. Students from each grade are invited to the school every day and are engaged in various activities. The schools take precautions to protect students and staff from infection.
With 10 teachers serving each grade, the girls are divided into groups of 10 and assigned tasks, says Odera. Some are doing crafts such as knitting or bead work, Another group is engaged in artwork. Yet another will be found honing their skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Stem education) in the school's computer lab, while another group keeps fit with gymnastics.
"We do this because the students' families are very poor. When the girls are at home they cannot get food. When they come to the school they are offered free breakfast and free lunch. But they are also engaged in academic growth activities," says Odera.
To understand the poverty families face in slums, one only needs to walk along the crowded streets to get a glimpse of their reality. Children will be seen hawking wares on the streets, as others care for younger siblings. In neighbourhoods plagued by illicit alcohol, children are enlisted to fetch water from distant and risky sources. Some are recruited or pressured into becoming couriers to traffic drugs, investigations by social workers reveal.
Mercy Kasiti Indule, the head teacher at Shofco's Mathare School for Girls, links these abuses to poverty and failure by older people, including some parents, to respect children's rights. The few hours students spend at the school during the pandemic reduces their contact with dangers in the community.
This has helped boost their self-esteem and cushioned them from the hostile environment in which they live, says Indule, who has worked for Shofco for the past seven years.
"We have provided the girls with a platform where they are able to express themselves and pursue their personal and career goals to become agents of change in the society," she says.
Empowering girls needs to go along with involving their families and the wider community, says Molo, whose child is a beneficiary of the Shofco education programme.
Molo used to work as a matron at a Shofco rescue center for vulnerable children in Mathare. But when Covid-19 struck, she lost her job. Her good work, however, saw Molo enlisted again by the organization to distribute food, hand-washing gear, sanitary towels and sanitizers to the community during the pandemic.
Hopeful narratives like Molo's are made possible through support Shofco received from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF). As part of its C.A.R.E.S. programme - Capital for African Resilience-building and Enterprises Support for Covid-19 - USADF has distributed approximately U.S.$3.5 million in relief funding to around 300 grantees in 21 African countries.
USADF is an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress to invest in African grassroots organizations, entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises. The C.A.R.E.S. support is being used for a wide diversity of activities. The Women Farmers Development Network, a cooperative in Kano, Nigeria, is getting food it produces to hungry consumers. Fibres du Mali has expanded its textile manufacturing and has set it staff to producing protective masks.
With $148,000 in assistance, Shofco is distributing 1.8 million liters of water to vulnerable community residents and has deployed an additional 30 serviced handwashing stations in Kibera, Mathare, and Kawangware, staffed by attendants enlisted from the community. There have been over 13 million uses of its handwashing kiosks.
"Hand-washing stations are the most basic, practical solutions to prevent the virus' spread", where they help people wash their hands with soap and clean water as they enter and exit the area, says Shofco CEO Kenneda Odede. "They have been made possible through Shofco's partnership with USADF, as part of a comprehensive response to Covid-19 in Kenya's urban settlements."
Over 1,836,472 informal settlement residents have been screened for the virus, and more than a quarter of a million have been reached to combat Covid-19 disinformation through an SMS-powered rumour tracking platform.
"Food distribution through vouchers and tackling gender-based violence by Shofco has helped slum communities pull through during the pandemic, lowering the chances of students' academic progress being affected by their parents' unemployment," says head of education, Odera.
To ensure the academic gains the girls have achieved would be maintained during the pandemic, the organization developed three objectives to guide available support to the students.
The first was to ensure that high school students were able to have virtual classes through the Stem science and math laboratory.
"We employed a few teachers from the community to support the girls with learning. They are able to attend their virtual classes because the laboratory has computers and Internet," said Odera.
The second objective, he says, was searching for applications that would enable students to access the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) learning materials. Shofco partnered with a software developer called Zeraki, which donated an application programmed to download KICD materials.
To support the user interface, Kenyan telecommunication company Safaricom donated smart phones and free Internet to the students.
For those in Grades six, seven and eight, Shofco partnered with Kuze Kuze, a social enterprise working on innovations that promote learning during lockdown. Kuze Kuze prepares work on subjects and topics and delivers it to the schools, where parents or guardians can collect it, Odera says.
"We have given the girls resources and books. They do this work and then it is brought back to the schools the following Tuesday. More work is picked for the girls as the Kuze Kuze team goes to mark and grade the delivered work. It is like an exchange programme," says Odera.
Once the Kuze Kuze team has marked the work, they prepare a report based on each individual student and the work they were given, the areas where they struggled and what they need to crunch difficult subjects, he says.
The third objective was the creation of Whatsapp groups for students and families with smartphones. Teachers share weekly school work with students in the lower grades.
For those not able to access school work from virtual platforms, the Shofco administration encourages parents to go to the schools to pick up hard copies of the assignments, says Odera.
The work that organizations like Shofco are doing to empower girls in Kenya's slums is making parents like Molo happy. But she would be happier if these growth programmes were also offered to the boy child.
That is something Odera's administration is working on, even as it seeks to unveil Grades 6 and 7 to accommodate more students in 2021. There also are plans to establish a girls' school in the coastal town of Mombasa. This may take time to roll out, due to constrained resources.
"The community has seriously started demanding for boys' schools. It is in the pipeline. Our early childhood development programme focuses on both boys and girls, but when they graduate to Grade 1, we focus only on girls. We will continue offering what our budget enables us to do," says Odera.