A Slum in Nairobi. Wikimedia Commons

The School of the Future

In Nairobi, an innovative vocational school with 450 students, created at the behest of Cardinal Otunga and sustaine by AVSI. An example of the “risk of education” in action, which prepares one for life.
Henry Kamande

Dear friends: The situation of education in Kenya is worsening and is facing greater and greater problems. Numerous reports testify to a decline in this sector, both qualitative and quantitative. Parents in Kenya are sensitive to the problem of education and are willing to make any sacrifice to send their children to school, but their efforts are rendered vain by corruption, disorganization, lack of economic resources, low motivation among teachers, and scarcity of personnel and teaching tools. Financing of education is left almost exclusively up to the parents, to Church and non-governmental organizations, and to individuals, who have done a great deal to ensure an education to as many Kenyans as possible. The government, too, has done its part, but what is lacking is a real policy of education and a will to render this key sector truly efficient.

More than 50% of Kenyans live below the poverty level. For many of them, sending a child to school today is a luxury. A consequence of this is the high drop-out rate (only 25% of children who begin the primary level succeed in moving on to secondary school). The illiteracy rate is starting to grow again–from 10% it has reached 30%–and a large number of people who are illiterate, semi-literate, or in some way unqualified are left to take to the streets.

It is also important to point out that education for Africans was originally aimed at the training of personnel to be employed in the colonial government offices, and this has created the general opinion that education serves only to create “white-collar workers.” This erroneous notion has led many to view vocational school as a place where one went to “labor.” The students who couldn’t make it in high school, the lazy, and those from the lower strata of society would end up in vocational school as a last resort, when every other road had been closed to them. Fortunately, this mentality has slowly died out. When many people found themselves out of work because of downsizing and restructuring of their companies, it became clear that anyone who had a foundation of technical knowledge was better equipped to face hard times.

The Birth of the School
St Kizito’s School was born as the result of a friendship between Cardinal Maurice Michael Otunga and some people in AVSI, whom he asked to create a vocational school in Kenya. Construction of the school building began in 1991, and the first courses were taught in 1994. In the beginning, there were 63 students in three courses, and now the number has reached about 450 students, half of whom manage to earn a diploma, in ten different subject areas. They have to undergo an annual examination, graded by a school, a government, and an international committee. The percentage of those who pass has always been very high, often wavering between 95% and 100%.

Students in the St Kizito’s Vocational School come for the most part from poor families living on the outskirts of Nairobi or the surrounding area. Along with them are a large number of refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon. St Kizito’s is an international center in the true sense of the term.

At St Kizito’s, close attention is paid to the student as a person. All the stimuli of school life are used as an opportunity to educate. The focus is not just on technical aspects, but also on care for every aspect of the person; the students must start out every day from the certainty of a love poured out on them and a freedom that helps them to face their day.

Among the teachers, we are experiencing a friendship that leads us to live a common judgment on things and a mutual action of correction. In this we have been helped by the work we have done together on Fr Giussani’s book The Risk of Education. It has become easy to face the day among friends, and our friendship is evident also to the students.

A Proposal of Method
Last year, we began proposing this method to other schools in the district by means of a flyer distributed after the Kyanguli tragedy, in which some students died as a result of arson. In the flyer, we expressed our judgment on the wave of unrest that led to the closing of more than 50 schools (including the best-known) because of strikes, disorder, fires, etc.

Our proposal as Christian adults is to stay with the students in a new way, a way that originates in Christian experience. Starting from this method, we try to face reality in its concrete aspects. We decided to initiate some courses to respond to the needs we saw around us, courses that offered the students the possibility to enter the work world.

We decided to meet regularly among the responsibles, not out of love for meetings, but in order to live a companionship within which to meet reality together. The result has been the rise of an atmosphere of freedom, because we understand that we are doing the same thing: doing things with friends is what changes life. We meet in order to judge certain situations and aspects of the school, to make plans for the future, and to decide how to proceed in practice.

This way of comparing thoughts and ideas has led to the students being able to say, “I am doing something with a teacher who loves me.” In many cases, students and teachers spend time together in the evenings and weekends too.

The teachers are serious about their work, preparing their lessons with great care. Many of them have taken courses to update themselves in their subject, not only because of a desire for self-improvement, but also because of the will to offer their students an ever-higher quality of teaching.

Great attention is paid to the teaching materials, which are very carefully purchased. Thus, our workshops are adequately furnished compared to other centers around us, and this has led to a growth in enrollment applications for our courses, which we are barely able to satisfy. For example, the automotive mechanics course had 174 applications, but we were only able to accept 54.

Another aspect that should be pointed out is the possibility to eat a low-cost lunch in the school, which for many students is their only decent meal of the day. The kitchen is run by a group of volunteers, and this has made it possible to keep costs down.

It would be hard for us to realize the significance of our presence, if it were not for the testimonies that come to us from those around us. Here are some:

One of the local police heads, Inspector Karanja, came to visit this institute which houses so many students who have never caused any problems (the police are often called to schools to put down brawls). The inspector has worked in many areas of the country and, he said, this was the first time he had seen a situation like this. He was so struck by it that he enrolled his son in a course for electricians.

Among the students are some young people who have fled southern Sudan because of the civil war, who believe in the possibility of a peaceful and orderly future for their country, and who want to be ready for the moment when it is time for reconstruction to start. One of them, Benjamin, is studying plumbing, in order to be able to contribute to setting up water supply systems in his country.