Mora McLagan reports from Mukuru, Nairobi in the second of three blog posts on urban inequality. Improved toilets and hand washing facilities make for healthier pupils in Jaombi school, but the children’s education and the sanitation facilities are at risk as the school is threatened with eviction. 

Mukuru has around 600,000 residents, yet there are only two government schools. The rest, like most other things in Mukuru, are classed as ‘informal’. Many are run by local volunteers and parents desperate for their children to learn, cobbled together with leaking corrugated iron, homemade wobbly desks and sheer determination. 

Families are forced to choose between feeding their children and educating themAlthough education is ‘free’ in Kenya, this only applies to Government schools. The ‘Informal’ schools in slum areas ask parents to pay fees in order to run, or depend on well-wishers, charities and local businesses to donate.  Even though the fees sound small – 300-500 shillings a month, too many families struggle to meet the costs and are forced to choose between feeding their children and educating them. Very often there is not
enough money to pay the teachers, so they simply stop coming in to teach. 

Most visible to visitors to Mukuru, is the near complete lack of formal sanitation. Raw sewage flows through many of the streets and some of the homes. Pit latrines are scarce, and those that exist are often filthy and terrifying places for children to go. It’s understandable how the use of ‘flying toilets’ (where residents defecate in a plastic bag and then throw it) is still widespread despite a decline in the areas where Oxfam works with our Biocentre partners and Sanergy.  

Parents would frequently pull their children out of school due to concerns over… the toilets.Sanergy’s Freshlife toilet is a genius alternative for schools. Instead of water, sawdust is used and urine and faeces are separated into two different cartridges. Waste is collected from the toilets each day, replacing full cartridges with clean, empty ones.  The waste is then safely treated and converted into useful products like organic fertiliser and renewable energy. The toilets are cleaned daily so have no noticeable smell
or risk of stepping in waste, which has transformed the experience of the children using them.  

In the past, parents would frequently pull their children out of school due to concerns over their vulnerability using the toilets, particularly in the rainy season when they were likely to overflow leading to outbreaks of stomach aches, diarrhoea and cholera. Now, attendance has shot up at all schools where Oxfam and Sanergy have installed the toilets. Children and parents report less sickness.  In some schools, attendance for girls in particular has risen by as much as 40-50%.  

Head teacher Lewis Ondieba teaches a lesson on the dangers of parasites at the Jaombi Foundation School in the Mukuru informal settlement, in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Oxfam/Sam TarlingOne school we visited to see the new Sanergy toilets in action is Jaombi Foundation School, where more than half of the 130 children cannot afford shoes or boots to navigate through the mud and sewage to get to school. Head Teacher Lewis Ondieba
explains the challenge:

“Some children run away from the school because conditions are so bad here.  When it rains, there are leakages and floods and we cannot go to the field because it is too muddy. They can get ill from the mud here. If a child steps on the mud without shoes, they can get diseases and parasites. You see this is a slum, so when it rains, it sweeps the whole waste – germs, funghi, bacteria, into the field. So bilharzia parasites, worms, they are all there and there is a high likelihood that they will get a disease.”

Children at Jaombi are now able to use proper sanitation facilities at least while they are in school. They can wash their hands at the new ‘Tippy Taps’ installed by Sanergy and Oxfam, and use the toilets safely. But the school now has even larger challenges to contend with.

After using a Sanergy Fresh Life toilet pupils wash their hands with tippy taps, Jaombi Foundation School, in Mukuru informal settlement, in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Oxfam/Sam TarlingJaombi School sits almost on top of a railtrack that carves through Mukuru, and the lessons are punctuated with the ground-shaking roar of the trains drowning out the teachers’ voices and rattling the walls. Watching the dedication of the
teachers and the rapt attention of the students, they seem blind to all of this, but to us it feels like a school on the edge of the world. Later, when we visit one of the two ‘official’ government schools in Mukuru and see the wonderful greenhouses where the school grows vegetables, the rows of pit latrines and the disabled access concrete grounds – these things seem so foreign as to be almost frivolous. The unfairness of the situation is destabilising.

My interview with Jaombi Head teacher Lewis Odiemba is one hour of calm enthusiasm and boundless positivity about the futures of the children here, despite the challenges they face. He is one of the most inspiring teachers I have ever met. But his tone changes when I ask him what the government should do to help:

“What would I say to him, the President, if he came here? I’d say, this is a community facility, it is not my facility as an individual! Bring us the materials we need for our children here. Let us pay our teachers so that we can bring better qualified teachers to help the community. Let us put up a water tank for the children and the community, and more Freshlife toilets so that the community can use these too.  And that will make Kenya better. Because if we improve Mukuru, a slum, then Kenya will be improved. But most MPs and
Businessmen are developing the estates and better places. They don’t want to come to Mukuru because they think it is a mad place, a junk place, the buildings are pathetic. But we want to move forward. I’ve invited politicians here before, and they say they are too busy, they’ll come one week, one month, and then they don’t come.”

 Jacqueline Mogoi, founder of the Jaombi Foundation School, in the Mukuru informal settlement, in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Sam Tarling/OxfamSchool founder Jacqueline Mogoi shares Mr Lewis’ frustration. She becomes tearful as she describes how the future of the school, fought for long and hard by her, now hangs in the balance. Like most land in Mukuru, the soil the school sits on is privately owned, by Kenya
Railways. And now they want the school out.  The land does not belong to them, they have no permission to be there, so they must go.

When not teaching at Jaombi, Jacqueline is now working a second job in Nairobi, simply to keep the teachers’ wages being paid. In what little spare time she has left, she is searching for an alternative plot of land for the school:

“I need to do something, so I am running up and down to see whether we can find some more money to have a space within the interior of the community.  All these children are from this community, therefore if the demolition happens, where will we go?


(credit Sam Tarling/Oxfam)

  • Students play outside the Jaombi Foundation School
  • Head teacher Lewis Ondieba teaches a lesson on the dangers of parasites
  • Children wash their hands with tippy taps after using a Sanergy Fresh Life toilets
  • Jacqueline Mogoi, founder of the Jaombi Foundation School.

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