The Kibera Slums of Nairobi have been the subject of mixed perceptions. For many it is the evidence of institutional failure, a squalid camp into which the nobodies of society are relegated to spend their days amid violence and broken families, without so much as the prospect of ever getting out. For others, it is a case study in the resilience of gifted human beings confronted with some of the planet’s worst living conditions. For the people who stay there, it is just home; where the family is, and a definitive element of their identity.

Over time, many projects have been carried out to emancipate the slum residents, from attempts to build decent low cost housing to in-slum anti-violence initiatives. The resounding failure of these projects is apparent in the fact that living conditions are no better there than they were before, and the slum residents are no happier, or fewer, for it.

Strathmore University, a relatively young Kenyan institution, sits roughly two kilometres from the slum. Its community outreach program, after a period of interacting with the residents of the informal settlement, discovered a huge flaw with education in the slums. The transition rates of students from high schools there to tertiary education was an appalling 8.8 percent.

To give scale, the average transition rate for the entire country, which is itself saddening, is only 27 percent. And that’s before mentioning that the figure is skewed in favour of boys. Most girls from slums never get to see the four corners of a tertiary institution’s lecture room, let alone university.

These low transition rates are due to the fact that many students in the slum drop out of school for a variety of reasons; those who don’t, rarely obtain the grades needed for university education; and the ones who pass lack the physical and moral resources to go on. Rarely has it anything to do with the abilities (or lack thereof) of students.

That good education – and especially the education of the girl-child – has transformational effects on the fortunes of a nation has been proven by many studies and the experiential evidence of the countries that have benefited from it. The lack of it has been one of the more debilitating hamstrings of Africa’s attempts to cross the poverty divide. It is therefore to be expected that, without proper education for slum-dwelling children, nothing short of some miraculous elixir will eliminate the poverty they find themselves living in.

So, in 2012, Strathmore University started the Macheo Achievement Program (MAP). “Macheo” means sunrise in Kiswahili. The program aims to empower slum-dwelling students and help them transit from secondary school to tertiary education.

Macheo’s approach employs academic mentoring and life-skills development. At the beginning, a batch of 25 students from the first three levels of secondary education were selected from three high schools. Every Saturday, between 11.00am and noon, these students go to the university and are mentored by volunteer university students, who assist them with academic work – focusing particularly on the Sciences, English, Kiswahili, and Mathematics – and train them in essential life-skills, which are even more necessary owing to the stressful conditions under which the kids ordinarily live.

The university students are themselves mentored by a set of university lecturers on how to handle their charges. But the lecturers sometimes give classes to the slum students also. The effect is therefore one of a cascading transmission of relevant skills to the people who need them. After the first year, the program also started donating some books and offering additional training to the teachers at the schools from which the students have been selected.

While it deals with a small number of students, Macheo has resulted in a phenomenal increase in the transition rates to university. Of the first batch of 25 students, none dropped out of school, but also none went to university. After a few adjustments, the transition rate to tertiary education shot up to 50% with the most recent group. Of those who transited, 7 went to university, some on scholarship from Strathmore University.

But the effect has been wider than that. After realising the value of the program a number of the student-beneficiaries, before even completing secondary school, went on to start similar initiatives in the slums among fellow students who had not been selected for the program, creating a ripple effect. This initiative is now part of Macheo, and is called Macheo Mtaani (which means Macheo in the community). Another side effect is that those who transit to university end up becoming student-mentors. It is hoped that with time, over 80 percent of the mentors will be former beneficiaries, thus making the program largely self-sustaining.

It is not known how far Macheo will go, but the trend is encouraging. The people behind the program – Luis Borallo, Naomi Wangari and Michael Babu of Strathmore University – now aim to scale it to include a larger portion of the slum’s high school students, but this will be dependent on funding and the initiative of the beneficiaries.

Macheo might not be an isolated solution to the slum’s many problems, but it sure is one of those that is working. Kibera may yet see a sunrise that isn’t an illusion.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.