Her voice is barely audible amid the din of shouts and happy shrieks as children chase after each other in a variety of games within an expansive playing field while others noisily rearrange their desks and chairs in their classrooms.

It is closing day for the third term holidays and the there is a steady stream of parents into the school compound to consult with the teachers and pick up their children’s report forms.

Tracy Atieno, 13 years

Atieno is dark-skinned and slender.  She is reserved, almost too shy to speak. Kiswahili is her preferred language, though she understands English and speaks it quite well.

At age 13, in class seven at Rabai Road Primary school in the eastern part of Nairobi, Atieno faces numerous challenges and she clings to her one chance at an education to open the doors to opportunities and a better life.

She wakes up at 5.00 am every morning to be in school by 6.00 am.  She covers the 4-kilometre distance to school on foot and she is always anxious about keeping time.

“During the rainy season it is very difficult to walk through the muddy streets. I arrive in school with mud caked to my shoes and I have to get them clean so that I can at least be comfortable in the classroom,” she says.  Sometimes when the rain soaks through her clothes, books and shoes, it means a long cold day ahead for her. “There is little one can do about it and I have learnt to bear with the situation.”

Generally, the environment in the neighbourhoods that dot Nairobi’s informal settlements is not conducive for pupils like Atieno. Due to congestion in their humble home and constant noise in the neighbourhood, it is difficult to get homework done and to do quiet study.

“I make sure I finish my homework at school so that the interruptions from drunkards who pass near our house yelling are kept at bay. I live with my family in Kiambiu, we are two children living in a temporary one-roomed house.” Atieno explains.

Kiambiu is a sprawling informal settlement in the east of Nairobi. Atieno narrates the ordeal a girl child in the slums must endure. Sexual predators are never far away, putting her and her sibling at risk during the long hours their mother spends away from home. Her single mother, who is a hair stylist, struggles to make ends meet. But Atieno is dedicated to soldiering on in the hope that education will make the difference for her and alter her current circumstances.

She helps her mother with house chores like cooking and fetching water. She has to do them because the mother is usually busy with work at the hair salon.

Atieno has only visited the Nairobi Central Business District once in her lifetime. Although it is barely 8 kilometres away from her house, she just hears the stories told about its attractions. There is no one to take her sight-seeing.

Thanks to UNICEF-funded Operation Come to School project, she received a schoolbag and a kit of essential items including sanitary towels, underwear, soap and body cream as well as exercise books, pens and pencils.  For children like Atieno, these items could mean the difference between being able to stay in school or being confined to their homes for long spells. 

“UNICEF has helped me to stay in school,” adds Atieno.  Although the Kenya government guarantees free primary education, parents are required to contribute to the salaries of some of the non-teaching staff as well as professional teachers that are not registered under the Teachers’ Service Commission.  They also contribute towards the school feeding programme that provides school lunch.

She wants to be a medical doctor one day: “I see many people suffer because they cannot access medical care. They are also too poor. I want to help them ease their pain and suffering when I become a doctor.”

Similarly, Amina Abubakar a class eight pupil shares her experience a few days before taking the 2017 KCPE exams. Aged 14 years, she is from Kiambiu.  Her biggest fear is the dangerous environment she and her family live in.

There are many negative influences, ready traps for the young people of her generation.  But like Atieno, Amina owes her gratitude to UNICEF who came to her rescue and enabled her stay in school.

“My mother sells shoes and my father lives in a different town. They don’t have a lot of money but they try their best,” she says.

A charming Amina believes that through education, she will be able to realise her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon.

Ms. Mary Wangui Mathenge, who is also Amina’s class teacher, says it is important for schools to establish a child friendly environment, safe enough so that when children come to school they feel safe.

“We have a swimming pool in our school which we have secured to avoid accidents and we have a school fence which helps secure the school against intruders. Security is paramount, especially for the pupils that come to school early in the morning,” she adds.  Children are advised to walk in groups when as they navigate their way to school and back. 

She notes that some of her pupils come from backgrounds where they are not well trained on home related issues which sometimes affects their performance.

According to the head teacher at Rabai Road Primary School, Mrs Terry Mbogo, her pupils face too many challenges. She notes with a lot of concern how most parents have neglected their children’s welfare.

“It is a very tricky situation and we are always alert to be able to intervene so that the children are not overwhelmed by their problems,” she adds.  She keeps a stock of sanitary towels in her office to hand out to hand out to needy girls when they are needed. 

“Menstruation is one of the factors that affect school attendance among girls,” she says.

Although the school enrolment rate has increased since the OCTS project rolled out, retention is always a priority for the school management.

“We have raised enrolment from 420 to 775 pupils,” adds Mrs Mbogo, “We are doing well, but we are also concerned about the children that dropped out during the recent electioneering period.”  Many children were sent back to their rural homes when parents left the city to participate in the national elections on August 8th, 2017 and some of them did not return for the start of the third term of school in September.  This situation was worsened by the ensuing deterioration of security county-wide which also affected Nairobi’s informal settlements in the disputed vote and the Supreme Court’s nullification of the Presidential election on September 1st 2017 and a re-run on October 26th.   “Some children may never return,” says Mrs Mbogo.

Even as the pupils prepared for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations, the state of their classrooms tell a sad tale of struggle and survival. The furniture is in a state of dereliction, as are the walls and windows.  The floors are dusty and riddled with pot holes.

However, not far from this state of neglect, a block of newly renovated classrooms adds a freshness to one of Nairobi’s oldest public schools.  Mrs Mbogo is highly appreciative of UNICEF’s support to the OCTS project for the renovations and support to children in vulnerable circumstances, offering them a lifeline and a second chance in life. 

Ms. Mary Wangui Mathenge, a teacher at Rabai Road Primary School

(Photo credit, Robert Kariuki)