We ventured into one of the largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya. I was walking with Wangu Kanja, founder of Wangu Kanja Foundation. She was taking me to a local school where she raises awareness about sexual violence and rape and invites children to speak to her, giving her a chance to provide physical and psychological help. It’s an awesome project and I encourage you to check her website for more information. But something else intrigued me.
After filming for a bit, I left the small session and began wandering around the Maendeleo Learning Centre high school and primary school campus. Placed next to a busy road and a small factory, the school had a decent plot of land with a beautiful center courtyard and a large flag pole. As I traveled from classroom to classroom, I became aware of the situation this school was in.
At first I assumed that a few of the classrooms were storage rooms because of the broken desks scattered around. Unfortunately, as I continued I saw classroom after classroom with nothing but scattered wood from broken desks, broken rubble from concrete floors, and faded chalkboards. The kindergarten classroom was now piles of rock and wood. What once was a new school for eager children, looked like the remains of an abandoned war zone.
Just a week ago in Gulu, Uganda, my friend Hoke and I stumbled upon a similar situation. A large private school campus was being renovated by the government, but inside was musty, vandalized, abandoned classrooms. A place that once held beautiful windows, ceiling panels (unbelievably rare and nice), indoor hallways, and electricity, was now nothing more than shambles and vandalized walls.
As I walked around the school in Kenya, the school principal, Mike, offered to show me more. My curiosity lead me further.
Mike shared how a banking group from Europe had come in 2006 in order to fund the school. They purchased the land and built a kitchen, dormitories for orphaned children, and nearly twelve classrooms. Two years ago the organization, and subsequently all the funding, left. 300 children currently attend the school but now only 100 are able to pay for their school fees. The other 200 are sapping the school dry of any extra money.
As Mike unlocked the door to show me the dormitories, it was easy to comprehend that this place is in desperate need of help. However, I was presented with a question: If a new aid group comes to help, what will happen when they leave? And then the group after that? This school was just a clearer sign of what I’ve seen far to often in East Africa. Ask around and you’ll find ghosts of foreign aid that disappeared, leaving a devastated and shambled infrastructure.
I want to share this with you as a warning sign of short term investment. I want you to know. It’s good to know because as the Maendeleo Learning Centre’s motto says, “Knowledge is power to succeed.” I want to echo Eugene Cho’s recent Justice Conference talk in saying that “we need people in it for the long haul.”
Humanitarian work can be one of the best investments of your life, but if it is not committed to seeing the future, to seeing a system succeed beyond yourself, then it will not succeed.
As I left, I noticed a small garden by the front gate. Surprisingly, it looked fertilized. It was a beautiful sign of color in an otherwise gloomy situation. I wonder if that is how foreign aid should look – like fertilizer. Once the ground work is done and the gardening system is laid, leave the plants grow on their own.
However, that ground work needs to be started well and the watering system needs to be put in place so that the garden can truly succeed well after the fertilizer is used up.