Betty Nyaghoa sees something of herself when she looks at pupils in her charge at Gatoto primary school in the heart of one of Nairobi’s grittiest shantytowns.
Like many of the children, she grew up in poverty, the youngest of 10 siblings, born to peasant farmer parents whose struggle to pay school fees left her in constant danger of being kicked out.
Now she runs the Gatoto (“small child” in Kiswahili slang) school in the Mukuru kwa Reuben slums in eastern Nairobi. The school was started by local people in 1994 when they saw the state was not going to provide all local children with an education.
“The elders felt something needed to be done to secure the future of the children who were not going to school and were spending their days collecting scrap metal for sale to the industries near this area,” says Nyaghoa.
Gatoto started with 370 pupils but now has 1,030 on the roll and is the soul of the community.
Before joining the school as its inaugural head, Nyaghoa had been running a thriving business selling maize and beans. She had been a teacher earlier in life, but was made redundant by the government. “I was passionate about education from a young age. I really admired teachers. The way they spoke, the way they dressed, I liked everything about them.”
When she returned to teaching, she took a significant pay cut, with a starting salary at Gatoto of $10 a month. She found the going very tough in the first few years.
The school was ranked last in a divisional exam sat across the largest district in eastern Nairobi and, during an end-of-year meeting of headteachers, she was asked to explain Gatoto’s miserable performance.
“I was tongue-tied, perhaps due to my lack of experience. I just asked the head of education in the area to come to the school and witness for himself the conditions in which we were working.”
The education chief joined the tour and was shocked by what he found – almost 400 pupils were crammed into a single church building. Classes occupied different corners , with teachers competing with noise from the other five classes. There were no desks: students sat on benches in rows and wrote notes on their laps so they didn’t take up too much space. “He could not believe his eyes,” she says.
The education chief prevailed on the city government authorities to allocate Gatoto a bigger parcel of land, although the community still had to pool resources to build rudimentary classrooms from iron sheets and timber.
The most devastating problem Nyaghoa faced, though, was at home. Her husband, also a teacher, felt threatened by her status as headteacher and became violent towards her. “Sometimes I would turn up with a swollen eye and explain to the kids that I banged my face on a door and one of them would say, ‘teacher, my mum was beaten by my dad and her eye was swollen just like that.’”
She says: “I wanted my children to grow up in a stable, two-parent family. But I also wanted dignity. I chose to walk away. I lost my marriage but I have been able to give much more to the community.”
Gatoto, which is supported by a number of donors including the Iris O’Brien Foundation, American Friends of Gatoto, The Good Cause and Ireland’s SUAS educational development programme,
also offers needs-based scholarships to about 150 of its former students in high school and runs a feeding programme for 60 families affected by HIV.
The school places great stock in extracurricular activities and its choir has won multiple awards at national music festivals.
Like a proud mother, Nyaghoa reels off the names of the pupils who have gone from the slum to successful careers, including a biochemical engineer, a lecturer, a manager at Kenya’s capital markets authority, and a recent student now studying to be a doctor. Regular talks by alumni are arranged to encourage the students.
Several of the school’s 26 teachers are former pupils. “This school was a home away from home for us as children,” says one of the teachers, Geoffrey Kweya, 25. “It was everything. We could escape our problems to come and find peace here.”
“Gatoto changed my life,” says another teacher, Esther Oywaya. “Some of our parents could not even afford the $2 fee for food or uniform per term but we were taken in anyway. We just encourage the pupils that they can achieve anything they want despite their circumstances here.”