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Habari, wazungo!

An update from Alison Humphreys (2012), who is currently volunteering with the development charity Maji Mazur in Kenya, alongside Sarah Murphy (2012), Liam Hammond (2013), Stefan Ulrich (2013) and Katy Duff (2014).

Hello from Nairobi, a city of warm welcomes, bright colours, and crazy traffic. I’m here with four other Valencians, to work for a month with the Kenyan socio-economic development charity Maji Mazuri. Everywhere we go, there are wildly painted matatu buses, the calls of street vendors, and a thin haze of red dust. No-one believes us when we say the temperatures, around 23°C, aren’t cold at all! The streets are bursting with evidence of energetic entrepreneurial spirit, from Kenya’s grand Vision 2030 right down to the everyday ‘hustling’ of owning multiple small businesses. Our host Esther, for example, makes soap, delivers milk, hosts students, and provides wedding linen – on top of caring for her two daughters. People ask if we’ve come with President Obama to attend the recent Global Entrepreneurial Summit though, alas, we haven’t glimpsed the great man except on television.

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The work of Maji Mazuri, which means ‘good water’ in Swahili, demonstrates Nairobi’s energy just as well as any business start-up. Since 1984, it has worked to empower vulnerable people to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, using a holistic approach of education and individual support. It especially seeks to remove children from dangerous environments, such as flammable homes or hand-to-mouth casual employment. After thirty years, it has helped over 20,000 people and counting. Its successes include Nicholas, a child whom Maji helped learn to walk and supported through a BA in English Literature. I organised our group’s trip after being approached by UK trustee Richard Morris (1975), and we spent the last academic year fund-raising and planning for the visit.

Much of our time has been spent at Maji Mazuri’s biggest project, the Headstart Primary School in Mathare, purportedly the fastest growing slum in Africa. Set amid a sea of rusting corrugated roofs and narrow dirt lanes, the ramshackle wood-and-iron building crams four hundred students into classrooms meant for two hundred. Inside, though, the walls are brightly painted and you are met with choruses of ‘How are you?’ – nobody really uses hello. Katy and Sarah have begun a series of classroom observations across all eight forms to help teachers improve their lessons, and implement a new ‘star of the week’ award. Katy is also drawing on her time in Cambridge student theatre to lead the twice-weekly drama club.

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The school site and the charity’s nearby commuity centre are also used for youth projects, which aim to get the young out of alcoholic or criminal backgrounds and looking towards positive futures. The ICT programme offers employer-friendly computer training, whilst the award-winning Green Heroes group involves teenagers in cleaning up the local environment. At the weekend there are opportunities to do music and drama, and a general social club. This week we were thoroughly out-danced at a gathering with goat stew and loud hip-hop! I’m currently planning a workshop on different cultural approaches to overcoming personal difficulty for next week’s session.

Across the city, tucked away in the hectic district of Kasarani, is another flagship Maji Mazuri project: the disabled children’s centre. The work here is a longer, and emotionally tougher, investment but no less life-changing. Children often arrive malnourished, HIV-positive, and unable to walk, but they leave as independent or semi-independent members of society. This week, Stefan has been helping with physiotherapy for cerebral palsy. Liam, meanwhile, has planned and begun painting a new rainbow-coloured mural for one of the classrooms’ grey walls.

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Maji Mazuri is transforming lives on a daily basis. In the next few weeks, we will continue to assist the hard work of the charity’s employees and help to introduce new initiatives. We will also complete an analysis of their fund-raising options; the charity is currently seeking £300,000 in order to build an expanded stone school, as well as support for its other brilliant projects.

You can find more information about Maji Mazuri on their website.

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