NAIROBI, KENYA — A ROBUST woman with a furrowed brow and a pale-blue habit strides down the aisles of the dilapidated schoolroom. She watches her students study from a hodgepodge of books, the only texts available. One girl reads aloud from a storybook. Another thumbs through a geography primer.
Mary Killeen, an Irish Sister of Mercy, is worried. She's having a tough time keeping Kenyan girls off the streets and enrolled in this unique program designed to secure a better future for them. Young women are easy prey in the cardboard-and-tin-shack Nairobi community called Mukuru. "There's a huge trade in girls from very poor areas like this," she says.
Sister Killeen oversees this slum school, called Mukuru, founded in 1985 in one of the crowded shantytowns that ring Nairobi. About half of her students, aged 7 to 17, used to live on the capital's streets.
Some have been prosecuted for prostitution. Killeen says that even after girls enroll here, the men who earned a living from her students won't leave them alone.
"Pimps follow the girls from the court to here. So when we get girls from the courts, they're here only a few days, and those men will come looking for them," she says.
Young women in these slums may start out with the same chances as boys. But their teachers say if tragedy strikes the family, parents remove girls from school first because they can be easily hired out.
The Mukuru school offers another chance. "This place has lifted me up and changed my life. I learned also to respect people, to share a word of encouragement," says Jacqueline Kanini, a teenage mother of two.
Kenyan government funding provides the salaries of only about a quarter of teachers at Mukuru. School administrators must scrounge for private funding to make up the difference. The United Nation's World Food Program furnishes hot lunches that instructors say dramatically boosts enrollment.
Teachers and parents at Mukuru are organizing to confront the problems the girls face. But Nairobi slums attract families from a cross-section of ethnic groups, usually unaccustomed to working together.
"If it was a rural community of people from the same homogenous groups, they might be able to come up with a solution to the problem of girls being lured away," explains an instructor, who requested anonymity.
Kenya's government used to boast of its high attendance rates in schools, especially for girls. But teachers here say only about half of Nairobi's youths now attend primary school. Parents in Mukuru say they sometimes need the income their girls can generate.
Veronica Washuku worked on the streets until she enrolled at the school. "Life in the streets was very bad. When we used to sleep, we used to cover ourselves with burlap bags," she says. "People would stare at us, and wonder if we were actually human beings or sacks."
Instructors at Mukuru school say the girls can excel, if they're shielded from further exploitation. In addition to academic subjects, girls are taught practical skills like sewing and knitting. Killeen cautions that many of the young women remain vulnerable. "It's very easy for a middle-class fellow to come and buy chips for a girl here and pretend he loves her," she says. "The girl is left with no hope, just despair, and maybe a baby as well."
Killeen says when they first enroll, many of the girls resemble sad, elderly women. "Now, to see those girls just laughing, joking, singing, dancing, and doing very well in school ... for me is one of the most wonderful things," she says. "I never realized human nature is so resilient and that we can recover from so many traumas."