Out of Africa

Social Issues

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Clare Campbell experienced some of her greatest lessons in life under the Kenyan sun.

In May 2018 I fulfilled a lifelong dream and was able to go to teach in Africa. I was blessed to be part of a mission team, Mission Possible, who work with the Catholic religious congregation, the Salesian Sisters, in the slums of Dagoretti, Nairobi, Kenya in two schools and two children’s homes in and around the city. 

Despite extensive research before we went on mission, we were still totally shocked at the sheer level of poverty and the lack of resources in the schools and the children’s homes that faced us. 

These children face the most unimaginable challenges to survive on a daily basis and their only hope to overcome poverty is to improve their education so as to provide opportunities for their future. The difference between a school day in the UK and Dagoretti is simply enormous. The sisters not only teach, they actively seek out pupils who have fallen out of education and provide a safe place to reintroduce them to education. 

One of the teachers we worked with guarded the cupboard in her room fiercely. Every time she left the room to use the toilet or to go for a drink or a break, she would lock it (if you pardon the pun!) religiously. The children knew that they were not allowed to touch any items in the cupboard. After a few days, we plucked up the courage to ask her what was so precious inside. She replied, “my resources”. We were intrigued so we asked her if we could have a look … inside we found that it only contained two pieces of white chalk, a red pen and a few old newspapers. What an unbelievable contrast to  teachers’ cupboards in the UK! 

During our stay we were blessed to be able to carry out eye test screenings on all 450 pupils and provide glasses for those children in need of them.

Eye Tests are a luxury these families could not afford. 

We also carried out assessments on pupils, putting bespoke programmes of work in place for children with additional needs as there is no specialist provision for these children in their local area. We provided demonstration lessons and training for teachers to ensure that our work had a lasting impact. The teacher training was loads of fun. I took lots of art resources in my suitcase and was able to show the teachers how to use them. They enjoyed using the paints, modelling materials, bubbles and crafts I was sharing with the children, as much as the children themselves. 

We were fortunate to be able to ship out large quantities of teaching resources including reading books and exercise books, which we had collected from our local schools and parishes. We took basic provisions with us such as clothes, shoes and coats. We did a lot of fundraising activities and were able to take enough money with us to carry out basic repairs on the Mutuini School. They were used to replace broken flooring and repair classrooms and set up a library and resource room.

The Salesian Sisters have worked tirelessly over the years to support a community living in desperate hardship and poverty. A few years ago, the Sisters saw a dream come true as they were finally able to build a new school for both pupils and their mothers, a place to educate the children whilst providing their mothers with an opportunity to earn a wage. 

The teachers’ valuable work has grown from strength to strength and they have already outgrown this space. With no possibility of building in the vicinity the only option was to build upwards. The new upstairs space enabled the Sisters to create more classrooms and a hairdressers, a sewing room and a craft and jewellery-making room for the mothers to earn their living, and help take them out of poverty.

It was in these classrooms and in the Mutuini School that I taught some of the most rewarding lessons of my life. 

The days are long in schools in Dagoretti: the children come to school at 8.30am and some days did not leave until 6.00pm! So the 18 or so lessons that I had planned to teach before I went did not last long, as we were teaching up to six lessons a day. 

I mainly taught art as it is my specialism, but I also had the privilege of being able to teach religious education, science, geography and English. English is the language of education in Kenya, the children’s first language is Swahili. The classes had up to 40 children in them and there are no teaching assistants and really limited resources, so it was a challenge, but so worth it. 

The joy of the children when they had painted their first picture, or made their first clay pot, was a delight to see. 

We had so much fun together and the children were beautiful. As well as teaching, we were also able to visit the two children’s homes at the weekends and do fun activities with the girls including face painting, cake baking and jewellery making. On Sundays we were able to go with the girls from the children’s home and enjoy a real Kenyan Mass which was so joyful.

One of the Sisters, Sr Eleanor, is the Director at the University of Tangaza, Nairobi. She asked me to do a lecture to her MA Students on the Social Work and Child Protection courses there, because my background and my doctorate is in Art Therapy. I love teaching art and making art myself for pleasure and for stress relief. I was able to share my art therapy experience with the students in Nairobi and luckily I had taken a wide variety of art materials so that we could spend a few hours doing experiential art therapy. 

When I present to adults in higher or further education, I usually speak for about an hour maximum. Little did I know Sister Eleanor had booked me for four hours! Luckily I had taken enough art materials to keep the students interested and because the resources are so limited in the schools they work in, I was able to leave the resources with them. I also encouraged them to make art with natural materials, leaves, flowers and grasses, which are naturally available.

The psychotherapy side takes place in the interaction between the therapist, the child and the art materials. It’s centred on the process of art making not the product. The end product is often beautiful, but this is not the goal of art therapy. 

Using art materials with children who have experienced trauma or who have been bereaved is a non-threatening way to open up conversation. For some, especially the children who have been sexually abused, there are no words to describe what they have been through, so the children can let the art materials speak for themselves. 

There is a great element of choice in art therapy, which is so important for children who have had all their choices taken away from them through their adverse childhood experiences. 

Art gives children another language to use, a language of self-expression. This is what I wanted to share with the MA students in Nairobi who will be working with very vulnerable children. Hopefully they will be able to use some of the tools and techniques that I shared with them with the children in their care in the future.

The Mission was a life-changing, heart-breaking and memorable experience, one that I will never forget. I haven’t been able to return due to the pandemic but am hoping to return in 2022 with the team. I intend to continue to go on mission each year, to go back to Dagoretti, to see the children and the Sisters, to work with the teachers and the students. It was the famous Victorian Catholic convert, John Henry Newman who said, “God has created me to do some definite service …”  I think I understood those words better than ever under the Kenyan sun.

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One Reply to “Out of Africa”

  1. Lisa says:

    Thank you for sharing, Clara. It is very moving. Our parishes do appeals for children in greater needs with various charities, so reading your experience motivates me even more to be generous.

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