In our newsletter that was circulated at the end of December 2022, one reader flagged a specific adjective “underserviced” that we used when referring to communities we work with as opposed to the more commonly used “underprivileged”.
Underprivileged is usually used to describe a person who does not enjoy the same standard of living or rights as a majority of people in a society.
Underserviced or underserved on the other hand refers to people or communities receiving inadequate or disproportionately low levels of service, especially from the state.
My personal viewpoint is that using underprivileged when referring to communities, may come across as patronizing sometimes. It diminishes the dignity of an individual, who through no fault of their own find themselves in challenging circumstances. I am guilty of using the word, but my perspective is rapidly changing as I engage more with the communities we work with. Neither word is incorrect, but words are powerful and can influence how we relate to communities, so I am becoming more mindful how I use them.
Travelling around to the schools, the word underserviced made more sense when referring to the communities. Often located in remote, semi-arid areas, these communities have limited access to basic amenities that most of us take for granted. Outside of Nairobi, the Government funded schools are generally constructed in isolated areas, with the closest community nearly 8 to 10 kilometers away. The structures are generally very basic or dilapidated not to mention inadequate to cater sufficiently for the number of students. The infrastructure is not the only limitation. It is not unusual to find these schools strapped for resources from learning materials and desks to teaching staff. Access to a sustainable source to piped water remains a pipe dream – pun intended!
The image below depicts the remoteness of some schools. Kwa Mboo Primary School’s nearest community is 8 kilometers away.
What does this mean for the young learners? With no access to public transport, which would have been unaffordable anyway, all students have to make a daily trek to and from the school on foot, no matter the weather conditions. The road leading to the school is a dusty path that in the rainy season would become a muddy track but students as young as seven, undaunted by inclement weather, bravely set out each day to get an education. Sometimes, this trek to school is done barefooted as families cannot afford even the simplest footwear and yet they are grateful, even joyous when they reach their destination.
Most leave home early to start their 8- or 10-kilometer journey without having a meal and that is why our Feeding Program is so essential at these schools. Not only does it help with student enrolment and retention, but it also improves overall student wellbeing and attention in class.
The Government, has over the years, made numerous pledges that it would provide school meals. While this may be happening in some schools, it is yet to trickle down to these far-flung schools where most of the surrounding communities live below the poverty threshold and employment opportunities are limited. Parents often have to leave their children in the care of older siblings or grandmothers while they venture further afield to look for work.
In 2002, the year that marked the advent of the Government’s pledge for free primary education, people everywhere particularly those from the underserved communities were excited. For them it meant an opportunity to access education, improve living standards and eventually eradicate poverty within their families.
What this meant for the schools was over-crowded classrooms, unacceptable teacher/pupil ratios, poor working conditions for the teaching staff, inadequate funding, substandard infrastructure and a glaring lack of amenities like ablutions and running water making sanitation a problem.
The reality is that despite all the good intentions of the program, children from underserved communities continue to bear the brunt of a system that does not work. A lack of understanding persists on just what the FPE covers. For example, schools expect the parents to pay for uniforms, enrolment fees and other levies which most can barely afford, while parents expect the schools to cater for all costs.
Ngwata Primary School, understands the burden these added costs put on parents and made a deliberate decision not to charge admission fees and even go as far as to allow students to enroll without necessarily being in full uniform. So, it comes as no surprise that the school’s population now edges close to 3,500 pupils.
The average teacher/student ratio is 1:100 and yet the teachers remain undeterred in their pursuit to give their students an education that is fundamental in their quest for a better life.
The textbook ratio is 1:6 in some schools and that is me being conservative. Amara Charitable Trust partnered with organisations like Desai Memorial Foundation to get textbooks to schools in need and introduced a workbook revision program in some schools to ensure students have access to learning materials and extra revision lessons to improve literacy and numeracy.
Children are the future, but that future is now, not in the far-off distance like some of the schools!
Their futures need to be shaped and secured now. We therefore remain committed to our mission to educate, empower and enhance the lives of these communities by creating opportunities for them now so as to break the cycle of poverty and enable them to move forward with hope. Education is often touted as the great equalizer, and we believe it remains central to bringing about much needed change in the underserved communities we engage with.
Improving school infrastructure is one of our pillars and we have constructed a health centre, classrooms, dormitories, ablution blocks, school kitchens, multi-purpose halls, laboratories and libraries in an effort to give the students access to better learning conditions.
Our Education Fund Program seeks to give opportunities to the youth in these communities by supporting students through four years of secondary school education to offering those that have completed their secondary school a chance to learn a skill-based course in technical colleges. More than offering scholarships, the program mentors and supports students to reach their highest potential.
The Feeding Program ensures primary going children are motivated to come and remain in school.
Being in a position to change and impact lives is a privilege and whatever you do needs to be done with sensitivity and always with humility.
We are grateful to all our donors who make it possible for us to advance our vision. Without their faith and trust, our work would not be possible. They are helping us change the landscape for these underserviced communities. Someday soon we hope that the narrative will change too and the adjective underserviced will no longer be valid when we talk about the communities we work with. Instead, we will use words like opportunity, advantage and flourishing.