Straddling the blackened Nairobi River waters is Grapesyard, an urban elementary and middle school in Nairobi’s Korogocho area, a notorious slum North East of Nairobi. Grapesyard is a school that is making a difference in one of the poorest parts of Kenya’s capital. Separating the school grounds from the toxic flows of Nairobi River are long chunks of corrugated steel with jagged edges.
With crime rates as high as in many slum areas in Kenya, such as theft, robbery, burglary/break-ins, and mugging, there is also a myriad of social ills that residents need to constantly cope with. The garbage dump provides a northern frame of the area for countless international news organizations that use it as a backdrop for their viewers as images of what a slum should be.
Ray of hope in the slum tangle
However, as lunchtime arrives at the Grapesyard campus, there is the unmistakable sound of children gleefully laughing, playing and being adolescents. As hundreds of students in their distinctive red uniforms with looks of optimism smile and say hello to visitors, there is an unmistakable feeling of youth that might be found in any school.
But, where the student body comes from means that this is not any school, though looking at the scene it is easy to forget where the children originate. While at school, the kids tend to forget the desperate circumstances that many of them wake up to, and return to every day; nightly-literal shacks that separate neighbors with walls made from oil drums that have been pounded straight.
The close quarters make the cacophony of noise from neighbours a challenge to getting a good night’s sleep. Contributing to the poor conditions are the blue tarp roofs and cramped conditions; which means that water, mosquitoes and other vermin are impossible to keep at bay. Yet, Grapesyard School provides an oasis for the students to enter, where there is safety, food, community, and most importantly an education.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Grapesyard. At the centre of establishing this campus is a visionary man Edmond Opondo, the founding director and alumni Management University of Africa – located in Nairobi’s South C area. A native of Nairobi, Opondo and his wife run the Grapesyard NGO and the Grapesyard school, a unique organization established with parental love to care for children or youth in need and from the slum area. I caught up with him recently and here is what he had to say.
Can you please explain how and when you started the organization?
It was started in October 1999 with a single classroom teaching 30 children and has since grown to be a fully-fledged school, along with an orphanage and a baby care centre.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in running Grapesyard School?
The neighbourhood around the school has numerous social-economic challenges, with different forms of vices, from drugs to prostitution and robbery. The children return to that every night, thus when most of them are in the campus, they find it a safe haven. However, we keep the children who come from much dire situations in school but this has not been easy as money is a constant issue. We are always fundraising in order to help the children stay in school. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, we have had to cut down the number of orphans we can support by about 40 percent over the past couple of years.
What can you tell me about the school lunch programme?
The lunch program is sadly for many of the students, the only meal of the day that they will eat, meaning it is a vital program from Grapesyard. We cook onsite and the lunch consists of maize, beans and vegetables. This program is mainly supported and funded by an Italian charity. However, we welcome other charities that would want to support the program to contact us and be part of this noble undertaking.
What other kinds of support do you get for the organization, and from whom?
The support comes mainly from local sponsors who support individual children (we provide report cards, and follow-up to let the sponsor know how the child is performing). There are several other organizations that assist, especially from Italy and Spain, and also the Japanese group Academics Supporting Korogocho.
What are some of the impacts that your school has on students?
The children learn a variety of things and develop in their time here. This is illustrated by the fact that over 90 percent of our students transition to high school, with the remaining 10 percent joining vocational schools. These rates are way above the neighbourhood standards for the average youths. So far, our most successful graduates have thriving careers as lawyers, doctors, engineers and teachers, while others are pursuing various courses in universities and tertiary colleges in Kenya.
What are some current initiatives that are underway with future Grapesyard?
We have a plan to complete the building of the library/classrooms, to expand the computer room, and to embrace digital learning. E-learning will further enhance the already ongoing computer literacy studies for both the students and the community.
In a nutshell
There has been a dramatic improvement in the neighbourhood over the past two decades. The crime rate is on a downward spiral and the area is receiving a facelift and improvement of existing and/or establishment of new amenities. The roads have been rebuilt and the sewer and drainage have also improved, which will greatly impact the area.