Brussels charity offers education and hope to children in Nairobi slums

Summary

The Giraffe Project was set up by two Brussels-based teachers 12 years ago, to get children out of the poverty trap and into a new, independent life

Breaking the cycle

Imagine a school with no books, no toilets, and no qualified teachers, where children run through open sewers to get to class. A place where houses are made from mud and corrugated iron sheeting, and where kids get by on one meal a day.

This was the reality that Denise Baines and her husband faced when they visited the slums of Nairobi 12 years ago. Having spent years teaching at private international schools in Belgium, the pair wanted to give something back, and they set up a charity in 2005 to help educate children in these poorest parts of Kenya.

A chance contact in St Paul’s Church in Tervuren, Flemish Brabant, led them to a school in Kenya’s capital that they felt had potential. After a three-week visit, the Giraffe Project was born.

The Kenyan school stood in stark contrast to the leafy campuses of Brussels’ international schools. With no syllabus, hungry children and no facilities, there was a lot to do before the business of learning could begin.  

“The children had no breakfast and often no lunch. So providing the feeding programme was our number-one priority,” says Baines. Soon after came sponsorship from friends and colleagues in Brussels, and with that came new clean uniforms and the much-needed textbooks.    

Self-belief

Food and clothing weren’t the only problems, however. Most children came from homes where both parents were illiterate, with many having been abused or neglected. Almost all had serious problems with language and had developed a slum patois, Sheng, which was constantly changing. 

“They come in knowing they’re on the bottom of society,” says Baines. “They have access to cheap drugs, and a lot of the challenges we face are behavioural problems.”

The Baineses’ answer was to employ teachers who have an understanding of the children from a holistic point of view. 

The children might not have support from their parents but they think, ‘I have someone across the world who cares enough to pay my school fees’

- Denise Baines

“If you don’t address these issues they’ll end up dropping out or taking drugs and then the cycle is ruined,” Baines says. “We teach them that they’re just as good as the rich kids; that they have the potential to be somebody and to make a difference to people around them. We teach them to believe in themselves.”

Baines is quick to praise the kindness of the many sponsors over the years. “This only works thanks to the generosity of hundreds of people here in Belgium, the UK and other parts of the world,” she says. Their help has meant that the project has grown, and currently sponsors two primary schools while also establishing its own secondary school on the outskirts of the slum.

All have a solid reputation and get good exam results. They have modern teaching methods, flush toilets, a library, computers and even a science lab. The schools are flourishing and are now managed locally by a board of trustees. 

Someone who cares

The Giraffe Project’s ultimate goal is to get the children independent of the slum and to escape the poverty trap so they can become independent, self-sufficient adults.

More than 200 students have been through the system and graduated, with nurses, physiotherapists, a pharmacist and teachers among its alumni. Baines: “They’re still fairly poor but they’re earning and not living in squalor. It’s a big step up.”

Not everyone gets to the other side, though. “We’ve had boys who go back to the slums,” says Baines. “The peer pressure, the drugs – they couldn’t kick the habit and have dropped out.”

However, she looks at the many positives. “Sponsors see the progress of the children through letters, which makes it a very personal programme. The one-on-one contact is very important – the children might not have support from their parents but they think, ‘I have someone across the world who cares enough to pay my school fees.’”

Photo courtesy Giraffe Project