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Kenya – University in the slums

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On Sunday 19th August, a colourful celebration in Kariobangi ? a slum area in the Eastlands of Nairobi – inaugurated a new university diploma in civic and development education. The programme is offered by the Institute of Social Ministry (Tangaza College ? The Catholic University of Eastern Africa) with a view of bridging the gap between the new Constitution of Kenya and people’s awareness of their rights, duties, and possibilities to improve their living conditions. This gap does not simply concern the information about the new constitutional dispensation; but it also involves citizens’ attitudes and practices in public life. 

“The process of social transformation in Kenya is now irreversible ? said Alberto Parise, a Comboni Missionary, director of the Institute of Social Ministry ? because the new Constitution has set up radically new structures and governance systems, based on humanistic, African values, and the vision of a more just society. The challenge now is to facilitate an adequate transition to a new consciousness, so that the Constitution may come to life in daily social interactions among citizens and institutions. Social transformation requires ‘new wine in new skins’, that is, a new democratic and justice oriented culture enacted through transparent, accountable, and participatory structures”.
The programme, therefore, aims at training educators who can facilitate a significant change in consciousness in local communities, enabling them to reclaim their rights and responsibilities, participating actively in devolved governance, and bring about the social transformation envisaged in the Constitution. The choice of Kariobangi as the venue for launching the programme had also a symbolic meaning: this is the place where in 2002 delegations from most of the informal settlements of Nairobi gathered in occasion of a presentation of the proposed draft for the new Constitution by constitutional lawyer Yash Pal Ghai, then the chairman of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, and returned to their settlements with a commitment to change.
TUN2he lively participation of the local community at the inauguration was the sign of its involvement in the project since its early stages of preparation, including needs assessment, participatory design of the programme, and mobilization of interested groups of learners. What the residents of informal settlements have been asking for since the beginning is a University Mtaani (i.e. in the informal settlements), because slum upgrading requires recognition of people, of their rights and their competences in the first place. Informal approaches to education, which abound in the slums, can help to a certain extent, but certainly are not enough to allow people emerge and change their reality. “Our strength ? said one of the residents during the opening ceremony ? is our capacity and determination to make small daily savings. With these we have started building our stone houses, and we shall also give ourselves a higher education.”
Among the main promoters of the initiative along with Tangaza College, there are the Comboni Missionaries involved in the work of justice and peace in the slums. Fr. John Webootsa, who has been living and working for many years in Korogocho slums, stressed the importance of giving to the system of devolution envisaged by the Constitution its fullest meaning: “hopefully the programme will allow for the emergence of a cadre of local and national leaders from the slums, who can speak the language of people and address their authentic needs and living conditions. This initiative is like a school of politics, but politics of servant leadership rather than domination.”
Steve Ouma, executive director of Pamoja Trust, a local NGO committed to security of land tenure and slum upgrading in Kenya, insisted on the importance of researching, validating, developing, and building on local knowledge, seeing reality from the perspective and life experience of the people: “Our commitment to University Mtaani comes from a conviction that the urban poor are to be engaged not just as subject of study, but themselves as producers of knowledge about our contemporary urban transformation. Our vision is not only about reaching out to these students in their own community, but also to see a model community education centre, where people assemble from various villages to share, discuss, andUN3 learn together with the students, professors, and faith based communities. This is consistent with Pamoja Trust’s mandate of enabling the disadvantaged people to understand their existential situation and do something about it. The University Mtaani is therefore a hub of activities to develop the capability of the urban poor in their locality.”
In the past years, the government has encouraged universities to open colleges around the country to allow student access higher studies near their homes. The University Mtaani is the first such initiative to target slum dwellers where they live. “People cannot realize the importance of this project as yet, said Fr Webootsa, but they will understand it as it grows and allows more people to access the job market”. The hope is that graduates will enter in fruitful dialogue with the policy-making elite, and facilitate a deep change in the slums.

Alberto Parise

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