The Desai Story
The Desai Memorial Primary School has 400 children from one of the world’s poorest communities. It serves the Kawangware slum in western Nairobi, Kenya.
This is 8 year old Brian. He is an orphan and is HIV positive. He is a bright boy who is number one in his Class for Literacy and Maths. Without Desai he would have no chance of an education and be condemned to a life on the streets. The School encouraged a neighbour to take him in. At 14 Brian will take the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) at Desai. This will enable him to get a job.Mike spent time in Kawangware getting to know the teachers and local families. It was obvious that this was a very poor slum area. One drop toilet served up to 15 families.
The School was founded in 1996 as the Prodigal Rescue Primary School. A group of students from New College in Swindon on a visit to see primary health care happened to stop outside in their minibus whilst in the area. They were invited to look around.
On her return home, one of the students, Zoe Gove-Welsh, wrote a poem about this experience:
THE SIX CLASSROOMS
6 classrooms made from iron
6 classrooms built upon sewage infected land
6 classrooms with views which caused my heart to weep
6 classrooms of poorly clothed and dusty children
6 classrooms bare, no pens, reading books or learning tools
Computers what are they?
6 classrooms with young bodies crushed together struggling for space and air
6 classrooms full of happy and eager children with beaming smiles from ear to ear
6 classrooms bursting with children's laughter and song
6 classrooms filled with children proud to attend their community-created school
6 classrooms full of children with the desire to learn and the will to work
-By Zoe Grove-Welsh after visiting the Desai Memorial School
This poem made a real impact upon the staff of Goddard Park Primary School, Park North, in Swindon where Zoe’s Dad was Headteacher, Mike Welsh. He wrote to the Headteacher of Prodigal Mr Gerald M’papale and their Governors agreed to twin the Schools in 1997. Children in Goddard Park began to study Kenya and wrote to the pupils in Prodigal.
In 1998, the landlords of the 6 classroom school decided to evict the school with three month’s notice. The Classrooms themselves were built as 10’ by 10’ mabati (corrugated tin) houses. The Governors of Goddard Park gave Mike permission to travel to Nairobi in an attempt to save the school. Mike went during the summer holidays and the first half of the Autumn term. Without any backup or knowledge of the Kenya and especially Nairobi this was to be a very steep learning curve. A local teacher in Swindon heard about the trip and let her husband, who was still working and living in Nairobi know. Peter and Veronica James had lived in Nairobi for 30 years. Peter was a Director of Fuji Film in Kenya. He arranged an apartment for Mike in the Westlands area.
The 10’ by 10’ mabati houses were overcrowded. The whole family slept in half that space and rest was taken up with cooking and washing utensils, and a couple of chairs.
In the School a three drop toilets were the only facility for 400 children. Each of the six classrooms had over 60 children. Many stood for some of the lessons or found any space on the floor at all. There were a few benches. All in 10’ by 10’.
It was clear that this was the only school available for these children. Many hundreds of other children (if not many thousands) never received any formal schooling. It was estimated in a BBC report that there were over 120,000 street-children in Nairobi.
The Prodigal Rescue Primary School was vitally needed. Over the next three months Mike investigated temporary and permanent sites for the School, became familiar with KCPE (the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education) the national examination which pupils took at the end of Primary (Standard 8 for 14 year olds).
The most immediate need was for a further temporary site and after much searching this became available near the end of Route 56, and was owned by a lady who ran one of the local Poshoo Mills (a place on the street which milled grain for bread). The site had eight rooms and much larger outside space so was an improvement on the original site. Shortly after this the children moved the few school possessions of benches and blackboards up route 56 in a long snake.
The school sites became an interesting detective inquiry. Sites were being offered that didn’t belong to the person making the offer, other sites were under water, local Councillors were choosing sites that they could sell for personal profit. Despite this what became apparent was that urban sites were very difficult to get hold of. Many people regarded land as sacred to pass to each generation and in practical terms to provide an income from rent in old age. Eventually, Mike came upon a site with good title within one mile of the existing school. It was owned by a Director of SOPA Safari Lodges. This site was up a hill with fresh air and away from the hurly burly of the main roads.
He made presentations to several groups including local businesses, foundations, and Rotary Clubs. Through a contact in the Rotary Club of Nairobi South, a meeting and talk was undertaken at Braeburn Primary School (an International School). Here members of the Desai Memorial Foundation were present. This was a foundation providing educational opportunity for young Asian and African children. The proposed site was half an acre for 3 million Ksh (about £25,000). Ten minutes into the talk this group asked for a pause while they conferred. Their spokesman then said that they would recommend to the Foundation that is a project to support. Following further negotiations the Foundation agreed to provide 6 million Ksh (£50,000) for a full acre.
What a revelation this meeting was. From being evicted off their existing site there was now the possibility of a permanent School.
Mike then worked with a reputable local law firm and set up a Charitable Trust – the Desai Memorial Primary School Trust – (and subsequently also a mirror Trust in the UK) to receive the funds from the Foundation and to undertake the purchase of the land and hold good title to this. The Foundation did not want to run the School, or to own it, but simply to provide the funds, and their only stipulation for the funds was that the name of the School should be Desai Memorial Primary. The Trust had representatives from the UK and from Nairobi. Rtn Baldip Rihal who had worked before retirement as Senior Officer in the Department for Planning became Chair, and Mike, Vice Chair.
Last Updated: 5th December 2017