Dec 05 2012

The Power of High Expectations

“Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.” – Earl Nightingale

I love this photo for so many reasons. The two biggest ones are:

  1. Every single person in this photo is laughing or smiling.
  2. It presents a different discourse about Mathare- one of joy, laughter, friendship, and teamwork.

How often do we look at news articles, blog posts, and other media, only to see Mathare described in negative ways? We see the same words used over and over again: desolation, rape, crime, poverty, depression, sewage, gloom, and more.

What if we change the way we talk about places like Mathare? What if, instead of focusing on the negatives, we start to think about what the community has to offer?

During the Leadership Institute Program training, we talk about the power of high expectations and the effects of self-fulfilling prophecies. When you surround yourself with negative messaging about a community, that’s what you’ll see. But when you look for treasures, you’ll find them- creativity, resilience, humor, determination, passion, and vision at every turn in the community.

Our Leadership Institute Program is centered around these beliefs and practices. While others cast Mathare in a negative light, we are driven by the idea that there’s much more to this community than what’s commonly portrayed by the media. When you believe these positive messages is when real change begins.

Photo by Vanessa Johnston

Nov 28 2012

The Beginning of the Leadership Institute

“Leadership is about using yourself as an instrument to get things done. It can be learned, but only if you are willing and able to engage in serious self-development” – Linda Hill, from Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader

The first day of the Dignitas Project Leadership Institute is always like the first day of school. We’re slightly disorganized, apprehensive, and excited. We’re curious about the others who will be our classmates and colleagues for the next three weeks.

What will we learn? What’s going to take place? How will we change?

The truth is, no one really knows what the Leadership Institute, or LI as we fondly call it, will be like until they go through the experience.

Our first day is generally a slower one, easing Mathare teachers into a different environment, setting clear expectations and norms, and establishing an understanding of leadership and how we situate ourselves as leaders in our schools and daily lives.

Executive Director Tiffany Cheng Nyaggah opens up the day with an introduction to the Leadership Institute Program and a discussion of leadership.

Project Officer Fred Otieno and Program Assistant Rose Kavuli lead our teachers in an introduction exercise.

Everyone looks excited to be making new friends!

The LI fellows take turns introducing one another

LI is about leadership development. Here, fellows spend time reflecting silently on their self-development and team-development goals and visions

Tiffany leads a discussion on teaching roles and responsibilities.

In preparation for the extensive readings ahead, Program Director Martina Amoth facilitates a session on effective reading and study skills.

The first day is always a challenging one. Teachers walk away with assignments and expectations that will stretch them beyond what they’re used to. But it’s also an exciting one, especially for us at Dignitas, because we know that the next three weeks will be life-changing- it always is for us too.

Aug 23 2012

Art Classes in Mathare

The first day I started interning at Dignitas Project two and a half months ago, I was tasked with planning, thinking about, and occasionally agonizing over a new project designed to offer Mathare students between the ages of 3 and 15 the opportunity to take free art lessons.

I was pulled into a meeting with Art Without Borders Kenya representative James Mbuthia and told to take notes. What I found was an inspiring organization run by James and his team of talented (and renowned) Kenyan artists, dedicated to incubating artistic creativity in children around Kenya. In addition to working with students in informal settlements, Art Without Borders offers free art lessons for children at Kenyatta National Hospital and Dagoretti Children’s Centre. During the whirlwind meeting, it was decided that Art Without Borders would generously provide all the paper, crayons, pastels, pencils, rubbers, and art teachers required to occupy (and sometimes corral) 40 students for two hours each week.

 The intention for this project was to bring together Mathare children and encourage them to draw, color, and create works of art that they could be proud of. During my many (and sometimes abstract) discussions with James about art, he never downplayed the importance of color. “If you look out of the window on an airplane,” he said during one of our initial meetings, “if you get high enough in the air, you can’t see structures anymore.  Not houses or buildings or people. Just blocks of color.” In a world constantly dictated by lessons, homework and grades, it’s sometimes nice to just color.

I set to work. After almost a month and a half of collecting lists of students, following up with head teachers, visiting schools, typing, typing some more, organizing, and completing all sorts of miscellany, excitement and apprehensiveness accompanied my first art lesson.  Appropriately, on our first day of class, James and his teachers poured out pencils of every color imaginable on the tables. I watched as the 9-year-olds’ eyes grew huge and their fingers reached eagerly for paper and anything else that could be used as a vehicle for all those beautiful colors.

After the directions had been given in Kiswahili and the children had started, James explained that he had told them to draw something familiar. I was admittedly surprised when pictures started appearing with every square centimeter of space covered in color: green elephants and purple clouds and patchwork quilts of grass and roofs.  Seeing the astonished look on my face, James took me aside and told me in a low voice, “Not all of these children will become artists but creativity is never wrong.”

At the end of the class, the pictures were plastered on the side of the tent for the children to see and comment on as James gathered their creators around to discuss.  Giggles, gasps, and whispers rose up out of the crowd when they saw what they and their classmates were capable of.  A tent that so often hosted a stage for teacher trainings and serious discussions about pedagogy and methodology transformed into an art gallery full of color and creativity. And, to use James’s words, that’s never wrong.

- Meagan Nouhra

Meagan Nouhra is a current intern at Dignitas Project.

Apr 17 2012

Lessons from Ubuntu

I am who I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am.” – J.S. Mbiti.

It’s day 2 of the Dignitas Project Leadership Institute Program training. For 13 more days head teachers, teachers, and school management committee members from partner schools in Mathare will be meeting at Strathmore University to discuss leadership, teaching methodologies, management issues, parental engagement, and more.

Teachers become students again, many for the first time in years. In a new environment, with roles reversed and norms upended, our hope is that the Dignitas students/fellows will begin to shape and develop their ideas around what it means to be a leader and articulate what a good education looks like.

Today, Program Director Martina Amoth shared a story with the teachers-turned-students about the concept of ubuntu:

An anthropologist put a basket of fruit under a tree and said to a group of children, “Whoever gets there first wins the entire basket of fruit.”

When he told them to run, the children held hands and ran together towards the tree. They then sat down to enjoy their sweet treats.

Puzzled, the anthropologist asked, “Why didn’t you run quickly so you could enjoy the fruit for yourself?”

But the children felt something the anthropologist didn’t. They said, “How can we be happy when one of us is suffering?”

Together we grow, but when we are divided, we fall apart.

The concept of ubuntu serves as a foundation of basic values for many African cultures. It is a humaneness, the idea that each person has a status and is human. Ubuntu asserts that every person is entitled to respect, dignity, acceptance, value, and holds a reciprocal duty to give value, dignity, and respect to others. Individuals and groups display caring, harmony, and responsiveness to each other. Collectivity, communication, leadership, and spirituality are all key components of ubuntu.

How do we apply the concept of ubuntu to our lives? To teachers’ interactions with parents? To managing students who are commonly classified as “slow learners” or trouble makers? As a teacher, how do you use the principles of ubuntu to change your school and community? As a leader, how do you apply the principles of ubuntu, exercise compassion, and involve others?

These are questions and concepts we hope our teachers will keep in mind. As we move forward with the training, our fellows continue to shape their values, philosophies, and thoughts around transforming education in Mathare- and we are so excited by the potential of what could happen from lessons of ubuntu and everything we have planned for the next three weeks.

Mar 21 2012

Inclusive Education in Mathare

Overall, special needs education has been a seriously neglected part of the education landscape here in Mathare. Some teachers, not knowing how to identify special needs, may cane children in an attempt to rectify the problem. Others attempt to communicate that a student has special needs to parents, only to have parents to deny a need exists and promptly transfer their children to other schools. Having seen that this is an area that needs addressing, Dignitas Project has begun incorporating more special needs support into our Leadership Institute Program.

Since the beginning of the term in January, special needs coach Carol Owala has been visiting schools to train teachers on student needs in schools. Progress is being made as schools have begun to implement structures to identify special needs and access resources to address those needs. Carol recounts her time coaching schools in the reflection below:

I met Joseph and his mother during the meeting that I had with Naioth parents on February 14th. Since the meeting was about parents of learners who had been identified on general categories of special needs and the referral services available for the same, Mrs. Karau had asked Joseph’s mother to attend the meeting to try and find help.

Joseph (8 years), according to my assessment, has total hearing loss (but I referred him to KISE for further assessment). He has never been to school and only uses natural signs to communicate. His mother mentioned that most of the schools of the hearing impaired learners that she had gone to were quite expensive and since she was a single parent, she could not afford so pay.

I called Green House, a school in Kibera that is sponsored by ‘Deaf Aid’ to offer free primary education to hearing impaired learners and I was so relieved to hear that they had opened another centre in Kaiobangi South, which is just a few kilometers from Mathare. Patrick, who is one of the teachers, assured me of a chance for Joseph.

We met with Mama Joseph on Tuesday 13th at 12:30 p.m. and went to Green House. We met Brenda, the administrator, who admitted Joseph and even promised to give him (free) school uniform to begin with.

I left with a feeling of contentment especially seeing how happy and excited both Joseph and his mother were.

Carol Owala

Special Needs Coach

Over the last few months, we’ve continually heard success stories from Carol. When we go out in the field, teachers constantly comment to us about how affected they’ve been by Carol’s work in the partner schools. As Carol continues her work in schools, we are excited to be a part of contributing to an educational environment that is more inclusive.

Mar 11 2012

A Joyful Visit to St. Ann’s Gichocho

I often can’t help but muse to myself that much of our work here at Dignitas involves playing the long game. Change within the community and the schools we work with take time. It isn’t always fun or exciting. In fact, sometimes it’s really difficult. The impact we make isn’t always immediately obvious and can take a while to see.

With all that, there’s still a lot of joy at our office. We celebrate the wins and successes that we get to share with the schools, like improved school-parent relationships and teachers enthusiastically adapting new classroom management techniques. We use these as ways to mark our progress as we move through our long game, and sometimes for our own emotional and mental well-being and encouragement.

Friday was one of those days where we got to celebrate a success. Twelve girls from Dignitas partner schools in Mathare now attend Form 1 and 2 at St. Ann’s Gichocho Secondary School in Kiambu, thanks to the support of private donors who have invested in their potential. Staff members Tiffany Cheng, Rose Kavuli, Gloria Omuya, and I (Eugenia Lee) had the opportunity to visit St. Ann’s to visit the scholarship recipients. Trustees Kimathi Kamencu, Steve Kariithi, Smita Sanghrajka, and Dr. C.S. Sheth also accompanied us on our visit.

Part of the St. Ann's campus. We were thrilled to see the girls in such a green and beautiful place!

We all mused over this sign. One of the signs of a good school are aspirational and positive sayings.

The school held a big assembly to welcome Dignitas visitors.

Finally we got to meet the girls! As a refresher, Program Assistant Rose Kavuli went over the expectations of the scholarship with the girls.

We took a photo with the scholarship recipients. These girls truly are a part of the future of Mathare and we were so proud and excited to spend an afternoon visiting them!

While our work is largely focused on primary schools in Mathare, secondary school is something we still give thought to. We can continue to support the schools and develop capacity, but what happens to the high-performing individuals from each school? What happens when there isn’t enough money to attend secondary school and a drop-off occurs?

We tell our teachers that school is not an island where their responsibilities and commitments to the students end once the school day ends; the home environment and parental engagement are an important component of student success and performance. I like to think we here at Dignitas are embodying what we teach, extending this philosophy not just to schools in Mathare, but also to following up on the futures of students where we can. This is but a small part of what Dignitas does, but we celebrate these little wins that keep us going, hopeful and believing in a better future for all children in Mathare.

Feb 13 2012

Reading to Learn Training

This week, we are working with upper primary teachers and training them on the Reading to Learn methodology. The morning started out with Program Assistant Rose Kavuli discussing expectations and norms with attendees. Teachers talked about what they want out of the training, and a timetable was agreed upon.

Instructional Coach Ann Waihura then took over with a brief explanation of the Reading to Learn methodology and the importance of being properly trained in it.

If a child cannot read, then a child cannot learn. If a child learns to read, then all subjects improve- social studies, English, Kiswahili, science, and even mathematics. When a child cannot read, then a child cannot solve math problems. There are questions like, ‘Mama Ann went to the store…’. A child cannot work out the problem if he or she cannot read.

Ann Waihura, instructional coach for Dignitas Project, introduces the Reading to Learn training to 15 teachers who are here for the week.

Rosemary, the city education officer, then took over, discussing the performance of schools in various subject areas and providing an overview of current approaches to teaching English, Kiswahili, science, and social studies in upper primary grades.

The teachers seem eager and ready to learn, and we are looking forward to an exciting week with lots of learning ahead of us!

Feb 09 2012


The Dignitas Project team got a special surprise today when a poem from one of our partner schools, NECI, was dropped off at the office. NECI was a partner school in 2011 and the team is thrilled to continue the partnership into 2012.

Working in Mathare with low-resource schools, our day to day can often be exhausting and difficult, but we continue to be proud of and motivated by the incredible teachers we’re privileged to partner with and by the impact we’re slowly seeing. The poem was a wonderful highlight to the day:


1. The NECI staff enjoys lesson.

The lessons they used to teach in crisis, presently, they teach in groups and discussions.

All this in the name of dignitas project.


2. The techniques they implore and apply.

They are of high skills and level.

The techniques that easen and simplify.

All this in the name of dignitas project


3. The display of the educational charts,

The teaching materials of express magazines,

The well painted black walls.

All this in the name of dignitas project.


4. More so, the entanglement of the pupils.

The entanglement of guardians and parents,

And the entanglement of the community as influencers

Truly have brought tremendous improvement in all.


5. In conclusion, look at the good storage facilities,

In addition, look at the good stationaries,

In all, the reading and writing materials

All this in the name of dignitas project.


Lastly, on behalf of NECI staff and S.M.C. may I say that any further support is ceremoniously welcomed.


Thank you

In the end, it’s really us here at Dignitas that must thank NECI. We’re truly inspired and grateful to be learning from and working with schools that are meeting the needs of children all over Mathare, working to create a better future for the community.

Students from NECI excitedly pose for the camera

Jan 19 2012

Boys & Girls Training

This week, the Dignitas team has been thrilled to host students from St. James, Mercy Care Centre, and Mathare Community Outreach Joy for a boys and girls training. Though our work is primarily focused on teachers, our hearts are ultimately focused on the impact improving education in Mathare has on the children. We’ve enjoyed the change in the office, hearing the voices of children singing songs and watching them line up for chai and meals.

The boys and girls training supports the formation of boys and girls forums in marginalized schools. These forums give students a safe space to talk about physical and emotional changes they are undergoing, develop life and economic skills, and encourage leadership and participation in education. As Program Assistant Rose Kavuli describes it, “If the club is strong in a school, it’s a club that airs out student voices and factors in their thoughts.”

We often talk about children as the leaders of tomorrow but this is a powerful opportunity to start today, where it matters. In a community that is traditionally seen as marginalized, trainings such as these and forums are important for empowering children and enabling them to take ownership of their communities as leaders.

Sep 19 2011

Tragedy in Sinai

A week ago, fire and disaster swept the Sinai slum. Over 100 were reported dead. Here at the Dignitas office, everyone was on their phones calling loved ones and friends. First, we heard that there was a bad fire in the industrial area. Then more specifically, the slum of Lunga Lunga. Finally, word came through social networks news outlets that the fire was in Sinai.

An oil spill had entered through the sewers of Sinai. This fuel came through leaky pipelines run by the Kenya Pipeline Company. As happened two years ago in February 2009 during a tragic oil tanker fire, those in the surrounding area came to collect free fuel. While the exact cause of the fire has not yet been identified, there has been speculation that the fire was caused either by a cigarette or by garbage fires that are commonly burned in the city.

Regardless, the very fact that this oil spill occurred in a slum already placed Sinai at greater risk. Fires in slums are very common, given the number of open fires, the proximity of homes, and the fact that homes are easily flammable. Given how densely packed slums tend to be and the general lack of opportunity for jobs, it’s unsurprising that so many people came to collect fuel for the opportunity to sell later on.

To me, the real tragedy of this situation is that there are so many factors that could have been avoided. With better pipeline maintenance and infrastructure, the oil leakage would not have occurred. With more economic opportunity for residents, perhaps there would have been less of a rush for free fuel. Better housing would have prevented homes from being placed right next to sewers, therefore decreasing the number of casualties.

And of course, perhaps saddest are the young lives that were taken in this fire. For there is not only a lack of economic opportunity in slums, but also a lack of educational opportunity. The fire occurred during school hours, but there were many children in the area, not in school at the time, who perished.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Sinai. For me the question is, “What can we do to keep this from happening again?” This is why it is important to work with the community to create better opportunity and access. If there’s anything that Sinai showed us, it’s the injustice and inequality that can exist, and that we need to do something to change it.

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