By Sarah Rolfing
No matter how many times I visit the slum in Nairobi or the poverty-stricken schools in the outskirts of the city, I’m not prepared for the feeling of despair that follows. Basic human rights, such as educational opportunity and access to healthcare, are constantly upended by poverty in many regions of Kenya. Children are often the most vulnerable, and the impact on education and the advancement of society is significant.
Lack of resources should not compromise the right to education, particularly in a society that has considerable disparities in wealth. Since 2013, the Rotary Club of Sumner, Washington, USA, has partnered with low-income schools in Southern Kenya to provide bathroom facilities for students with special needs. Lack of basic sanitation at schools across the region is common, negatively impacting health, hygiene, and attendance. Poor health makes education an afterthought, and Rotary’s investment in creating healthy environments for students in Kenya is impacting thousands on a daily basis.
In April, my husband and I visited two primary schools that received Rotary funding for new latrines. In one school, 1,800 children shared 32 dilapidated pit latrines. The other school is home to 1,251 children who shared eight pit latrines. The smell of the facilities is overpowering and doors hang off hinges with sewage overflowing. Outhouses at a campground are luxurious by comparison, and the poor sanitation exposes the children to an array of ailments. Two bathroom breaks per day makes the rush to use the facilities a competition.
While we observed the students waiting for latrines, we noticed 56 children at the end of the line. These are students with special needs, who struggle to physically approach the latrine or do not have the ability to use it without adult assistance. Their disabilities range from physical handicaps to dyslexia to downs-syndrome. Such children are considered the margin of the marginalized in Kenya, as physical handicaps and developmental learning issues are difficult to accommodate in poverty-stricken schools.
After finally making it to the latrines, Maria, who suffers from an illness that has left her without the use of her legs, crawls into the stall through the feces covering the floor. There are no teachers to help her with her ordeal.
Thanks to Rotary’s support, simple to build bathroom facilities have given special needs students like Maria, and hundreds more to follow, a healthier learning environment and an opportunity to succeed.
Seemingly simple ideas like providing clean water, sanitation, and education can transform community health in developing nations.
On the day of the opening ceremony of the new bathrooms, we could feel the excitement, as students chattered with anticipation. Twelve brightly-painted bathrooms dedicated to the special needs class served as a testimony to their ability to overcome obstacles and pursue education. As I spoke on behalf of Rotary at the ceremonial ribbon cutting, I was overwhelmed by the appreciation I could see on the faces of the students and their parents.
The impact that Rotary has around the world is widespread, and these projects are just a few examples of the lives being changed daily. Seemingly simple ideas like providing clean water, sanitation, and education can transform community health in developing nations. Contributions from Rotary are crucial to solving the problems that undermine basic human rights internationally and in our own neighborhoods.
About the author: Sarah Rolfing has been an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Sumner, Washington, since 2008. She is the founder of Team Agape – New Life Mission, a non profit that supports sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives in Kenya.