A Kenyan primary school offers insight into building diversity from the bottom up

Diversity lessons come from many places, not just legal departments

The Olympic Primary School is situated in the center of Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Kibera is a sprawling informal settlement about five miles from Nairobi’s central business district. Nearly one-third of Nairobi’s population lives in Kibera, which makes it the home of an estimated 1 million people. 

Typical housing consists of a small shack with mud walls, a tin roof and dirt floors. The average shack houses up to eight people, most of whom sleep on threadbare bedding. Many of Kibera’s inhabitants have no electricity. Kibera has no running water or sewage system. There are no government hospitals or clinics there. Unemployment among residents is estimated at more than 70 percent.

The Olympic Primary School has roughly 2,500 pupils ranging in ages from 5 to 13. For some years, my company has had a strategic partnership with the Olympic School. While on a business trip to Africa last fall, I visited the school and learned more about its partnership with Coca-Cola and our Africa Foundation. My experience allowed me to reflect on our collective (and well-intentioned) approach to the diversity outreach in this country. My visit reminded me that our outreach efforts cannot be based on “charity” but rather must uplift, hold accountable and provide pathways to success in order to be sustainable. Moreover, the visit reminded me how much can be done with so little when there are high expectations and a “no excuses, can do” environment.

When we arrived at the school, its head, Ruth Namulundu, gave us an orientation. She explained that though there were, at times, as many as 3,000 students enrolled, absenteeism is virtually nonexistent. Even students who become orphaned are taken into the crowded homes of relatives who make sure that they continue school. As we encountered students of all ages, they greeted us with broad smiles.

Namulundu explained that per-pupil spending at the school was approximately 1,000 Kenyan shillings, or $12 per year. Our colleague, Bob Okello, who manages our relationship with the Olympic School, explained that our support is anything but “charity.” Instead, our company’s foundation helped finance the digging of a bore hole and pumping station on the school grounds. The school now sells clean water to the community. All of the proceeds help support the school. Similarly, seedling fruit trees—mainly mango, orange, loquat, guava and avocado— are planted on school grounds that the children tend. In time, their fruit also will provide a stream of revenue to the school. All visitors are asked to plant a mango tree. I hope to see the tree that I planted bear fruit on a future trip.

It seems that despite its challenges, the Olympic School has enjoyed significant success in preparing students for Kenya’s high-school entrance exams. In fact, the school now draws students from wealthy and middle-class families in addition to the “neighborhood” children. Namulundu says before the Kenyan government introduced free primary education in 2003, her school was always ranked first nationally out of more than 10,000 primary schools. Today, more than two-thirds of the candidates who sit for the promotion exams advance with above-average grades into secondary school.

What if the culture of excellence, achievement and pride that has made the Olympic School successful became part of the ethos of our country’s largely underperforming urban public schools? The problem doesn’t seem to be money. The underperforming large urban school systems in my town (Atlanta) are spending about $15,000 per pupil per year. How do we move from prophylactic “law day” programs to meaningful public-private partnerships to drive success? How will we ever boost diversity in our profession if we don’t tackle early education?

Some of the answers to motivating young people can be found in a slum in sub-Saharan Africa.

John Lewis Jr. is senior managing compliance counsel for The Coca-Cola Co.

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