Heaps of trash pile up for miles in Kibera, a district of Nairobi that houses nearly 1 million people and is one of the poorest slums in the world. Aluminum shanties fill the horizon, and an odor of urine cuts through the air.
A man trots through the narrow, unpaved streets on a camel.
If you make your way through this crowded maze, however, you will find the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, a free public school for girls and, recently, a few boys. Peek in through the windows, and you’ll see a sight that seems incongruous next to the grimy chaos outside.
In this school, where there is no electricity and temperatures often top 90 degrees, dozens of students in neat wool uniforms are sliding their fingers across touch screens, reading a lesson on their Amazon Kindle e-reader.
The students, who range in age from 14 to 20, are cheerful, welcoming and quick to share the genres of books they like to read in both Swahili and English. Their school is one of 28 participating in a program with Worldreader, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides modern technology – usually Kindles – to improve literacy in the most impoverished parts of the world.
By expanding access to education in areas where books are a scarce resource, the Worldreader team is trying to break the cycle of poverty, one electronic page at a time.
Risher, Worldreader’s president, says that continued involvement in schools is vital to the future success of the program.
“Nonprofits that drop technology into communities usually find that the community’s habits and culture are far stronger than the technology, so after some time — a few months, a few years — nobody is using the technology anymore,” he said.
“So what we do isn’t just send a product to people. We’re creating a system that brings publishers, e-reader manufacturers, teachers, children and communities together so that everyone can read more. We hope that not only will we improve millions of lives but also create habits and structures that endure for many years.”
Students don’t have to have an e-reader to benefit from Worldreader. The organization also created an app that allows students to read books on their cell phones (cell phone penetration is as high as 80% in developing countries; in Kenya, cell towers are everywhere). The app makes learning even more portable and has been downloaded more than 335,000 times.