Power for Good

'First World problem' is a phrase that has been coined as a kind of short-hand dismissal of worries that can only be experienced by people living conspicuously comfortable lives. Paint being chipped off your iPhone, kids hogging all three TV sets, badly made salad dressing – we can all think of a thousand of things that irritate, annoy, upset - but are meaningless when compared with the challenges faced by many living in the developing world. However, as the use of 'First World problem' increases and becomes an everyday catchphrase, an internet meme or the punchline to a joke, its power to provide some much-needed perspective is fading.

 The inhabitants of Mathare, a district of Nairobi, Kenya, don't have the option of experiencing 'First World problems'. There is no electricity, running water or sanitation for the 500,000-strong population - 300,000 of whom are children - and the average income is thirty dollars a month. Homes are made from mud, plastic and corrugated iron and public toilets are often shared by up to 100 people, with residents having to pay to use them. Those who cannot afford to pay must use the alleys and ditches between the area's shanties, or utilise "flying toilets". These are plastic bags used at night and then thrown into the Nairobi River - which is the source of the residents' water supply.

Unemployment, violence, crime, addiction and HIV infection are common, with many children being orphaned by AIDS and facing common health problems which include dysentery, malnutrition, malaria, typhoid, cholera, infections, tetanus, and polio.

Against this grim backdrop, a number of people are fighting to improve the lives of the area's children. One such inspirational individual is Richard Wanjala, a pastor and head teacher of Patmos Junior School. In 2006, he started a small scale feeding programme every Sunday from a local church and, for many of the children who attended, this represented their only meal of the day. As a direct result of the feeding programme, the Sunday school classes saw numbers growing and Richard realised that there was a very real need to start an educational centre in the same premises.

In 2007, Richard and a group of local people decided to form the Patmos Junior School, a community based organisation which aimed to help orphans and vulnerable children access basic education and a daily meal. Since then the school has grown, relocated and grown again, so that now it is based in one large corrugated iron shack, divided into six classrooms, and accommodates 88 children who are taught by four volunteer teachers.

The creativity and commitment shown by Richard and his colleagues has seen the launch of a maize and bean farm, which supplies food for the pupils' daily meal, and a goat and pig farm, from which goats' milk is sold to pay for school uniforms. Richard has also organised health and business skills seminars for local women, and he has attracted the support of organisations and individuals from around the world.

Orphan Outreach, a US organisation, has donated text books and provided funding for an additional classroom and a much-needed sanitation project that has seen urinals installed at the school. A sponsorship programme has been set up, whereby donors can fund uniforms, daily meals, tuition and stationery fees for a child for one year for as little as GBP114/USD188, and a number of individual supporters have chosen this option, whilst others have donated items of equipment. Wings of Mercy undertook a clean-up of the area and Freeplay Energy donated solar and dynamo-powered radios which give pupils access to broadcast lessons, news and African culture, and volunteer teachers access to lesson plans, training and support.

And, crucially, many pupils' lives are improving. The school provides a safe haven where children can feel happy and secure and where they can be nurtured, whilst regular meals have helped them to concentrate on their studies and achieve higher grades. The school recently acquired an overall B- grade in the April school examinations, which was a tremendous achievement, given what its pupils have to contend with on a daily basis.

But despite the remarkable efforts of Richard Wanjala, his colleagues and their supporters, hundreds of thousands of children in Mathare, and millions like them living in slums around the world, continue to struggle to eat, avoid illness, stay safe and get an education.

So, at a time when 'First World Problem' is becoming little more than a fashionable phrase, perhaps next time we hear it we should take a moment to consider why it was coined and what the implications are for those who will never get the chance to complain about a salad dressing.

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