Beautifying Brosis

Miss the previous update about my work at the Brosis School? Read it here.

I’ve long been an enthusiast of how internal change leads to external change. Changes in yourself cause the world around you to change.

The opposite is as true as well, I've come to learn.

Changes in the world — your external environment — cause you to change. It’s the basic philosophy behind Feng Shui, Broken Windows theory, and Shared Streets.

I find this dynamic slightly more interesting than the other because it's not considered too often and has immediate effects on our psychology and behavior, where as meditation and other self-help techniques can take a long time before you see change (but are more sustainable).

Physical environments of any sort create a kind of invisible field you can feel and, as soon as you step into one, you are internally affected positively or negatively, which then affects your behavior in like fashion. It’s why spending time in beautiful, natural surroundings is so therapeutic. And why we feel the way we do walking around in stores like Kmart, Walmart, etc.

It's the idea that you don't find crows in a Japanese tea garden or beautiful butterflies at a landfill.


Brosis, relatively speaking, is a poor school. It barely can pay its teachers, who work 10-hour days, a $1/day stipend and is consistently behind on rent payments. Money is equally not there to purchase sufficient quantities of text books, school supplies, or provide, consistently, for lunch.

It gets by from the minimal school fees the staff collects from the student's families and on and off again donations. The Headmaster, Abel Siro, sometimes has to put his own money into the school to make sure the doors stay open.

As such, the school, itself, is constructed out of what most slum structures are made of—inexpensive, corrugated iron sheets reinforced by tree trunks. The floor is bare earth, as concrete or stone flooring was too expensive.

As I previously reported, when I first visited, the school was only half constructed—two of the "walls" were covered by ripped, plastic tarps. Again, finances limited building a fully constructed school. That, right there, tells you something about how Brosis operates (to its credit).

They apply the "good enough" philosophy and work with what they have. Their main priority is to gather the children and teach them however imperfectly, which is a vast improvement over them doing nothing all day in the slum and probably getting into trouble (again, an example of how the environment lends itself to like behavior).

Beyond the practical issues of keeping rain out and the like, I focused on how a dilapidated structure must be perceived on the student's end. How demoralizing it is when the school you're looking to as a potential ticket out of poverty, is falling apart.

"Let’s invest in the space," I thought. Fix up the school. Clear away all the trash. Paint murals. Plant a flower garden. Make it beautiful.

To create a positive environment the kids can feel proud of and at home in, a place they look forward to coming to each day. For the teachers as well, since so much inspiration for the students comes from them.

Perhaps this, too, could encourage the attitudes of responsibility and care, which are the psychological keys to interrupting the cycle of poverty.

So that's what we've been up to these past few weeks. Building. Cleaning. Painting. And reinforcing the values surrounding the beautification process. Having a lot of fun too.

No More Plastic Bags for Walls

The first job was completing construction of the school's exterior, which we accomplished for very little money by using local labor from the community and customary shanty materials.

Our builder also ended up increasing the size of the structure to make room for three partitioned classrooms, which would allow the students to segregate by class. Without partitioning, there tended to be some chaos with competing voices and crowding.

In this video, you can see the school after fixing up the walls and hear a word from Headmaster Abel about it.

Painting Murals

The main idea for painting murals on the front of the school was to create a visual reminder of the Brosis values. Also, to create a sense of identity and school pride as well.

Half of the mural is dedicated to a scene in Nature, symbolizing growth. Brosis wants to nurture the latent potential in its students. I also introduced the concept that Nature is the provider of all for all and connecting to it (especially through cleaning, planting trees, etc.) is a way to get in tune with its giving flow.


The other side of the mural depicts the school's unity theme. 

Tuko Pamoja is Swahili for "We are together" and you can see all the figures outlining the earth, holding hands. We are also promoting African/Kenyan traditions with some traditional patterning, a Maasai warrior, and other symbols, as they are a source of pride and strength.

All the students and teachers, with the help of the artist, Dixon Asiago, put their
hand prints on the mural, which in a subtle way, viscerally connects them to the school. The kids had a particularly fun time doing this, as you could imagine.

In this video, you can see the finished murals and hear another word from Abel about them.

The new murals were a welcome addition by the students and have positively changed the feel of the school compound. There is a feeling of aliveness that there wasn't before.

It's unusual to have this kind of artwork in a slum area and is attracting attention from neighbors who pass by and wonder what's going on, which could help school attendance if new students enroll and potentially bring in additional school fees.


In conjunction with these upgrades, I've been meeting with the students and teachers every Wednesday to try and inspire everybody's participation in the beautification process.

The topic of our first meeting was Cleanliness is Next to Godliness. We discussed what that means and why keeping our physical environments clean is so important.

At one point, I directly asked the students, "Whose school is this?" There was silence. Eyeballs going in different directions. One student raised his hand and said, "Teacher Abel's." Yes, but no. More silence. Then another offered, "It is our school." That was precisely right, and an idea we'll keep coming back to.

If it's the student's school, then they have some responsibility for it and if they build the habit of responsibility at school, perhaps it will carry to their lives outside of school.

In that spirit, after the lesson, we all headed out to clean the school grounds together. It was great. Wednesday, since, officially has become safi (cleaning) day.

On another Wednesday, we discussed the three levels of cleanliness: environmental cleanliness, cleanliness of our bodies, and cleanliness of mind and emotions—stressing that the last was the most important, since it impacts the first two.

To support cleanliness of our bodies, we invested in this hand washing station.

The teachers demonstrated how to wash your hands properly, using minimal amounts of water and hand washing liquid, and then each student took a turn at washing their hands.

Now the teachers can teach the importance of personal hygiene, e.g., by encouraging all the students to wash their hands after using the toilet. This is particularly important in slum areas because of the issue of water born illnesses, which according to UNICEF research, is a contributing factor to the estimated 18,000 children who die each day from poverty related issues.

Each student, as you can see below, also took a pledge in Swahili that translated to, "My body is a gift, I promise to take care of it." Do we expect behavior to alter overnight because of it? No. But we're planting the seeds.

As I reported before, these changes are all leading up to an official inauguration of the school we expect to have in just a few weeks.

Continue to the next update about my work at the Brosis School.

C. LowmanComment