The Brick Project Conversations, Part Nine: Clare and Denise


The Brick Project Conversations, Part Nine: Clare and Denise

The Brick Project Conversations, Part NineClare and Denise

Interview with Denise Carnihan, co-founder of Kia Ora Children’s Learning Centre.


Clare Smith

Editor’s Note

As we plan forward for the relaunch of The Brick Project in 2016 we are already working with a sense of long-term vision.

Yet the real value of The Brick Project is not simply the building of global school communities, but the lasting and sustainable friendships and ideological bonds that will result from building these communities for decades to come.

Is it possible for school students in the Brick Project age range (between 9 and 13 years of age) to keep in touch decades later into adulthood and even parenthood and continue to build upon the ideals they valued as children?

We can only respond to such a question based upon our own individual experience, which in turn frames and formulates our world perspective.

I say “Yes”. A resounding Yes. Yes, it is possible to build upon the ideals you learn as children. The proof is in this particular pudding (aka ‘interview’):

The interviewer, Clare Smith, was my classmate at a school in Nairobi, Kenya decades ago when we both were in the Brick Project age range (9 to 13). Clare and I have not seen each other since we were 12 years old. Although our traversing paths transmigrated over continents we both ended up becoming educators.

We never really left the classroom!

Clare now lives in Wellington, New Zealand and I live in Northern California.

Through an active alumni group, we have kept in touch with our former classmates, and our class teacher and subsequent headmaster, Mr. Alan Cutler.

The values that our teacher Mr. Cutler and others taught us decades ago in Kenya find their way into our conversations and our initiatives. We intuitively find ourselves on the ‘lookout’ for worthy projects, particularly when they relate to Education and to Africa. Clare recently informed me of the social enterprise of her fellow Kiwi, Denise Carnihan, resulting in Clare’s interview below.


On 5th September 2011, three Kiwis – Denise and Chris Carnihan and Mandy Edmundson opened Kia Ora Children’s Learning Centre; a primary school situated at Mau Mau Bridge in the large slum community of Kangemi in Nairobi, Kenya.

From small beginnings, the school has grown into nine classrooms, an office, a library, toilets, 9 staff, a security guard and a school role of 300 children.

Clare: How did you come to start a school in Kenya?

Denise: 14 years ago our son was doing a school project on family trees and decided to focus his project on my mother’s side of the family.

She proceeded to tell us that her father was half African, half English so that came like a bolt out of the blue!

She didn’t know much about my grandfather because he had died young. I decided to delve into the family history and I joined genealogy sites and managed to find a little bit. My grandfather was the product of a relationship between an African maid and a British man living in South Africa. When he was 14, he joined the Merchant Navy and ended up jumping ship in New Zealand.

My grandfather was the product of a relationship between an African maid and a British man living in South Africa.

My mother and her sisters were often asked whether they had some Pacific Islander blood in them but my brothers and I never questioned it.

We never saw photos of my granddad till later. Six years ago our daughter started going out with an African boy from South Africa and his father helped us find the family in South Africa.

We decided to go over, our kids had left home and our bills had dropped and we had more money for travel. I had found an (African) second-cousin in South Africa Edgar and we formed a special bond through email, we still can’t believe how well we get on. In 2009 we said ‘Right we’re off, we’re going to meet the family, and while we are there we’ll do a trip through Africa”.

We did an “Intrepid Trip” (by truck) and along the way we went to an orphanage and educational centre at the base of Kilimanjaro, where we got talking to volunteers and found out about places where we could volunteer. In 2009, we got back to NZ and kept thinking about going back to Africa. I ended up going to Kenya in 2010 to volunteer on a project in which I was assigned to help a teacher called Ayub. Together we established a library.

Clare: Tell me about Ayub, I understand he is now the principal of the school you set up, you must have been very impressed with his teaching?

Denise: He just had such an amazing rapport with the kids. My husband Chris has that same sort of rapport with kids. I kept telling Chris about Ayub. The boys really liked him [Ayub], and said ‘he is so cool’. I found out that he wasn’t being paid by the Detention Centre and was living from hand to mouth as well as being the sole caregiver for his 1-year-old child. I wanted to help him somehow.

We went back the following year and my husband Chris took along his tools to teach the kids (at the Detention Centre) how to build things. My friend Mandy also came along and a cousin also came for a month. We were there a couple of days and while we were at lunch with Ayub, I asked, “what has changed since we last saw you?”

Nothing had changed.

After he left, I said to Chris “wouldn’t it be cool if we could build a little school for Ayub to run; in a slum area where schools are desperately needed ?”.

We had absolutely no idea what we were doing, how to go about it, or whether we could even build a school in Kenya.

We had absolutely no idea what we were doing, how to go about it, or whether we could even build a school in Kenya, and more importantly whether we could afford it. We had to have Ayub’s help for everything.

Within 24 hours Ayub had found a plot of land, we had signed a lease with the owners and had the start of a structure – a small building which would be sectioned into 3 classrooms to cater for 50 kids.


Two months later, the school was ready to open and on 5 September 2011 we officially opened Kia Ora Children’s Learning Centre – but not with the planned 50 children. At 8am that first morning the school was packed out with 117 kids crammed in all ready and eager to learn.

At 8am that first morning the school was packed out with 117 kids ready and eager to learn.

Even though the school building was bulging at the seams, still more and more parents poured through the gate pleading with us to take their children.

We “freaked out” (well I did anyway!) and immediately Chris went outside to pace out the next building.

We had run out of spare cash by then as we were leaving Kenya to backpack 6 weeks around Uganda, however we promised to hold a fundraiser immediately we returned to NZ and send the money back so Ayub could have a second lot of x3 classroom building built. This was exactly what happened and the second building was ready for opening at the beginning of the new school year 2012.

However … where we thought building a second lot of classrooms would enable the children to spread out comfortably – all it did was open the way for more children….many many more children!!

The school is officially registered and follows the national Kenyan curriculum. Our kids are doing really well with exams.

I arrived back in Kenya June last year (2012) to find 300+ children and 10 staff (7 Kenyan professional teachers) volunteering at Kia Ora at that stage who had the forethought to volunteer at the school with the hope they would eventually be put on the payroll, which is exactly what happened.

A chance meeting with an Indian man in a cafe led to 3 more classrooms being built – Al Noor offered to build the classrooms after sitting at my table in a cafe, and asking me what I was doing in Nairobi. The following day, materials arrived – we now have 9 classrooms, and operate a full primary school.

The school is officially registered and follows the national Kenyan curriculum. It is working beautifully, and our kids are doing really well with exams.


Clare: So what subjects do the kids learn?

Denise: English, maths, science, geography, social studies and P.E.

They are studying for CPE (Certificate of primary Education) and need to pass that to go on to secondary school. If they pass they have a good chance of getting a scholarship to get into High School. It appears to me that a lot of focus is going on high schools. There is money from NGOs and from the government for High Schools. It all depends on their CPE grades, they do exams like there is no tomorrow.

Ayub has piles and piles of practice exam sheets. CPE is very much the focus.

Clare: What about art and drama and music?

Denise: Yes we have drama; they have a drama teacher and a music teacher who teaches drums. They do interschool sports and Ayub says that they are doing yoga!

Clare: What sort of conditions do the kids live in?

Denise: They live in 3 metre square huts made from recycled tin, extreme poverty, they make do.

Some areas have electricity but the area the school is in, doesn’t. Kenya is really up there with cellphone technology, lots of people have cellphones, you even see Masai warriors carrying cellphones. The majority of people don’t work. Some are from rural areas although a lot have lived in the slums for generations. The school has a lot of orphans who live with other family members. Some of the kids have HIV.

Lots of the kids are of the Luwya tribe and living in the slums. Our guard is Masai.

Clare: How safe is it for you guys?

Denise: During the daytime it’s fine. We have to be very aware, we are the only white people I have ever seen there. We feel quite Ok wandering around the village. The school is about 20 minutes from where the matatu (local buses) drop us off so we walk down through the village each day and never feel unsafe. I have never had any problems, I was there for 3 months last year on my own, and I felt quite safe.

Clare: What about tribal affiliations? Are people in the slums a particular tribe?

Denise: Ayub is Luhya; they are from the Western Province of Kenya. Lots of the kids are from the Luhya tribe and there are a lot living in the slums. Our security guard is Masai.


Clare: How is the school funded?

Denise: The day it opened we realized we couldn’t pay for it all ourselves.

We started a private sponsorship scheme and now with over 100 sponsors paying $10 per month, the day-to-day school running costs, including staff wages are pretty much covered. Most of the sponsors are from New Zealand; there is one from the UK and half a dozen from Australia.

Clare: Are all the children sponsored?

Denise: No, only about 100 are sponsored. Sponsors pay $10 per month which is more than it costs for schooling for one child, the extra goes into a pot and gets spread around the others.

Clare: What are you doing next for the school?

Denise: Chris and I leave for Nairobi tomorrow (June 5th 2013) and we’ll be there 3 months.

We are hoping to implement a feeding programme and set up a library and solar panels so that there is electricity to run the computer donated by the Kenyan government. We also want to put in more toilets and install skylights in the classrooms.

Now that we’ve ironed out those early-day teething problems, our first priority is securing Kia Ora’s future. We are in the process of forming a charitable trust here in NZ, and also our wish to buy land has now become very important to us.

Ideally we would like to buy the land the school is built on of course, however we are fully prepared to move if we have to, but would want the school to stay in Kangemi slum. This is where our heart is for Kia Ora. At this stage, we have absolutely no idea how much this would cost, and is one of the first projects I want to focus on when we arrive back…

Africa does get under your skin, more so for me, having this family connection with Africa.

Clare: It’s easy to see that you are passionate about the school.

Denise: That’s why it so easy for me to talk about it and why I do so many public speeches. When we built the school, we were very naïve; I was worried we wouldn’t even get 50 kids there. Our Kenyan friends said, “You wait, there will be hundreds! And that’s how it all happened!”

It’s all great, I love it.

Africa does get under your skin, and more so for me probably, having this family connection with Africa.

It is a crazy story, “if anybody had ever suggested to my husband Chris and I that we would establish and own a school in Kenya we would have just laughed, thinking the whole thing crazy!