In 2014 Palms Australia partnered with The Ruben Centre, a community services provider in the Mukuru district of Nairobi. Residents of this impoverished area of Kenya’s capital experience the complexity of social, economic and geographic challenges to escaping the poverty cycle and The Ruben Centre is committed to looking to long-term solutions. Through improving health and education services and providing safe employment opportunities, the staff of the Centre have worked alongside Palms mentors in response to specific areas of growth and have achieved lasting impacts for residents of Mukuru.  

Mukuru kwa Ruben

Mukuru kwa Ruben (also known as the Ruben Slum) was born in Nairobi’s industrial district approximately 35 years ago when people began to build make-shift homes near the factories they worked in. The area now has a population of over 600,000 and many families live in corrugated iron shacks measuring 10 x 10 feet.


Many of Mukuru kwa Ruben’s occupants work as casual labourers in the manufacturing industries situated close to the slum. Others operate small-scale businesses selling vegetables and fruit or hawking various items. Earnings are low and often inadequate to feed their families. As a consequence, their children often look to other means of survival such as prostitution, drug peddling, begging and criminal activities.

There are many health-related issues within the area, and the most common diseases include malaria, typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis and AIDS. Malnutrition is also common. This is primarily related to the high cost of food in relation to low family income. Any medical facilities are beyond the reach of most of the residents.

Many children are engaged in petty productive work to supplement basic family needs. Child labour in Mukuru includes hawking, petty trade, transportation using carts and household work.

The Ruben Centre

The Ruben Centre describes itself as ‘an oasis of hope for the Mukuru community’. The Centre provides a range of health, education and employment opportunities for residents with the goal of creating an empowered and just community.

The Centre grew from a single primary school founded by Mercy Sisters’ Sr Mary Killeen in 1986. The school added a clinic and vocational courses and in 2000 Sr Mary invited the Christian Brothers to take over administration of what was now known as The Ruben Centre.

The establishment of a police post in 2001 offered greater security and safety for Centre staff, students and clients, enabling the Centre to grow at a faster pace. The Centre now offers eight services and is continuing to respond to areas of need within the local community.

The Centre has been able to engage medical professionals and other volunteers of short term projects. However, the organisation reached out to Palms to work with professionals in organisational development, a challenge that required long-term assistance.

Ruben Improvement Scheme for Education, 2015-2017

In 2014, The Ruben Centre requested an Academic Coordinator to implement the Ruben Improvement Scheme for Education (RISE). The position was to oversee the development of the Centre’s education programs including:

  • Recruiting teachers in order to reduce class sizes from as many as 90 students to 60,
  • Strengthen teacher morale and enthusiasm, and
  • Manage quality control across the school.

Palms recruited Heather Henderson, who had previously participated in Palms program in Timor Leste, to undertake the role of Academic Coordinator.

“My work here is to walk beside the staff and students in the school in an endeavour to learn from each other so that we can build on current learning and teaching practices in order to improve the literacy levels of the students in both English and Kiswahili languages. Both these languages hold equal importance in the Kenyan State Government Curriculum.”

Heather Henderson, Academic Coordinator 2015-2017

Heather was warmly welcomed into the faculty at The Ruben Centre and noted several challenges. There was an emphasis on exams that not only dominated class time and restricted teachers’ capacity for new ideas but generated a competitive culture among the faculty.

However, over time the program saw significant improvement and achieved its goal of recruiting new teachers and building enthusiasm. In 2016, the Centre recruited three new teachers.

“Lydia has also adopted the practice of group work in her classroom. She related to me that she has found a new lease in her teaching and it shows through her enthusiasm for her work. “Group work teaches the students leadership skills through adopting roles of responsibility for students. It is easier for the teacher to manage the class,” Lydia related to me.”

Heather Henderson, Academic Coordinator 2015-2017
Lydia and students

Not only had this placement strengthened teacher morale, but the enthusiasm for learning and creativity was also clear among students.

“During the school holiday break I ran a creative writing workshop with the assistance of my Kenyan colleague, Katherine, with a group of 30 students. The aim was to rewrite the classic Cinderella story as a Kenyan tale. This group of very talented year 6 and 7 students worked tirelessly to achieve a fantastic end result that will find a place on the library shelves, This is a testament to the good work being done by the teachers at Ruben School in fostering and developing good literacy practices.”

Heather Henderson, Academic Coordinator 2015-2017.

Implementing a New Strategic Plan, 2016-2019

Towards the end of Heather’s placement in the education department of The Ruben Centre, the Centre has developed a strategic plan that would achieve sustainable growth across their increasingly in-demand services. They requested a Development Director to assist in implementing this plan.

Palms recruited Bev Watkinson to work alongside Program Manager Liz as Development Director. The role involved working across various departments to conduct reviews and explore opportunities for achieving financial sustainability.

One year into her placement, Bev recalled the challenges and opportunities that flourished in the Mukuru neighbourhood.

“Many great new things are happening, especially with the Curriculums that I developed last year around our wonderful Shamba (farm) and Urban Farming and Small Animal Husbandry. We’re currently waiting on the FAO’s (Food and Agriculture Organization) final decision to work with a number of young people living off the dumpsites, and to also present in Kaybolie (a refugee camp) in Northern Kenya. It seems to be a daily occurrence that people are coming to the Ruben Centre to develop partnerships or create opportunities for our learning areas to be developed in their particular county or region. As you can imagine, it’s all very exciting, and an ever-extending learning curve.”

Bev Watkinson, Development Director 2016-2019

In August 2017, Bev and Liz looked to the possibilities to strengthen the Centre’s maternal health services. Women in Mukuru had no dedicated safe birthing facility and they would either travel outside the area, which was difficult in later stages of pregnancy, or give birth at home with limited supports and no access to effective emergency services in the case of complications. Maternal deaths were estimated to be 14 in 1000.

A cholera outbreak in August prompted Bev to conduct a feasibility study, providing training to local staff in how to conduct a study that would effectively assess community needs and sustainability. The study identified both a need for local maternal health services and the capacity of the Ruben Centre’s clinic to expand in this area.

In May 2018, the Centre’s new team of five midwives and three assistants had delivered 57 babies. In June, the Centre achieved a major leap forward by acquiring an ambulance, enabling the Centre to respond to emergencies and transport patients to other hospitals. As of July 2019, the maternal health department of the Ruben Centre reported 750 births with zero maternal deaths.  

Bev with mum and baby

Strengthening Physiotherapy Services, 2018-2019

In August 2018 Bev was joined by physiotherapist Laura Saldanha. Laura was recruited to work alongside the Centre’s occupational therapist, Fredrick Mitieng, in developing an ante-natal therapy program.

On arriving in Nairobi, Laura noted that “Freddy, the Occupational Therapist, had already done an incredible job in increasing the size of the Therapy Department and I came at the right time to assist in managing the increasing client load.”

Indeed, the groundwork and expertise of the local Kenyan staff has been critical to the success of our Australian professionals with whom they have worked. Their willingness to share their knowledge and adopt new methodologies has enabled our participants to be involved in building new and sustainable programs. The number of patients visiting the clinic significantly increased.

“Our average Paediatric treatment sessions per month increased from 235 to 339 and I was able to provide over 250 musculoskeletal Physiotherapy services over the 12 months.”

Laura Saldanha, Physiotherapist 2018-2019

The health issues faced by Mukuru’s residents are multi-faceted, and as the number of patients presenting to the clinic grew, so did Laura’s awareness of other areas in which she could improve health outcomes for the local community.

“I tried a stint of film directing when I saw the need for more child health education for mothers. With the assistance of some other staff members, we created an educational video which will be played at the Centre covering areas like developmental milestones, nutrition, dental hygiene and first aid in the hope to reduce or prevent illness and disease in children.”

Laura Saldanha, Physiotherapist 2018-2019

After one year, Freddy reported noticeable changes in the physiotherapy services offered by the Centre.

“Since Laura arrived the department has really grown. I feel that this is due to the expansion of services we are now able to offer. Previously, the community had to walk long distances to receive physiotherapy treatment, but now this is much more accessible.”

Fredrick Mitieng, Occupational Therapist – The Ruben Centre

In July 2019, the Centre hired a local Kenyan physiotherapist to take over from Laura in managing the Centre’s physio services. This is one of many jobs that have been developed as a result of Palms partnership with The Ruben Centre. Following Bev’s study into maternal health services, the Centre engaged midwives in the newly created maternal health program and Heather oversaw the recruitment of teachers under the RISE program. Safe and secure employment opportunities in Mukuru is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty for residents and their families.

Laura, local physiotherapist and patient

The Future

Palms is not currently recruiting Australians to work with The Ruben Centre as our three former mentors have successfully localised their positions and eliminated the need for assistance from long-term, foreign volunteers. We look forward to working with The Ruben Centre in the future as the staff identify new challenges which we can help them overcome.