Through APU’s MATUL Program, Students Serve and Learn in Urban Slums

by Brendon Cadman ’13

As the sun rises over the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, a flurry of activity is already well under way. Long lines of people crowd the narrow roadways, and store owners hastily organize their goods to attract customers. Virtually anything can be found in this massive open-air marketplace, from jewelry to fruit to cigarettes. For one of the nearly 800,000 inhabitants of Kibera, this scene has all but replaced the notion of a morning commute.

Alissa Wachter ’06, M.A. ’13, came to Kibera as a student in APU’s Master of Arts in Transformational Urban Leadership (MATUL) program. For nearly two years, Wachter has immersed herself in the colorful and unfamiliar culture of one of Africa’s largest slums.

“It is hard to know what to expect when you move from your comfortable life in the United States to one of the largest slums on the planet,” said Wachter. “The picture painted by the media is that slums are sad, pathetic, and miserable places, but when I arrived in Kibera, I found a completely different side of slums. Kibera is full of life, and its people are remarkably resilient, hard-working, and full of faith.”

A similar description may also be used to describe Wachter, and other students who have chosen to participate in this transformative master’s program. Viv Grigg, Ph.D., who serves as the international coordinator for the MATUL program, says it is unique not only in its focus but also in the type of people it attracts.

“The quality of our students is amazing,” said Grigg. “The MATUL is a leadership program, so naturally they are leaders. But for this program, they go above and beyond, and Alissa is definitely an embodiment of that.”

For the entirety of Wachter’s stay in Kibera, she has experienced life without running water, a stable source of electricity, and other amenities commonly found in developed regions. For her, the challenges of living, learning, and serving in an impoverished community are exactly what she was looking for in a master’s program.

“I expected the MATUL program to be a hands-on degree,” she said. “Rather than sitting in a university classroom, I took my classes in the slums. When I studied health care, I facilitated a support group of HIV-positive mothers living in Kibera. When I studied economics, I worked with a fair-trade handicraft organization that employs slum residents and assists them in group savings. This hands-on experience makes the MATUL program unlike any other I have come across.”

Wachter recounted the story of Samuel, a young man whose family has lived in Kibera for four generations. Samuel worked as a public bus conductor, but quit his job last year when he grew tired of corruption in the industry. Now, Samuel has used his creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to launch a successful business career selling jewelry. But Samuel is not satisfied just making money, said Wachter. He spends his spare time training younger artists so they can be successful as well.

As an assignment for her Entrepreneurial and Organizational Leadership class, Wachter had the opportunity to draft a business plan with Samuel. They formed the financial plan and business model using Christian principle and ethics, and as a result, they witnessed Samuel’s shop grow—to the point that he even made international sales in the United States and Germany.

“The MATUL program extends the commitment of APU specifically to service among the poor,” said Grigg. “I see it as a picture of the cross, and really the ultimate objective of APU.”

Wachter pointed out that, for the first time in history, more people live in urban areas than rural ones. Places like Kibera have become mission fields, while programs like APU’s M.A. in Transformational Urban Leadership are actively providing workers to the places with the most need.

“Slums are not easy places to live,” said Wachter, “for me as a foreigner nor for those who have spent their entire lives there. They are noisy, insecure, and lack even the most basic infrastructure. But they are also teeming with life, optimism, and opportunity for those who feel strongly about justice for the poor and oppressed. Almost every day I pass by Samuel’s shop, which he has called Ndoto Mtaani.

“The name is in Swahili,” she said, “and it means ‘Ghetto Dream.’”