Africa Co-Op Narratives

Poverty and Education in Kisumu Slums

Story by Madeleine Hahn-Smith ⎜ Photo by Aneri Shah

Karibu Kenya!

“Karibu” – meaning welcome, is one of the first Kiswahili words I learned when I arrived in Kisumu and is a central theme of this community and its culture.  Each new person I met welcomed me into their home offering food, tea, and conversation. These conversations often became lessons for  the challenges facing the communities here and what local people are doing to address these problems. When people think of Africa, images of  poverty, violence, and disease shown on the news come to mind. It seems that very rarely do we hear about the amazing positive changes that locals were affecting  in their own community. My time in Kisumu has not only changed my perspective, but continues to inspire me every day.

For my third co-op, I am working with Better Me Kenya and the Korando Educational Centre to assist with their efforts to lift up the Kisumu community through education, accessible healthcare, and additional psycho-social support. Korando was first started in 2006 by a retired school teacher affectionately known as Mama Dolfine who started caring for orphans in her community and eventually opened her own informal school to care for and provide education to orphans and vulnerable children in her community.

Though primary education is officially free in Kenya, in reality there are admission charges, uniform and school supply costs, and other expenses that make it difficult for many families to send their children to school. Korando was created to address these challenges by providing completely free education to kids whose families cannot afford the associated costs. Korando fills a significant gap in the Kenyan education system, reaching kids that would otherwise have no opportunity to learn basic skills like reading, writing, and mathematics.

I have been so struck by the excitement that the children here at Korando They often wake up as early as 4:30am and are working and learning until 6:30 pm. After that they are piled with homework. Despite these incredibly busy schedules I have never child complain about going to school. A 2018 study by the Kenyan Ministry of Education estimates that over 850,000 children between 6 and 17 years of age are currently out of school. I believe that the kids at Korando recognize that many of their peers still cannot attend and they are happy to be here.

About 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Korando is Nyalenda, a slum settlement on the outskirts of Kisumu near Lake Victoria. Here, HIV affects most residents either directly or indirectly and many survive without reliable income, oftentimes making less than 200 Ksh ($2 USD) per day. With such a small income, it is a struggle for families to afford to put food on the table and pay for basic necessities. Parents want their children to attend school, but it is not economically viable.

Irene Onoka, an entrepreneur who grew up in Nyalenda, is well-versed in the challenges facing its residents. She works  to address some of these problems and help the families bring their children back to school. For the past 4 years she has taken money out of her own pocket to run a mobile library for the kids in this situation.

This mobile library gives kids who cannot attend school the chance to read and learn. On some days kids who do attend school are able to join us, allowing for peer learning to occur. This is in no way a permanent solution to the issue but Irene has done a good job of addressing the problem and giving kids some opportunity to still use their brains and practice their literacy.

Paul (nicknamed Pablo), is one of the children in a difficult situation that is being supported by Irene. His parents took off when he was a baby and he lives in Nyalend with his grandmother in Nyalenda. She is does  her best to make everything work but her age makes it difficult. Pablo attended school for several years but because of the cost of school fees he dropped out in 2017 and hasn’t been able to go back. Luckily Irene and her acquaintances are working to support Paul through school sponsorship fundraising and can We hope to raise sufficient funds in the next few weeks and get him back to his learning soon

Irene has now decided to take her efforts to the next level by starting a community-based organization (CBO), which just received official government approval last month. This CBO has gathered a group of women together to start a cooperative and we are currently in the process of opening a bakery, which will help generate some income. Hopefully, women will be able to use this income to pay for their children’s education. One woman I met has seven kids and her husband is unemployed. She works long hours doing domestic work such as washing to put food on the table. This cooperative will give  a more reliable source of income that will hopefully soon be enough to help her send her kids to school.

This organization is still in its early stages and we have a long way to go before the bakery is operational and making a profit. For me it has been an incredible opportunity to learn from the local community members. With some funding and a lot of hard work, I believe this bakery could be an incredible opportunity to improve the entire community. Irene envisions a ripple effect occurring, so that the women in the cooperative will learn entrepreneurial skills such as bookkeeping and then will be able to take that knowledge and start their own small businesses or expand the bakery further. As women move up or out of the organization, more women can come in and get training.

We also hope that once the bakery is established, we can start a chama. A chama isan informal micro-savings group where women can pool their money together and take loans from each other as an investment in income-generating activities. Irene also hopes to build a more permanent community center nearby that will serve as a more permanent replacement to the mobile library. I’m so excited to continue to learn from these incredible entrepreneurs throughout the rest of my coop. Kenya truly has some incredible people doing incredible work and I feel very lucky to have this opportunity.


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