From our June 2012 Newsletter
Back in 1999, when I was a newly minted graduate and embarking on my first international job, I had the privilege of having Farah Stockman, the founder of Jitegemee, as my boss. We were journalists, reporting on the international tribunal for the Rwandan genocide. But I recall that, even then, she spoke constantly about her street kids education project in Machakos.
Farah and I would eventually move on to other jobs, but we kept in touch and every once in a while she would ask me what I thought about academic and career options for the students under Jitegemee’s care. I had personally sponsored several promising young students to college, so when Jitegemee began to support kids to go to college, she sought out my advice.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with two of the college students studying in Nairobi- Kieti Muli and his cousin Charles. They were accompanied by Mike Kimeu, the project administrator, and two of the teachers at the center. I had the opportunity to discuss with them what kinds of opportunities exist for post secondary school students and what programs are most likely to lead to jobs after graduation. But it was only in December 2011, after I joined Jitegemee’s board, that I finally got to go to Machakos and see the project for myself. I spent most of the day talking to the students, listening to aspirations, discussing academic and career options, giving, best as I could, the career advice I had gained over the years mentoring other students in other institutions.
The visit reinforced in my mind something that I have come to believe after working with many students in difficult conditions. Poverty, while debilitating in many ways, does not mean that children have no aspirations. All children want to become something meaningful and important in life. What they define as meaningful and important may vary with exposure, but they all want to prosper, they all want to do well and more often than not, they express dreams of being able to help others one day.
Jitegemee is full of children who have the capacity, if they receive the right help, to change their locality, their country, and their continent. They are smart, sharp and determined: Children like Peter Muasya, who had an A- in his high school results.
I am well aware that academic success is not everything in life and that an A- does not tell you much about a child’s character and abilities, beyond the fact that they can pass exams. To know more about Jitegemee children you have to sit and talk to them; see how passionate they are, how much they want to succeed, and realize how hard they have had to work, given their difficult backgrounds, to get where they are. It is only then that the meaning of Muasya’s A- can be understood; and it says a lot more about him than his ability to pass exams. It tells you what he can do if he only gets half-a-chance.
Jitegemee also has vocational students who were not able to take the formal education path, but who have acquired skills that they can turn into businesses. It is easy, in a world where academic success is equated to intelligence and ability, to imagine that they are not so able. But doing so would be wrong. A country like Kenya needs business acumen and the Jitegemee vocational students that I spoke to have the potential, with support, to create thriving enterprises that grow and hire others not just in Machakos, but all over Kenya. In fact, with the right skills in building businesses, they may prove just as successful, if not more, than those students who take the formal academic path.
In Kenya we are a bit obsessed with education- any kind of education. Families will sell off land, assets and valued farm animals to send a bright child to school. Even in the remotest parts of the country, you are bound to find a shack or a tree under which children will come, faithfully, daily, come rain or blazing sun. They are sent by their parents to acquire the one thing that everyone believes will provide a better life for them. And it makes sense. In a continent where social security is non-existent and upward mobility not guaranteed, there has always been one thing everyone agreed could get you out of poverty, and that was education. Lack of schooling is seen to be the ultimate tragedy for a child and it is felt as a closing of the doorway to economic prospects, an almost irreversible narrowing of opportunities.
Jitegemee changes that. It takes children who, either because the parents are dead or are unable to support them, cannot go to school and re-opens for them that window of opportunity. It is one thing to hear about this project. It is quite another to visit the place, talk with children and realize just how much potential they have, how much they have done to get where they are, and how much they can achieve, if someone will keep that window open just long enough for them to acquire the skills they need.
It is a project worth supporting, not just because it will help these great children succeed, but more so because of what these children do in the future, not just for themselves, but for those around them, their community, the country and I dare say, maybe even their continent.