Unlocking the World (Read More)

October 12, 2012
Unlocking the World (Read More)

The Ujamaa Family Centre, a Marianist adult educational program in Nairobi, opens doors to opportunity.

Teresia Motari is not your typical student. But by American standards, nothing about Teresia’s life is typical. For the past 15 years she’s been living with her husband, Alfred, and their three children in Mukuru kwa Njenga — a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.

By some estimates, nearly 600,000 people live in Mukuru, a makeshift squatter’s camp that is notorious for its squalor, disease and high crime rates.

“Life here is very difficult,” says Teresia, noting that food, water and medicine are hard to obtain and sanitary conditions are deplorable. “It is not a good place to raise children.”

Like many women in Kenya who must rely on their husbands for income, Teresia, 33, is dependent upon Alfred, who works at odd jobs in the slum. The money is never enough. But thanks to a new program called the Ujamaa Family Centre — a Marianist-supported project launched last year to equip adults with basic educational and life skills — Teresia’s life is looking more hopeful. “Whoever decided to create the Centre — they have done a great thing,” she says.

Participants in life

Many of the uphill battles that Teresia and families like hers face are exacerbated by their lack of information, says Margaret Mburu, director of Ujamaa. “It’s as if they are locked out of the world. They have nothing.”

Opening the world to these adults was the idea behind the Ujamaa Family Centre, which was started to provide education and economic empowerment opportunities to nearly 800 families whose children attend Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School or Chaminade Training Center, both Marianist-sponsored programs.

What is unique about Ujamaa, says Liz Ramey, an American volunteer who helped launch the program, is that it is targeted to adults. “In Kenya, there are many programs to assist children and youths, but often adults are left out of the development projects.”

The goals of the program are threefold: to equip adults with new skills for better employment options; to provide life skills that enable them to navigate the world of health, finances and relationships; and to support them as parents through child care education.

The inspiration for Ujamaa came from those running OLN — teachers, staff and administrators — who realized that many of the children’s problems began in the home. “Sometimes the biggest challenge is that the parents are illiterate and unable to help with homework, read report cards and provide good role models,” says Marianist Father Marty Solma, who helped oversee the creation of Ujamaa while serving in Africa. “Other times it has to do with not getting a balanced diet at home so that a child can’t focus in class or keep up with other students.”

Since opening the program 18 months ago, Mburu has seen the parents’ attitudes changing toward education. “We believe this will influence their children’s attitudes toward school and they will perform better,” she says.

Adult programming

Ujamaa offers three core courses: English, computer basics, and literacy — a catch-all word that encompasses math, science, social studies and Swahili.

Students and parents active in the Centre also are encouraged to join an economic empowerment group — a lending program in which members must contribute a small amount of money each month to a shared pool of funds. The money is then loaned to group participants to support their home-based businesses, education or family needs.

Ujamaa provides seminars on nutrition, health, democracy, legal issues and child labor rights and organizes counseling groups to help individuals improve communication and life skills.

“Part of the idea behind these seminars is to provide students with training so they can start their own peer counseling and outreach services to the community,” says Ramey.

Ujamaa operates with a full-time staff of four, plus a student intern. Marianist Brother Joseph Maricky serves as the coordinator of the program, and he and Brother Chola Mulenga, regional superior for the Region of Eastern Africa, serve on the board.

Financial support to launch the Centre came when members of the Stockholm-Djurgården Rotary Club of Sweden — who have taken a special interest in the Marianist work in Mukuru — raised funds and secured a grant from the Stichting af Jochnick Foundation. “Once the Marianists described the vision and direction the Centre would take, we were pleased to participate in this venture,” says Per Engström, a member of the Rotary Club. “Already we are seeing excellent results. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult life, but we are encouraged because we know Ujamaa is making a difference.”

The Centre kicked off its first year by providing training to more than 150 regular participants. But that is “multiplied many times over through a ‘ripple effect’ in the community,” says Father Marty.

Taking the long view

While some programs to assist the poor in Nairobi rely heavily on handouts and short-term solutions, the Marianists have taken a different approach, one deeply rooted in a Marianist philosophy that emphasizes empowerment and sustainability. Says Ramey: “There is nothing given out here. The parents must pay for the classes. It’s a small fee, but a reasonable amount.”

The idea behind the payment is that it builds a sense of commitment and reinforces self-reliance and self-esteem. “This ensures that they are partners in their own development as well as the broader community development,” says Ramey.

Another tactic to ensure the sustainability of the Centre has been to engage the leaders of the community in its formation. “The Centre partners with people in the community so they are involved in planning for its future,” says Mburu, something she is most passionate about. “Already, I see them taking ownership and working harder to keep it going.”

A world of possibilities

David Ogegah, 40, who makes a small income working as a security guard, has become actively involved with Ujamaa, serving as chairman of the Ujamaa Family Committee, a group responsible for community outreach — getting the word out to families about Ujamaa and how it can serve them.

Ujamaa has opened a world of possibilities for Ogegah — possibilities he had rarely considered before taking computer and English classes, paralegal assistance and other seminars, as well as participating in an economic empowerment group. Today he envisions setting up a cyber café and offering computer classes, printing and typing services. Knowing how to use a computer has changed Ogegah’s life. “I’d like to teach others these skills so they can run small businesses and raise their families,” he says.

One thing the staff has noticed about students like Ogegah is their passion for learning. Hellen Nyantika, a field worker at Ujamaa, has been touched by some of the older students. “I’ve seen 65-year-old men learn to write their names for the first time. This makes me happy and motivates me to do more,” she says.

The most inspiring thing for Ramey is that many of the students are so eager to learn. “Their biggest complaint is that there aren’t enough hours in the day for their schooling. It’s a lesson for many of us who view education as a chore,” she says.

Education that liberates

Teresia Motari has been taking English classes since the Centre opened. She is encouraged about her progress. “Before I came here, there was so much

I didn’t know,” she says.

After finishing her coursework, Teresia would like to find a job teaching English at a private school. As important as her newly developed proficiencies in English, however, is her heightened sense of self. “English is a gift I can give others,” she says. “When I am able to stand up and teach, I feel free.”

Freedom to learn, gain new skills and give back to others by helping them learn — these are at the heart of Ujamaa. “We look forward to reaching more people,” says Mburu. “We’d like the Centre to become a model for other slums.”

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