“A joy of life is walking together”
Power of Education Africa Foundation works among the Luo fishing communities in the Lake Victoria region of South Nyanza Province in Kenya. We are currently focusing on the districts of Mfangano Island, Mbita, and Karungu-Sori where the incidents of poverty and HIV/AIDS are very high and entwined.
Nyanza Province has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Kenya, varying in regions between 14.7% and a staggering 41%. As desperate, uneducated girls are more likely to have sex at an early age, marry younger, and be at higher risk for infection (IRIN October 2013), outside intervention can be crucial to their future
The cultural practices of the Luo communities are contributing factors to the high rate of HIV/AIDS. The Luo men practice polygamy, wife inheritance, and widow cleansing, where a widow must engage in the ritual of intercourse with another man to cleanse her following the death of her husband. The poverty of these fishing communities drives desperate girls and widows to exchange sex for a few shillings or a fish from migrant fishermen who spread the disease to them. These problems are compounded by the social stigma of HIV/AIDS and denial of disease, the unequal status, economic dependency and compliance of women who do not say “no” to their infected husbands (IRIN Humanitarian News, October 2013).
Our Foundation’s presence in the lives of these girls aims to break the cycle of poverty and desperation. When girls enter Secondary school for four years, they remove themselves from harm’s way. They receive an education and good nutrition. They develop more life resources and have brighter prospects for the future.
How Our Foundation Works on the Ground
“We are together” -“Tuko pamoja” (Kiswahili) – “Wan kanyakla” (Luo)
These, our organization’s mottos, are commonly used by Africans to mean: “We understand each other”; “We are of one mind and heart.” It also means “We are with you.” “We are side by side.” African students are very familiar with the expression, because their teachers often ask them: “Are we together?” meaning: “Have you understood me?” To which they reply: “We are together.”
When we are in Nyanza Province each January and February, we reside in the village with the local Luo community. It is our joy to share the life of the Luo people. There is no running water, no electricity. The roads are poor. Yet we are working side by side. There is opportunity to eat together, to talk together, to laugh together, to listen to each other’s concerns and hopes. By working – and living – closely together with the Luo people, we Canadians are learning directly about the Luo way of life, values, hopes and dreams, and our Luo partners learn more about us. Increasing mutual understanding helps us to melt cultural barriers and be in a much better position to make wise choices. Together, with the local community, we identify impoverished girls who deserve a chance to go to Secondary school.
It is also in the context of village life that we hear about the poverty of an orphaned boy who needs a chance to go to school. And it is in the village church or market that we meet caregiver grandmothers who are trying to send young grandchildren to Primary school, but do not have the money for their uniforms without our help.
Our local Kenyan advisors and helpers pave the way in advance of our visit. They inform school administrators, social workers, clergy, tribal chiefs and members of the local community that our Canadian representatives will interview impoverished, capable girls who have finished Primary school and are hoping to attend Secondary school. These local people help us to identify families in need. Together, with our Luo advisors and helpers, we conduct interviews with the girls and their guardians who may speak only Luo. After the interview, we verify the legitimacy of the applications. We confer with our local helpers and select those girls who we believe have the greatest need and the potential for success at school.
In advance of interviewing applicants, we travel to good boarding schools within the South Nyanza region. We meet with school administrators to discuss tuition fee structures, student quotas, required grades for admission, tutoring, and school policies and practices. We try to place our students in the best possible schools. The best national and provincial schools accept only students with the highest grades. Girls without top grades go to local district schools. However, once a girl is taken out of circumstances of extreme poverty and trauma, once she has regular meals, good nutrition, and electric light to study by, once she has hope and a peer group that provides support and good models, she may excel even in a small district school.
The Foundation provides school and personal supplies, which poor families cannot provide. Together with our Kenyan helpers, we travel to a larger commercial centre, such as Kisii, or Kisumu to negotiate purchases with manufacturers and merchants. We buy mattresses, bedding, uniforms, shoes. We also shop at local markets where sellers sell underwear and wash basins from temporary stalls or heaped in piles on the ground.
Monitoring the program throughout the year
During the year, when the Foundation’s Canadian representatives are back home, our female Kenyan helpers monitor the program. They meet with students and with family members. They attend meetings with school administrators and teachers. They can take a girl to an appointment, shop for necessities, pay additional school fees, or provide a girl with a bit of spending money. They can be present in a crisis. They can provide counsel to a struggling student, and arrange for tutoring, if needed. Our helpers update us with the progress of each student.
In all these ways we walk together with the students and communities we serve.