In 2015, fresh out of college, jobless and on the brink of depression, I made a conscious decision to myself that I would put in more effort in finding work to keep me busy and occupied and more than anything, save me from myself. I woke up one morning and realised that I was 23, with training in the Biology field and the only experience I had gathered during my college years’ in Botswana was in tutoring high school students. This inspired something in me that made me want to find something to do with myself in a country (Kenya) that was basically ‘foreign’ to me, I had just moved back in to the country, a few months prior, after 14 years of living in another country (Botswana) and so, finding a job right away was not an easy thing for me. I was still coming to terms with culture shock, away from my immediate family for the first time, I felt naked, exposed and forced into a life of independence, I had to learn the ways of my ‘people’ a fresh, as well as how to navigate the complex city that is Nairobi. Tired of the self-pity, I decided to take things into my own hands and culture the spirit of volunteering as a way of keeping myself occupied.
I then went online and typed in ‘Volunteering in Kibera’. You see, at that time, the only slum I knew was Kibera, Nairobi’s largest human settlement. All my life, I had heard negative things about the place and its inhabitants, but I knew for certain that in the midst of all that negativity, laid a network of youth with untapped potential that could potentially benefit from my knowledge. The search engine hummed and rumbled and gave me a selection of programs that ran and operated around education and so I got in touch with a couple of organisations via email, introducing myself and explaining what I wanted to do. After a few days, an IT institute ran by two American brothers (Tunapanda Institute), got back to me, requesting for my CV. I sent it out, and after a few days, I had an interview scheduled. Excited, I navigated my way to Kibera with the help of Dorothy, my aunt’s domestic help who knew the area well. She understood and commended my need to go into the slum and seeing my fear of the unknown, as I had never been there before, she saw to it that I arrived at my destination well and on time. That afternoon I sat down for my interview and instead of tutoring, they were offering me an opportunity to be trained in coding as well as a bunch of other technical computer stuff for 3 months. That did not resonate well with me and so I voiced out my feelings.
I thanked the interviewer for taking the time out to meet me, but I also explained to her that what I wanted was actually, a centre that dealt with school going children whom I could tutor on academic issues. She understood my stand and took me to meet her boss, Jay, one of the American brothers. I introduced myself to Jay and explained to him that I wanted to tutor children. It was then that they told me of a sister organisation down the road, they went by the acronym ROCK (Reaching Out with Compassion in Kibera). Jay explained that his organisation normally fixes and services the computers at ROCK and he took me over to meet the founder.
I walked into ROCK and found home! It was exactly what I wanted and they had a study program on Saturday afternoon where volunteers came in and got to tutor the children in their topics of choice. ROCK is a scholarship based organisation that offers scholarships to top performing primary school students within the slum, whose parents cannot afford to help them progress with their studies beyond the ‘free’ primary education offered by the Kenyan Government. Once selected for the scholarship program, ROCK offers its students support by providing a centre, equipped with computers, internet, classrooms and a library of school books to help them study and progress with their studies outside school. The centre was found by a man who goes by the name Dan, who grew up in the slum and had to drop out of school at the age of 14, to help supplement the family budget.
There surely wasn’t enough to put him through school and feed the entire family, so he resorted to finding menial labour within the slum. After a significant number of years, Dan found himself tangled up in the world of alcohol and realised that most of his friends, who were dropouts and idle like him were either all of a sudden dead or locked up, as a result of turning to a life of crime. Now in his twenties, that realisation made Dan take note of his surroundings and it raised a need for him to sober up and be a shining light for all the young people he saw milling about aimlessly in the slum. So he started a football team that helped keep the youth busy. As a side hustle, he offered tours into the slum to expatriates. It was through such an encounter that he met an American man Jason, whom, together with his wife, would realise the potential Dan had in stringing together a crowd. Jason questioned Dan and his long tern goal with the football team and that is how ROCK came into being. Through the help of Jason and his wife, Dan was able to create and run what has now become my second home.
Meeting Dan in 2015, we clicked right away. I explained to him that I was free all day, all week and that I would love to come in and work with the children more than just for the Saturday study program. He then told me that the students, those in day schools within the slum normally come to the centre on a daily basis after school, to catch up on some readings as well as complete homework from 6-8 pm before heading home. This was mostly because for majority, the environment at home was not conducive for learning and as children they all had chores to do once at home and this would in most cases hinder their ability to study or do their homework at home. So on Saturdays, I would avail myself for the group sessions, where I, alongside other volunteers, would be given an entire class of students that were on the same level of education in school and we would collectively cover a topic of interest on a shared subject (it could be either English, Biology, Chemistry, Physics or Mathematics), depending on what subject the students agreed on. On the other days of the week, I would meet with the student on a one on one basis, depending on who got there first and asked for my assistance or who made an appointment with me. We would take that time to tackle a problem they may have faced in school on that particular day or, a topic they thought they needed clarity on. For the next 5 months, I went to Kibera on a daily basis, save for Sunday. In those months we all grew close to each other.
Seeing my growing financial stress and my love for the children, Dan started paying me 300 shillings a day from his pocket to assist with my transport as well as additional costs. Although little, when saved, that money became my saving grace and with luck and time, I got called for my first paying internship in the country, September 2015.
Being the sensible thing to do, I accepted the internship with Safaricom where I worked in the Lipa-na-M-Pesa department. This saw me drop my daily Kibera visits to strictly Saturdays. Dan and the students understood. For 6 months, I worked the administrative angle with Safaricom and for a while I hoped they would employ me as I desperately needed the financial security the job offered. Sadly, at the time, I was not absorbed but thrown back into the uncertainty that is the world of unemployment. Thankfully, I had ROCK to lean back on. I went back to ROCK on a daily basis. At that same time, teachers in Kenyan public schools went on a Nation-wide strike that saw the Government close down public schools and send children back home to their families. Throughout that strike, ROCK remained functional, and Dan organised for a bunch of teachers to come in and teach the students on a daily basis at the centre, as if the strike was none existent. Amongst these teachers was myself, and part of this new teaching method was that we would at the end of 2 weeks, sit the students down for a test. Being in charge of English and Biology, I taught form 1-4 students these subjects and set separate exams for each class. This time, Dan paid me 500 shillings a day, contributing to my upkeep and general happiness for working with the children gave me more joy and inner peace than money ever would.
In June 2016, the kids finally back in school, I got called for a job in line with what I studied. For the first time since graduating from college in 2014, I was finally in line to work on something scientific. The perfect research job I called it. After the interview, management felt that although I had experience working with insects in college, I lacked necessary experience in the field to be employed and so they offered me a fellowship instead of the advertised job. Being virtually unemployed, I gladly accepted the offer. This would see me seamlessly and with a heart filled with passion, learn how to breed insects (Black Soldier Fly) as a protein supplement in animal feeds, and in the process, create valuable manure from human waste, that was tested and sold to local farmers as a garden supplement. You see, what this particular organisation does is amazing in simple words. They have, through innovative thinking, found a solution to the lack of proper sanitation in Mukuru, another slum here in Nairobi. They have managed to create a working model of collection and up-cycling of human waste.
They have built a special toilet that separates waste and has removable containers that allow for proper waste collection and transportation from the slum and to the company’s processing site where this waste is then converted into valuable products. From the solid waste came manure and Black Soldier Fly larvae which are highly nutritious. Each fly larva can have up to 45% protein content and 35% fat content, making real nutritional feed. From the liquid waste, they have found a way to make bio-gas through anaerobic digestion. In short, I was inspired and, motivated to be a part of such magnificence and couldn’t wait to be officially absorbed into the team. Once again, I found myself working in a slum, life had never felt this good. I thought I had finally found my calling and place in the slum.
With great passion I carried out my feed-stock trials with the Black Soldier Flies, trying to find different food combinations that would help us maximise on yield as the organisation had just landed funds for up-scaling their larvae production efforts. I was certain I would be employed so with diligence, I did my work. Three months down the line, management informed me that due to their upscale efforts, there was no room for additional staff and so they wouldn’t retain me. They offered to extend my fellowship though as I looked for alternative work options. My world was crushed! For the next week I found trouble concentrating on my work because it also dawned on me that as much as I never got the job I initially applied for, the company never filled the position, but rather had me doing all the work and basically for free. This realisation tore at me and I knew I had to make a change. Seeing as I had no other job lined up, I accepted their offer to extend my fellowship and very miserably, worked through my second contract. It was in that time that we as the ROCK family experienced a life changing moment.
On a random rainy Monday morning, we got to witness fully the injustices of poverty and the vile way these injustices manifest. A shining light among our scholarship students was taken away from us in a way so senseless and infuriating that up to this day, I still cannot begin to process it all. In the year I had been with ROCK I had seen this boy grow and progress in my classes. He was the class clown, always down to making his friends laugh, most of the time he interrupted my sessions, but his humour was hard to ignore so I more often than not, let his interruptions slide without comment. He often assisted me in explaining difficult concepts like Trigonometry and Newtonian Laws to his peers. Evans was 17 and in form 3 when he met his untimely death. He was the 5th child in his family and the first of his siblings to ever make it to high school. His exemplary performance in his standard 8 exams saw him get placement in one the most selective high schools in Nairobi (Upper Hill Boys) where he maintained 2nd position in a stream of 200+ students. To say that Evans was bright would be an understatement to his memory. He dreamt of becoming a doctor and creating a better life for his parents and 7 siblings. Surrounded in a world full of limited opportunity and obstacles at every step, Evans stood apart from the rest. He always had a sense of purpose and ambition for something greater.
Evans was naturally helpful, both inside and outside the classroom and on that fateful day, he ventured out into the rain to assist his father in diverting flood waters away from their house. It had rained heavily throughout the day and with poor drainage persistent in Kibera, such flooding is a fact of life during the rainy season and the waters normally carry with it trash and disease, but despite this, the residents of Kibera must find ways to survive and exist. In the process of assisting his father, standing in knee deep, muddy water, Evans touched a pole nearby for support, not knowing that in the rain, an illegally connected power cable overhead had come lose and as such, the pole he touched had been activated and charged, that combined with the water he stood in, meant that Evans stood no chance. In that instant, Evans was gone. Being filled in on the details of the day, I was infuriated at the thought that in an age where we can literally explore the depths of space and access nearly limitless information at the tap of a phone, a precious child cannot safely walk outside his home. It bothered me that as a country, we had such a distinct gap between the poor and the rich and the environments they are exposed to. It angered me that in this day and age, we have people living in places where if it rains, it means they can die! I found the whole situation to be unfair as a star had been stolen from us. I was deeply tempted to question God on why and how he could let such a senseless thing happen to such a bright being.
In seeking some semblance of understanding as to how such a tragedy could occur, the loss of Evans made me realise how insignificant my problems were, in comparison to those of the children of ROCK. Realising that I had no power to change what had already been done, and seeing how broken all the other children were made me realise how attached to them I had become and as such, made me realise that I wanted more for these children. I saw that what we did and offered as ROCK in terms of scholarships and tutorials was incomplete and these children needed more, I had to do something for them that would ensure that they and their families are assured a future beyond school. I chose to rise above the anger, shock and frustration I felt in that moment, and focused on using the memory of Evans to spur me into finding ways, however big or small to make the world/Kibera a little better than it currently is. With a strong affiliation for education and the social sector, I had no idea as to how to go about creating this future for these children. I battled with thought and didn’t figure it out fully until a few months after the electrocution.
Still working with the insects, my life was filled with so much confusion and disgust. Not motivated, I was constantly online sending in random applications, trying to find a different job. That was when I stumbled across the opportunity to study Social Innovation Management with Amani Institute here in Nairobi. Randomly and without much thought, I sent in my application and within a week I had an interview date set up. One of the interview questions was “If you were given 1 million Dollars today, what would you do?” Having been given this question before the set interview, I was thrown into a thinking frenzy, what would I do with a million Dollars? Naturally, my thoughts went to improving the experiences of the students at ROCK, and after a while of brainstorming, I had my Aha! Moment. I had finally figured out how to marry education and work in the social sector. I gave in my answer and was thankfully selected for the study. With this study, I was going to start my own social venture that has its roots in youth empowerment and will be used as a tool of reducing the number of unemployed youth roaming around in the streets by teaching the technical skills that they can apply elsewhere and hopefully gain employment.
The challenge I saw, was the unsustainable nature of the ROCK program as it is currently run. We successfully put these kids through school, but we were not thinking about life after school and as such, I turned to science for a solution. Breaking down the elements that contributed to Evans’ death (flood water, illegal power connections and trash), I figured that I would have better luck tackling the water issue than any of the rest. It has always bothered me how rain water is so abundant in the rainy seasons, but none of it is useful as it is dirty and almost always disease ridden, this inspired me to find ways to harvest rain water before it reaches the ground and becomes contaminated. Once collected, with the help of the ROCK students as volunteers, this water would be purified through filtration processes, to make usable to the community. Thinking through this idea further, I realised how important water harvesting was, but it felt incomplete and so I thought some more and the idea branched into urban agriculture.
Having found a water source, I figured I could introduce the youth of Kibera to the concepts of urban agriculture through the practice of Aquaponics farming (which is basically aquaculture with plants acting as a bio-filter for the nitrogen waste in fish water). Through this practice, I could help teach the youth how to farm in a situation where they do not have water or land to perform traditional farming practices. Through this system, I will be able to teach and train the youth on how to farm Tilapia and number of vegetables. This system will also enable me to teach concepts like the Nitrogen cycle in a practical manner when the children see how fish waste gets converted into food for plants by beneficial bacteria living in the plant grow medium every time water is cycled from the fish, into the plant beds and back into the fish tank, cleaning it with every cycle. To help make the entire project sustainable, I will also include the practice of vermicomposting (composting with red earthworms). This practice uses a particular species of earthworms (Esinia fetida) to decompose and breakdown organic food material, turning it into valuable compost to be used as a garden supplement. The entire basis of these worms is not to produce compost but rather act as food for the tilapia once the fish are in the system. This is because we do not want to buy food for the fish, but rather make our own. The compost is merely a bonus. If successful, we would be able to produce our own fish, vegetables, fish meal and compost for sale to the public as an additional source of income for the center and in the long run, hopefully increase the number of students we sponsor into the ROCK program.
Through this project/venture, I aim to open up the minds of these youth to the possibilities that come with innovative ideas and inspire them to think outside the box when looking for solutions to their everyday problems. I want them to learn technical farming skills that they would never have been exposed to, living in the slum. Most importantly, I aim to teach them of the importance of sustainability through practice. In the meantime, as I struggle through the details of my venture and strive to make it come alive, I would like to create awareness within the community on the potential of this venture and its ability to bring about sustainable development and food security in the long run. I want them to learn how they can take any negative feelings/situation they may be facing, and through this, turn that negative energy into life. WE CAN DO THIS! If there is enough rain water to kill a boy, there’s enough water to fish and effectively grow our own vegetables became my mantra and through this, I just might have found my calling.
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