Girls in Ndhiwa, a remote town in Western Kenya, often lead a life of poverty, food insecurity, poor health and early marriage. Low life expectancy leaves many parentless teenagers looking after their younger siblings, burdened with managing households on little to no income.
Schools sometimes offer very little respite, with students walking miles to reach the classroom only to fight for the privilege of sitting at a desk, while crumbling walls let in the weather and the facilities are broken or unsanitary - some schools don’t have a toilet at all.
Given this bleak outlook, outsiders might be forgiven in thinking that education is low on Ndhiwan girls’ list of priorities - but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact this year Tyneside-based charity Team Kenya has been approached by 20 girls seeking sponsorship for secondary education.
Charity founder Val Wilson, of Wideopen, North Tyneside, is pleased that so many girls have come forward for support, but concerned at how the small, volunteer-run charity will meet the growing community demand.
“These students need sponsorship,” explained Val. “Any family they have simply cannot afford to pay school fees - secondary education is not free in Kenya - let alone buying uniforms and essential materials like a calculator or a second-hand text book.
“Through sponsorship, we provide everything the student needs to attend school.”
Team Kenya has launched an online campaign using the hashtag #TeamKenya20, in the hope that social media will help find sponsors for the 20 girls.
The charity has been working to improve the rights and futures of girls in Kenya for over 10 years. But it’s not an easy task in a town blighted by extreme poverty and HIV, where the average life expectancy for a woman is only 40 years old. While education is paramount, the charity has to take a wider view than student sponsorship.
Val explained: “Agricultural experts have helped us to set up a food programme to help the community in Ndhiwa to grow their own food. When families are not worried about their next meal, girls are much less likely to be removed from education to work or become full-time carers.”
Val is hopeful that the subject of girls’ education and health has been pushed to the forefront of the news agenda. UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson presented a “game changing” speech calling for everyone to get involved with ending gender inequality. Girls education campaigner Malala Yousafzai also became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hundreds of young people - especially girls - have been sponsored through school by Team Kenya, with the charity’s supporters providing everything from food to feed them and their families to clothes and pens. Val and her small team of entirely unpaid volunteers have forged close links between Tyneside and Ndhiwa.
A number of local schools including Whitley Bay High School, Seaton Burn Community College and Longbenton Community College have joined in, with Kenyan pupils attending classes in donated Tyneside uniforms and playing football in strips from local clubs. Businesses have lent their support too, including Newcastle Building Society.
But now they need to expand their work and are calling on schools, businesses and individuals to sponsor female students from as little as £1 a day.
Val said: “Millions of girls are being denied an education right at a time when it has the power to transform their lives and the world around them. Making it through both primary and secondary education is critical to girls being able to help break the cycle of poverty.
“Team Kenya works to educate girls and give them opportunity to shape their own lives. We want to ensure girls have choices about school, careers and if, who and when they marry and have children.”
Longbenton Community College sponsors a number of students through Team Kenya, and a number of Longbenton pupils have visited Ndhiwa to learn from and alongside the young people they support. The college also recently welcomed a teacher from their partner school in Ndhiwa.
Geography teacher Kat Lambert who has visited Ndhiwa said: “The students and staff at Longbenton enjoy getting termly updates about how our sponsored students are doing, along with other regular updates of those at Arina primary school and at Karibuni who we partially sponsor.
“Knowing you are making a difference to one child, and therefore their family and community is a fantastic feeling. The opportunity to write letters and find out more about them sets the sponsored student apart from other charities as its so personal.
“Social media such as Facebook also allows us to stay in even closer contact and see the difference our fundraising is making.”
Lencer Atieno is 15 years old, and is a Team Kenya sponsored student at Magina Girls Secondary School.
“I would be married today if I did not go secondary school with support from Team Kenya. There has been a big change in my life since I started going to school. My parents and neighbors are all proud of me.”
Village now feels like a second home
Former Longbenton pupil Vicki White now describes Ndhiwa as her second home after becoming a regular volunteer.
She explains: “Little did I know that when I visited Kenya for the first time I would fall in love with the place. Kenya is a country with so much beauty and so many friendly faces. It is steeped in long standing cultures and traditions but extremely poverty stricken.
“I first came to Ndhiwa in 2006 as part of a school trip when I was studying at Longbenton Community College. Our school was partnered with a school called Ndhiwa Primary and we were the first group of students from the school to visit Kenya. I can remember thinking ‘what an amazing opportunity’ but at the same time I don’t think I realised what to expect. When we arrived in Ndhiwa I just remember how friendly everyone was and to this day it is still the same and I get that excited feeling in my stomach as soon as I land in Nairobi.
“We were involved in many activities within the school but most of our time was spent time with the Girls Support Group that Team Kenya had set up. In Kenya girls often drop out of school or their parents would choose to educate the boys in the family ahead of the girls so many get married before reaching secondary school. This group really encouraged and empowered the girls so they too felt they had the right to finish their education. It was also a safe place they could share their challenges and interact with other girls who were facing the same difficulties and support one another. The experience really moved me and I began to fundraise when I got home to try and help young girls stay in school.
“I then went on to visit Ndhiwa on a yearly basis having been touched by the people I met. The children were just so eager to learn and I used to think how much students in the UK used to complain about school (myself included!) Free education is something we really take for granted.
“In 2012 I visited for six months and worked with the sponsorship office and ever since that has been my main focus. Team Kenya sponsors students in the community who are bright but whose families could not afford to send them to secondary school. In Kenya it costs around £300-500 a year for school fees alone, a cost that many families just cannot manage. I have grown up with many of these students and it is so fantastic to see them move from primary school to secondary and then on to college.
“After getting employment they can then go on to helping others in the family and perhaps the wider community. I still feel extremely proud when I visit the students in school or take them off to college knowing that they have a bright future ahead of them and can change the lives of the their families and the community for the better.
Visit to school is a life-changing event
Andy Clarke, deputy head teacher of Whitley Bay High School, has also visited Ndhiwa.
He wrote during his visit: “Market day in Ndhiwa and I am sitting in a stationary matatu (sort of a taxi) watching the bustle of the traders and shoppers. Two men appear to be arguing about a cart full of crops, but they end up hauling it off together in the direction towards which one of them had kept gesticulating. I guess he won the argument.
“Winnie is accompanying me to Ratanga Girls School so that I can meet Hanny, one of the many students sponsored by my school, Whitley Bay High. She had just accused me of having a large bag – it really wasn’t – so when an elderly woman climbed in beside me with an enormous sack, I pointed this out to Winnie. ‘Now, that’s a big bag!’ Meanwhile the roof palpably lowered under the weight of goods heaved on to the top.
“Once at Ratanga, a short stroll down the not-yet-asphalted road led us to the tiny school, set up when the nearby mixed school decided that girls were bringing its average scores down – so got rid of them all! Imagine saying to Ofsted in the UK, ‘We decided that the girls’ Pupil Premium scores didn’t look great, so now we don’t have any.”
“Hanny turns out to be a lovely girl, if rather shy. The Principal, Janet, is wonderful, determined that the school should succeed despite the obstacles it faces. Sharing milky tea and juicy paw paw (papaya), we chew the fat over the absence of praying in developed nations, German success in various spheres and why it matters that students receive a rounded education and not just an academic one. We briefly tour the three classrooms, where groups of revising students are somewhat startled to see a lurching white man appear and try to use his two words of Luo. Despite this oddity, they remain polite, if a little baffled.
“Returning to the village centre, Winnie and I are pursued by friendly primary kids heading home for lunch, one of whom accepts my invitation to a fist bump as an opportunity to demonstrate how hard he can hit me. I resist crying and, indeed, further fist bumping opportunities, and head for a car back to Ndhiwa. It is a little surprising when Winnie shuffles across to share the driver’s seat, but I am delighted when the car fills up to 12 occupants as this equals the record my wife bragged about the other day! This is Africa. We have tried to change Hanny’s life...but a by-product is that, once here, yours will change too.”