Chinese student changed by summer trip has joined with former classmate to help improve schools in Kenya
A student from China was changed by a summer trip to Kenya. Now she’s back on a mission of hope and inspiration.
Nairobi stole a Chinese woman’s heart when she was in the Kenyan capital for summer vacation in 2013. It turned out that her visit would play an important role in her life and the lives of many Kenyan families.
Yuan Xiaoyi, 20, born in Hubei province in Central China, was at the time a prospective student at New York University in the United States. She visited Kenya as a student volunteer.
She began her stay helping at a private school where teacher Serah Mucheke was caring for young children. During speeches by school staff members, only Mucheke was interrupted by effusive applause from students. Yuan grew curious and decided to sit in on her class.
She found Mucheke mending the children’s torn textbooks and sharpening their pencils. Some of her charges were too excited to nap at midday, so she asked a shy girl to tell a story, and the entire class fell asleep listening to her serene voice.
Impressed, Yuan talked to the teacher and learned she taught at the school only to help subsidize her own kindergarten at Mwiki, a poor area of Nairobi. The Compassion Children Centre, with about 15 students, was small and poorly equipped.
Mucheke had rented five rooms in Mwiki, three for the school and two for her family, including her husband and two children, a boy now 15 and a girl, 12. The metal roof leaked copiously when it rained.
There was no electricity and the small window in each classroom provided scant light.
The center is one of many “informal schools” in Kenya providing kindergarten and preschool classes, as well as primary school, from the first to eighth year, but which are neither public nor private schools.
While education by law is free in Kenya, many parents can’t afford to pay for uniforms, lunches, supplies and activity fees at public schools. There also aren’t enough public schools or teachers. Private schools are expensive. All other children — some estimates say 50 percent or more — attend informal schools run by individuals and communities, usually with no government help, and not all the teachers are qualified.
Yuan decided to do what she could to help, first whitewashing the building’s outer wall then painting cartoon characters on it. Parents began to ask what was going on. By the end of Yuan’s stay, twice as many kids were enrolled.
Even though Mucheke has an education certificate, she was charging only 200 Kenyan shillings ($2) a month for tuition to make it more affordable for the neighborhood than the typical tuition of 500 to 1,000 shillings. She spent her 8,000 shilling salary from her part-time job at the private school on her kindergarten. Mucheke, now 41, told Yuan she would love to devote herself full time to her kindergarten.
After Yuan left for college in the United States, she told her friends about the kindergarten via WeChat, the Chinese messaging app.
In the US, she talked about the school whenever she could, and many people would write her a check of $10, $20, or $50.
When she went back to China for a visit, the Smartinn Cosmetics Corp let her make a presentation and hold an auction at the company’s annual gala. Twice she held fundraisers through WeChat among family, friends and classmates. She has raised $15,168 for the center and sent it $8,497, with the rest to be disbursed as needed.
Contributions were used for scholarships for the poorer children, and to purchase classroom facilities, and to pay rent and teachers’ salaries, and to add a nursery. Mucheke was able to quit her job and devote all her time to her kindergarten.
Last year, Huang Zhaoyi, who had been a classmate of Yuan’s at the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University in Guangzhou, decided to help Yuan with the project. Huang, 20, an economics student at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, decided to spend her sophomore year at the University of California at San Diego.
The two women have set up a charity, Care for All Kids, and are in the process of registering it as a tax-exempt nonprofit under US law, a process expected to take five to eight months. Their website is careforallkids. org, and they also are working to set up a charity in Kenya.
Yuan’s summer in Kenya led her not only to work for other nonprofits, but to make the field her chosen profession. She was accepted into NYU’s fast-track master of public administration program.
Huang also has studied efficient ways of mobilizing resources, as well as having an internship with the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian NGO, working on microloans for refugees.
“That’s why we shifted from simply donating money to designing programs with teachers and school managers, and to try to scale our impact from working with one school to many such informal schools in slums,” Yuan says.
They have turned Care for All Kids into an organization of growing importance that is working through partnerships in Kenya to effect real change. Yuan, who goes by the English name Kate, is the development director, and Joany Huang is program manager.
Recently, they have focused on a community project to help informal school staff acquire teaching certificates. High costs make it virtually impossible for many teachers in slums to obtain training, and schools can’t afford certified teachers. They decided to help provide low-cost training while helping school managers retain those teachers.
In Kenya, school teachers need to acquire a national certificate through examinations. First they need two years of college training.
Through Mucheke, they got in touch with the Complementary Schools Association of Kenya, an NGO with 900 member informal schools.
Charles Ouma, national chairman of the association, worked with the government to create the Alternative Provision of Basic Education and Training program, unveiled in March, which allows informal schools to get government funding if 30 percent of teachers have certificates and the rest get in-service training leading to certification in three years.
“Some of our teachers have served up to 15 years with no training and the government urges all informal school teachers to be certified within three years, but no one can afford public college training,” he says.
Ouma found a university program willing to lower the cost of a three-year training program to 80,000 shillings, but it was still too much for teachers whose average monthly salary is only around 6,000 shillings.
Yuan and Huang got an idea: Why couldn’t they bring the teachers together for training in the community at minimal cost?
The women’s charity and the association decided on a pilot program to test four school learning centers to train 200 teachers from informal schools for five days in late August.
The program has received a lot of support and the two women hope it will lead to better things.
“This is a very important initiative, and I am truly thrilled that the city and county of Nairobi have embraced this initiative at the very highest levels,” says Koki Muli Grignon, ambassador and deputy permanent representative of Kenya to the United Nations.
At the closing ceremony of the training, Irene Ayiemba from Mathare, also a poor area in Nairobi, said: “We have learned a lot through this program and our plea is for the organization to continue training us to attain higher grades.”
Meanwhile, Mucheke, with the charity’s help, has expanded her kindergarten to 150 children.
They have built three more classrooms and six more toilets. The school has also received support for a playground. The school now has eight teachers and one assistant.
Yuan says the experience has not only helped Kenyans, but given her a direction in life. “I have learned how international development should be innovative, effective and resultsdriven, while respecting local people's dignity and creativity.”
Yuan Xiaoyi dresses a girl at the Compassion Children Centre in Nairobi.
The outer wall of the Compassion Children Centre is decorated with cartoon characters painted by Yuan.