Into Africa

Chi­nese stu­dent changed by sum­mer trip has joined with for­mer class­mate to help im­prove schools in Kenya

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By FIONA XIAOJUN GUO and PAN ZHONGMING Con­tact the writ­ers at panzhong­ming@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.”

PHO­TOS BY FIONA XIAOJUN GUO / FOR CHINA DAILY

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.

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