Education as a Catalyst for Broader Social Change

By Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

There is a young girl who lives in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya. Her name is Eunice Akoth and she is from one of the most at-risk groups in the world: young women living in poverty.

Eunice’s story began like that of many other girls who live in slums around the world, with little opportunity or security. She had dreams, but did not know how to achieve them. Then, her life changed with the introduction of formal education. Eunice was chosen to attend the Kibera School for Girls (KSG), run by Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). While attending KSG, Eunice wrote a poem called “My Dream”, which she eventually performed in front of thousands of people at the Women in the World Summit in New York City.

In the poem, Eunice says, “Every mighty king was once a crying baby! Every great tree was once a tiny seed! Every tall building was once in paper! And so I dream my dream!” She explains her words by saying that children in Kibera have big dreams, but “they don’t know how they can achieve them, so I had to write a poem that tells them that they can achieve their dreams.” Eunice herself learned to dream through her journalism club and her potential was unleashed through education.

Eunice is just one of 400 students who will be enrolled through pre-Kindergarten to Grade 8 at the Kibera School for Girls. KSG links tuition-free schooling with social services for the surrounding community. The school provides holistic care, including nutrition, health care, uniforms and psychosocial support, on top of a stellar curriculum. This approach is paying off; the girls are thriving academically as well as socially. They are ranking first in their district on standardized testing and excelling at creative endeavors too. For the past four years, KSG’s kindergarten class has won first prize at the National Elocution and Poetry contest.

Yet, early on, KSG staff realized that some of the girls’ living situations were too volatile for them to be successful. Thus, SHOFCO built Margaret’s Safe Place as a boarding house for the most at-risk girls. This home aims to further SHOFCO’s mission of supporting the brightest and most vulnerable girls in Kibera.

SHOFCO’s innovative model has proved very successful, both in terms of providing a high caliber education and in securing community support. The school is connected to a variety of social services, which include water sanitation, a health clinic, community empowerment groups and computer labs. SHOFCO has also established micro-lending schemes and built toilets, showers and an aerial water piping network. These investments in the wider community, alongside SHOFCO’s serious investment in female education, has ensured that the community feels no one is being ignored.

The philosophy of targeting the most vulnerable youth and connecting their care to wider social services was conceived by SHOFCO founders Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner. Kennedy explains, “Placing schools for girls at the epicenter of our programing makes schools portals for large scale social change.” This husband and wife team has demonstrated the power of partnership. Kennedy saw his mother and sisters suffer from lack of education and opportunity so he resolved to help the next generation of Kibera’s girls to escape the cycle of poverty that had oppressed his family. As Kennedy stated, “Education has helped all of these girls find a safe haven at school and a way to be more than the circumstances they were born into”.

In 2014, the Kibera model was applied in Mathare, another slum nearby. Staying true to its grassroots mission, SHOFCO Mathare was initiated and is currently run by individuals from that community. They became inspired by seeing the success of KSG’s holistic approach to education and community building. While no two places are exactly alike, certain lessons can be taken from successful programming.

SHOFCO proves that education can be a catalyst for broader social change. By learning from the SHOFCO model, more grassroots organizations should be inspired to deeply engage with their communities and prioritize education.