As I think about the year that has just gone by, I am filled with immense gratitude for all that I experienced in 2011. In many ways, 2011 was a life changing year for me. Most importantly, it was the year that my work with "We the Change" Foundation (in the field of early childhood education and care) started in earnest. Mahatma" Gandhi once said that "we must be the change that we wish to see in the world" and ever since I first heard these words quoted, they have strongly influenced me and the choices that I have made in my life. So much so, that I named the foundation with Gandhi's quote in mind.
Starting in January, my work really took off. It was the culmination of a long personal voyage of discovery, of transformation and of deep introspection. In the wake of the post-election violence that rocked Kenya in 2007-2008, I quit my job as a lawyer working in London and travelled to Kenya, where I was born. My goal was two-fold. Firstly, to get to know and to reacquaint myself with the country that I called 'home;' secondly, I was determined to find a meaningful way in which to give back to communities in my country that lacked opportunity.
I had sat at my desk in London, watching the devastation unfold on my computer screen and could not believe what I was witnessing. My fellow countrymen were killing and harming each other in ways that I previously could not have fathomed. Like many other Kenyans at the time, I found myself confused and perplexed at just how something this terrible could have happened. Question after question flooded my mind. Where was the hatred coming from? Why were communities that had previously lived in harmony now killing each other? Why were those in power not doing anything to stop the violence? I found myself looking to those in authority for answers. However, it was ordinary Kenyans who provided inspiration. One by one, I heard stories about my fellow Kenyans who were each taking action and doing what they could to play their part. (There were the Kenyan students living in America who raised money through concerts, parties and comedy shows. There was the group of concerned Kenyan citizens who came from a cross section of society and who met every other day to co-ordinate relief efforts and to disseminate information. There was the Kenyan photographer who risked his life to document the violence and who later used his photographs to promote peace.)
Story by story, I was inspired and moved into action. Rather than looking to other people, I realised that I needed to look within and question myself about what my response was going to be. I had always talked about the importance of Gandhi's words and what they had meant to me but now the time had come to "walk my talk." To an outsider, it might have seemed somewhat baffling at first. That I would be willing to give up my life and career in London in order to 'return' to a country that I hadn't lived in for over 20 years. However, to me, it made perfect sense. I have often described the pull that I felt then as an inexplicable inner-knowledge that this was the right (and indeed the only) path for me.
When I first returned to Kenya, I visited camps for internally displaced people, spent time with prisoners in a number of Kenya's prisons and got to know (and ultimately became friends with) various incredibly inspiring people living in some of Africa's largest urban slums. These profound experiences shaped my thoughts and transformed my previously conceived ideas about how best to be of service to the very communities that I was trying to help. As it was the post-election violence that precipitated my return to Kenya, I had initially thought that I would get involved in peace and reconciliation activities. However, as I spent more time in Nairobi's urban slums (Mathare slum in particular) I couldn't help but notice and be concerned by the hundreds of very young children that I saw running around unsupervised on a daily basis.
Most of these children (many of whom live on less than the proverbial "2 dollars a day") are either orphans or come from one-parent families. Their primary care givers are unable to afford childcare or to send them to pre-school. Primary school education in Kenya is free, however pre-school education is not. This means that many young children, below the age of six and who live in marginalised communities, are forced to fend for themselves whilst their caregivers go to work each day.
The first few years of a child's life are critical in terms of human development. Growing up in a stable environment and being properly cared for will mean that a child is more likely to fully develop his or her thinking, language, emotional and social skills, and to suffer less from disease. Having received this kind of support, a child is then able to take these valuable foundations with them when they start primary school. Whilst the years after early childhood are bound to be fraught with difficulty and challenge for many children living in marginalised communities, their journeys in life would be that much harder (if not nearly impossible) without a good and solid start in life. A recent article written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times references a policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics which states that: "Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health." For children growing up in extreme poverty and deprivation, solid foundations in early childhood are very rarely developed. Many young children living in such environments are exposed to multiple risks, including poverty, malnutrition and poor health, all of which detrimentally affect their cognitive, motor, and social-emotional development.
As I got to know some of the young children in Mathare, the more I started thinking about ways in which to address the issue of providing good quality early childhood education and care to children living in this community. I started thinking about just how inspiring and empowering it would be to create a centre for excellence in this field, to have the centre based in Kenya and to have it serve those most in need. So this is exactly what I have set out to achieve.
We currently support 30 children between the ages of 2 and 7 in our pilot program in Mathare. However, it is our aim to progress our work further and to create a centre for excellence that will comprise of two model schools (one in Mathare and the second in a rural dry land setting). The model schools will be backed up by a dedicated teacher training and research centre based at one of the top universities in Kenya (Kenyatta University). The urban slums and the rural dry land areas are where the most marginalised communities in Kenya live. Although, there are many similarities between these two communities, it is critical for their different needs to be taken into account when designing and developing an education program. This is why we plan to have a model school in each community. Our ultimate aim is to develop a model school system that can be replicated both nationally and then later, throughout the rest of Africa.
Rather tragically, early childhood education and care is traditionally not given much attention globally by education policy makers in various governments. Therefore, it is also my hope that through this work we will be able to raise awareness about the importance of education in this field and to transform education policy where we can. A report produced by the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University outlines the potential benefits of investing in early childhood education by explaining that, "extensive analysis by economists has shown that education and development investments in the earliest years of life produce the greatest returns. Most of those returns, which can range from $3 to $16 per dollar invested, benefit the community through reduced crime, welfare, and educational remediation, as well as increased tax revenues on higher incomes for the participants of early childhood programs when they reach adulthood."
It is my hope that, by providing young children in Kenya with good quality pre-school education, we will help to alter their life trajectories and to provide them with opportunities that would otherwise have eluded them. As a girl born in Kenya over 30 years ago, I am acutely aware of the fact that my life trajectory would have been very different without the healthcare and educational opportunities that were given to me in early childhood and beyond. In fact, without the opportunities given to me by my parents, it is unlikely that I would have made it past my 5th birthday. I believe wholeheartedly in the notion of the "accident of birth" and in my mind, all that separates my 4 year old self and Mary (a 4 year old girl in our program in Mathare) is this concept. I could very easily have been born as Mary and Mary could have been born as me. However, the reality is that we weren't. Given that I was born who I am and given the chances in life that have been made available to me, Gandhi's words take on a much deeper meaning. When I read them, I am reminded about my role in this world and the sense of personal responsibility that I feel on a daily basis to do all that I can to play my part as a member of our global community. As Robert Kennedy once said; "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
Soiya Gecaga is a Creative Activist Member at Creative Visions Foundation. Click here for more information about We the Change, a pre-school for orphans and vulnerable children in Mathare Slum in Kenya.