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Mentoring peers online

By | Updated Wed, May 2nd 2012 at 00:00 GMT +3

There are many things you can do on a social network, but these students from Precious Blood Secondary School, Riruta, have created a social network with the aim of positively impacting their society. They spoke to NJOKI CHEGE

There are boundless opportunities in the Internet. Social networks have particularly become popular, especially among the youth because of what they have to offer; networking, socialising and a platform to express oneself.

It is for these reasons that students from Precious Blood Secondary School, Riruta created a platform for themselves and other like-minded youths to express their thoughts and feelings on various life-changing topics.

Azma group members.

It all began in July last year, when 18-year-old Wangechi Mwangi had a ‘light-bulb’ moment. She thought of an idea that would not only bring together the youths of this country, but also create a platform for them to express their ideas and feelings.

"I thought of a social network that can be used to do great things — not just for discussing breakfast cereal and which mall to hang out," says Wangechi.

This is why Wangechi and several friends joined hands and together, created www.azma.co.ke, the first social network by the youth, for the youth of its kind.

But it was not easy to create a social network given that the girls were not ‘techies’. Armed with the idea, Wangechi visited the i-hub, situated on Ngong’ Road, Nairobi to get some help.

"They taught our group how to create a social network. We learnt a lot on the fundamentals of creating a social network," says Kasyoka Mutunga, who is a member of Azma.

According to the girls, the name ‘Azma’ is not just your typical Swahili word — it has more meanings. Azma, the girls explain, is a Swahili word that means ‘purpose’. It is also an acronym for ‘Ambitious and Zealous Movers of Africa’

"We want to give the youth a platform to discuss serious matters such as education, politics and even what we can do to alleviate poverty. We also want to assemble as many youth as possible to do community outreach activities," says Christine Gatwiri, another member of Azma.

Azma was officially launched on November 25, exactly two months after the death of environmentalist Wangari Maathai. Environmental conservation is one of the network’s pillars. Other core objectives/ pillars include peer mentorship and community outreach.

And the network has managed to organise itself so well, that it already has a core team and a board of advisors.

The team includes; Wangechi Mwangi (head), Christine Gatwiri (Head of operations), Kasyoka Mutunga (Legal advisor/ peer mentorship co-ordinator), Ivy Langat (Community outreach), Cynthia Gathara (Business developer) and Faith Nyakundi (Research department). Core supporters include, Samantha Lelei and Ruslan Magero, formerly of Dagoretti High School.

The social network is now widespread, with more than 210 members from schools all over the country — including boys’ schools. Their Facebook page has more than 250 likes so far and they have about 30 constant members during their activities.

Vibrant society

"Our dream is for youth countrywide to realise the power they have within them to transform society. We want to create a generation where youth have taken responsibility and are doing something to create a vibrant society," says Wangechi.

Ruslan Magero says that the network inspired him right from the day he heard about it.

Offers Magero: "The idea of youths coming together inspired me to join this network. I cannot explain the fulfilment I get from being part of the network’s society."

Wangechi Mwangi, the founder of Azma group.

The group has so far visited a school in Kiambiu slums (Nairobi) where they were involved in mentoring the pupils. They have also volunteered at Shangilia Children’s Home as well as the Jacaranda Special School. They have also rallied youth to donate blood at the Kenyatta National Hospital and collected 2,500 books, which they hope to distribute to schools across the country.

Recently, they visited the immediate former PS of education, Prof Ole Kiyiapi and he was so impressed with their vision that he requested to be included in their board of advisors.

"We visited him to seek his permission and written consent to engage primary school pupils in our activities. We want to help pupils to make informed decisions when it comes to choosing secondary schools," says Kasyoka.

The PS granted them their wish.

Other members of the board of advisors include the Jacinta Akatsa (Principal, Precious Blood Secondary School), Simeon Oriko, who helped them in the creation of the network, Teddy Warria and Alex Gakuru.

Another group of mentors, the Akirachix, led by Judith Owigar has also been instrumental in the group’s success — they have mentored the girls all through. The Akirachix not only helped them develop their social network but have also taken in some of the girls as interns.

Interestingly, the group has so far not used a single cent in carrying out their activities.

"We have been using our social network to rally the youth to come together, not by enticing or coercing them, but by making them see the point of joining us," says Kasyoka.

The group also aims at tapping into the potential of technology to solve societal problems such as poverty. They say they have realised that technology can do so much for a society and that is why it is important to have a technology-savvy society.

"We believe in doing things differently. We want to help the youth know the importance of the Internet and technology as a problem-solver and as a tool for learning," says Gatwiri.

It is for this reason that you will find many links and blog posts on their website, all in a bid to educate and empower the youths.

So what do they eventually hope to achieve?

To keep the youth busy by providing a social network with a difference. One that discusses pertinent issues such as poverty, culture, technology, and education systems, among other things.

"The difference between this social network and others such as Facebook, Twitter, My space and To-go is that Azma aims at developing its members intellectually," offers Wangechi.

Good job

So widespread is their mandate that even the president of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) Rod Beckstorm, commended them for their good job. He cited that this was just the beginning of something bigger and better to come.

A major challenge Azma faces is the fact that today’s youth are laid back and some fear to stand out of the crowd.

Offers Wangechi: "Few want to stand out and take responsibility. Out biggest challenge has been getting people to come out of their shells."

As Wangechi further explains, dealing with fellow teenagers is not exactly easy. Convincing them to forego hanging out in malls and engage in charity is hard enough, but they are not about to give up.

The group is also in the process of seeking funding for the sustainability of their activities.

They regularly meet at the i-hub to discuss their activities. Most Friday and Saturdays afternoons are set aside for Azma activities.

So what drives them?

"Youth have a feeling that they want to change their society and consequently, their world and we share that dream too. That is what unites us and that is what keeps us going," says Wangechi.