Musician Susan Owiyo, Nameless, Emmie Erondanga and TV personality Janet Mbugua in Korogocho slums. [Photo: Joseph Kiptarus/Standard]
Emmie Erondanga, 30, has committed her social life to bettering the lives of her community in Korogocho slums and is a role model to many young people, writes KIUNDU WAWERU

She is in her element. Posing for the camera in different trendy outfits at The Standard Studios. Emmie Erondanga looks like the consummate urbanite; polished, elegant and ready for a party in a moment’s notice.

In reality, Emmie is quite the opposite. She spends her days in Korogocho slums where she has dedicated her life to support vulnerable youth, mostly girls.

As the director of Miss Koch Kenya, an organisation that has been transforming the Korogocho Slum since 2001, Emmie has her plate so full that she seems to have neglected her personal life.

“I need to be ‘called’ an uncle,” chides Emmie’s younger brother Joshua Musindi with whom she lives with. “I need a nephew or a niece.”

Emmie laughs out loud and says: “Men are not ‘searching’ me or do you think they are afraid that I work so hard?”

But Musindi says this in a light touch. His youthful face gains a serious stance as he says: “I support Emmie in what she does. She is an inspiration.”

Indeed a few days earlier, several secondary school students in the middle of the slum praised Emmie’s efforts. Most of them are in school courtesy of Miss Koch’s Education Programme. The principal of Our Lady of Fatima Secondary, tells shocking tales of broken dreams and ills that dog the students.

“Not long ago, some of my students were lynched by a mob for stealing,” says Janet Mabango, adding that girls drop out of school due to pregnancy, while others are married off.

Emmie believes that only education can elevate the people of Korogocho, which they fondly call Koch. However, school fees is hard to come by with Mabango saying most students are in school with mounting fee arrears because they cannot afford a fee of Sh14,000 annually.

“We send them away for the fee arrears once in a while, but we often end up calling them back because keeping them at home is dangerous.”

And Emmie is determined that the ten students they support at Our Lady of Fatima Secondary are not sent away for school fees. On this day, she is accompanied by Suzanna Owiyo, Nameless and news anchor Janet Mbugua. Emmie believes Kenya cannot always rely on foreigners and international donors to solve her problems. This is why Miss Koch has enlisted the help of Kenyan personalities to spearhead the intiative.

 “I take every opportunity I get to bring in like-minded people who have a passion to make a change in their community,” says Emmie. The trio recently organised an entertainment dinner to raise funds.

Emmie approached Suzanna, Nameless and Janet individually. All hearkened to the call and they cut a unique figure when they all meet at the slum. They interact freely with the locals.

At the school, Suzanna and Nameless visited the Form Four students, urging them to focus on their final exam, as it is the key to the door of prosperity.

Janet spoke to the journalism club, giving them tips on the career.

“Tip number one: Whether you want to be on radio, TV or print, you must learn to be a good writer. It gives you your own voice,” Janet tells them as they scribble furiously on their notebook: Journalists in the making.

From the school, Emmie leads the trio to the Miss Koch Resource Centre in the middle of the slum. The centre has publications and newspapers that locals can peruse.

Upstairs is a computer room where youths are being trained free of charge. Again, the celebrities advise the youth as they interact freely, laughing gaily and posing with them for photos.

“We have so much untapped potential here,” says Emmie. “Unfortunately, we are only able to reach a few at a time.”

Miss Koch also runs a DJ academy in the slum. The studio has given many youths — many of who confess to having been criminals — a lifeline.

The crime was so intense that Emmie remembers that when she moved in to live with her aunt in 2000, she couldn’t walk for a 100 metres without being accompanied.

“It was risky for girls and women. Men and even teenage criminals waylaid women in broad daylight. Rape cases were rampant and went unreported,” she says.

Emmie started by volunteering to clean the neighbourhood. She remembers how one day, accompanied by a female friend, they met a group of rough-looking young men.

“One of them called out to us, “Bwana asifiwe” (Praise the Lord). My friend held my hand and urged me not to look at them, but to just move on,” she recalls.

Her friend explained that talking to them would provoke them to attack. But for some strange reason, Emmie felt like reaching out to the young men. Later, Emmie met with the young man who had called out to them and with her heart in the mouth, decided to listen to him.

“He was about 19 and admitted he was a criminal. I asked him what he does with the money and he said he spends it on girls and drinking.”

Emmie explained to him how futile his chosen path of life was, seeing as most of his friends had been killed either by police or a mob. Later, Emmie engaged another young man. Her aunt thought she had lost it when she invited him for tea.

“I really felt that someone needed to show them that there was a better way,” says Emmie.

It is not that she was leading a financially stable life. With only a Form Four certificate, Emmie couldn’t get gainful employment. She started working as a waitress in the city for meagre pay. She preferred working nightshifts so she could walk to the slum in daylight when it was a bit safe.

Emmie also took care of her four siblings with whom she lives with to date. Her dad passed on in 2002 and her mother is upcountry. In 2005, she got a job with a non-governmental organisation in Mathare, which did research on maternal health and migration.

“That’s when the plight of women and girls hit me. There were no health facilities and being pregnant was like a death sentence,” she remembers.

The same year, she was approached to model for Miss Koch. She was shy, but she remembered that when Miss Koch was founded in 2001, she had volunteered in the course and knew the impact it was making in society. She fully embraced Miss Koch and in 2006, she was elected as the co-ordinator.

The same year, they spearheaded the formation of Koch FM, the first community radio in Kenya that inspired other stations like Pamoja FM and Ghetto Radio.

In Miss Koch, Emmie had found an avenue to make a change. She enrolled and completed for a diploma in Social Work to better her skills. Together with other initiatives like Pambazuko Mashinani, Miss Koch urged the community to shun animosity and vote wisely in 2007.

Among the activities was the ‘People’s Manifesto’, where the community made vying leaders sign an agreement to implement the community’s agenda. When other slums were burning in 2008, Korogocho experienced less violence, thanks to the organisation’s work.

Apart from the education programme, which is their main pillar, Emmie says they have projects on human rights, peace and governance besides youth talent search and empowerment, which is supported by Owiyo.

There is also the Badilika programme that seeks to change people’s attitudes. This has seen improved knowledge on reproductive health and HIV and Aids.

Emmie might not know it, but the girls we spoke to at the resource centre say they are amazed at how far they have come because of Emmie’s efforts. They look upto her as their role model and mother.

Korogocho slum Emmie Erondanga