Gabriella Vonwald: Philanthropist giving the poor free education, transforming housing in Kilifi

Newly built houses for locals by Gabriella. [Courtesy,Standard]
In 2006, a tourist with a golden heart came face to face with grinding poverty. So deeply moved was she by the plight of local neglected widows in Kilifi that Gabriella Vonwald went back to her home, Austria, with plans to better their life.

She mobilised funds and founded the Gapeka Children’s Hope Centre to address the challenges she had encountered.

The NGO operates Kilifi Vonwald Primary and Secondary schools, where the poor learn for free. Dozens have been taken in at the boarding section to enable them concentrate on studies that would otherwise be affected for lack of proper housing.

The organisation’s CEO Tsama Mwanyiro says a housing project was put in place to provide a better home for children and the less privileged families and accord a conducive learning environment for poor children. Most families in Kilifi live in mud walled houses thatched with palm fronds (makuti). Large families share single-roomed houses that they also cannot afford to repair, exposing them to harsh elements of weather.

Today, the centre is supporting the education of close to 1,000 students in colleges and universities across Kenya and has built more than 100 houses for widows and single mothers from funding by philanthropists overseas.

The first batch of students enrolled in these schools will sit the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year. Kasichana Karisa from Rojorojo village in Kibarani Ward, a beneficiary of the free housing project, says the organisation constructed for her a three-bedroom house.

“My husband does not have a stable job to sustain our 11 children. Our first house was a single room, and our children used to sleep on the floor on one side of the house while my husband and I slept on a bed,” said Karisa, 40.

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She added, “It was difficult during the rainy days because I could not cook in time. My children would go to school without breakfast as I waited for the rains to stop. Often, I was forced to remove uncooked food from the fire and wait until it stopped raining.”

According to Mwanyiro, Gabriella’s conscience was pricked by the Kibra incident and poverty in Kilifi.

“That a boy from Kibra could not go to school because of Sh200 touched Gabriella deeply, she felt that even small money can bring a positive impact on someone’s life. When she came back to Kilifi she spent most of her time in the village, she was keen to experience what children were going through with their parents.”

The CEO acknowledges that through its programme, the organisation has retained hundreds of poor children in school.

“The feeding programme attracted many children, especially girls who had been neglected due to preference for the boy child,” he said, adding that many of these widows succumb to pressure due to poverty.

This organisation seeks to empower such women with decent housing as well as support their children’s education.

“Some widows have been forced to flee from their in-laws. We are engaging the local administration to help us solve the wrangles and have the widows settle with their children in peace,” he said.

The houses constructed by the organisation under its Social Living programme cost between Sh500,000 and a million shillings. Many urban families who hitherto could not afford houses are now proud owners of homes in Rojo, Masindeni and Mafumbini villages.

These villages enjoy piped water and other amenities. But it has not been smooth sailing because many parents involved in this programme have since absconded from their responsibilities.

“We believe in participatory development but some parents want us to do everything for them. We give them food and education but they do not want to take their children to school. Many girls are becoming pregnant, forcing them to stay away from school,” said Mwanyiro.

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Gabriella VonwaldGapeka Children’s Hope CentrePhilanthropistKilifi