Several years ago in 2006, a German tourist resident in Austria Gabriella Vonwald was moved by the grinding poverty and homelessness of local widows and single mothers, who lacked decent homes, food and money to educate their children.
Wherever she walked through Kilifi villages she was appalled by the plight of poor families’, neglect of widows by in-laws where because of local culture, these women are often blamed for their husbands’ death.
Yet poverty is not just a Kilifi phenomenon. Gabriella was, equally, shocked when he saw a story on television depicting a boy who had been expelled from school in Kibra in Nairobi for inability to pay a Sh200 levy.
In Kibra and parts of Kilifi, widowhood is as widespread as homelessness, hunger and diseases. Most of the widows in both places can neither afford decent housing nor pay even small levies to keep their children in school and so when she returned to her native Austria she mobilised funds and founded the Gapeka Children’s Hope Centre to address the challenges she had encountered in Kilifi.
Poverty is, especially, problematic in Kilifi because of high levels of illiteracy among residents, high fertility rates and low up take of birth control mechanisms.
Although headquartered in Austria, the non-governmental organization has operations in Kilifi and already local residents are feeling its impact through housing, tuition support and feeding for the hungry.
It operates Kilifi Vonwald Primary and Secondary where the poor and destitute learn free. Dozens of locals have been taken in at the boarding section to enable them to concentrate on studies that would be, otherwise affected for lack of proper housing.
The organisation’s Chief Executive officer Tsama Mwanyiro says the housing project was put in place to provide a better home for children at the less privileged families and accord a conducive learning environment for poor children.
Several former beneficiaries of the organisation’s funding have matriculated in various fields with the organisation’s financial support. According to the official, the Centre is supporting the education of close to 1,000 students in colleges and universities across Kenya and has built more than one hundred houses for widows and single mothers that could not afford from funding by philanthropists overseas.
The first batch of students enrolled at the schools will sit the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) at the end of this year.
Most families in Kilifi live in mud-walled houses thatched with palm fronds or makuti. Large families share single-roomed houses, which they also cannot afford to repair exposing them to elements.
Kasichana Karisa from Rojorojo village in Kibarani ward, a beneficiary of the free housing project says the organization constructed for her a three-bedroom house.
“My husband does not have a stable job that can generate money to sustain our eleven children with the basic needs and at the same time construct a good house for us. Our first house was a single room small house,” said Karisa, 40 who adds that she had immense challenges in her old home whenever it rained.
“It was difficult during the rainy days because I could not cook in time. My children could go to school without breakfast as I waited for the rains to stop. At times I was forced to remove uncooked food from fire and wait until it stops raining,” she said.
According to Mwanyiro Gabriella’s conscience was pricked by the Kibra incident and poverty in Kilifi.
“The incident of that boy from Kibira who could not go to school because of Shs200 touched Gabriella very much and she felt that money which is always seen as little can bring a positive impact in someone’s life.”
“When she came back to Kilifi, she spent most of her time in the village and was keen on the type of life children went through, she was touched with the rate of poverty which had hit Kilifi,”says Mwanyiro who adds that through its school programme the organisation has retained hundreds of poor children in school.
“The feeding program attracted many children and especially girls who had been neglected due to the preference for the boy child. We realized that pupils could not concentrate when they are hungry.”
“We did a home visit and what we saw was not pleasing. Their houses were damaged and parents could not afford to feed these children,” according to Mwanyiro who discloses that widows encounter particular pressure from in-laws demanding to remarry them by force. Many widows, succumb to pressure due to poverty.
This organization seeks to empower such women with decent housing and support for their children’s education.
“Some widows have been forced to flee from their in-laws. But we are engaging the local administration to help us solve the wrangles and have the widow settle with her 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 could not afford a Sh1, 000 houses are now proud owners of homes in Rojo, Masindeni and Mafumbini villages.
However, it has not been smooth sailing because many parents involved in this programme have since absconded from their other responsibilities.
“We believe in participatory development but parents want us to do everything. We give them food and education but some do not want to take their children to school. Parents are not taking care of their girls and many of them are becoming pregnant which makes them to stay away from school before they come back,” he said.
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