DR ELIZABETH ODERA, 49, is one of Kenya’s leading educationists and an international tennis coach who is using sports and education for development. For this, she has been feted locally and abroad. Among her global awards is the Ashoka ChangeMaker, which celebrates the world’s most influential and inspiring women. She spoke to PHARES MUTEMBEI
My parents knew the value of education. My father, Zachary Francis Okong’o, is a graduate of Makerere University, Uganda, and together with my mother Idah, they started some of the first private academies in Kenya.
Now I run the Malezi Foundation together with other board members.
We have a preparatory school, high school and a college. We also run the Sadili Oval Sports Academy.
The idea was to establish an education centre to provide Kenya’s children with an opportunity to not only get education of international standards, but also develop sporting and other talent. This is our 23rd year of existence and we have been successful in producing Kenyans who have gone on to varied professions. Over 90 per cent have gone to universities spread around the world.
The board consists of academic achievers and they have always wanted the children to look upon them as role models.
My husband, Abok James Odera, is the chairman of the board. He is also a former managing director of the National Housing Corporation of Kenya. He is an urban planner by profession and has always been a role model for young people. He is a graduate of the famed Oxford and MIT universities and he tells the children if he was able to do it, they too can.
But my journey to the top was not all smooth. After attending Xaverian Primary School in Kisumu, I transferred to Lavington Primary in Nairobi.
I then proceeded to Kenya High School. But then my family lost everything; business failed and from then life was hard. My education was interrupted in Form Three and completing my O-levels was tough. We had to stop school for one and a half years. My sister and I did our Form Four exams from home.
I had to rely on sponsorship to complete my A-levels; some elderly women in the UK offered to pay my school fees. When I went back to Kenya High School, I read hard to make up for lost time. The result was a distinction in all subjects and one credit.
I achieved that because I had set a goal and clearly understood the hurdles. I proved that if you work hard, even with the absence of a classroom, you will achieve. Unfortunately, I never met my elderly benefactors because I was too broke to go to the UK and by the time I had money, they were long dead. But I have a special place for them in my heart.
I am now heavily involved in running a sports and education programme for under-privileged children. I want to improve their lives by giving them a chance to go to school and hone their skills in sports and other talents.
We are working with about 7,000 children and their families. Some of them study at our school on sports and education scholarships while we pay school fees for others in the slums, especially Kibera, which is our neighbour.
I played tennis up to university and professional circuits and I have worked to demystify it as a rich man’s sport by introducing it to young players and nurturing them.
The most talented tennis players are poor. One of my students, Hassan Ndayashimiaye, joined us when he was nine and after only four years, he has honed his skills to an amazing level. He qualified for the International Tennis Federation (ITF) scholarship.
Earlier this year, he played his first Wimbledon Juniors championship and went into the main draw and reached the second round. In September, he played in the US Open. Many others in our talent academy have benefited from ITF scholarships.
Players from our talent academy have the highest ranking in East Africa. In April this year, they won the ITF Under 14 East African Circuit in Kenya and the Under 14 in Burundi in August.
I am seeing fruits of our initiative. One of our young basketball players has got a scholarship to a top UK school. We have confidence in students who want to go professional in various sports. I am happy to note Strathmore and Nazarene universities are offering sports scholarships, too.
As a result of my work in nurturing tennis and other sporting talent and using it to improve lives of poor children, in 2004, I was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year Award by Professional Tennis Registry, USA. It’s the largest tennis teachers and coaches organisation in the world, covering 126 countries.
Earlier during the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, I was presented the Spirit of the Land Award for my work in discovering and nurturing talent. This year, Deloris Jordan of the James R Jordan Foundation International and Board of Directors of Bidco Group, presented me with the Distinguished Pure and Natural Woman Award, for being a visionary sportswoman and for exceptional contribution towards sports and education advancement in Kenya.
I am also a recipient of the 2009 French Medal of Honour, for my work with young people. It’s a very special award recognising outstanding citizens of France and a select few from outside. The Kenyan president has also awarded me the Head of State Commendation (HSC).
This year, I was honoured as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER. It’s an international recognition that selects award-winning ideas, which can be used to propagate development around the world. I was shocked when I was voted the winner. You look at things you do in Africa as small, but they all don’t go unnoticed.
I appreciate all the recognition I have received, but I also take it as a challenge to do more. I always like to think of how much more I can do. I am nowhere near where I want to reach.
We started with tennis and basketball. Now we have a football academy for boys and in January 2012, we shall start a girls’ football programme. Our aim has always been to create a good balance of books and talent.
We are a performance partner of the Kenya Rugby Union. Kenya’s Rugby 7s and 15s started at Sadili Oval Sports Academy. We have now started a sports college where we offer sports management and other sports courses. Some of our students in sports management include government officials.