By Julius Okatch, Kenya Project Director, Nyanya Project
I, like almost all Africans, was born and brought up in an environment in which the grandmothers and elderly are only taken care of by their nuclear family members. I have witnessed first hand the hardship that these elderly women go through in Africa.
Older people play a pivotal role in any society, but today in many places, including Kenya, their needs are not being met. World over, families would not survive without the contribution of the older generation. Yet, older people are often excluded from development programs and are discriminated against by services such as health care and social support.
Africa is faced with the simultaneous challenge of sustaining high economic growth and achieving social development. Older persons, among other people, continue to be the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in Africa, especially the grandmothers. As long as the depth and breadth of social inequalities continue, achieving inclusive development will remain a challenge for Africa.
In the majority of African countries, formal systems of social protection do not exist that are capable of absorbing the increasing numbers of our older people.
The situation of the African grandmothers, who are mostly widows, is made worse by the fact that they are the same women who, following African tradition, sacrificed their formal education to their brothers’ counterpart. And now their nuclear family members, who are supposed to take care of them, are the victims of HIV/AIDS, leaving the care of their own young children to the grandmothers.
This is the situation in nearly all African countries, and it is what has been my understanding of our grandmothers’ lives’ until the year 2008 when I met Mary Martin Niepold (MM), Founder of The Nyanya Project (TNP).
The Nyanya Project was developed as a response to the problems and challenges stated above. I’ve witnessed many, many grandmothers who could not afford a meal a day and frequently could not pay their house rents and buy school uniforms for their grandchildren.
But today, in less than four years, the Nyanya Project has changed lives of grandmothers and their families by just taking the grandmothers through simple training on bookkeeping, how to save, and how to understand marketing for their small vegetable and fish stands, which is the way these older women typically provide for their families.
Most often, especially in slum neighborhoods, the grandmothers sell vegetables and dried fish. TNP chooses to teach them how to catch fish rather than giving them fish. i.e. handouts. With the business training from TNP, the grandmothers know which days of the week sell their goods better and then they know what supplies to purchase. They no longer have waste and are earning at least double what they used to earn. Now they can afford school fees and uniforms and can pay their rent.
Two years ago, a group of four TNP grandmothers came to ask me about their grandchildren’s academic future.
Quoting from the grandmothers, they said, “Julius, we have lived our lives, we sympathize with our grandchildren’s future and we want a preschool where we can take them for a solid early child education.”
Honestly, I could not imagine how these old ladies, who never went to school found it necessary to seek an educational foundation for their grandchildren.
This was a noble idea but very challenging to me, having not worked in any educational fraternity.
But with Gods’ grace and the helping hands of TNP Founder, Mary Martin Niepold, the grandmothers and I started Nyanya Toto Preschool in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, with a capacity of 80 children. Our TNP grandmother’s grandchildren attend for free, while others pay a small amount, to cover basic costs and keep the preschool open to everyone. The children, ages two to five, get two hot meals a day. Other grandmothers in the neighborhood are thrilled with what they are seeing and want to join.
We have seen progress with the establishment of Nyanya Toto Preschool to provide opportunity for solid early child education for the grandchildren of the grandmothers under The Nyanya Project. Many of their grandchildren are now attending public schools, and even the grandmothers have learned how to read and write a little bit.
No good thing comes without challenges: “Sustainability” through collection of fees alone, it’s not possible. So I initiated /incorporated a sewing center; still this could not have been possible without TNP.
This center is a unique model of its kind in Kibera (the biggest slum in sub Saharan Africa). We started with 10 treadle sewing machines. Young girls and other women who have experience in sewing but do not have the machines come to rent our machines at an affordable rate per day or per hour depending on what they need.
At the same time, our grandmothers are also sewing school uniforms and selling them to our preschool and other schools in the neighborhood. They give 50 percent of their profits to the preschool, and this has seen us take care of our preschool’s supplies and operation without depending on external help.
With the preschool running, grandmothers now have more time to attend the other duties other than just looking after their grandchildren.
Before, I couldn’t imagine how changing grandmothers’ lives who are taking care of their orphaned grandchildren is possible. Today, I witness it happening and am very happy with what we have done, and I’d like to sincerely pass my heartfelt gratitude to Mary Martin Niepold. God bless your heart, MM.