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   Date: 9/7/10 Bookmark and Share

Improving Lives in Kenya Through Education

Three Smith alumnae write about their Project for Peace in Nairobi, Kenya.

Question: What do a three alumnae with different interests—a former president of Smith Republicans from New Hampshire, an aspiring medical doctor from Kenya, and a California girl raised on a hippie commune in San Francisco—all have in common?

Answer: A mentoring center in Baba Dogo, a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, and 42 primary school students.

Elena Farrar ’10 (center) and her charges.

Margaret Mumbi Mongare ’10 (on right) gives a presentation while Marguerite Davenport awaits her turn to present.

Recent graduates Elena Farrar, Marguerite Davenport and Margaret Mumbi Mongare, all members of the Class of 2010, teamed up during the summer to establish a mentoring center in Baba Dogo to help gifted children realize their goals for higher education. The work was funded through Projects for Peace, a philanthropic organization that awards $10,000 to selected student projects from the top 50 American colleges and universities.

While their interests and backgrounds may be vastly different, the three alumnae share a common bond in their high regard for education. Marguerite’s and Elena’s mothers are teachers. For Mumbi, education was the ticket out of Baba Dogo, her hometown, in which many live on less than a dollar a day.

Building a mentoring center in a slum meant connecting the most motivated students in a school of 1,700 youngsters with mentors that they could look to not only for academic help, but also career advice. It would also improve the chances for children from low-income families to attend high school. For Mumbi, the keys to fighting poverty and bringing change in her community are through education—mentoring young children and introducing them to role models. “The way out of poverty is to empower those in it to challenge the status quo then provide them the opportunities to acquire problem-solving tools,” she said.

The three women arrived in Kenya in May following their graduation from Smith, and began constructing the center, working with painters and carpenters to refurbish an old single-classroom building.

With the support of the school’s head teacher, they identified the top students from each class in grades 4 through 8 to participate in the mentoring program. They then met with teachers to compile a list of lessons and storybooks for the new library in the center.

Each week throughout the summer, the alumnae met with about 20 mentors to develop the program curriculum. The teachers agreed to run the program for two hours after school each day, during which student participants could do homework, take books from the library and receive tutoring. On the weekends, university students who were alumnae of Baba Dogo primary school would tutor the students and run enrichment programs related to leadership, community, culture, health, environment, hygiene, and careers.

Additional events included a bus trip to the National Museum, and a speaker on the importance of environmental protection. The trip to the museum resulted in students planting and tending trees, one of the first opportunities they had to learn about their impact on the environment.

One of the most dramatic changes in students was visible in a 5th-grade student named Faustine. While she excelled at schoolwork, Faustine had very little confidence and would often cover her face with her hands and lower her eyes when asked a question. One of the early program units was on public speaking, and the importance of leadership through speech. Elena worked with Faustine to write a brief speech about the negative effects of drugs on a community. When she delivered the speech in front of the group, Faustine spoke for the first time without covering her face. A couple of weeks later, Faustine volunteered to be an emcee for the grand opening ceremony for the center.

After the opening ceremony the children and mentors decided to name the center the Masomo Mashiniani Bidi foundation (Kiswahili for Education at the Grassroots).

It is now being run by a group of elected mentors that serve on the executive committee, which oversees the tutoring sessions and planned activities.

Mentors and teachers hope to improve the students’ national test scores and place them in scholarship programs sponsored by U.S. and Kenyan organizations that will pay for their high school tuition.

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