Kenyan students leave slum with Canadian aid

A Canadian education trust fund makes a difference in the lives of youth from Kenya's Mathare slum.

I couldn't help but think of Barack Obama's now-famous book title, The Audacity of Hope as I made my most recent trip to Nairobi's Mathare slum. I went to meet some people who are all too rare in Mathare and the 65 other slums in Nairobi: high school graduates.

It's minutes from my own Nairobi apartment, but trust me when I say it's a world away from anything that is truly familiar to me or my Canadian upbringing.

It's not the corrugated tin shacks, the piled-up garbage or the obvious poverty. It's not the changa (illegal alcohol) being mass-brewed by Mathare's riverside or the drug dealers who make a living on the desperation of their own neighbours. Experiencing things like that is in a day's work for me.

Irene Oiro does laundry outside the one-room shack in Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya, that is home to her and her family including six siblings, her mother and father. ((CBC))
Irene Oiro is what makes this place truly unfamiliar. She is 21-years old. She dreams of becoming a television journalist. And she weeps when I ask her how she felt when she found out she was to attend high school. It was a dream she didn't have the audacity to hope for.

She is one of nine in her family living in a one-room shack in Mathare. It would have been a cruel joke to even suggest they could pay $600 Cdn a year to send her to high school.

Both her mother and father work, but there isn't enough to make ends meet in an average month.

Still, a few years later, armed with both a high school diploma and an IT certificate, she has more education than anyone else in her family. She also has the audacity of hope.

That is not to say this young woman is entitled, because she is not. She is grateful; Oiro knows she has hit the equivalent of the Mathare lottery. She knows she has Victoria Sheppard to thank for it.

Victoria Sheppard is the founder of Canada-Mathare Education Trust, which is funded mostly by Canadian donors. The fund has paid $600 Cdn for each of 48 students it has sent to boarding high schools. ((CBC))
Sheppard was first in Kenya in 2005, first interning, then working with a United Nation's agency (UNEP). But, she was worried she wasn't seeing the "real" Kenya. So, Sheppard volunteered in Mathare slum. She met her Kenyan husband, Charles Omondi, who was born, raised and still living in the slum.

At the Mcedo Beijing School, Sheppard learned the vast majority of students never make it past Grade 8.

"You have these Grade 8 kids, 13, 14, they can't afford an education. So, they're stuck in Mathare. Prostitution or early marriage for the girls, drug trafficking for the boys."

Sheppard couldn't bear to go back to Canada without making some kind of a lasting impact, so in consultation with the locals, she founded the Canada-Mathare Education Trust (CMETrust).

Funded mostly by Canadian donors, it has made a small but real difference in the lives of Mathare youth. It has paid $600 Cdn for each of 48 students it has sent to boarding high schools.

They get an education their families could never pay for and a new perspective outside of Mathare slum.

Part of the deal is that they must come back to do community service. So, far 14 students have finished high school. CMETrust will be footing the bill for a total of 45 high school students enrolled in various grades from Mathare this year.

"It's not the end game," Sheppard insists. " We don't want forever for kids here to be dependent on Canadians to fund their education."

She will consider CMETrust a real success when the Kenyan government funds high school for all and her foundation is no longer needed.

It would seem Victoria Sheppard has the audacity of hope, too.

Carolyn Dunn is the CBC's Africa Correspondent. Prior to her posting in Kenya, she was a national reporter on Parliament Hill and in Alberta, in addition to numerous overseas assignments, including several tours in Afghanistan.