In less than a year, a literacy initiative led by juniors Peterson Njamunge and Shauna Godfrey has made a profound difference for school children and community members in a remote, impoverished district known as Kiamaina slum in central Kenya.
Their project, Kenya Reads, has supplied textbooks and created the first-ever interschool library for students living in Kiamaina, which is where Njamunge grew up. This spring, they learned that four eighth-grade girls from Njamunge’s former primary school were accepted to elite secondary schools. For Kenya Reads, the news is a windfall: In the previous year, there were no students from Maina Primary School who were accepted into Kenya’s better-equipped private high schools. Furthermore, girls in Kiamaina — home to some 20,000 people plagued by HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, poverty, crime, and no clean water — are more likely than boys to drop out of school by eighth grade.
For its efforts, Kenya Reads has earned more than $20,000 in combined support from the Kathryn W. Davis Projects for Peace foundation, the Dalai Lama Fellows program, and Oberlin’s Creativity & Leadership Project.
Since Njamunge, a neuroscience major, and Godfrey, a biology major, launched Kenya Reads in the summer of 2012, they’ve gained a third student member, junior Ty Diringer, who was awarded $10,000 in support for the project as a 2013 Dalai Lama fellow. This spring, the group received a $10,000 grant as a Projects for Peace recipient. And in January, Kenya Reads received a $1,000 grant from the Creativity & Leadership LaunchU competition.
With the combined funding, the three will travel to Kenya this summer to establish the Kenya Reads Community Center, which will become a permanent home base for the community library. The center will provide space for a local women’s self-help group to establish a sewing program, which will produce affordable school uniforms for disadvantaged students. School uniforms are mandatory for Kenyan students to enroll and stay in school, but the price is higher than the average monthly household income in poor places such as Kiamaina.
The community library—the first ever in the area—will provide access to educational materials and books for enjoyment, both for students and interested community members. The funding will also enable Kenya Reads to employ a local, full-time staff member to manage the community center.
By collaborating with the local women’s group, Kenya Reads’ leaders say they are moving from a grant-based to a sustainable model with a combination of different revenue-generating streams. In the future, the community center may partner with more women’s groups in the area to make crafts, which will be auctioned to Kenya Reads donors and supporters in North America. “This community center will serve as a prototype for a sustainable model that we will then replicate in other parts of Kenya,” says Njamunge.
Diringer, a politics major, says Kenya Reads is turning its focus to a broader sense of literacy in the community. “We want to help kids stay in school and do well, but we also want to reach the kids who are not in school and help them return.”
Godfrey says the group hopes to expand on the pamoja sessions (pamoja is Swahili for “together”), which have provided mentorship support and peaceful cross-cultural discourse among students. Kiamaina is a multi-ethnic region that experiences cyclic ethnic clashes, especially during and after elections. A student group from a nearby university has been leading mentorship sessions so that Kiamaina students have year-round role models.
“The feedback is really good. I’m looking forward to seeing how the community interacts with the center,” says Godfrey. “There has been a tremendous outpouring from parents — that makes it worth it. And it’s awesome to see students’ results right away.”
In early April, the group presented Kenya Reads at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in St. Louis, where they were one of 10 groups featured with a video presentation of their work. On April 30, the Bonner Center for Service and Learning awarded Kenya Reads with its Civic Engagement and Entrepreneurship Award.
“These grants will definitely go a long way in helping us pilot Kenya Reads, and I am very hopeful that regardless of the challenges that we might face during the implementation phase, the project will take off this summer,” Njamunge says. “As a team, we are very grateful to the Kathryn Davis Projects for Peace, the Dalai Lama Fellows, and Creativity & Leadership for granting us the funding.”