Member of Parliament for the Kibra Constituency Founder
& Chairman, Children of Kibera Foundation
Wisdom is Wealth // Swahili proverb
By Cecilia Mencia
By the flicker of the “Nyangile” light, or kerosene tin lamp, young Ken Okoth did his homework. The kerosene eventually damaged his eyesight but not his drive to help those living in one of the most impoverished places in the world — the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.
As chairman and founder of the non-profit Children of Kibera Foundation (now the Kenya Education Fund), Okoth created a way to help youth in the Kibera community where he grew up. His goal was to raise scholarships to liberate students from Nairobi’s broken school system.
“It’s not uncommon to see 100 students standing crowded in a classroom led by a single teacher. A lot of people in Kibera are trapped, because they have a limited education,” Okoth said.
The CKF now supports students at the Red Rose Nursery and Children’s Center, a non-profit community school. Two hundred and fifty dollars covers the cost of tuition, school supplies, enrichment lessons and two meals a day for a year. Many of the students are orphans of parents with HIV/AIDS.
CKF students have gone on to study at some notable universities like Harvard University, Middlebury College, Berea College, Lafayette College, the University of Nairobi, Strathmore University, Kenyatta University, the United States International University in Africa and more.
“It gives me deep satisfaction to see others succeed when given the support I received, proving that my own path was not a fluke but a possibility for many more if we make the right investments for all children regardless of their parents’ economic status,” Okoth said.
Okoth grew up in Kibera (or Kibra), an enormously overpopulated slum in Nairobi, Kenya, lacking running water and connection to the municipal sewage system and electric grid. He lived with his mother, Angeline, I’ve siblings and other family members in a 12-by-12 foot, one-room house. He was most influenced by his mother who taught him courage, determination, ambition, confidence and loyalty. She had a very basic education but worked with dedication to raise all her children to find a better life and acquire the best education possible.
His neighbors were Muslim, Lutheran, Adventist and refugees from Uganda. Though there was much poverty, the homes were kept tidy with table clothes and embroidered seat covers. The community was an integral part of Ken’s upbringing where discipline was dispensed, as well as, being a place to enjoy the fruits of multi-cultural cooking. Education has been a path from his humble roots in the Kibera slums and a means to meeting and interacting with people from all corners of the world.
As a young man, Okoth received a scholarship from the Save the Children organization to attend boarding school in Nairobi. As a side job, he sold newspapers to fund German language classes. He thought of becoming a certified tour bus driver for German speaking tourists. As luck would have it, Okoth serendipitously delivered papers to New York’s St. Lawrence University’s Kenya Semester Program office in Nairobi. There he learned about a scholarship for Kenyan students, applied and won the scholarship. He eventually became a German major, studied in Europe for three semesters and, ultimately, attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
He went on to become a professor at Georgetown teaching Swahili Culture and Language and taught history at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia. Always wanting to do more, Okoth organized a summer high school trip to the Red Rose School in Kibera every summer during his tenure at the Potomac School. Students would collect uniforms, supplies and other necessities to take to the young children. Part of the student’s experience included teaching classes and learning the culture.
Elected to the Kenyan Parliament in 2013, representing the people of Kibra Constituency, Okoth has a unique platform to help create valuable laws for his country and for the benefit of his people, many of which are at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“I hope to be an aggressive advocate on behalf of my people, to raise attention of some of the issues and channel resources that can make a big impact on the lives of women, children and youth in my community,” he said.
Priority issues that he would like to improve include access to quality housing, clean water, business capital and affordable healthcare.
Creating sustainable environments is one of Okoth’s main projects. Currently, he is working with several companies (Kenchi Ltd and Grand Korea Leisure Co.) who have provided greenhouses stocked with 200 chickens and the ability to grow vegetables. The project, GLK Global Economic Self- Reliance Project, will benefit the Ayany Estate Primary School Farm. They hope to extend this project to other needy schools within the next three years. Many of these issues may not be addressed in five years, and he hopes to seek a second term and reelection in 2017.
“It’s a great honor and an amazing adventure where all my life experiences and education come to bear every day in serving my people and my country,” he said.