The efforts of one man from Africa and one woman from the United States have helped bring hope to hundreds of young Kenyan people whose lives would have ended up, perhaps, as statistics of those who were killed or ended up in crime.
Andrew and Stephanie Onguka relocated from America to Kenya in 2011 to start OneLife Africa, a program that offers scholarships, mentorship and spiritual support to bright but needy students from the slums of Nairobi.
In 2011, the school admitted its first 22 students. Today it has 130.
OLA’s main catchment area is in the Mathare slums of Nairobi. Most of the young people here cannot go to school because of reasons beyond their control. Death from HIV and AIDS, separation and divorce among the people in the slums affects the education of children.
Without the scholarships offered by OLA, the lives of these young people would have turned out differently.
“A closer look at life and poor circumstances in Mathare slums revealed to me that the options for young people would be to join criminal gangs or go into prostitution,” said Andrew, adding that in his own childhood there were no resources for him to go to school.
The Mathare slums was one of the places badly affected by the post-election violence that took place in Kenya immediately after the 2007 presidential elections.
“The post-elections violence made it clearer to me that I had to do something…young people took the law into their own hands, fighting to defend the little they owned,” said Andrew. “We needed to work towards the realization of a value-based community that is accountable to God and one another.”
His vision, he said, is to empower young people in Africa through education, mentorship and community service through a financially accountable, transparent and sustainable organization.
So far, 17 students who have gone through the program have graduated from universities and other middle-level colleges in Kenya. They are working in various sectors – in the government and in the private sector.
Andrew said OLA raises its funds through supporters. Currently 80 percent of the support is from individuals and 20 percent is from churches and Christian organizations. OneLife Africa partners with three churches in the U.S.: Calvary Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Redeemer Lutheran Church in Damascus, Maryland; and Hilltop Community Church in Carson City, Nevada.
OneLife Africa supporters send their tax-deductible donations to Bridge Ministries, a registered organization in Minden, Nevada that forwards 100 percent of the donations to Kenya. Andrew and Stephanie said they have been encouraged and are grateful to those who have sacrificially contributed to the program, most of who are known personally to them.
The program encourages families to be financially committed and morally supportive towards their children’s education, with OLA coming in to provide full tuition and accommodation fees, said Andrew.
“Families do what they can and we will do what they cannot do,” he said. “Students stay in school and concentrate on their studies and they do not have to worry about school fees.”
Paying students’ fees means that parents and guardians can concentrate on their work of making ends meet for themselves and the rest of the family members. One other major contribution that the program makes to the students is that it offers mentoring and counseling during the school holidays, something that is difficult to do in public schools.
“OneLife Africa offers a safe community for students, socially, the program reduces social stigma on students, since they are identified with OLA rather than with their poor families,” said Andrew.
Some of the challenges the Onguka’s face as they run such a program is during the student selection process. The high number of qualified and needy cases makes it difficult to turn students away due to the limited resources they have to work with.
Cultural taboos in many African societies have been against educating girls. To support girls’ education, OLA makes every effort to ensure that a proportionate number of girls to boys are selected into the program. Currently the ratio of boys to girls is 52 percent to 48 percent.
The organization embraces diversity by choosing qualified students from different communities in Kenya. Currently, they have students from 12 different tribes in Kenya.
‘We are also going out of our way to get students from the marginalized areas in the country…we want an equal representation of tribes and gender,” said Andrew.
To help in this endeavor, they have partnered with a Conservancy in Maasailand, which will give scholarship opportunities to students from the Narok areas because of the harsh environmental conditions.
The Maasai people live a nomadic life and have few permanent schools in their region. The patriarchal culture does not encourage educating girls. The partnership between OLA and the community hopes to overcome cultural practices and stereotypes that hinder girls’ education.
To achieve this, Andrew said the people they work with have been very supportive.
“The people know and trust OLA because we have treated them with dignity; we have been very transparent with them,” he said. “The parents, guardians and community leaders are encouraged to recommend students to us.”
To be admitted into the program, OLA works closely with schools and other community-based organizations. Orphans must have a verification letter from the local administration where they reside.
One of the lessons the organization has learned is that group mentoring works more effectively in this context than one-on-one mentoring.
“Paying school fees is the easy part but mentoring is the key thing, because it has the biggest impact in the long run,” said Andrew.
In the future, Andrew said the school will accept the number of students they are sure to be able to not only pay school fees for, but also provide effective mentorship for them too.
Andrew said that besides the academic success they have witnessed, the program has helped to bring back together families that were disintegrating. Some of the families had financial difficulties, which caused a strain in the relationship between the parents. But with financial support for the children in school, this helps to reduce the pressure on the parents.
“If we have to change this country, we have to raise young people who have the right set of values,” he said. “If we have to see the country change, we must invest in the future leaders who will lead with integrity. Young people will only do what they see adults do; if the adults are corrupt, the young people will be corrupt too.”
So far, he said, OLA has had to deal with a few issues of indiscipline. Andrew says these cases do not deter them from their original vision of helping to mentor young people.
“As long as they are willing to change, we walk alongside them. We have a relational program to help restore such students,” he said.
Success without the right values is no success at all, says Andrew.
Future Plans of OLA
So far, OLA does not have facilities of their own where they can run holiday camping activities. This ties them to the calendars of other organizations.
“We would like to have a predictable calendar, such that we can equip and build a deeper relationship with the students,” he said.
The other challenge OLA face is strikes and threats of strike by the teacher’s labor union. This makes the students suffer for mistakes, which are not of their making.
Despite these challenges, the future seems to be brighter for the organization.
“We plan to have a residential camp facility in the next two years in Western Kenya,” said Andrew. They already have a piece of land and some funds have been raised towards making the dream of a camp facility come true. Once complete, more than 1,000 students are expected to benefit from the facility in any given year, as they are mentored through life decisions, prepared for college education and equipped to serve in their communities.
Here, those who enroll will be given vocational and life skills training before they join the university.
“The goal of the organization is to produce educated, biblically grounded and lovingly mentored servant leaders who are devoted followers of Jesus Christ,” he said.
He added that the organization would continue with its humanitarian approach to development of young people, by focusing on the top 1 percent performers and investing heavily in them.
Real life transformations
Jemima Kuusya from Kitui County, in what was previously called the Eastern province in Kenya, was reserved and could not even tell her story when she initially joined the program.
“We almost left her out,” said Andrew, reflecting on how the girl from a small rural part of Kenya has improved over the years.
“But since she joined the program, there has been a huge change. She has become a leader in her own right,” he said.
He said one of the reasons why this happened is because Jemima found acceptance and training in the program.
She is now a form three student at Mulango Girls, where her performance has been remarkable.
Flora Savai is the fourth born in a family of eight. Currently, she is a fourth year student in the University of Nairobi, studying for a law degree. The scholarship provided by OneLife Africa turned her life around.
“If it wasn’t for OLA, I would have done a different course at university, which was not the course of my choice,” she said.
She had been admitted to the university to study Library and Information Science, which was not her first choice course. But with the scholarship from OLA, she is now studying law and looks forward to advocating for people’s rights and fighting for justice.
She said besides the financial support she gets, she has been able to grow both spiritually and socially, adding that OLA’s mentorship program provides the support that parents may not be able to provide for their children at home.
“The mentorship has impacted my life,” she said. “I have been able to grow spiritually…the camps have enabled me to grow in the disciplines of Christian living. I have grown socially by meeting and helping those who are facing challenges in life.”
Flora said that meeting and interacting with people from other cultures and backgrounds has helped to change her worldview.
Flora would like to be involved in human rights and children rights issues once she graduates from the university. If she gets the opportunity, she hopes to earn a masters degree in psychology in order to understand human beings better.
Her advice to other young people who come from difficult circumstances is that they should believe that there is greatness in them and work to bring it out.
“They should know that there is hope, they should never give up in life, because God always has a big plan for each of us,” she said.
As for organizations like OLA, which are supporting disadvantaged children, Flora urges them to believe in such children and give them all the necessary support.
“They should not shy away from supporting them, because it is the only hope that they (children) have. God is faithful and will bless whatever they do,” she said.
For those who would like to support OLA:
In the U.S., write checks to “Bridge Ministries” with OneLife Africa on the memo line. Bridge Ministries is a U.S. registered nonprofit organization that passes 100 percent of the donations to OLA. Bridge Ministries, P. O. Box 1958, Minden, NV 89423
To donate online visit: www.Bridge-Ministries.net
In Kenya, make checks out to “OneLife Africa” and mail to: OneLife Africa, P.O.Box 60875 00200 Nairobi Kenya.
MPESA donations: 0728-337-681
Moses Wasamu is a freelance journalist covering nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits in Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @moseswasamu.