Gichuki Francis of TYSA demonstrates story-driven development

Gichuki Francis built his organization from the ground up over the last ten years. He operates TYSA (Trans-Nzoia Youth Sports Association) on his family’s pasture land outside of town, about 15 miles north of Kitale, Kenya. His father managed to acquire this land through 40 years of squatting around the time of Kenya’s independence. Francis was the 6th of 9 children, and the beneficiary of a good solid education from primary school straight through to Kenyan university. Gichuki, like Michael Jordan, has a degree in geography he doesn’t use. Other than his Kenyan education, he has no obvious “capacity building” experiences, such as living in another country or working for years at an NGO. Most of what Gichuki knows, he has learned from experience. He is a great listener and student of life – and absorbs knowledge from his surroundings at faster rate than everyone else. I think that is why he is successful.

His passion for starting TYSA comes from the struggles he had trying to gain access to education while growing up. He learned from his father at an early age that education unlocked opportunities, and wants the same for the youth in his home community. After his first year of high school, he approached the local priest teaching there to let him know that he would probably not be attending next year for lack of money. His father had a choice of selling off some of their land to pay for his school, or having him drop out. Eventually Gichuki was able to arrange a compromise – a lease of the family’s land to pay for his high school. As the 6th of 9 kids, few families would have prioritized education this way. But on account of his families financial efforts, Gichuki was able to find other scholarships and continue through university. All this is backstory to why Gichuki is able to manage so many local programs in a flexible and effective way.

Girls’ Football tournament

On Saturday TYSA hosted an all-girls soccer tournament on the cow pastures that he’d turned into soccer fields. 8 high school teams came. During the byes in the tournament, TYSA had arranged for the girls (ages 10 to 14) to attend two learning sessions: First, a doctor talked to them about female reproductive health. As mothers are reluctant to talk to their daughters about sex, menstruation, and adolescence, this might have been the only time some of these girls actually get told about their bodies. For a few, it was visibly too late: some of the girls attending were already mothers, though none were over 14 (according to the rules).

Second, Zip and Elizabeth (a local woman who runs a seed business and volunteers with TYSA) got the teams into a classroom and led them in a story writing exercise. As a witness, I could tell the hardest part was getting the girls to choose their own story to write about. Elizabeth used four examples in her explanation (Red Cross, TYSA, “talk about an accident,” or talk about poverty). Afterwards I read the stories and over half were about one of these four topics. While it may be true teens are particularly susceptible to adult suggestions, I think this reflects a more general problem in education – that young people learn to look for the implicit “right” answer hiding within a question asked. So even with a completely open ended question such as “talk about something happening in your community,” only a minority of storytellers answer with a story about something that matters to them personally. Most try to respond with “appropriate” answers that will be deemed by powerful outside authorities worthy to unlock opportunities for them and their communities. But for the minority that do have their own voice, storytelling can be very revealing about the community. The funny thing is that slightly younger kids don’t do this, and their stories are honest without regard to audience.

All in all, the day was a success. Girls from 8 teams wrote 250 stories, and the Kenyan doctor managed to give all the girls a crash course in female reproductive health. And there was some good soccer too.

At the awards ceremony Gichuki gave out cash prizes to each team, based on performance. These were to be allocated to purely educational needs by the girls on the team, in consultation with their local principal. “And I will be personally following up and reporting on how each of you use this money!” Gichuki added. “Don’t just eat it. Bread and sodas are not your ‘educational needs.’”

Prize money came in three ways: 2000 for winning the tournament, 200 for each girl scoring a goal in the first or last 7 minutes of a game, and 10 shillings for each story they wrote (GlobalGiving’s standard reward). When placed in the context of the other prizes, 2500 shillings ($30) from GlobalGiving essentially doubled the money going to local educational needs that day. And the value of these stories to TYSA in learning what these girls need is probably has much more value than what $30 could buy in any other form of community “evaluation.”

To understand how stories can change an organization, I’ll summarize our conversation with Gichuki from the night before. We were sitting in the hotel restaurant as Gichuki explained the tournament. He mentioned that the reason he was setting up the tournament to explcitly deal with female reproductive health came from their feedback over the past year from local girls. Through stories told in 2010, the girls said that (a) no local organizations truly target the needs of girls and (b) once they raised important issues, there was never any follow-up.

“So that’s why we’ve restructured our whole program to now have a FRH component. We didn’t talk about these issues in the past, and it was clear they needed it.” Gichuki said.

I asked him what other issues they’d learned about. He told a story about one girl who had gotten pregnant, dropped out of school, but after two years, was again pursuing her degree. It was a chaotic journey and she was thrown out and had to move in with her boyfriend at one point. But after TYSA helped inspire her with the confidence and determination to finish high school, and helped with school fees, she was managing again. In fact, she’d recruited a dozen girls from her school to join TYSA after that.

Similar traumatic events happen in this rural community quite a lot. We discussed another story about a girl who asked during a discussion, “what do you do if you your mother cannot feed you and there is a local boy who offers you food and a bed?”

It was a hard discusion, as no one at TYSA had an easy answer. Was it better to starve or trade sex for food? These are the dilemmas girls can face here. Morality and chastity become a luxury when faced with starvation, and yet many girls do choose this because they have positive support from their peer community at this “sports organization.”

I asked Gichuki my usual question about what words he would search for in a large body of ten thousand stories to try and pull out similar stories of girls experiencing the same problems elsewhere. He wasn’t sure, but was willing to experiment. He mentioned that “rape” is not described as rape here. The context changes everything.

For example, sometimes girls have to work shucking in the corn fields all day, and sometimes they’re alone with older men who approach them and make sexual offers. As there is no one who can see or hear them, the girl is on her own on how to respond. She might suffer a lot more refusing, maybe be beaten and then forced to have sex. But to avoid this field work is also to face starvation. The ways girls talk about these stories are hardly straightforward.

Zip was intrigued by the whole thing, because she also runs a primary school in a poor part of Nairobi (Komarock Kayole) when not working for GG. “How do you work with your community?” She asked.

Gichuki explained that there are four parts to doing this right. Through trial and error he’d realized you can’t solve a problem that crosses community boundaries without involving every group.

He says, “We always start by focusing on the child. We listen to them and often they know what they need.”

He flipped over the paper with the tournament schedule and began to sketch it out:

“How do you work with the community?

Priorities are:
1. Child
2. Parent
3. School
4. Community”

“We don’t talk to the parent first. Sometimes a parent will come to TYSA and say ‘can you help my child succeed?’ And we say, ‘send your child here and we will talk to them.’ And sometimes it takes years before the parent realizes we mean this. You cannot help a child through a parent.”

He then sketched out the things that a child needs in order to succeed:

“A) Sports
B) Child protection –> youth parliament 0-14 -> junior assembly 15+
C) Capacity building –> life skills
D) Must Embrace education”

Sports is a bridge to the child, a fun activity that gets him or her into situations where TYSA can talk about issues of “child protection” and “life skills.” To get parents involved, he makes every kid bring back a signed parental permission form, though he doesn’t collect any fees from them. And finally – no child can participate in sports if they are failing at school. In fact, every school respects TYSA because through their program about 70% of the students pass with a high school degree, whereas the national average is half that.

Gichuki then explained a “points system” they’ve adopted to award students for achievement. Students that earn a total of 270 points become eligible for a scholarship, funding through the GlobalGiving program. Points are awarded not just for good grades, but also for exhibiting leadership qualities, performing community service, and for participating in sports – which is essential for learning to work with others as a team. Every time kids take the pitch for a game, he reminds them, “You are not here to win. You are here because it is a learning experience. We don’t just kick this ball around, we kick it because it means something – it helps you build character.” [or something like that] His motivational speeches are consitently about the whole person, and not just the great athlete. And yet TYSA breeds winners. When they traveled to Nairobi last year and faced better funded and more fully clothed teams (often wearning cleates!) they still dominated while running barefoot. TYSA and Carolina for Kibera faced off last April in the Semi-finals of a MYSA tournament and won! (BTW TYSA, MYSA, and C4K are all on GlobalGiving).

What does rewarding points for character mean to Gichuki? He grins and replies, “it doesn’t take brains to fix that fence over there,” pointing to the boundary between the field and the road, “it takes character.”

Lamec, his right hand man of about age 20, was also a “beneficiary.” Lamec manages just about all the programs for Gichuki, but focuses on the scholarship program. Lamec wasn’t the best athlete nor the best student in the area, but he had outstanding character and leadership qualities that Gichuki recognized and nurtured. “When Lamec was in St. Theresa’s secondary he averted a student strike. Both sides were getting hot and he intervened and managed to negotiate a compromise.” That kind of leadership is worth “points” in Gichuki’s system. And what a great meritocracy he has created in rural Kenya – where honesty, hard work, and personal character are rewarded with scholarships and opportunity to help one’s community. It takes a leader to nuture leadership – and I find it compelling that neither Gichuki nor Lamec have the kind of resume that would attract outside attention. He simply excels and searching for solutions.

It reminds me a Buckminster Fuller quote:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

And that is what his points system does for the grading system in schools, without creating any conflict with the ministry. Kids go to school because they want the opportunity for a career and a better life. Grades and schooling are just an intermediate step. TYSA provides that opportunity more directly – through merit-based scholarships that measure and reward the whole person, not just the person’s ability to memorize answers for a test or kick a ball into a net. You know it works because what emerges from TYSA’s program are leaders, not mere students. I know some failing “education” NGOs that have recognized failing schools and tried to reform them from within – but here’s model that works in spite of the shortcomings of the school. And most of what this “sports organization” does doesn’t even happen on a soccer field. (read about the “community” approach below.)

When putting this in the context of “innovation,” Gichuki typically fails to recognize how innovative his approaches are. He intuitively modifies his programs based on “what works” so effortlessly that he doesn’t keep good records of all the failed approaches along the way. Continuous community feedback keeps him on the right track.

This is simpler, yet more effective than most expert-driven methods in “international development.” None of his solutions were suggested by outsiders, nor evaluated, nor funded as a concept on its own. Funding goes into scholarships (the ultimate reward for individual performance) but the rest of the system is community and volunteer driven. It works because Gichuki builds upon solid foundations – by starting with the child, listening to the child, working with the school, orienting parents, and inviting community elders to participate in guiding the community’s children.

Yes, he’s won a Millennium Development Goals award and all that prestige (As best NGO empowering girls in Kenya in 2010), but the way Gichuki tells it, “I wished we could have competed for Goal #8 – partnerships – but the MDG Trust didn’t think they could pick a winner in that category.”

And why aren’t there awards for building strong community-wide partnerships, when that seems to be the most important part of success?

A model of community building

TYSA’s community feedback approach preceded the GlobalGiving storytelling project. Gichuki actively partnered with GlobalGiving for storytelling because he saw it aligns with his existing system. When problems arose for TYSA’s kids that were beyond the scope of sports, school, or what parents could do – he reached out to the community and formed groups. Some village elders became community mentors, men and women that the youth could talk to about problems, and who could also be a bridge between the children and parents.

When one girl got pregnant at 14, she met with the elder, and the elder woman started casually talking to the parent, and dropping in hypothetical hints to ease the shock, such as, “say your daught got pregnant… how would you handle that?”

Gichuki explains how the other group of elders worked with ‘black books’:

“We formed a community council and trained the elders in conflict resolution. The elders wanted help resolving conflict but they were not addressing the root of the problem.”
“We gave them black books. They would walk around and record the conflicts they resolved. This is how we discovered that one of the common issues in the community was drunkenness.”
“Second, these black books revealed to us the issue about the children – how they were caught up in the conflict. The mother and the father were fighting and the kids were in between.”
“One girl ran away – and that led us back to the issue. The father beat the mother, and he was not her biological father, so the girl wanted to run away. This was a common story – where a girl doesn’t live with both biological parents, we see many family problems like this.”
“Later, that mother lent her phone to the daughter so she could talk to a boyfriend. The father thought this daughter was using TYSA to find boyfriends. So we tracked the phone number – and it wasn’t from Kisumu, where she had gone for a running competition. It was the neighbor boy. So we were not to blame. I remember her because she was a ver good 800 meters runner.”

Operation Back to School

“We later used the community leadership council in ‘Operation back to school’ to find out how many kids are not staying in school. Between the school and a nearby bridge – we’d see a child sitting on a school day and we ask ‘which is your school?’ Then we would pick them up and bring them to their school. We’d ask the teacher, ‘you know this child?’
She’d say, ‘Yes – last time he came was months ago.’ Sometimes years! She’d say, ‘I rememer he stopped coming because there was this case of the text book that was lost.’ And we would resolve it like that.”

That’s all it took – turn a life around and put a kid in school simply by resolving a lost text book that would have cost $10 to replace, but the fear of punishment was turning him into a dropout. I remember hearing the same story in anecdotes form Isobel Turner at RETRAK. A large number of Kampala’s street children were runaways because of minor misunderstandings at school or home. If only there was a way for TYSA and RETRAK to see their own problems through each other’s stories, hmmm?

Gichuki continued, “In other cases uniforms were critical to keeping kids in school, so we’d buy them uniforms. Other times we cooked food because that was the problem. Or when the problem was at home, we would call the parents. Sometimes the parents would never come to school for a conference until we visited them at home.”
“So for 6 months we were out there on the roads, identifying and resolving issues. And soon there were no more kids hanging around the roads on the way to school. “

The next year Gichuki explained that conflicts and safety issues were happening on the path from TYSA back to kids homes. Parents blamed TYSA, and Gichuki asked them, “when they leave our place, to whom does this kid belong to?” And he mapped out the crux of the issue:

[ TYSA ]  <––––––––––––––––––    [ HOME ]
         -–––––––––––––––––>   

             [ SCHOOL]

In between TYSA, SCHOOL, and HOME, the kid belongs to the whole community. “It is all of our responsibility. Don’t leave TYSA alone, or the parents, or the school alone,” he told them. “We must all play our part.” And eventually the kids were not getting into trouble.

I found myself frantically scribbling down everything coming out of Gichuki’s mouth during that meeting, and over the next day. This is what the “searcher” that Bill Easterly talks about in the White Man’s Burden looks like. Fun, interesting, easy to follow, and effective. We should be all so lucky to have someone like that in our community.

Follow TYSA on twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/tysa

Support TYSA: http://goto.gg/4237

Search TYSA on GlobalGiving

Read stories abut TYSA from community on GlobalGiving (you need to scroll down to 2010 on the project wall)

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5 thoughts on “Gichuki Francis of TYSA demonstrates story-driven development

  1. The girl Atieno that we met was 20, I am not sure about the others. But I don’t believe 14 was the oldest age. Thanks for writing this all Marc 🙂

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