Nairobi Slum Girls get straight talk from VAP’s Mrembo Project

Vijana Amani Pamoja (or “VAP,” meaning Youth Peace Together) runs several programs in Nairobi schools and sports fields that try to prepare the youth to make better life choices.
It’s founder, Enouce Ndeche, grew up in the slums of Kamukunji and played soccer addictively. I’ve known him for 3 years. Last year, I remember asking him where he got the idea to start this organization.

“I was volunteering with special olympics and one of the counselors gave me the idea – that one can impart life skills through sports.”

And for the last 7 years, Enouce changed his focus from getting noticed as a footballer to getting his fledgling organization noticed by funders. He’s had a few lucky breaks, but it have been a long hard slog from obscurity in a slum seldom heard of by outsiders.

Over the years VAP has gotten it’s fair share of capacity building support from CARE’s sports for social change network, and the occasional foreign NGO worker that visits the project and donates from his or her own pocket. VAP got introduced to GlobalGiving in 2006 along with CARE’s whole network of Kenyan sports organizations. But since then, it has been Enouce who has had to approach anyone he could think of to keep funding his projects. He can name SafariCom Foundation, SONY, Coaches Across the Continent, FIFA, and now the Anti-Corruption Commission among his supporters. But none of these sticks around for long, and none has provided VAP with funding for more than 3 consecutive years.

This isn’t an anomaly; this is business as usual in the NGO world. And although the money VAP has earned by reaching out to individiuals through GlobalGiving has been a modest piece of the whole, it’s been the most consistent source year after year. That’s because as unlikely as it is for any one person to give every year, the same percentage of 200 supporters will give each year.

Enouce attracted Nancy Waweru Ndeche 4 years ago to VAP, and she has been their programatic backbone. As a program manager, Nancy keeps VAP’s two dozen coaches and community volunteers on task and on budget. Nancy also says she loves the monitoring and evaluation side of her work – figuring out whether their approach is really working to change lives.

While Enouce is a middle-aged goofy, smiling kid with great rapport with youth, Nancy is the quiet inspirational leader. She encouraged Enouce to expand VAP’s programs beyond just sports to raise HIV awareness. Now they run a life-skills after school program for 100 girls aged 8 to 14 in two Majengo slum schools called the “Mrembo Project.” Mrembo means “Beautiful” in kishahili and as Nancy explains it, “The media reminds girls constantly about their outward beauty, but unless we help them realize their inner beauty, they will grow up making poor life decisions.”

The inner beauty is something special to behold, and I’ve had the honor of seeing it at Mrembo’s graduation ceremony today. We’re here handing out certificates to 100 girls who attended weekly thursday night classes about their bodies, boys, sex, aids, rape, and what to expect when they become teenagers. Liz, a teacher and Mrembo counselor, hands me certificates as Opo (one of the VAP coaches) calls each girl’s name. I shake hands with each girl and give them the certificate. Each one smiles and courtseys politely, but it is I who feel inaequate and full of gratitude for being invited to be part of this special moment. If you know what it takes to achieve this, you would too.
In addition to her work, Nancy is also a university trained swahili teacher (my teacher, in fact) and a mother of a 2 year old kid. In addition to worrying about where the money will come next month to pay her “coaches” (who mentor hundreds of youth) their $150 stipends, she found the time to travel to these schools and lead the classes herself for the first few months. She didn’t do it because anyone told her it was a good idea, or awarded her a grant, or took duties off her already full plate; she did it because it needed to be done and nobody else was gonna do it. It is that “funders be damned” attitude about starting a program that I admire in Nancy. I’m here for all of 2011 to run the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project, of which VAP is a part – but would I have the guts to do this if I had to also get a second job to make ends meet? I doubt it.

Kudos to those who trailblaze new programs where not a single funder comes forth to ease the path – like Nancy and her team at VAP. The Mrembo project happened because a mere handful of people made it happen. What they raised ($1,600), they earned all through GlobalGiving. What they couldn’t raise, they simply did without.

The peer educators put in extra time at no extra pay to help – like when they counseled a traumatized 8 year old girl whose best friend was raped. After graduation, Head Teacher Liz wrote her mobile number on the chalk board. “I’m 24-7 if you ever need to talk to someone about rape, menses, HIV, or anything, call me,” she says. This is the face of “innovation” – it’s a labor of love, not intellectual creation. Every time a mother is there to listen to a neighbor’s kid or offers a shoulder to cry about the challenges of growing up poor in a town where aggressive guys are trying to have sex with you before you even know that sex is, you’re looking at “International Development.” Only it isn’t international anymore, or really development – it’s dealing with problems on your street. And I hope by sharing what that looks like, I can make it  easier for others to keep on doing what they’re doing.

In their final Mrembo session, as part of the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project, the girls wrote stories about the challenges they face. One girl’s story went:

“Thanks to Mrembo project for teaching me about adolescence and rape and reproductive health and HIV. I want to end my bad behavior going to airstrip with boys. Now I want to find my second virginity. I was wrong but now I understand. I will give up prostitution forever.”

Another story from a girl under 14 went:

“There was a girl who was my best friend and was known as Elizabeth and we was in the same class which was class six. She have two songs and she is in a bad friendship now.

One day Eliz and I, we went to a place where was a group of people and they was some boyz who was boyfriends of Eliz. I ask Eliz, ‘Eliz where are you going with that boy?’

She haven’t answer any thing but Eliz, she went with a boy by bad new she slept with that boy and she get a pregnancy which was the second pregnancy. She gave up with education.”

These stories are from young girls, not teenagers, yet they’ve witnessed rape, faced pregnancy and early marriage.

According to Nancy and Liz, these girls were quiet at first, but over 18 months it became clear they’re exposed to much more than anyone could imagine. Anyone who thinks sex-education doesn’t matter to an 8 year old needs to come here and see the Mrembo project in action. And yet it only reaches two schools, when perhaps hundreds need it.
After graduation I spoke with the Principal of this “informal school.” In 14 years of operation, they’ve gotten no government funding and they only ask the parents to pay 300 Kenyan shillings a month ($3.75). Still, half the parents can’t even scrape it together. The head teacher said, “so what can he do? I will never turn away a smart student who is working hard. It is a dilemma.” Money has to come from somewhere, but it never comes. He showed me receipts for teacher allowances – 2000 shillings a month. He admits this $24 is too small to be called a salary, but he can’t give them any more. Teachers are here because they too want the community to improve – and giving kids an opportunity through education is worth the work, even if it doesn’t pay.

Their efforts can sometime attract the wrong kind of attention. During the ceremony he made a speech about how when he took over this school 18 months ago, there were a lot of programs that he had to throw out, but that Mrembo was one of the few that remained. There were people coming here to deliver ARVs, but eventually their supply of aids-fighting drugs dried up. By the time he’d taken over the school, these people were still coming – and bringing white people to the school to show off the work they claimed to be doing, but it was a sham. He said, “Eventually I couldn’t lie to the whites anymore. No one was getting any of the medicine as these people were saying. I tossed them out. But Mrembo has been here every Thursday night for months, teaching these girls.”

It saddens me that the world is full of do-gooders that sacrifice for others who live and work alongside freeloaders that try to cash in on that generosity (by convincing whites to give them money for ARVs they’ll never distribute) – but at least I feel there are ways to know who is who. And I’m asking you on behalf of Nancy, Enouce, and all the rest who have always been making a difference – if you can spare some money (perhaps $10 a month) for Mrembo – that you do so today. Their money has dried up, and Mrembo won’t happen next fall without money for sanitary pads and transport.

One person can change a life

It turns out that one person got the Mrembo project off the ground financially. One anonymous donor (of the 14 total) gave $1000 last year on GlobalGiving.  With part of that money VAP bought a mini fridge, stocked it with sodas and sold them, raising 800 shillings each month this way. According to Nancy this monthly $10 has helped them distribute sanitary towels to the girls, but they had to stop in May. The Principal also drove home this point today, noting that girls without sanitary pads miss about 60 days of school each year.

This postcard is from a visit to VAP’s Mrembo Project on May 26 20111. Read about the Story Theme Game that maps community issues in this part of Nairobi, created on a previous visit.

13 thoughts on “Nairobi Slum Girls get straight talk from VAP’s Mrembo Project

  1. Thanks Marc for highlighting the mrembo project in your blog and the postcard too.We are glad you were able to attend the graduation ceremony for the girls.

    Having more than 70 girls completing the curriculum in two schools,we are now looking for new schools for the project.Yesterday I spoke to Liz our assistant program cordinator who told me that she found Good hope and they are starting today with 50 girls.Enouce our Director spoke to Mr Moses,a head teacher of Grasam High school in Mathare slums-He saw the benefit of the program and invited us to start the program with the form ones.We plan to start with Grasam girls next week.

    We are able to reach out to these girls through our small Income Generating activities and mostly through Global Giving.We will forever be grateful to Marc for introducing the story telling project to us that we use for our Monitering and Evaluation.It is through such stories that we realized that most girls would talk about rape,a topic that is addressed in our curriculum.As we continue talking to the girls we have a reason to put emphasy on sexual abuse and work closely with Nairobi Women Hospital.

    For those who would like to see lives of many girls transform positively,reinforce good morals and character among girls in Kiambiu,Kinyago,Majengo and Mathare slums you can visit our website and donate.

    Marc I suppose there is no limit of words in posting a comment…

    Nancy Waweru
    Program Director

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