New Ypsilanti nonprofit aims to help fight poverty in Kenya through improving students' education
The first day of school was always a special one for John Njenga. Not only did the Kenyan youth enjoy his studies, but it was one of the few days each year he got to wear his shoes on the two-mile trek to school.
He would arrive at a schoolhouse not well stocked with books. Some buildings were missing the windows or doors that would keep out dust kicked up by wind gusts. Those students who couldn’t afford the school’s uniforms were sent home. In short, it wasn’t the ideal learning environment.
But Njenga considers himself lucky. His father valued education, kept old textbooks around and had enough money to buy his 12 kids the clothes they needed for school. Eventually, Njenga graduated from secondary school and followed a brother to the United States.
Eleven years later, he owns a home with his wife and two children in Ypsilanti’s Historic Eastside Neighborhood, and is pursuing a doctorate in technology at Eastern Michigan University.
And Njenga wants to see other Kenyan youths provided with the same opportunities. Thus, he and his wife,Jennifer Njenga, and a small team are launching The Kenyan Promise, an Ypsilanti-based non-profit devoted to improving education in Njenga’s rural Kenyan home.
The Kenyan Promise’s goal is to build a stronger rural community through a stronger education, an approach the Njengas believes is more effective than simply providing fresh water or medicine. A better educated village will help reduce poverty in the long-term.
“If kids have access to those kind of books, it could have a big impact on life in 20 years,” John Njenga said. “We want to tell them ‘You can grow up and be anything that you want.' We are planting the seeds for them to dream. Then they can get motivation to study more, to get better grades and go to high school, and that can really change things for generations to come.”
Njenga says it was father instilled in him the belief that an education can forever change a person’s life, and that message has stuck.
“You don’t even have to grow up and become a doctor, you can be a farmer,” Njenga’s father used to tell him. “But when you are a farmer with an education, you become a better farmer.”
John Njenga comes from a coffee-growing region called Kanjuku, 45 minutes from the nearest city. The Kenyan Promise is initially seeking to raise $75,000 to assist five area schools in serving 1,700 students, and Jennifer Njenga explained how that figure would go a long way toward improving students’ educations.
The plans call for establishing five libraries and making basic improvements to the schools’ facilities - adding doors, windows, bookshelves and chalkboards. Njenga says some structures are unsafe and portions of the schools are on the verge of collapsing.
Generally, three children share one textbook, so the Kenyan Promise is aiming to put a math and English book in each child’s hands. The non-profit also wants to provide uniforms for those students who are sent home.
“There are so many kids whose parents can't afford uniforms or who don’t have their own books,” Jennifer Njenga says. “There are so many children who want to learn and don’t have the resources, and their parents just can't help them.”
The Kenyan Promise has been developing its vision and mission throughout the last year, and held its first fundraiser this past Wednesday at Frenchie’s restaurant in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town.
Jennifer Njenga serves as the non-profit’s president, and Ypsilanti resident Jenny Murphy, who spent a year in Kenya providing health education, is the non-profit's treasurer. Catherine Morse, a local librarian serves as the vice-president.
Jennifer and John Njenga stressed that there are no overhead costs and every dollar will goes directly to improving the kids’ education. John Njenga says he has met with the schools' leaders, teachers, parents and students to identify what is most needed, and he is traveling to Kenya in October to start whatever work the finances will allow.
Jennifer Njenga acknowledged people have concerns about corruption with non-profits spending money abroad, but said The Kenyan Promise is handling the purchasing of supplies and spending the money it raises. She added that the money will be spent locally to support the local economy.
“A lot of money can get lost in the donation process, but we feel pleased that we’ll be able to go ourselves and purchase the things that our needed for these schools,” she said.
John Njenga also wants to avoid the stereotype of African poverty that many Americans see on television, which is the starving child with a bloated belly in the middle of a dusty village.
He said the region he comes from is lush and most families spend the entire days in the fields growing and harvesting coffee beans. When the kids get home from school, they also help the family in the fields. His neighbors and his region is hard working, he explains, but some still don’t have the resources to provide children with the basics for the education they need.
The government has begun requiring all Kenyan kids attend school, meaning more students in the classroom, but failed to provide more space or books. And that is the dynamic The Kenyan Promise is hoping to change.
The Njengas say John Njenga's home is just the start - once their goals are met in the region they hope to help kids across Kenya.
“We want to allow the kids to dream,” Jennifer Njenga says. “We hope to have books about astronauts, space and other countries. Just to be able to dream and have that exposure to other places ideas and worlds we would hope would inspire them.”
For more information, visit the Kenyan Promise online at www.TheKenyanPromise.org. Donations can be made through paypal or check.