In the United States, education has long been considered an equal rights issue – something that should be accessible and free for all. But elsewhere, formal education has only recently been recognized as an essential component of citizenship that all people should enjoy regardless of income.
In much of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, education was historically associated with the colonial elite, which meant the majority of the population didn't have access to schools. That's changing – but slowly.
After studying abroad in Kenya during her junior year at Wesleyan, Gabrielle Fondiller founded Hatua Likoni, an organization that helps students pay their school fees through scholarships and provides mentoring to get them into college. Starting with seven students in 2007, the program now supports 76 young Kenyans in the Likoni region and has a staff of local mentors who work with the students to keep them motivated in an under-resourced education system.
Dowser: Why do schoolchildren in Kenya have to pay school fees?
Gabrielle Fondiller: Until 2002, there was no free education in Kenya. Because of international influence, the government instituted free education in 2002, but it’s incredibly underfunded. And now, it’s receiving less funding because there’s been scandals and corruption in the Ministry of Education.
So, there isn’t money to institute free secondary education – yet. But there is effort to reduce the cost of government secondary schools. For some families, it’s not outrageously expensive, but for some it’s unaffordable.
How do you fund the program?
We have some support from foundations and corporations, and mostly individual donors in the United States. [It happened] mostly through networks: meeting people who then introduced me to people. Talking to people and explaining the story. Once you build a connection with someone it’s easier to interest them.
What do you do at the orphanage and nursery school you support?
In 2008, we partnered with an organization that founded a nursery and an orphanage. We spent two years co-running our organization. They were struggling financially but had a huge amount of energy, and a lot of passion. So, each side of the partnership benefited from collaboration. We were able to help their programs grow; they were able to help our programs grow.
We continued operating that way until October, when they felt they were stable and better able to manage their own affairs. Now instead of jointly running our programs, we support them. We pay for the education of the children at the orphanage, and we provide food at the nursery school and the orphanage.
Do you have some takeaways from working in a cross-cultural setting?
Everyone I work with is Kenyan, with the exception of volunteers who come for three or six months. At the latest point we had a staff of 17, and I was the only non-Kenyan.
Everyone is young, in their 20s. Most are high-school graduates; some are not. These are young people from the community we’re working in with the same background as the beneficiaries we are trying to support.
Working in Kenya is not easy. Corruption is rampant. It’s a factor in absolutely everything that you do. That makes for a very challenging working environment.
Also, working with young people with a high-school education, you’ve got limited writing skills amongst the staff – but you also have an incredible wealth of local know-how, connections, credibility. A young Kenyan mentoring another young Kenyan has much more influence than I could. I think the advantages outweigh the challenges.
My thinking is that one of the greatest sources of impact that an organization can have is on its staff. In order to live our mission, we need to be creating jobs for young people in our community – finding those talented, passionate people.
What are the overseas volunteers doing for the project?
Short-term volunteers will have a fun activity, learn the culture, enjoy Kenya – teach at the nursery school or spend time at the orphanage, helping to cook, washing and ironing clothes, playing with the kids, or helping them with homework. Longer-term volunteers have staff-like responsibilities. Often volunteers come with better written communication skills than we have on our staff so they’ll help with writing, international donor outreach, event planning.
What do you hope to do with it moving forward?
We’re going to focus on education. Our goal is to provide secondary high school scholarships for top students from low-income families. We have a rigorous application process. We mentor the students throughout and provide guidance. Our goal is to then continue on with those students throughout university. We graduated our first two students, and one is in college and another is about to enroll. We’re graduating 11 secondary students in November.
The other goal we have is to improve the public school education infrastructure in Kenya. Scholarships do a great job in reaching top students. But there are 14,000 primary students in Likoni’s public schools, and we’re only able to add about 20 to 25 students per year into our scholarship program. So what we’re working on right now is fundraising to put desks into all the public primary schools in Likoni. Right now, there are enough desks for 9,000 students out of the 14,000. So if you crowd an extra student into each desk there are still 1,500 kids sitting on the floor.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
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