In this day and age of instant gratification, it is rare to find someone doing something out of passion and to help others. But Stephen Mwangi Kuria has gone against the grain by adopting a lowly life so that slum children can get quality education. He shares his heartwarming story of self-denial with HENRY KAHARA.
Kenyan youths have been on record saying that they have no problem amassing wealth for themselves through any means. According to a recent Kenya Youth Survey Report commissioned by the East African Institute (EAI), 50 per cent of youths in Kenya do not care what means one uses to make money as long as they do not end up in jail. As true as this may be, there are those who are committed to sacrificing themselves for the sake of the underprivileged in society. Stephen Mwangi Kuria, a primary school teacher at Watoto Wetu Centre in Kariobangi, is one such person. Watoto Wetu Centre is registered as a non-formal mixed primary school and only serves children in dire need.
Although Stephen has a Bachelors degree in education from St Mary’s University of Minnesota, USA and a Diploma in education from Tangaza University, he is contented with teaching primary school kids. He notes that it’s fulfilling to be committed to one’s purpose even when the time and effort you put into it doesn’t translate to what you put in your pocket.
Stephen calls teaching a calling saying, “Teaching is about passion and I don’t think the government or even parents are able to pay teachers what they truly deserve. A teacher does more than teaching. He prepares a child for the future, something that you can’t put monetary value on.”
He adds that he finds immense gratification in connecting with students, especially when he makes a breakthrough with a student who may be having trouble with their class work. With passion reflecting in his eyes, he explains that the classroom is one of the best places to be and while it’s true sometimes the job may be arduous, he finds it enjoyable. He describes teaching as one of the most exhilarating ways of earning a living on the planet, as it’s an art, which transforms people for the better.
“It’s each and every teacher’s duty to understand his students and walk with them without discrimination or making them feel inferior. A great teacher is the one who is committed to his job,” notes Stephen whose students fondly refer to him as teacher Steve.
Foundation in the life of a child…
Stephen says that foundation is key in a life of a child hence the need to adequately prepare them to face life with full momentum. “Every parent wants their child to have a great future and one way to accomplish this is by developing the child’s potential at an early age. Children as young as the age of three are very receptive to new things and parents and teachers should take advantage of this,” he notes.
He is worried that quality education in Kenya has become a luxury despite it being guaranteed in the constitution. He notes that the Kenya Constitution under article 53 1(b) provides for free and compulsory basic education as a human right to every Kenyan child, yet many are in school at the mercy of donors and well-wishers. He speaks on the need to have reforms in the country’s education system and also restore the dignity the profession enjoyed in the past.
Although Stephen is trained to teach at the secondary level, he has preferred working in an informal primary school since children from needy families also deserve quality education like those from well-to-do families. He says he will be a happy man the day he will see children living in slums get access to quality education as this is the only way to help them realise their full potential and break the poverty cycle, which has plagued their families for years. Stephen talks at many gatherings such as symposiums, workshops and seminars on the need to give slum children quality education and challenges facing teachers working in the slums.
“My passion to teach needy children started way back after completing form four when I taught at an informal school at Mukuru kwa Reuben slums. The plight of these children touched me. Some were orphans under the care of their grandparents and I felt I needed to contribute in whatever way to make a difference in their lives,” he recalls.
“I am also passionate about my work because I was brought up in the same environment and although my parents were able to pay school fees for me and my siblings, I have dozens of friends who got lost in drugs, alcoholism and prostitution due to frustrations. What most people living in slums lack is support to equally compete for available opportunities, and quality education is one of the support they need,” he adds.
Stephen is cognisant of the role his parents played to mold him to who he is today and is especially thankful for the gift of education for it made all the difference. “I am really happy that my parents gave my siblings and I an education despite challenges they had at the time. I am who I am today because of the sacrifices they made,” he says in retrospect.
He urges parents to educate their children since it is the best asset one can give a child in this era. He says its heart-breaking to see parents who are not concerned about their children’s education, adding that when you educate a child you give him a chance to compete in the world. He advises parents to follow up on their children’s progress in school and establish a rapport with their child’s teachers, as this helps in the overall performance and well-being of the child.
Although Stephen’s immediate family supports his cause, some of his extended family feels he is wasting himself. “Some of my relatives feel I am not utilising my potential fully given my level of education. There are even those who are ready to get me a better job, not realising I am at home with what I do. I hold the opinion that success is not measured by what you have but with what you have done with what you have,” he adds.
Stephen is inspired by his mentor father Paulino Mondo Twesigye who left his country, Italy, to come and serve the less privileged in Kenya.
An uphill task…
He acknowledges the fact that working in the slums is not easy as one is also exposed to challenges affecting slum dwellers and it takes grace to hold on. “Working in slums is not a walk in the park. The students’ needs are as varied as they come but as a good teacher you have to address each and every one of them. You have to encourage them and show them the way forward and it can be overwhelming at times. Another challenge is that once they complete class eight, they lack someone to hold their hand and guide them in the maze that is life hence end up getting lost,” he notes
“At times teachers have to dig into their pocket to pay school fees for students whose parents are unable to do so. There are also cases where students act as parents to their siblings if the parents are lost in alcoholism. Others drop out of school due to early pregnancies and some to join gangs,” he talks of the plight of children in the slums.
Having witnessed all these in the slums, he says there is need for the government to establish tertiary institutions in slum areas to empower youths since they have potential. “Kenya has what it takes to empower its people and this is the only way out of the quagmire we are in as a country. We can only bring change in the country if we create opportunities for all and it is possible. Let’s start by fighting corruption and having effective projects. Giving youths handouts during campaign periods can’t fight hooliganism,” says Stephen.
Stephen dreams of a Kenya where all people will live a dignified life without discrimination on account of their tribe or social standing.
About Watoto Wetu Centre
Watoto Wetu Centre began in 2004 under the care of Father Mario Porto.
The centre is a Catholic institution under Comboni Missionaries.
Its mission is to offer basic education to neglected and vulnerable children in the slums.
Currently the centre has three schools: Watoto Wetu Centre Kariobangi, St John Korogocho and St Martin in Ngei.
Published June 2015