Tabitha Wambugha Tongoi, 21, a student at Williams College, Massachusetts, USA, and the last of three siblings has a passion for education. She is not only a go-getter but also enthusiastic about anything she sets out to do. Her motto: ‘Why can’t I achieve?’ drives this young achiever and philanthropist. While in high school, Tabitha set up a unique project that is helping children in poor schools access textbooks and other reading materials. Tabitha, a high achiever, believes books change people’s lives. She walks MWAURA MUIGANA through her remarkable life’s journey.
While in form one at Kenya High School in Nairobi, Tabitha, at the age of 15, was elected member and later junior minister of education at the Kenya Children’s Parliament Foundation. The foundation is an entirely child-led organisation that lobbies for the rights and interests of the Kenyan child. She delved into Kenya’s ministry of education sector review report and was perplexed by the glaring statistics on lack of textbooks in Kenyan schools. According to the report, in all schools countrywide, seven students on average share one textbook. Being a student in a national school with full government support, a library full of books, ample teachers, food and everything one needed for a good education, Tabitha found this information unbelievable. She felt something needed to be done urgently to narrow the gap and give students an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Around the same time, her mother, Irene Tongoi, a former teacher, was starting a new school, New Dawn Educational Centre at Huruma slums situated near the high class Runda Estate. The school’s main objective was to assist destitute children who completed primary school but had no opportunity to join high school get further education.
Irene made appeals for educational books from publishing houses to provide textbooks to the new school. Tabitha spent time with these children and realised their relentless pursuit of education in spite of their challenging circumstances. They had the ability to rise to the highest academic levels but lacked the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
Tabitha felt this was a very real need and was touched to see how stressed her mother was while looking for books donations for the school. The tradition at Kenya High was for KCSE candidates to either make a bonfire and burn their notes and textbooks after their final exams, or take them home to gather dust in bookshelves, while their counterparts in poor schools were in dire need of books. She resolved to start a book raiser project under the name – A Book for Change (ABC), to sensitise fellow students on challenges facing students from poor homes in Kenya, as well as encourage them to donate to this worthy course.
“At first I doubted that I could do this project but I eventually overcame the initial fear and set my mind to it,” says Tabitha. She shared her idea with one of her teachers and mentor, Mrs. Genevieve K’Opiyo, a dynamic lady who has won local and international awards for empowering girls.
Mrs. K’Opiyo was impressed by the idea and asked Tabitha to target not only fourth formers but all girls in the school. Tabitha, by then a school prefect approached the principal who embraced the idea and gave her the go-ahead to speak to the girls and make the appeal for books donation to help needy schools.
NOT A DUMPING EXERCISE…
Tabitha figured out that the success of the project would depend on how she communicated the message to the students. She didn’t want the girls to misconstrue the project as a dumping exercise for the books they didn’t need. “I wanted them to understand that when you give someone a book you open a door to their dreams and give them a future they would otherwise have never had,” explains Tabitha, adding that she started the project in September 2007.
She posted on the school notice board inspirational stories of young people who had risen from poverty and climbed the social ladder after being given an opportunity – be it through payment of school fees, provision of uniform, sanitary pads, books or anything else that made their life in school comfortable.
”I thought this would inspire Kenya High School students to give a similar opportunity to a needy child in another school. In addition, I posted stories on the state of education in Kenya to give the students an insight into what other students in not so privileged schools went through in their pursuit for education. This helped the girls understand that they were privileged and extremely lucky.
The postings also helped students accept that they are not powerless and can do a lot with the little they had, and that they did not have to wait until after KCSE to volunteer services to various sectors of the community, as was the tradition,” explains Tabitha.
She also posted inspirational stories on a weekly basis using cuttings from newspapers and other journals. The girls gradually gained awareness of the world around them and started donating books. To ensure students took ownership of the project, she proposed each of the 20 classes in the school appoint a representative who would be in charge of book collections from her class. A donation box was placed in each classroom. A total of 3000 books were collected in less than a year.
Her mother’s school had only 60 students and so could not use all the books. Tabitha and her team expanded the recipient schools to include other slums and poor neighbourhoods such as Korogocho, Dandora and Kibera. This initial donation benefitted a total of 1000 students. The handing-over ceremony in June 2008 was a major event marked by a music concert with performances from various artists including gospel musician, Kanjii Mbugua. The Director of Makini Schools, Mary Okello, was the guest of honour.
By this time Tabitha was preparing to leave for South Africa. She had beaten 30 candidates from her school to gain entry at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa, a school that nurtures leaders of tomorrow. In September 2008 she joined other 1700 young students from Africa, and a few from other parts of the world, for the inaugural class of ALA. The qualifications included a strong academic record, passion for Africa entrepreneurship, and dedication to public service. ALA has a British ‘A’ level curriculum.
Tabitha didn’t want her moving from Kenya High to be the end of ABC. She saw it as an opportunity to expand the project. She left the project under the able hands of her teacher Mrs. K’Opiyo and fellow student, Africana Njeru. Already, the project was in such demand with recipient schools and others requesting not only for books but also student’s notes.
The girls at Kenya High embraced the programme with great enthusiasm, making it such a huge success. In November 2009 another 7,000 textbooks and 3,000 exercise books had been collected. These books were presented to nine needy schools in and outside Nairobi, benefiting over 2000 students. The guest of honour at the hand-over ceremony was Catherine Munyiri, a director at the Cooperative Bank. While in her last year at ALA in 2010, a total of 10,000 textbooks and an almost equal number of exercise books were collected. The Kenya High School library donated some books to assist the needy schools establish libraries. Teachers at Kenya High School also identified needy schools outside Nairobi and this enabled the project to extend to Western, Nyanza and Eastern provinces.
The ABC project.
Today, it has become a Kenya High School community project. I didn’t think it would be such a success. From my little idea, it has grown this big project that is helping so many needy children and I am so grateful to everyone who has made it such a success,” says Tabitha.
She is also very happy that many people have come into the project, taken ownership and are running with it, and it is no longer centered on her. She hopes that other national schools can adopt the project in order to collect more books and reach more needy students. She also hopes the project can become more dynamic and invites people to contribute ideas that can make this project a living legacy. Tabitha, who is also a singer and painter, organized an arts sale in June 2010, whose proceeds offered a two-year scholarship to a needy student in one of the ABC assisted schools.
EXPERIENCING THE SLUMS …
Tabitha graduated from ALA in June 2010 and gained admission to Williams College in Massachusetts, USA, where she is pursuing a degree in economics and political science. The programme at ALA encompasses leadership training, exposure to global issues, as well as personal, academic and intellectual development. She took a gap year before joining university to work with local communities to prepare herself for the programme and make it relevant to her Kenyan situation.
During the year out of school, she worked in a project in Kibera called TEDExKibera, as a programme manager in charge of the student outreach programme. The concept is borrowed from the US TEDExtalk – (Technology Entertainment Design) – a non-profit organisation that brings together brilliant minds to discuss what they are involved in from technology to global health. Each person shares new developments in their respective field or sector. The aim is for people to exchange ideas, network and push forward the thinking on global issues. Tabitha had attended a TEDExtalk conference in the USA and wished to share the many ideas she learnt with Kenyans.
Her work in Kibera involved holding workshops and sessions with local people and students on how to make technology, such as solar energy, more useful, as well as brainstorming on concepts that could be created in Kenya to suit local needs. This generated a lot of mental capacity for the participants. She extended the programme to the youth in schools in Kibera and its environs.
She explains, “We watched video talks about young people who have risen from poverty using whatever little capacity they had, and relying on their own abilities to uplift themselves. After the inspirational talks I would ask each of the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. The idea was to get them talking, thinking and putting it in their conscious mind in order to start acting on their dreams. It also gave them exposure to the world outside Kibera, hence inspiring and giving them hope.
My objective was to bring them to my level and help them get a greater understanding of the world.”