Founder’s Story

By Cynthia Alwizer

One of the root causes of the problems that people are experiencing is the move from rural to urban areas and having trouble adopting into urban life which has swelled into slums. Over the years, during my work with the communities in Mathare, I have realized one of the biggest challenges we face is the fact that we do not have many professional counselors.

Mathare valley is a slum that is currently home to over 400,000 of people, a huge percentage of whom are women and children. The living conditions in these slums are deplorable, with families sharing a one room tin shack that does not have water or any basic amenity. In some houses, there are drainage trenches running through the house, and in addition, there are many social problems, that make it difficult for a child to develop holistically. The parents of these children have little or no education, and have to make ends meet in any way they can.

It is in this background that I started the work of Maji Mazuri in Mathare, and during that time, I sought the help of well wishers. Since then Maji Mazuri USA, Canada, Holland, UK, Crosscurrents International and individual well wishers have come on board, and support the program through sponsorship of activities and children.  This is a program that is still not fully funded as there are over one hundred children on the sponsorship waiting list.

Headstart School, which started as a day care,  has grown to a fully fledged informal school, grade 1 to 8,  with a population growth from 100 to 320 students in less than two years, the school not only provides education, day time shelter, and a meal for children who would otherwise be loitering in the streets, or locked in their houses by parents as they go out to look for income. The school provides hope. This year, six students from Headstart School sit for the Grade 8 National examinations, which gain them entry into high school, which gives them a chance to a better future, this is a milestone in the lives of these children and their families, as this is the very first candidate class, it will motivate the other students.

The school also runs a weekly teens and kids program, the two programs cater for 70 and 30 students respectively, and focus on developing their talents, and teaching them on constructive use of their time over the weekend, where they would otherwise be pulled into the social activities of the slums. This program has empowered the young ones and they have risen to heights especially in sports, music and drama, where they are called upon to perform and show case their talents. The main objectives of this program is to nurture and develop the talents of the children, and to also mentor them as they are surrounded by a lot of negativity in their current surroundings.

The youth program that started with community cleanups and outreaches has now grown into strong programs that empowers young people from Mathare Valley, not only with information, but with skills that they use to empower their lives and gain employment. These are young men and women in their late teens living in slums, where most young ones their age succumb to either crime of prostitution. The youth group exists to ensure that they are on the right path in life. From humble beginnings, the program now trains over 150 youth every single year, and they either start businesses or gain employment, one such venture is Digital Interactive Systems, a web design company that is cutting a niche for itself in the country, and is the initiative of young people who have been through the program. The youth are also taking responsibility not only for their lives but also for their community, through the garbage project, they teach environmental awareness every Saturday, this effort got the recognition of the United Nations and they are the recipient of the top prize, a fuel efficient car. In addition, they continue to mentor other young people and have become a positive voice for the community.

We constantly have to fight the social conditionings that are in the minds of these children, who have  grown  up surrounded by scenes of illegal activities, in an inhabitable environment, where girls are sold of by their mothers for prostitution with her illegal brew customers, or sold off for early marriage. And the choice that many young men have is which crime to get involved in. It becomes a vicious cycle that we have been trying to get rid of for the past twenty years, through programs like Stop the Bullet, another  youth initiative that addresses the problems that are facing the youth, e.g. crime, drug and alcohol abuse by providing them with information, education and empowerment. Over 70 youth have been through this program and now carry out peace and awareness activities in Mathare Valley on a voluntary and regular basis, as a way of giving back to Maji Mazuri for having turned their lives around.

Working with the children and youth, I realized that in order to stop the cycle, I would need to not only empower the child, but also the parent, most of whom are single mothers, and this is how the micro enterprise was started, women come together and form groups of five, as guarantors and as a support group, they take loans and start small businesses that provide the income and security that they need. This works two fold, it empowers the mother, who in turn takes care of her family, and stops the cycle of children and parents having to engage in illicit activities. The micro enterprise now has over 250 members, and has started an arm, the youth micro finance that gives the young people the option of starting a business.

In summary, a child joins Maji Mazuri through the Headstart program, and joins the kids club, the teacher mentors the child, as he/she grows, they join the teens group, and while in high school, they join the youth group, where they get skills, mentorship, counseling and guidance and are stable.

Throughout this process, the parents are also engaged in the micro enterprise and empowered.  In this work, I have realized there is a fundamental gap that needs to be filled, so that the entire program can be fully effective, i.e.  Counseling, especially for girls.

In order for them to have goals in life, they need to know that one, there is nothing wrong with them, its not their fault that they are living in the conditions they are , and yes that there is a better life for them out there and we are here to help point them in that direction. Sometimes, their minds are so much limited to the exposure, especially seeing that you can find generations that have lived in the slums, and inherit the lifestyles of their parents and the cycle starts again once a child is born.  Intervention in the form of counseling is needed, the counseling process will give us a better chance of making a lasting impact in their lives, and it is for this reason that I am writing you. I have identified a person who has not only shown interest in counseling but has been carrying out counseling activities in our schools in Mathare and in Kiserian, where we have Maasai girls who are rescued from early marriages and circumcision.  She joined the organization as a volunteer six and a half years ago, and well wishers have now educated her up to Degree level, and she uses her passion for counseling and the skills she has used to reach out to all the groups above.

Her work has made an impact, in the last one year, we have been able to reach out to girls, both in primary and high school, who now have a better sense of direction. I would like to retain and continue to mentor her in this work, however, her salary right now is like a honorarium to keep the work going, I would like to give her at least 500 dollars a month for a wider impact reach and this is a special appeal to you. Even if I appreciate child sponsorship, this is an area that also needs our focus as it means on following up on the children we are serving during all stages of their lives and ensuring that they skills that will be with them for the rest of their lives.  The funding can be sent through Maji Mazuri USA or Crosscurrents, who will acknowledge, send and also provide you with regular audited reports.

Your support is sincerely appreciated.