It is a sweltering Saturday afternoon. The compound of Kiboro Primary School in Huruma Estate, next to the Mathare slums, is a beehive of activity.
On a pavement near one of the classrooms, a group of boys is playing football.
Though they come from low-income neighbourhoods, are agile and full of life, and their faces glow with optimism, perhaps reflecting what today’s event means for their future.
Under a mango tree not too far away, a group of girls is reciting poems. Behind the girls is a row of 15 tailors sewing furiously to beat a deadline.
For the man of the moment, Billian Ojiwa, it is a busy day indeed.
One minute he is shaking hands with guests who have just arrived for the function while the next minute he is sitting under a tree fielding questions from journalists.
But before long, the interview is interrupted by a man in his early twenties seeking Ojiwa’s direction on some issue.
But despite the pressure, Ojiwa remains calm, juggling the different roles with ease.
You see, today Ficha Uchi, the voluntary social welfare organisation he formed in March last year is rolling out its programme for 2016.
Ojiwa, 28, says that the idea of forming the organisation came to him in March last year after three parents approached him to buy school uniforms for their children.
Out of curiosity, he decided to visit Genesis Primary School in Mathare, which the children were attending, and what he saw left him a thoroughly distraught man.
“You know, getting such a request is not unusual, but what struck me most was the dire situation at the school. I walked in and noticed that there were very many desperate cases. I took photos and shared them with people in my network and as a result, some began donating materials and money for school uniforms. We even had some parents volunteering as tailors,” he recalls.
“At Genesis, the situation was pathetic since some pupils couldn’t even afford school uniforms, and as a result were going to school in completely faded or tattered home clothes. In the end I couldn’t count the chaotic mix of colours that made for an eye sore. It was like everybody could come in whatever clothes they had, so long as they came to school,” he adds.
Touched to the core, Ojiwa decided to act and on the spur of the moment, Ficha Uchi was born.
“Basically, what we have are volunteers. People of goodwill, people who believe in this cause and are chipping in in their own small way to make a difference. They are restoring the dignity of several pupils.” Ojiwa adds.
Then he pauses, lost in thought, as if recalling the struggles he himself went through while growing up and the struggle the youngsters are going through.
“You know, it pains me to see such situations. I was born and brought up in Mathare, and in my own little way, using my little resources, together with close friends who believe in this cause, we’ve been doing this,” he says after the pause.
To Ojiwa’s delight, the Ficha Uchi spirit caught on, and has been spreading fast. Although it has been in existence for slightly less than a year, it has made commendable progress.
So far a number of schools — Ofafa Jericho, Nairobi River Primary in Buruburu, Genesis Primary (Mathare), Pumwani Primary, Huruma Primary and Valley Bridge Primary school in Kiamaiko, Kiambu County — have benefited from the campaign.
In total, more than 800 pupils have benefited from the initiative and the number is set to continue rising after the launch of this year’s programme.
Since Ficha Uchi is a closely knit group, it relies wholly on well-wishers and volunteers, most of whom are university students.
In the past year, students from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) have come in handy. The students mainly help with research.
“They go to schools to gather data to help ascertain the situation on the ground. The data they provide helps us decide which of the schools are worst affected and therefore, deserve first priority,” Ojiwa explains.
Besides university students, Ficha Uchi has partnered with different mentorship organisation to help the children. One such organisation is the Buru Buru-based Eagle Mamas, which mentors the children.
To drive the agenda forward, Ficha Uchi also works closely with well known personalities, who serve as its brand ambassadors.
This has seen comedian Maurice Ochieng’ aka “Mdomo Baggy”, and radio presenter Adelle Onyango spearheading its activities together with the organisation’s patron, Nairobi County Deputy Governor Jonathan Mueke.
In addition, Ficha Uchi organised an awareness walk in August last year to bring to the fore the plight of disadvantaged children.
“I was raised in poverty in Mathare and it pains me to see the poverty cycle continuing,” Ojiwa says.
This year, Ficha Uchi plans to provide uniforms to 10,000 pupils – 100 uniforms each to 100 schools select schools in Nairobi County.
It has already identified 35 needy schools, with the remaining 65 to be determined once the research team has finished compiling the necessary data.
However, despite the remarkable progress, Ojiwa says, they have encountered numerous challenges.
“We rely mainly on people’s goodwill. This is because we do not have cash, which makes it difficult to budget. Besides, we are overwhelmed by the number of needy cases we get and unfortunately, we cannot provide for all of them,” he says.
As part of the measures to ensure sustainability, Ficha Uchi plans to establish a warehouse in the near future where it can make and sell uniforms at below-market-prices to poor pupils.
Another fear it has to contend with is the possible departure of volunteers.
“These volunteers are young people, either in college or fresh graduates. They need to grow and I fear that if we don’t put them on a payroll, we might end up losing them,” Ojiwa says.
John Seel, 35, one of the pioneer members of the group, says his dedication to the Ficha Uchi cause was shaped by the desire to give back to society.
“I had a privileged upbringing and lacked nothing. I went to good schools and had a good life but I am touched when I see pupils going to school not in uniform, but in tattered home clothes because of poverty,” he says. "So what we are trying to do is pool resources to make a positive impact on the lives of others.”
Besides, he adds, “It has been a challenge because people never really bought the idea from the beginning and even now, some are yet to. I hope in the years to come we will not see children going to school in such a pathetic state. The government needs to think about it. It is a communal problem and people need to come together to support such ventures.”
Casmir Moogi, a 27-year-old volunteer tailor who lives in the Kiambiu slums located between Buruburu and Eastleigh Section Three, says he was touched by the venture and thus decided to be part of it.
“Initially, we did this voluntarily because we believed it was a good thing, but I’m glad that with time, the organisers started giving us a token of appreciation and also to ensure we have a means of livelihood,” he says.
On the day Ficha Uchi launched its 2016 programme on February 6, it got a massive boost when the Kenya Charity Sweepstakes gave it a Sh215,000 donation, which will go towards buying 300 uniforms.
“In all honesty, Ficha Uchi is helping the government fight literacy, ignorance and poverty. It is only through the provision of equipment that education can become a reality, and it is the only sure way to empower youngsters,” the organisation’s Public Relations Manager, Mr Peter Njoroge, said during the occasion.
“And because this programme is geared towards empowerment, we felt obliged to help. My appeal is to every Kenyan not to play just to win the sweepstake, but to take a minute to assist other Kenyans. Fortunate members of society should help in such ventures,” he added.
Meanwhile, the organisation’s Appeal Secretary, Yasmeen Savji, said: “It really touched my heart. It’s a noble thing to do. There is nothing as demoralising as going to class in a tattered uniform. That makes the pupil not concentrate in their studies because at the back of their mind, they know that someone will be staring at their body or even making fun of them.
“What is incredible is the fact that the venture is driven by young people who want to make a difference in the lives of pupils. Children should not lose self-esteem and uniform is the first priority for a school-going child,” she said.
As Ficha Uchi continues growing, Ojiwa says that plans are under way to extend the project to western Kenya.
“We are working with Masinde Muliro University students, who are handling the research in the western chapter and once everything is ready, we will roll out the campaign in that region.” he said.