On the streets they call him Odijo—slang for teacher. And rightfully so because he has been a teacher for the last 30 years teaching in Premier Academy, Oshwal Academy, Aga Khan Academy and Strathmore School.
However, this is not the reason why homeless people in the streets of Nairobi call him Odijo. In fact, some of them have no idea that he has taught in these affluent schools. They call him so because he is their teacher.
In January 2018, he started the Shule Mtaani learning programme that takes the classroom to homeless people in the streets. Next year, he will be registering some of his students to sit for national examinations.
“People complain that street boys cannot be helped because they resist school and even run away from well-wishers who pay for their education. And I completely agree. Many street children hate formalised learning. But that is not a reason enough to curl up in our comfort zone and watch young homeless people miss out on a chance to make something of themselves,” says Odijo.
Away from the streets, Odijo is also known as Clifford Oluoch. A seasoned teacher with a big heart for children and a burning passion for education, he shares his experience working with homeless people to give them hope of a brighter future.
What prompted you to reach out to people living on the streets?
The journey began four years ago when I bought some boiled maize for a couple of street children. It was by chance really, not something I sought out to do. They did not have enough money to get a maize cob each and so a scuffle ensued. I was there to get some maize for myself and so, to restore the calm, I offered to pay for their maize, a cob for each.
Shortly after, one of the boys scampered away only to return with 20 more boys and I ended up buying boiled maize for all of them.
One of the boys looked up to me and asked whether I would return the following day, and I promised I would. I kept coming back with more food to feed the homeless and kept meeting more and more people in need. Eventually I began rallying people and later partnered with humanitarian Shamit Patel who was also feeding street families. We decided to merge our programmes and formed the Homeless of Nairobi Initiative whose main agenda at the time was feeding the homeless.
How did you come about with the idea of Shule Mtaani?
The feeding programmes gave me an opportunity to interact closely with street children and understand their plight. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the children I taught every day in nice classrooms and came from families where they were loved and from comfortable homes, to these children who I met in dingy alleys every evening, cold and hungry with no decent place to lay their heads.
All of them were just children who had nothing to do with the circumstances in which they were in. It started from that point, seeing these homeless children as just children; not scum not thieves but children.
I got to appreciate a few truths like the fact that most of them were abusing drugs, others had dropped out of school for reasons best known to them, and a majority of them were not accustomed to a structured way of doing things hence the outright resistance against formalised learning.
Regardless of this, I knew for sure—as a teacher and as a parent—that it is necessary for homeless children to get an education.
In January 2018 I went out once more to friends and acquaintances to get support for the education initiative, Shule Mtaani. It was prompted out of a need to give the homeless a fair shot at life and if they won’t go to the classroom then I felt it was time to bring the classroom to them.
How has the programme been received by your target in the streets?
I am happy to say that the reception has been warm—enthusiastic even. My volunteers can attest to this. Whenever we have a session, mobilising a quorum for the class has never been a challenge.
They show up eager to learn and, latelye, they are sharing with us their hopes for the future. They dream of going to college and building careers.
That is quite commendable. How do you reach out to volunteers for the Shule Mtaani initiative?
Mainly through social media. We share our activities and people respond in cash and others in kind such as donations of food or their time. Some of my former students and even the senior ones also offer to volunteer to teach during our outreach programmes that feature homeless people of all ages. It is so touching to see my students interact in class despite their lives being worlds apart.
Is this what keeps you going?
Partly yes but what keeps me on course is the joy on those children's faces. Whenever we have the feeding programme and the classes, the children, and especially the young ones, turn their beaming faces to me and I can see their happiness. It gives me strengths to keep going even when we are badly strapped for cash. Also, Shule Mtaani feels more like family than merely a community outreach.
Recently, one of my students was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Westlands and the news was heartbreaking. I had so much faith in him and he had made a lot of progress but I guess we cannot question death.
What do you hope to achieve in the short term?
The priority is to prepare as many candidates as possible for next year’s national examinations, both KCPE and KCSE. Wouldn’t it be great for them to have certificates—certificates with great grades?
Are there times when you feel like quitting?
Oh yes! Sometimes the feeling of 'where is this going?' creeps in and in those moments, I feel tempted to call it quits. I make a deliberate effort to keep eyes on the prize, which for me is seeing children get a chance to be just children. Seeing the homeless people get by with at least the basics and of course giving them a fair opportunity to better their lives through education.
What do your friends and family think about you spending all that time in the streets?
Well, they cannot complain about time because all the time I used to spend writing books is what I now spend serving in the streets. If anything, my writing fans are the ones who ought to be complaining because I haven’t published a book in ages!