It was a normal day at Kainuk Primary School in Turkana County when Patricia* was summoned to the Principal’s office.
“The Principal told me my parents had been killed in the clashes between the Turkanas and Pokots. I was devastated,” Patricia recalls that day in 2012.
Her grandmother sent her to Lodwar town to live with her cousin, who had three children of her own to care for.
Five years later, Patricia sat her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), which she passed with 373 marks out of 500, and was called to a national school: Pangani Girls High School.
“I was so excited when I heard I was going far away from Turkana to a place I had never been,” she says.
Around this time, her cousin died, leaving her husband as her sole guardian. Having to educate her and cater for her needs and those of his three children was difficult on a carpenter’s income.
He however managed to raise money through well-wishers for her first term in high school but was unable to pay any more fees beyond the first term.
This became a concern for Patricia every waking day in school. She had no idea how she would complete her education and attain her dream of becoming a doctor.
She could barely concentrate in class. Patricia expressed her concern to her class teacher, who then forwarded the matter to Rose Ombajo, the head of the sponsorship department at the school.
Ombajo reached out to the Pangani Girls Alumni Association for support. Through the Association’s support, Patricia is among 30 girls currently sponsored by the school’s alumni individually or through graduate classes.
The group pays tuition fees, mentors students and offers career counselling and psychosocial support. Patricia, now in Form Two, can focus on her education.
Alumni networks are one of the most effective ways of not only giving back to institutions, but ensuring transition to the job market.
They have the potential to not only ensure education of fellow citizens, but can bridge the 67 per cent unemployment rate gap in Kenya.
But this can only begin with an investment in education for all. “There are approximately 400 girls at the school, who need some form of financial support. If we can see all the deserving girls complete their studies without any financial issues, we would have achieved our goals,” says Sheila Mugadi-Munyiri, Pangani Girls Alumni Association Steering Committee member.
The group, founded in 2015, with the help of various foundations, sponsors the education of 116 girls — almost a third of the student population at the institution.
This is not unique to Pangani Girls High; 70 per cent of close to 1,500 students in Starehe Boys and Girls High schools are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Old Starehian Society (OSS), an alumni association of the Starehe Boys and Girls Centres and Schools, has built an impressive sustainability model that guarantees complete education for all students admitted to the institutions through the Griffin Memorial Endowment Trust (GMET).
The fund is named after one of the schools’ three founders Geoffrey Griffin.
The executive chairperson of the OSS, Ken Miruka, says: “This investment fund will generate interest, which will be used to ensure all the (student) needs are met. We aim to raise Sh2 billion in the long-term to guarantee full support for the education of our brothers and sisters for years to come.”
The alumni have raised Sh200 million since July 2016.
The Finance ministry’s "2018 Education Sector Report" says that in 2016/17, Sh300 million was paid out to 88 schools for infrastructure development. For high schools such as Precious Blood Riruta, government support cannot meet the school’s needs.
For over five decades, the school’s student population averaged 350. Following the increase in student intake however, as the government aims for 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school, the school’s infrastructure is currently strained, catering for a student population of close to 1,000.
Precious Blood has been forced to find creative ways to accommodate the surging student numbers.
For instance, the staffroom was converted into a classroom, forcing teachers to work from rooms they can find space in. “This isn’t good for teachers; it’s important for us to be together to consult and build team work,” the principal, Jacinta Ngure, says.
The school needs approximately 14 new classrooms, administrative offices, staff housing, storage of stationery and learning material, new science laboratories, dormitories, water reservoirs, and land, and yet it stands on a small parcel of land, which cannot accommodate the envisaged infrastructure.
“Considering all these needs and the cost of land, we need approximately Sh500 million to ensure the student population is catered to properly,” Ngure says.
Parents can only do so much in addition to ensuring their children receive the best education.
The Precious Blood Riruta Secondary Alumni Association, formed in 2015, has 100 active members, rallying alumni from 1965 to 2018 to support the school’s master plan.
“The basic concept of alumni is to give back. We receive without pay. We give back without pay,” Salome Beacco, the chairperson of the association, says.
The group has systematically coordinated hundreds of alumni through mobile messaging application WhatsApp.
The focal representative in each year raises the needs and activities of the school as communicated from the Alumni Secretariat through these groups.
Between 2015 and 2016, the alumni raised Sh12 million during their annual networking and fundraising dinners. The money helped buy a school bus and build a new dining hall.
“We feel like we haven’t got there yet. That was just scratching the surface; we intend to fundraise more this year,” Rosebella Abok, the alumni secretary, says.
This level of support alumni provide is only possible when the school administration is willing and supportive.
“Many schools need support from their alumni to keep going; that’s why we find it essential to have alumni on our school board.
"We don’t take the support we get from our Alumni for granted because it is offering tremendous support to the girls and the institution as a whole,” says Nicholas Kariuki, the school’s Board of Management chairperson.
Similar to the Precious Blood old girls’ group, the Alumni Associations of St Joseph High School, Rapogi, in Migori County, and Sigalame High School in Busia County have initiated projects to help renovate and build infrastructure.
“We built a dormitory for the school, which is now in use. An alumnus, who is a contractor, offered to build the dormitory free of charge. All the rest needed to do was pay for the building materials,” Eddy Omondi, Assistant Secretary-General, St Joseph High School, Rapogi Alumni Association, recalls with pride.
Following completion of the dormitory, the alumni have now developed architectural plans for a new school library they are currently fundraising to build.
The Sigalame alumni built a classroom for their alma mater, what they proudly referred to as “Project Simiti”.
This kind of support is not always easy to initiate for many well-intentioned alumni, especially when the school is on free fall.
Ms Blaise Okinyi, the vice chairperson of the Garba Tula Alumni Association, points out that their engagement with the school was not easy initially.
“The principal, who was past his retirement age, was not motivated enough to transform the school, while the school’s overworked seven teachers were frustrated,” Okinyi recalls.
In 2013, following a fact-finding mission at the school to gauge the areas of need, the alumni plugged into their network to get in touch with the Teacher’s Service Commission and express their concerns.
Within four months, the school had a new motivated principal, who championed the concerns of the teachers, a factor that set the ball rolling to revive the challenged institution.
They also followed up on an initial lobby launched by the institution to reinstate Garba Tula High School as a national school following its 11-year downgrade to a district school.
This bore fruit and its national status was reinstated. But this was just the beginning.
“The alumni rallied their networks and organised a major fundraiser supported and attended by Deputy President William Ruto. We successfully fundraised Sh40 million in cash and kind,” Okinyi recalls.
“A school bus and administration van were purchased, the library refurbished, all science laboratories refurbished and equipped and a perimeter wall built to keep the students safe.”
But despite all the steps forward, the community was concerned that students from the area would be locked out from learning at the institution if it was reinstated to a national school. That was not all.
“The community had a misconception that the teachers were underqualified, even though they had been assigned by the Teacher’s Service Commission,” alumni association member Bilquees Ingrid says.
Teachers also cited disciplinary cases that were condoned by parents. This compelled the alumni to organise a series of mediation discussions with support from the Isiolo County Education Office with the community elders, the school administration, teachers and parents.
But even with this massive step by the alumni, student performance was still poor. They realised that most students lacked confidence in their capabilities.
“In 2018, the alumni launched a one-on-one coaching session with the Form Four candidates for three terms, where we gauged the needs of the students holding back their performance,” Ms Bilquees says.
As a result of this support, for the first time in 11 years, the school produced one student who successfully transitioned to university.
In addition, the top students in Math and Swahili in Isiolo County were from Garba Tula High School.
Poor performance in school is caused by much more than poor grades or a lack of school fees, which steadily has become apparent to many well-wishers.
“Most of the challenges we see in these young girls we mentor are related to stress from home — that dysfunction at home translates to dysfunctional children,” Precious Blood’s Beacco points out.
These stress factors, she says, range from absentee parents, physical and emotional abuse by step-parents or sexual assault and harassment from the adult relatives in their lives.
Pangani Girls’ Sheila Munyiri, a trained nurse specialised in mental health, concurs.
She used her training to build a counselling programme with alumni volunteers from the Pangani Girls Alumni Association in partnership with the school’s guidance and counselling department. The initiative has borne fruit.
“I organised for mentoring workshops and invited Alumni professionals in various areas including in the mental health industry to talk to the girls. Topics included depression, suicide, mental health, social media etiquette and bullying, self-esteem, drug/alcohol addiction, stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and reproductive health,” Ms Munyiri says.
Pangani Girls High School Principal Florence Ngarari says that psychosocial support from the alumni has made a positive impact on the girls.
“In the last three years, the alumni have provided a lot of emotional and individual support which has improved the students’ performance – for two years in a row, the school has produced the top girl in the country’s KCSE exams,” she says.
Clearly, the impact of alumni engagement in schools has immense impact, including transforming the lives of young Kenyans. But why aren’t more schools tapping into this pool?
A survey conducted by Future First Kenya, an initiative that champions alumni engagement in Kenyan Schools and learning institutions, revealed that 78 per cent of adults were willing to give back to their former schools, but only 1 per cent actually gave back.
This is because most adults do not know how to engage their schools due to lack of clear structures of engagement. They are also concerned about accountability of their donations.
Ms Pauline Wanja, CEO, Future First Kenya, observes that for alumni to have more impact and should be involved in the school management boards.
However, the 2013 Basic Education Act does not give the role of the alumni in the school management boards.
The former Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, was keen on alumni associations. During the 2018 launch of the Association of Alumni Communities in Kenya, Dr Matiang’i pointed out the need for a more structured approach to alumni engagements in schools.
He issued a directive to the director of education to take up the Association of Alumni Communities in Kenya as an integral stakeholder in statutory and policy matters.
“Slowly but surely we are bringing civic engagement in the management of schools in the country. This enhances accountability, transparency and the space for dialogue,” he stated.
The Alumni Communities in Kenya, championed by Future First Kenya, aims to develop a conducive environment to streamline alumni initiatives through capacity building and networking.
They are currently working with 300 secondary schools across Kenya to build capacity of the alumni associations and identify alumni leaders for existing institutions, among other roles.
But for these associations to successfully contribute to their alma maters, they need to be deliberate in building strong governance structures and cohesion in their group dynamics.
“A perfect example is Ofafa Jericho and Lenana High schools. Sport was their thing, especially rugby. Once they are on the pitch, they become boys again. That brings an intergenerational cooperation,” Ms Wanja says.
She, however, admits that cohesion building is difficult, and each association needs to understand its team dynamics and build on its strengths.
Through the Association of Alumni Communities in Kenya, the associations are now learning from one another.
For many, alumni associations may seem as the preserve of national or elite schools. However, Ms Ngarari says: With even Sh100 a month, you can make a difference. With this culture of giving back to our schools, we can transform the education sector.”
Do you belong in such an association? If not, what are you waiting for?