I was always a hungry child. At one time, I had to sell water and beg by the roadside to fill my empty stomach. But today, I have over 70 children under my care. My name is Irene Kasandi. I am 26 years old and I have been running the Kibera Pride Children’s Home for the last four years.
I grew up in the dark, littered alleys of Kibera slums in Nairobi. My childhood was surrounded by the images of lack and poverty. My father passed away when I was two years old and immediately thereafter, my mother remarried.
My brother, Milton Agamu, and I begged our stepfather to take us to school but instead of yielding to our pleas, he would scold us.
“You are not going anywhere. You will stay here!” His words, in that bellowing voice he had, scared me stiff.
FINALLY IN SCHOOL
When I was six years old, my mother asked the Brothers of Mother Teresa Missionaries, who run a children’s charity in Kibera, to enrol us at the Missionaries of Charity New Life School in Kiandaa. They obliged. But every day, it was a cat and mouse game. We had to ensure that our stepfather had left the house before we left for school.
Every evening after school, we would go to the Brothers, who lived near our house, to eat and do our homework. Then we would pack some of the leftover food to take home to our mother.
Luckily, in 1999, the Brothers got me a sponsor, the AVSI Foundation – an organisation that sponsors the education of vulnerable children in slums in Africa. This saw me join St Mary Girls School, a boarding primary school in Narok the following year in Standard Six.
ESCAPED THROUGH THE WINDOW
It was not easy for my stepfather to let me go. He caused a fight that evening, and I escaped through the window and sought refuge with the Brothers. It was at 7pm and I told the Brothers that I was not going back home. I spent the night there.
I was served ugali, sukuma wiki with beef, and a warm cup of tea as I watched television. I was later shown where to sleep in a room that had a cosy bed and a flushing toilet! As I locked the door, I felt some inner peace that had never been there before. In retrospect, that was my epiphany. I told God to take away all my suffering and thought of the many children that I knew in the neighbourhood who were suffering like me. I vowed to myself that I would start a children’s home and take care of them.
LAUGHED AT ME
In the morning, after I had tea, buttered bread and sausages, I asked the Brothers if I could stay with them until I finished school. But they told me that they could not because they were not authorised to do so. That hurt me. I told them that I would start a children’s home in Kibera when I grow up. They looked at me and laughed.
After 8am, when the Brothers were sure that my stepfather had probably left the house, they gave me some money and instructed that I take it to my mother for my school shopping, which she did before taking me back. The Brothers took me in their car and drove all the way to Narok. It was the longest drive of my life.
REMAINED IN SCHOOL
I got to St Mary’s Girls primary school and was admitted into Standard Six. The environment was clean, unlike Kibera. I got to know that there were other better ways of living with my own comfortable bed, a warm shower in the morning and flushing toilets. Over midterm breaks, I opted to remain in school.
I later sat for my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 2002 and passed well. With support from the Brothers I joined Consolata Girls High School Meru in 2003.
The principal of the school, a nun, encouraged me to work hard. Over the midterm breaks, I would stay in school with her and she would shop for me. Our close relationship later led to my joining the Sisters of Mother Teresa, after finishing school in 2007.
RESPONDING TO A CALLING
I felt that I had the calling to help the poor children around me. I later realised that I was spending most of my time at the convent, leaving me with no time to work with the needy. A year later, I shared this with my Mistress, but she didn’t want me to leave the sisterhood. In 2009, my wish was granted and I left. With this, I had given up my sponsorship. Life suddenly became too hard. I had to look for a job.
COULD NOT AFFORD COLLEGE FEES
I got a job with Toto 649 lottery at a stall in Adams Arcade that was paying Sh5,000 per month. My parents had separated and I was paying my mother’s rent. There was no way I could afford college fees.
One of my childhood friends from Kibera, Irene Kerubo, had been sponsored to study in Germany for one year. While at the lottery stall, I met Kerubo’s mother and we exchanged contacts. Fortunately, Kerubo called me and I told her that I was struggling to raise college fees. She told me that she had renewed her stay in Germany for one year and if I gave her some time, she could sponsor me for college.
In 2011 Kerubo, sponsored me to join the Kenya Institute of Social Work for a diploma course in social work and welfare. She was paying for my school fees in instalments. I again approached the Brothers and they supported me with Sh1,500 every month for transport to and from school.
While in college, I remembered my childhood dream to start a children’s home. Many children were still suffering in my community. I had to start this children’s home. But this dream was only realised later after my internship in 2013. I started the home with the help of Good Samaritans that I met during my internship in Molo in 2012.
Daniel Brevick, one of the Good Samaritans, has been paying the rent ever since the home began and seeks sponsorships, while Andrea Irrisari did the initial shopping to furnish the home and has been fundraising as well.
Every so often, a child calls me aside and tells me, “Teacher, when I grow up I would want to be a lawyer and help other people like you. “ This really warms my heart.
My brother Milton never got to continue with his schooling beyond Class Eight. But we work together at the children’s home.
The home, a four-bedroom house in Olympic, Kibera, supports 26 live-in children, while 45 are cared for while living with their families across the slum. Some are very young and stay with us during the day under the day-care programme. The older ones visit in the evenings to do their homework and have dinner before they head back home. Faced with the constraints of space, I share my bed with the three youngest children aged below three years.
The children get placed with us through the area chief. Others come to me through the State Children’s Department or children’s rights civil organisations. I also do door-to-door visits in Kibera to identify some of needy orphaned or abused children living with step-parents, or extended relatives.
To support the home, I reach out to my personal friends, some of whom send money each month. Most of the sponsors are university students in Spain who have limited resources. There are instances where one child is sponsored by five students, especially the ones in secondary school. On Saturday afternoons, I engage the children in making beaded bracelets, which we sell to visitors and in the US or Spain through any visiting sponsors and volunteers.
I urge the youth to aspire to bring change in their communities. As for me, I aspire to break the cycle of poverty in Kibera slums, and to inspire others to do the same.
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