The idea to start a charitable organisation came to Eric Nehemiah, 27, while he was taking a walk in Mathare slums. It was 2012 and he was 20 years old.
“I thought of the children I often came across in the slum, how many of them ended up dropping out of school due to lack of school fees or didn’t go to school at all and felt compelled to do something about it,” he says.
Eric is a trained photographer, skilled footballer and dancer. He is a beneficiary of Mwelu Foundation, a CBO that nurtures the talents of children from poor communities.
Here, he learnt photography while he learnt dance and played football at Mathare Youth Sports Association.
He was a product of the kindness of others, and felt motivated to teach what he knew to those who were less fortunate like he once was.
His training at these two institutions took about five years, and it was while thinking of the best ways to put his skills to use that he realised that he could make a difference in the lives of children in the informal settlement.
“I joined hands with a like-minded friend, James Ndung’u, and together, we set up Mathare Foundation in 2013. I am the project manager,” he explains.
Mathare Foundation, is registered as a CBO, and its core role is offering skills in photography, football and performing arts.
Announcements for the programmes they are sponsoring at any given time are usually put out through word of mouth or through the foundation’s social media platforms.
When a child expresses interest to join, he or she consults their guardian for consent.
“Depending on the theme of the week, we sometimes travel to places such as the National Park to practice photography. On days that we remain in Mathare, the children mostly play football under the instruction of a football coach,” he says, adding that they target those between 10-16 years because they feel that those are critical years in a child’s development.
The aim is to train them, the end result to create opportunities for them while imparting them with leadership and life skills.
Together with three hired trainers they have at the moment and a team of four volunteers, they take the children through the process of taking photos: the classes are offered in sessions and cover theory and practical skills.
The classes are held on weekends and the children are allowed to learn as long as they want.
Currently, they are training about 60 children. More than 150 children have gone through the programme since its inception in 2013.
Today, some are skilled photographers and footballers earning money from their skill.
There are also those that have recorded music. At the moment, the organisation is setting up a dance programme specifically for girls between 11 and 16 years.
“Engaging in constructive past times such as dancing and football keeps the youngsters occupied, and so are less likely to engage in behaviour such as taking drugs or engaging in pre-marital sex, which could lead to teenage pregnancy,” he adds.
Their efforts have attracted the attention of the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Nic Hailey, who gives a yearly donation to the organisation to help them meet some of the educational needs of the children in the programme.
“At the moment, we fully depend on donors to run our programs,” he says. Eric works for the organisation on a full-time basis.
“My team and I pay ourselves between Sh5,000 - Sh10,000 a month depending on the amount of money we can spare. However, there are some months that we go without depending on the cash at hand.”
At such times, income from photography services that he offers comes in handy.
Since completing secondary education in 2009, Eric hasn't managed to advance his education due to limited finances.
He, however, intends to enroll for a diploma early next year in project management. However, his inability to advance his education formally has not in any way impeded his learning as he continues to take every opportunity to learn by attending all training workshops at his disposal.
“I refer to myself as a son of the slum because this is where I have been moulded and acquired most of my skills, such as writing proposals, fundraising, as well as how to grow an idea without capital,” he explains.
“When we started out, we only had one camera and didn't have an office or a specific training space. Some parents even pulled their kids out of the programme.”
Through the help of donors, they now have two digital cameras, four analogue cameras and other training equipment required, such as a projector and a laptop.
Some of their photography work has been exhibited at Alliance Française, The Commonwealth headquarters in London, Kenya Cultural Centre and at the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) regional centre at Kenyatta University.
“I derive joy from seeing the kids acquire skills that can help them break from the chain of poverty. However, it has not been an easy journey.
There were many days I went to bed totally worn out due to the many challenges we were facing, such as funding and parents who didn't understand the concept of our programme,” he says.
In 2016, Eric, the Vice-chairperson, Alliance of Slum Media Organisations| (ASMO), a consortium established by six slum-based media organisations, was selected the Africa Regional Winner during the Commonwealth Youth Worker Awards. He is also a YALI fellow.
This year, he was among those who represented Kenya at the One Young World, a global forum for young leaders held at The Hague, Netherlands.
He attended the forum through sponsorship by Caroline Mutoko Leadership Award, an initiative that offers a young leader the opportunity to attend the summit.
These opportunities and trainings have come with some key learnings for him on how to run his organisation and track its impact better, skills he did not have or did not think he needed when he started.
“Unlike before when we didn't keep a proper record of the children who went through the program, for example, we are now keeping a database that will allow us to follow up on their progress many years later.
We are also working towards having a sustainable source of income for the organisation.”