When one of Kwamboka Okari’s employees died and left behind children, she took them up. Several decades later she has become a mother of many
Harriet James @PeopleDailyKE
When the HIV/Aids pandemic struck Kenya, many of the carvers in Kisii county died, leaving many orphans behind. Kwamboka Okari, a businesswoman exporting soapstone from Tabaka, Gotichaki in Kisii, to the US was also affected as one of her employees died from the disease in 1996.
His wife succumbed six months later leaving behind seven children with their aged grandmother. Since there was no one to take care of them, Okari put five of them in a nearby boarding school, leaving the youngest two with an aunt. “I just felt that this was the right thing to do. Two years later the seven children were in the same school,” Kwamboka says.
She charged her late sister, Margaret with the responsibility of making sure that all their expenses were taken care of at their school. Two years later, an aged woman brought her two grandchildren and requested her to assist in taking care of the children as her son and wife had died from HIVAids. Okari opened her arms to them and put them up in the same boarding school.
This is how the orphanage was birthed and by the year 2000, 16 children were under her care. It was the death of her sister from Hepatitis C in the same year that resulted in her incorporating the Margaret Okari Children’s Foundation in California.
The organisation is dedicated to assisting orphaned children in Kenya, who have lost their parents through HIV/Aids. It is committed to building the physical, emotional and educational foundation of the children in Kisii region and ensures that they acquire education. She began raising funds for the foundation and by the year 2005, the donations increased and she took in more children.
By 2007, they had a total of 50 children. In January 2009, Margaret Okari Primary School was incepted just after Kwamboka relocated back to Kenya. It stands on a five-acre land that was donated by the community. The location is sentimental too as it is where she started her soapstone business and where her former employee’s children studied.
“We started with two prefabricated dormitories, one for the girls and the other for the boys. A kitchen and dining hall were constructed. We rented three classrooms from a nearby public primary school and that’s where our children attended until we constructed our own classrooms,”says Okari.
The school is committed to three areas of focus: education, health and human services, leadership and sustainability. However, since education is the cornerstone to a healthy and productive society, the school has placed immediate emphasis on it. Currently, over 20 students from the orphanage have been enrolled in different universities.
They also have hundreds of students studying in national as well as county schools. “In 2017 we had 20 students who graduated from Class Eight. Out of the 20 students, 16 scored 350+ marks.
The remaining four scored 343, 342, 298 and 289, respectively. Our school was ranked number one in the Sub-County of Gucha South, which has a total of 137 schools,” says Kwamboka. “Five of our students from the Class of 2017 have been selected to join Starehe Boys (one) and Starehe Girls (four). Many others have been called to other national schools,” she says.
Despite all these successes, the orphanage has faced various challenges since its inception. Presently, the number of children has increased to 230 students and their management board, which was formed in 2004, has increased from eight to 12 people; consisting of seven women and five men.
The board has worked tirelessly to make sure that the children are fed, housed and have an education. In addition, to raise their annual budget of approximately Sh5.6 million ($55,000), the board does shows and sells items, especially during Christmas.
They collect donations, during occasions such as “Giving Tuesday” too, which is held in the month of December. “We are glad that several of our high school students are also sponsored by Equity and KCB Banks and Jomo Kenyatta Foundation,” says Kwamboka.
In future, they plan to set up a school similar to Starehe Centre, which will begin from Kindergarten up to High School, and will house over 1,000 students. Their long-term objective is to admit 300 school fees paying students who will afford to enrol in the school to supplement the funds.