Ken Okoth (G’05)
Founder and Chairman of the Children of Kibera Foundation, Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and former Swahili Culture and Language Professor at Georgetown University, who worked with interns Sarah Ancas (F’09) and Karima Tawfik (F’09) to build computer labs in Kenya.
Ken Okoth grew up in Kibera, a huge, overpopulated slum in Nairobi, Kenya, lacking sufficient housing, running water and connection to the municipal sewage system or electric grid. He lived with his mother, Angeline, five siblings and other family members in a 12-by-12-foot, one-room house, before earning scholarships to boarding school, college and, ultimately, Georgetown’s graduate school. For more than five years as a Washington-area teacher and chairman of a foundation that uplifts Kenyan youth, he has helped expand, through education, the horizons of students who “work hard, don’t give up and show that they deserve a chance to make a difference in their lives.”
Preparation for Lifelong Learning
Ken always had an interest in the world, and with steady ambition and encouragement from his mother and teachers, he sought the opportunities that would propel him further. He received a scholarship from Save the Children to attend boarding school in Nairobi and wanted to attend college after high school, but couldn’t afford the local university. He decided to sell papers in the morning to fund German language classes in the afternoon, with the goal of becoming a certified tour bus driver for German-speaking tourists. Plans changed, however, when he delivered papers to New York’s St. Lawrence University Kenya Semester Program office in Nairobi and learned of a scholarship for Kenyan students. He won the scholarship, became a German major, studied in Europe for three semesters – and never stopped learning.
After college, Ken was accepted to Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies, but again couldn’t afford the tuition. When the dean’s office found a way to offer him a full scholarship, “I knew I would always be grateful to Georgetown for giving me this incredible opportunity,” he says. “Getting a great all-around education in history and international relations at the School of Foreign Service would prepare me for any career I had dreamed of.”
The Power of Education
Fittingly, Ken chose a career in education, teaching history at Virginia’s Potomac School and Swahili culture and language at Georgetown. “I’m biased towards the power of education to change people’s lives and make society better, because that has been my life story and experience,” he says. “I share with students my love for world affairs, geography, history and politics.” His Georgetown students, in turn, share his love for the world. “My students have been passionate, self-driven and solution-oriented,” Ken says. “They ask, what is a problem in the world and how can we work together to fix it? I taught a business student who took Swahili because he wanted to do business in East Africa and I’ve taught students from the nursing school who learned Swahili because they want to specialize in tropical medicine and humanitarian relief.”
Even outside the classroom, as chairman of the Children of Kibera Foundation, Ken perpetuates his vocation as an educator. He founded the nonprofit in 2007 as a way to assist youth in the Kibera community where he grew up, primarily raising scholarships to liberate students from Nairobi’s broken public school system. In the public primary schools, Ken says, it’s common for 100 students to stand crowded in a classroom led by a single teacher. As an alternative, Ken and his foundation support students primarily at Red Rose Nursery and Children’s Center, a nonprofit “community school” that hires teachers from Kibera and nourishes students – figuratively and literally. The cost of tuition, school supplies, enrichment lessons and two meals a day at school is about $250 a year. Of the 145 students, 56 are orphans of parents with AIDS and 50 receive tuition, uniforms, books and supplies paid for by Ken’s foundation.
“I see the problems where I grew up and I can’t just sit and lament them,” Ken says. “A lot of people in Kibera are trapped there because they got only a limited education. If you can break that cycle for generations, especially for young girls, that’s life-changing.” Through his foundation, in addition to the 50 primary-school scholarships, Ken offers scholarships to high-school girls and boys at critical risk for early pregnancy, prostitution, gangs, drugs and other threats. In 2008, four girls received the competitive four-year scholarships to attend a boarding high school in Nairobi and 11 more boys and girls received scholarships in 2009.
Ambassadors of Hope
Reflecting his deep dedication, Ken can talk endlessly about his foundation and the children it serves. “So many kids in Kibera don’t have someone representing them and advocating for them,” he says. “If I shut up, no one will hear their stories, so I never shut up. I’m constantly telling their stories and being their ambassadors. It means a lot to me to use the privilege of my St. Lawrence and Georgetown education to serve others.” He also partners with the students he teaches, offering them opportunities to take action and help make a difference in children’s lives.
This past summer, two Georgetown interns from the Class of 2009 spent six weeks with Ken in Kibera setting up computer labs and teaching computer literacy – a technological education uncommon in public Kenyan high schools. Both Sarah Ancas (F’09) and Karima Tawfik (F’09) welcomed the chance to explore Kenya, experience the development work they’d studied in the classroom and open themselves to new learning. “I had been reading so much about corruption, poverty and HIV/AIDS, and I wanted to gain an on-the-ground understanding of these issues and participate in a development project,” says Karima. “When I arrived, I learned that with the negative, there are many signs of hope.”
Daily, the women taught four classes of high-school students the basics of computer usage and operation including Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and e-mail programs – all skills that raise the students’ self-esteem and help prepare them for finding jobs and forging more promising futures. “By giving the students tools and teaching them how to use them, we demonstrated that we trusted them, believed in them and empowered them to teach others,” says Karima. In response to that encouragement, says Sarah, “Our students were excited and contagiously enthusiastic about learning. Many people in Kibera are wildly chasing opportunities to make a better life.”
As Sarah and Karima became mentors, role models and friends to the children of Kibera, says Ken, they revealed another immeasurable benefit of partnering Kenyans with young Georgetown volunteers. “By advising the Kibera students, teaching them and answering their questions, the Georgetown graduates showed the students, ‘Hey, the world is a small place. Even when a better life seems very far off, it is possible and you can make it.’”
21 October 2009 | Benay Brotman is alumni communications manager in Georgetown’s Office of Advancement.