Helping Orphans and Vulnerable Children on Lake Victoria

By Jafred Mwangi

The town of Nyandiwa Beach is a poor fishing village with a spectacularly beautiful setting along the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. The eight-hour drive from Kisumu, the country’s third largest city, winds southwest along around the lake through lush farms and across rising rivers. After passing through Homa Bay Town the roads along this stretch of Lake Victoria are deeply rutted and unpaved, but still busy with cars, matatus (public mini-buses), bicycles, piki-pikis (motorbikes), pedestrians, goats, and other livestock. From Sori Town the coastal road becomes increasingly challenging and can only be navigated by piki-piki and at times on foot.

This remote and tranquil place has, like many of the lake’s fishing villages, been hit hard by HIV. HIV prevalence in Gwassi Division, which encompasses Nyandiwa, is 35%, three times higher than Nyanza province (13%) and nearly six times higher than the national average (6.1%). This is a story of how local activists are connecting with one another across these lakeside communities, gathering resources to help their affected neighbors, and reaching out to international donors to harness additional resources to help improve the situation of families affected by HIV and particularly children infected, affected, and orphaned by the virus. This is a story about the noble people of Nyaoro Support Group who look out for and support their neighbors despite the harsh economic realities they endure themselves.

Nyaoro Support Group is a community-based organization (CBO) under the consortium umbrella of Gwassi Coalition Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. It consists of about 600 community volunteers living positively after being infected by HIV who are working within their communities to secure the livelihoods and future of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC). Through the combined efforts and resources of the Nyaoro Support Group, other Gwassi Coalition member organizations, and some international donors, children orphaned by HIV/AIDS are finding hope.

“We visit the families with orphans and vulnerable children and see how best we can support them, trace defaulter clients who are on anti-retroviral therapy and we also visit the elderly and those who are bed-ridden due to HIV/AIDS and support them” says Kiambaa Charles, Secretary General of Nyaoro Support Group.

The group also sponsors an OVC school-retention program that provides school uniforms and food to ensure that these orphans can remain in primary school. Although Kenya has universal, free primary education, extremely poor children often do not attend school because they cannot afford a uniform.

“We are supported by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to support the orphans and to retain them in school together with Community Action for Rural Development, which provides them with food to feed the school going orphans,” Charles explains.

Providing free uniforms removes a major barrier to school attendance for poor and orphaned children, and ensuring a healthy, filling meal during the school day is another strong incentive to attend daily.

Despite its success with keeping primary age children in school, the CBO’s biggest challenge is the lack of sufficient funds to support the orphans who have completed their primary level to pursue their high school education. Too often when orphans reach high school age, they cannot pay their school fees and end up dropping out of school. Their prospects are bleak. So the community in this remote region teamed up to write a proposal to start a tailoring school.

“We sat and wrote a proposal to World Vision and told them that we have 650 OVC who are challenged financially and need to be trained to have the technical knowledge to support themselves afterwards. We were able to get 11 sewing machines and we currently have 11 students on training for six months and 10 who graduated in April, 2013 with Certificate in Tailoring Grade III,” Charles says.

These tailors-in-training sew the uniforms that are donated to the primary school children and learn a trade that will allow them to earn a living, support their families, and maybe even invest in the future. While much foreign aid comes in the form of grants that can be challenging to sustain, this program’s goal is to help the newly minted tailors to become self-sufficient and productive members in their community. The hard work, perseverance and determination of these orphans shows how hard their lives have been, and how eager they are to improve their situation. With the support they have received, smiles of relief overwhelm their bright faces as they build their tailoring expertise.

So far the program has very limited space determined by the number of sewing machines available. The adolescent orphans in need of training in skills that will help them survive and build a future (as tailors or in other professions) still significantly outnumber opportunities and resources. A total of 21 students have been trained so far. Some have gotten jobs or gone on for further training, and one has purchased a sewing machine and set up her own business. Twenty-one orphans trained, 629 to go.