In his 19 years on earth, Gabriel Ochieng has seen it all. He has wrestled with poverty. He has survived the kicks and blows that accompany the state of want. Ochieng has pushed handcarts laden with containers to sell water to villagers. He has also endured many a cold night as a watchman watching over people’s lives and property, working. Despite the overwhelming obstacles he has encountered, Gabriel’s ambition has never wavered. He is determined to pursue his dream of achieving quality education because he knows it holds the key to conquer poverty and liberate his family from misery. Gabriel, who hails from Ugenya in Siaya County, is the third born in a family of eight children. He is the only child to ever reach class eight. The first born, a girl dropped out of school in class six. The second born, a boy left school in class three: “I was forced to drop out of school while in class seven due to lack of school fees and had to go and live with my aunt in Siaya,” says Gabriel.
For the eight months after dropping out of school in Siaya, Gabriel toiled daily in the scorching sun and dusty terrain pushing a handcart to deliver water to homesteads. His father, an alcoholic, had long stopped providing for his family and his mother struggled against many odds doing menial jobs to cater for her children’s every need. In 2016, Gabriel was offered work as a security guard at the school of his dreams, Maranda High School. He agonized daily as he stood guard or patrolled the vast school compound. He watched with admiration as boys younger than him went about their studies in their smart uniform. His heart burned with an unquenchable thirst for an education that seemed to have eluded him. His salary was ksh 5000 from which he paid out ksh 1500 for rent. The rest of the money he sent to his mother. Sometimes he would buy fertilizer and other farm products to help his mother enhance her farming practice she had embarked on after all other means of livelihood proved too difficult. According to Ochieng, providence showed up on a visiting day at Maranda High School! A parent approached him and engaged him in a friendly conversation. In the course of their discussion, he wondered why such a young man would be working as a security guard when he should have been in school. The parent told him about Operation Come To School (OCTS) project, a UNICEF-funded project implemented by the Women Education Researchers of Kenya (WERK). After that brief encounter, the young man could not sleep at night and he dared to imagine himself back in school. He drew up a budget and saved up some money for the bus fare to Nairobi. He also gave in his resignation at Maranda High School, vowing in his heart to return there on his own terms – as a student. When he shared his plans with his mother, she surprised him when she told him that she supported his bold move. She only wanted the best for her son and she told him she would help him to raise the funds for the trip to Nairobi. Both Ochieng and his mother shrugged off the nagging doubts about how the big city would receive him. The big worry for them was that they had no relatives there to hold his hand and help him settle down. The family networks are critical
for rural immigrants into Kenya’s urban centre, helping out with accommodation, meals, survival tips as well as companionship. “In early December 2016, I alighted at Machakos bus station in Nairobi, and asked the bus crew to help me locate Ofafa Jericho Primary School,” he recalls. They were kind to the young man, ensuring that they handed him over to the matatu crew that would deliver him at the school. “I boarded a matatu and arrived at Ofafa Jericho Primary School and went straight to the head teacher’s office.” For several hours he sat patiently before Mrs Elizabeth Ochieng Kokwach. He opened up his heart about his desire to further his education and how he longed to join class eight. Mrs. Kokwach listened keenly to the young man’s touching story and she gave him an aptitude test which he passed. She asked him if he had any relatives in Nairobi. “He told me that his sister was employed as a house-help in the City of Nairobi but he had nowhere to stay, so I took him in to stay with me. He became my son,” says Mrs Kokwach. She bought him uniform and enrolled him in school. At the beginning of 2017, he took the indexing exams and emerged index four out of eighty students. Ochieng maintained his good performance producing good grades consistently. “There was a time he emerged position two overall in all the streams in class eight. He is usually ranging between position one to five”, recalls Mrs Kokwach Before long Gabriel had become the Speaker in the school Student Assembly. The students voted for him. The school currently has 8 Governors, Senators and Member of County Assembly per class. Mrs Kokwach says that the role of the government in the school is to control the classes, model the students and inform the teachers of key happenings. “I encourage the pupils in the school and I attend to them as some of them tend to cry because they have not had a meal at home. So I talk to them and encourage them to be strong. I tell them to leave all their problems at home and focus on their studies no matter how hard the situation is”, says Gabriel with a warm smile.
To achieve the above stated goals, WERK has been working with in partnership with likeminded organizations with a view to having a vibrant and community of practice. The core team is made up of the following organizations: