Emmie Erondanga

Emmie Erondanga

Civil society partner

From: Korogocho, Nairobi

Interview date & place: 5 May 2016, Nairobi

Interviewed by: Jack Makau & Kate Lines

Original language: English

My name is Emmie Erondanga. I'm running Miss Koch Kenya, that's an organization that started way back in 2001.

How did you first get involved with Miss Koch Kenya?

From that time it was youth coming together just to realise, what can we do within this community. So it started from a girls’ emancipation point of view, because of the high crime and rape cases that were rife then. There was one experience that was really sad – young girls being kidnapped from their home when people were celebrating the millennium. That case, when now young people started saying, no, enough is enough, is when six women were raped, and one elderly woman was found dead and a bottle inserted in her vagina. So it was really an offensive crime, that led to a total change and a turnaround of young people trying to just say, no, enough is enough. Most of the community members would just hide in their homes in cocoons, that they don't want to be again seen as perpetrators or ... because at the end of the day they will be liquidated by the 'mafias' or the 'gangs'. It was not appealing for young people to offend the community that they live in. But no one dared to talk about the issues. And then that's when Miss Koch had to start, from somewhere where, how do we engage the community? How do we engage the people here not to fear? And also to protect the girls and women in this community. How do we disarm young people? Because they were armed – but again that was again another tall order. Even if the chiefs were there, they had no control, so there was no formal way of saying, there's a government in place.

I was living in Korogocho, in Grogan A, one of the most fierce areas that were known then by young people. So I said ok, how do I help this community, and how do I come up?

When we thought of bringing this community together, it was a way to solving our problems and getting solutions, which, for sure it has worked at some points, and it has proven to work if you mobilize action together. As a community you put your heads together and say, oh, this what we think we can do, can this be achieved, yes. If it cannot be achieved what else can we think of doing differently and how can we enhance that support from different actors?

From our end, as Miss Koch, we tried to know how do we start engaging the community, understanding governance issues, how to fight for their own rights, how to fight for education for girls to go back to school, because now what we were faced with was girls dropping from school, teenage pregnancies, still there's crime – but how do you turn these negative energies into positive energy? We started with the beauty pageant, that was to bring people together and share and spread information. But again it was received with mixed reactions, because people didn't understand now these youths. Members of the community would say, how do we understand that they are the real people to change this community? And even gathering itself was really a problem, because now the security enforcers – the law enforcers – would say if you are meeting together in a group of three or five, you'll be mistaken for a gang. 

I joined Miss Koch in 2005, after modelling as a beauty pageant contestant in 2005. With the challenges, I said okay fine, let me just put my head high again and look into this community – what can I do? What can we do together?

Miss Koch was registered as a CBO, around 2004, just to now work with the community and also the chiefs in place, to understand. The trust started coming in. You know you build trust slowly, it doesn't come easy. In 2004, that's now when we started realising organizations coming in – we had now to start sensitising the community on all areas. In 2004, 2005, Pamoja Trust, Hakijami, Kenya Human Rights Commission became part and parcel of our work engaging with the community and helping young people to realise their potentials. We started so many activities around the youth, and it was supported largely by Pamoja, and Kimani being the lead in terms of trying to reach out to the youth. 

Actually Miss Koch now went into four thematic areas to serve the community. One, education and mentorship. Then sexual and reproductive health became another pertinent issue – how do we address the issues of sexual and reproductive health, how do we address the issues of teenage pregnancies. Then we had governance and human rights and leadership – how do we help the community understand their rights, their governance issues, how do we hold accountable over our leaders? Then number four, it was talents and entertainment – how do we help the young people? They have talents, but how do we make them entrepreneurs?

How did you first get involved with Muungano?

I interacted in 2001 with Pamoja Trust, when we were doing the survey around – it was under Muungano wa Wanavijiji, uniting people to understand how they can start building their own homes. It wasn't easy, because guys [thought], eh, you guys are coming to take our land, you're coming to take our homes. But then we had to be trained, like, just we are doing censuses just to understand the housing issues within the communities. So, and that's when at least the village elders came to understand it’s something that can help us try to realign our community infrastructures and good housing ... But again there were controversial groups as well, who said, no, we don't want to be part of this.

Knowing Muungano from where it started ... it started with shillingi chillingi – people putting some monies together and so that they can start building.

We were doing different things, around 2001 when I got engaged into the enumeration work – you know just after school, when you don’t know what you want to do but you want to do something positive with the community. And the community realised, okay fine, they are not all boys and girls who are bad in this community.

What have been the biggest challenges for Miss Koch over the years?

As being a CBO, we had to undergo a huge change that saw the organization almost to the verge of collapsing. In 2007, you will understand, we had a tough time in Kenya. We had done a nice project on youth leadership and participation that was supported by CordAid. You could see young people now getting engaged, aggressive into leadership, ‘yeah we want to be the leaders, today’. We went to Mathare, Kasarani, Mwiki, Kariobangi, Babadogo, Utalii ward – we didn't look at the funds we had, but we'd say how do we reach more people, even with the little resources that we have. As long as we can be facilitated transport, we asked the young people there not to charge us the venue because we'd meet them at their own corners, even if its where they call their base. We'd just go sit down with them and talk to them. Then what happened, after the post-election violence, things did not work well – but we said okay we'll still hang on and see if we're still going to make it. It was proven wrong, maybe at some point – it didn't work. Some of my colleagues when going to the bank, after withdrawing money, around 97,000, they were robbed at gunpoint. And so there is no moving forward. That's around 2008, March. It took us back to zero. People wanted to move with it, and how do we engage now? How do you even tell your partners and donors that you've been kidnapped and robbed at a gunpoint? How do you start explaining things? It was, like, a dream.

This hit us. Because you know it used to happen to so many organizations – especially hospitals. Most of the hospitals were almost raided every other day ­– so the doctor has been robbed, a nurse has been gunned down. Koch was a little bit of...

We had to learn the hard way – that was a hard way on us. Everything came to a standstill, and that was either the death of the organization. Of course, many people would say ah Miss Koch, it's no longer there. I looked at myself and I said, no, mission not yet accomplished. There's a mission that's still to be completed, and this mission is girls going to school. So I had to take a bold step again, I had to go back, marshal some young people, girls, and say ‘okay what do you think we can do? It's almost like Miss Koch is dying’. And I'm at the centre of everything – what do I do? And again I had to pray, because that's the only thing that can give you assurance of where you want to go. I had to pray, and then I said, okay I still have friends, I will not give up hope. I will go to those friends, talk to them, tell them what happened, and ask them: as we still going to go on, or this is the end?

I didn't believe in letting go because I was looking at the girls going to school, we've not paid their school fees, what do we do? This girl has to be in school, she's sitting for exams this year. So I said to myself, these kids, they still really need me, how do I help them? Then going around, I met good people – meeting the former Shelter Forum CEO, I talked to him – I was just plain and I would tell him the truth: you either take it or leave it, you're either in support or not in support. If someone does a mistake, do you abandon them or you help them come back? You either help them come back – and if they will not really be aligned to what you want them to do, then you say, I tried, and you can wash your hands then. But if you've not tried and you just say, I don't want to be associated, you know... But they were so supportive. The late Odinda Opiata who said, ah, Emmie we'll work out something, and I said, yeah. I came to Pamoja – I found Jack and I told Jack. Jack was like, how much is the budget? Ask Kim – Kim can work with them, and Irene. And they said, we have to support them, and I was like, yeah, this is just what I wanted. And I told the girls, can you do this? They said, Emmie we'll do it. I said, yeah. We had sleepless nights, of course, bringing this thing together. 

Around that time we said, okay fine, as we work towards helping Miss Koch grow, we have to transform into an NGO. I was fed up with the CBO way of work. In terms of management, an NGO is more focused. You have to meet your targets, and you have to report even to the government office through the NGO board. So it becomes more clear and roles are clear. And so, if someone messes around with funds for the organization, you face the law accordingly. We did not want to encourage impunity amongst young people, so we said, no we have to instil some professionalism, we have to work accordingly, we have to report right. That was around 2009 – no, 2007, because I remember there was a delegation of Ford Foundation president to the centre, but then actually that's where things started going thick.

You know everyone was fending for livelihood, we don't have... we are not paying... people are volunteering their time and services to the organization. But then at the end of the day you ask yourself, I need to clothe, I need to eat, where I'm living I need to pay some rent – so where am I getting money. And you find there are other youth are engaged in different activities in here. So and so is going to train, and they would be given some stipends, you know to keep them going. And you ask yourself, I'm here, but there's no funds. Then it means, a project will not really support the entire staff – like volunteers, paying them, but you can be given some stipends for, you know, doing some work...

You have to... You know from zero – from those [at a] small age, they can be volunteers to a certain point. Then from that point, where do they fall? They start realising their needs. They need to dress – you cannot stop that. They need to eat – you cannot stop that. If they're young boys, or young men, they will start engaging with you know girlfriend, relationships. So how do they relearn that life in yours here? They will tell you, ‘look here, I think you're joking with us – you either pay us to do this work, or we go’. Then you are training by Umande Trust, you're trained by Pamoja Trust, you're trained by Hakijami, you're trained by Kenya Human Rights Commission, you're trained by KNCHR ... Yo! There's no employment just trainings, trainings, trainings. And you hear:­ ‘you train me in something, then help me perfect in that thing as I get some engagement towards it. If I'll be trained to train others, then I need to be attached to either different centres where I can offer my services, then I get paid. I'm ready for the market’. But if you just telling me, I train you today, in journalism, ethics of journalism – and so on – you've not realised what my needs are. And you're training me in this.

What we're doing is, when you're getting volunteers and helping them to train, we are training them to attach them to some resourceful engagement. Like that's when we realised, we can have DJs – we can train them on a tangible thing. From here, they can get employment. You can train dancers – from here you can say, we're a group of dancers, and if we can engage different institutions, we will be paid. You know, it’s an income-generating kind of activities. Because, when you train me and you don't give me an angle that I can relate this training to an income – there's no point. Rather, you leave people start trying to think and they're wallowing in all those experiences. Then they don't know where do I place this? I'm a peace ambassador, where do I place that? But when you train and train and train, and then what you're training [for] is not forthcoming, it's just like you're wasting more resources into training, rather than into building someone.

So those are some of the lessons I've learned, along the line. How do we make a successful career from, you know, just a small thing. I believe in doing small things, not big things. If I'm a child-centred person, I could be trained towards that, and then led to work for a child-centred institution. And that in return, even if you'll be on an apprenticeship, you know at the end of the day someone will employ you, because someone is seeing what you're doing.

At some point, when we're doing our school programmes, we sit back and ask the kids to take us through what they want, what the themes are they want to learn about, what is it they want to know about themselves. Then now we take it from there. We would talk to teachers also train teachers to understand these children, because children are coming from diverse backgrounds – from families that did not have food, they are going to school [but] they've not washed themselves … So they need to be supported.

What have been Miss Koch’s biggest achievements over the years?

These achievements have not come so easily, and they've come through your support mainly, from the NGOs that I've worked with in the Korogocho community. Many of them felt these young people really need support. And so, in 2003 Miss Koch won the Young Mayor Award. That was a girl, who won the Mayor's Award, from our beauty contest. And then in 2003, the same year, there was an award of Eve Young Woman award winner, who was Veronica Mumbi – she finished her high school through the scholarship support, and she's now working at the Meridian Hospital. And several girls also they finished their high school and they went to get some employment. I met a girl the other day, she's trained as a clinical officer, and she'll be starting her work very soon. She just schooled within this day school here – Our Lady of Fatima.

There are so many other beneficiaries within the programme that we are working on. We have education and mentorship programme, that we are partnering right now with African Population and Health Research Centre, APHRC, that has been working in the community on research issues. It really completes our work as well, because we are working under the same banner – education and mentorship programme. We've been somehow a litmus paper that has been tested here and it can be tested elsewhere.

Transiting from primary education, we've seen many girls – even the past three years we've transited 148 girls to secondary education – and supporting them, giving them some subsidy support. This year, we are engaging also young boys from class 6. We want to see them transit, all together with the girls, to secondary education. Because I think at some point we failed to look through the eyes of the boys in the community. Because many of them left school as early as class 4, to [work on] the dump site. I've gone to different schools in Korogocho, and I would engage teachers, even through their parents meetings – only 16 parents would come, in a population of 180 class 8 or class 7 pupils. So when I ask, what is the problem, then they're like, many boys have dropped from class 5 and class 6. What is the problem? Dump site. To do what? Collecting scrap metals. So, it has become a phenomenon: in any community there are boys in the dump site, there are boys scavenging on the roadside, looking for those metals and selling. And from our own research, we realised there are children-headed families. When I went to schools and asked teachers, how is the performance here and why is it low? Then the teachers would tell us, you know, some kids here don't have food, some kids are child-headed families. Many parents are suffering from long-term illness – and if I say long term illness it's HIV and AIDS, the majority of them. So you find kids taking care of children and kids taking care of their parents. So they become care-givers in their homes. Then we have to position ourselves to support.

How have things changed for Miss Koch, since it started in 2001?

[Back] then, we had around 20 girls. We didn't have money, so we raised funds through our annual dinner fundraisers. The dinner fund-drives started in 2003, to call for action, for people who have money to support these kids. And with time, actually, that kitty has grown.

I asked myself, okay, if an international partner would not trust me, I have my local partners who should, first and foremost, trust me. So I went, single-handedly, you know, you pick on Jack, you say, Jack, bring me five of your friends; you say Kim, Kim bring me another five of your friends. Just, you know, initiate them, engage them. In 2011, I met Suzanna Owíyo [a Kenyan singer-songwriter]. I explained what we're doing in Korogocho community and I said, ah, you should come visit. Why don't you come one day and see what we're doing? We had a community beauty pageant, I called her, she came with a friend, and she was like ‘wow, I love this. I'm part of you, Emmie, from now’. I said, yeah, okay! Then I looked at some other persons ... you know Nameless? Actually Nameless is our chairperson. I tell him what we're doing in Korogocho and he's like, oh you guys are doing really good work. Yet we are here, I think we are people who should be doing more, but we feel we cannot do anything to these communities. And I said ok fine. I want you to come and visit. Now for me, first thing, don't give me your money, but come visit, come see what we're doing and you make your opinion. We drove to Korogocho with him. To cut the long story short, Nameless was so impressed, and said okay I'll bring in more friends to come and support what you're doing. From there, we've had, in our dinners, we've had more corporates coming on board – Safaricom, which never came before; we have MCSK that came on board. As we talk right now, we have the county governor – deputy – in the last year's dinner he was our chief guest. From his office he offered us some five scholarships, for some kids here. Then we have other friends – friends to Nameless who are also supporting the same. So it has given us a mileage for people now – even the companies coming in to support their CSR, right now we have got close to 70 children. Then I got some link to another scholarship with Kenya Education Fund, that will be supporting close to 50 children for the next 4 years. 

Over the time I think successfully we've risen the ladders. Through the projects we are working on, we are working on the sexual and reproductive health. We've met youth peer provider, YPP, who is also in the programme. We've worked with Planned Parenthood Global, that is also supporting most of our activities that are related to the DJing, the talents and entrepreneurship. These seats you are seeing here – we are going to use them for hire, so if you have events we have tents and chairs for hire as well. Then from there we still have other partners who are still coming on board and interested to work with us.

And I would say it’s not easy. For people to now start engaging with you, it means you've shown there's accountability, there's credibility. If you're not credible then you don't get people to support you, even friends. 

All our programmes are trying to get roots in schools and the communities – especially now trying to reach even to the county government office. We need to work with the county to develop our communities, so it is important when you have devolved units looking forward to work with trusted organizations. I remember meeting the governor and told him, I'm so sorry to say, the county government has failed. It is not supporting the communities! Look, social halls to be built, there are different facilities to be built. You know, donors cannot give you funds to build such, but there is government’s – tax-payers’ – money, that can build such institutions. You have failed – you need to go back to the drawing board, you need to look to the issues affecting the youth, not just... you know we are a reactionary country. 

What are your hopes for Miss Koch and Muungano’s next 20 years?

As we started small, in a way, and moving forward, I call Miss Koch a small UN – we don't need 'experts', we are the experts. Miss Koch has to be taken to the next level. And so it's like, when you asked about 20 years to come, of course I want this organization to be like a small UN. We'll not be given money through the international governments, we'll be getting agencies coming to consult to us – like, ‘how do we engage with the youth here?’ ‘How do we move forward from this point?’ Now, the seating in New York and Geneva would be less, small – people would say, ‘why do we go to Geneva when we can go to Miss Koch and discuss these issues?’

I believe the challenges we are facing, with housing, I know if there is a minister who will lead this nation to a better place, it should be a minister coming from Muungano. How will the youth be involved into housing? How will children be involved in housing? Because children need a space to play. But if our playing grounds are being grabbed, then where are the kids today going to explore their energies and realise their future?

Since I've known Muungano – transformation is key. I challenge Muungano to take the innovation bit to the next level, because housing and sanitation and good environment belongs to all of us – the children, the young, the old. But how are we going to do this? We need to do this by joining forces and putting our focus to achieving the right things.

You know, I've seen the Kambi Moto housing – they are lower housing. The places they are built on – Nairobi is in a way that we do not have to build high rises, because of the environment. Nairobi is a place of water, initially it's all covered with water. So if you put enough flats and you're not so sure what materials you're using for construction, then it means it's a disaster in waiting. There are disasters in waiting in Nairobi – Mathare, Huruma, Githarayi, Zimmerman – a house collapsing, because they are built in a way that they look like this. Have you ever seen these houses? They are buildings but they almost look bent. If there are people living in these houses they should vacate. You'd rather even live in Korogocho that living in a high rise that would soon be a disaster to you.

So you see, we are only waiting on time bomb disasters when we know we are the people who have the knowledge to come out of them. The housing in Nairobi should go back to the drawing board – if Kambi Moto was built in a way [that is] friendly, cheap, [with] materials not so expensive but to the needs of the place, then I think our chief designers and planners are to blame.

Muungano is in the right place. On housing issues, it's high time now that we should take the bull by its horns. Tell the Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Lands, you're either here to kill or you should quit from your job – if people are dying on your ministry [and] it involves land, it involves housing, then I think they are giving people a raw deal. Who earmarks for planning and building constructions? So, all houses in Nairobi should go back to the drawing board. Do landlords understand the needs of the people? If he did not understand the needs of the people he should be blamed. So housing – Muungano, you're in housing – I think it's something that we need to look into it and say, how do we start challenging the process. Because, again, the youth are there. They will go to cheap ... cheap and expensive housing. Because if you go to something cheap and then your life is gone, it's expensive.

If anything does not meet the needs of the people then we should just stop and ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing? At Miss Koch we always have to ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing? If we are not meeting the needs of the children out there, then I think we are getting lost. So even as we're doing our education we engage parents. If the children are not performing well, we sit with the parents – where is the problem? So that we have a solution. Are the parents giving children time to play? Are they giving children time to study? Are they following them to school, to see if – just check, did she come to school, did he come to school? If not, where did they go? Why do we want to wait until we have a disaster and say, oh, my child was involved!? How? You know, where were you, as a parent?

So I believe Muungano, as they celebrate 20 years this year, it’s a start. It's just the beginning. We are marking the beginning not the end. The journey starts now. And this journey now starts on a high because we've felt the challenges, we've seen the heat within the informal settlements, we've seen the heat in the up-market [areas]. But how do we take it forward? How can the real estate realise, within the informal settlements, within the people's settlements? Muungano should take this as a starting point towards realising how our land and housing is going to go to the next level. And it's a challenge to them, that they need to start venturing into the government systems to realise these goals. We have to take the bull by its horns.