See where determination has taken me
You could say that Raphael Obonyo’s future was doomed right from birth — if the sole determinant would be where he was born and brought up, that is.
The fourth born in a family of nine children, grew up in the slums of Korogocho in Nairobi in a single room. His family was poor in every sense of the word. Food was never enough, their clothes told the story of their sorry lives, and often, Obonyo and his siblings were sent away from school due to fees arrears.
Obonyo’s parents — his father was a cook at one of the public universities in Nairobi while his mother was a casual worker at a factory, but what they earned was never enough for their needs.
For Obonyo, who loved school, the congested room and poor light from a tin lamp, their only source of illumination, took the joy out of studying. Often, he had to do his homework outside before night fell.
But that was before he befriended a better-off classmate, his class teacher’s son.
“Through him, I had access to textbooks and other learning materials which my parents couldn’t afford. Our friendship also made it possible for me to study and do my homework in his father’s office after school,” says Obonyo.
This is how he managed to score 566 marks out of 700 in his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations. Obonyo, who went to Baba Dogo Primary School in Nairobi, was selected to join Mang’u High School, a national school. But his joy was shortlived because his parents could not afford to raise the school fees. He would have to join a local secondary school.
“As you can imagine, I was devastated. I had really looked forward to joining boarding school,” says Obonyo.
He had often heard how good it was from peers who had gone to boarding schools, that they had libraries and plenty of good food.
But even worse than not joining boarding school was the fact that there was a possibility that he would not even join secondary school.
“My father had almost given up and urged me to take up a course in mechanics instead,” he says.
Even though all he had ever known was the crime-prone, congested and poor neighbourhood he had called home all his life, Obonyo knew that there was a better life out there and that he would only experience it if he got an education.
So he boldly approached members to assist him to join secondary school. Besides being an active youth member, he was an altar boy and was, therefore, known to the congregation. How could they say no?
His father, encouraged by his initiative, took a loan from his place of work and, together with the amount the congregation raised, Obonyo joined Dagoretti High School in Nairobi.
As his father bid him farewell after escorting him to his new school, this is what he told him: “Do not be intimidated by the well-off students. Instead, focus on how far you have come, what you’re capable of, and remember the sacrifice that we have made as a family with the support of friends.”
Obonyo has carried these words with him always, words that, to a large extent, have made him the man he is today.
“The money raised was just enough to pay for my first term in Form One. After that, my father had to struggle on his own to put me through school, but I didn’t give up,” he says.
Even though he was often sent away from school due to fees arrears, Obonyo managed to score B+ in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination.
He was selected to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce degree in finance at the University of Nairobi. As he waited to join university, he decided to volunteer to work at a community library sponsored by the church in Korogocho.
Den of insecurity
“Crime was very common in Korogocho at the time and many of my age mates, people I knew, had joined gangs — several have been gunned down over the years. I knew that keeping busy would somewhat isolate me from what was happening to other young people around me,” he explains.
Around this time, he and two friends, Bernard Otieno and Anthony Gatonga, started the Miss Koch initiative, a beauty pageant they hoped would in some way change the negative perception of Korogocho as a den of insecurity, crime, rape and prostitution.
“Our aim was to get the residents to appreciate the beauty within Korogocho instead of destroying it. Apart from changing the image of Korogocho, money from the tickets sold for the annual Miss Koch pageant is used to assist needy girls from Korogocho to get secondary education.
Obonyo joined the University of Nairobi in 2001 and graduated in 2005.
He and his friends would later found other youth-targeted projects such as Koch FM, a community radio station, in 2006, the Youth Congress in 2007, which equips youths with entrepreneurship skills and links them with micro financiers, besides educating them on their rights, and most recently, K-Youth Media, which came into being in 2011.
It acts as a bridge for secondary school leavers in Korogocho where they get to learn photography, video editing and filmmaking for six months.
The projects are financed through fundraising and donations. Obonyo established his most successful initiative in 2008 to promote education in urban slums.
“I began with awarding top performers in my former home, Korogocho.”
A special envoy
The beneficiaries got a trophy engraved with their names and a certificate. Later, he started to give textbook vouchers and a geometrical sets to those joining Form One.
“I hoped that by recognising them, I would encourage other young people to see the importance of education,” Obonyo explains.
When the initiative was in its third year, the Dutch Foundation for Scholarships for Students in Africa, which supports bright needy students, came on board and has so far awarded 20 students from Baba Dogo and Mathare full scholarships. The students go to Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School in Korogocho.
Obonyo’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2010, he was nominated by young people from Korogocho to sit in the UN Habitat Youth Advisory Board.
In May 2012, the UN officially confirmed him as a special envoy. He advises the board on policy and innovative strategies of engaging the youth.
Obonyo has also been nominated as one of the emerging leaders in the world by the Marshall Fund, a US-based organisation that engages different stakeholders on how to establish sustainable models in the world.
Obonyo, 32, has certainly come a long way from the days when he was a boy studying in the dim light of a tin lamp. And he has not forgotten his family, which he supports.
He pays school and college fees for his younger siblings and two nephews and has built a house for his parents at their Sauri village home in Gem, Siaya County, where they now live.
“Without an education, I know I wouldn’t be telling you this story today,” he says.
“I may not be swimming in money, but I’m leading a decent and immensely satisfying life.”