A Discussion with Mary Gakembu, Founder of the Bethlehem Community Center in Kenya
April 8, 2015
Background: Located in the fast-growing slum of Soweto in Nairobi, Kenya, the Bethlehem Community Center (BCC) shows how locally founded and run organizations can spur significant change. The founder, Mary Gakembu, met with Elisabeth Stoddard on April 8, 2015 in Nairobi to share the story of BCC and how she has grown the organization from a small women’s prayer group to a network of children’s homes, schools, and churches that reaches nearly 400 orphans and vulnerable children and many more congregants. The center is deeply grounded in Christian values and community and works closely with the BCC churches. BCC engages in a wide range of issues, including caring for abused and abandoned children. She discusses challenges of running education programs in a slum and emphasizes the growing need for sponsors to support children not only through primary and secondary education, but also through vocational schools or higher education.
How did you come to found Bethlehem Community Center?
It all started from a small women’s prayer group that I organized at my house. We used to meet once a week to pray for our families and personal needs. It is through these women that I learned about all the challenges in Soweto. They told me about all the orphans, young single mothers, and street children who live in the Soweto slum of Nairobi. I felt driven to help this community in any way I could.
I talked to a few of my friends and they agreed to help me start up some informal assistance programs in Soweto. In the beginning, we donated food and clothes, and gave some money. Others would give their time and volunteer in the community. We would come to Soweto and visit with the community in their houses to find out about their needs and how we could be helpful.
Many people would tell us they needed money to pay their children’s school fees. So, some of us would pay the school fees or give uniforms. We did what we could for the first one or two years, and then it began to grow bigger. At that point we registered officially with the government. This was in the early 1990s.
How did you then come to establish the school in Soweto?
Working with the community in Soweto during the early years, I noticed that children were accompanying their mothers to our prayer meetings. Many children in the community were not going to school during the day. This was because of fees, but also because they lacked the opportunity. Especially for the orphans, they had no way to support themselves to go to school and no one else could afford to pay for them.
We began the school in a very small mud-walled structure that could only accommodate around 20 children. This was the beginning of both our children’s home and school. But we knew the need was much greater. In 1994, the government provided a plot of land for us in Soweto so that we could start a larger school.
Originally, the school was run entirely by volunteers; some would teach, some would cook, others would lead Sunday school. In time, my friend and I decided to hire a nursery school teacher to accommodate all the children. Little by little, the organization grew. But, it was very hard because my friends and I could only devote a few hours a day to the community. We couldn’t give our full days. However, soon we were able to find funding and sponsorships for the children which allowed us to expand, hire teachers, and devote more time to the organization.
Today, we have two locations, the original school and children’s home in Soweto and a children’s home in Mwea. Between the sites, we serve over 400 orphaned or vulnerable children.
Does the women’s prayer group continue to meet weekly?
The women’s group became so popular that it has grown to be several churches which also share the BCC name. I am the bishop of our churches and lead services every week. When we first began meeting, we were non-denominational. Anyone could come! The group continued to grow because they saw we wanted to be active in helping the community. The women started to see real change in their lives and communities because we were all working together and supporting each other. We were driven by compassion. It is truly a gift from God that our church has continued to grow.
I gave the church and the schools the name of Bethlehem, meaning ‘the house of bread,’ because we aim to fed people spiritually, emotionally, and physically so that they can have the courage to continue with life and not give up.
What is the history of Soweto? Why is the population vulnerable?
Most of the people in Soweto were chased away from other areas of the city by the government. They came to this area with nothing. Around 1994, there were tribal clashes as well as violence surrounding elections. People fled from these things and a large group settled here for safety. There were around nine small settlements that were then combined to become the area of Soweto. That is when Soweto really grew. It was a center of refuge.
At that time, the World Food Program, UNICEF, World Vision, and others provided aid to the people here because they were Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and had fled with very few possessions. There were very few structures. We were one of the only local organizations that people could come to for help and refuge. The needs of the population have continued even till today, but the big organizations are not focused so much on Soweto anymore.
What kind of programs do you offer at the Bethlehem Community Center (BCC)?
Our major program is providing and facilitating education for orphans and vulnerable children. Without education, they cannot become empowered. We want them to succeed in life. For the orphans who live in our children’s homes, we provide shelter, education, food, healthcare, and holistic support. Our approach is to find sponsors for every student so they can complete elementary school, high school, and college or university. We have very bright children in our school, but most of them are orphans or from very needy or dysfunctional families. Without these sponsors, they would not finish their education. It would not be possible. Some of the sponsors are friends of ours, friends of the churches, others are international.
Another program is the feeding program. Our school has 320 students who all come from very vulnerable situations. Seventy of them are orphans who live here at the school, but the others are from needy families who would not normally be able to afford to send their children to school. They also struggle to provide enough food for the children. So, with our partner Feed the Children, we provide one meal per day to all the children in our school. We also have another supporting organization called Light of Hope. They are from Australia and through Mama Sandra, they have been providing meals for the orphans who live here. She also provided the funds to build and outfit the hostel for the boys and girls.
Our other program is the church. BCC was born out of the church and we want it to continue to grow and provide spiritual nurture for our community. We want to continue to know Christ and to consider him as their ultimate burden carrier, someone who can solve their problems. We do this by preaching the word of God. We reach out to the young men and women in the community and welcome them to the church. We want to talk with them about their struggles and needs. Our church is centered on being active supporters of each other. We are a community. We say, ‘Look at what God has done for you. How can you give back?’
Most of the old ways of evangelism are not working anymore. We need to update our way of outreach by modernizing. We need good systems that can organize people. We need good literature that can be both printed and posted online. Only by modernizing can we reach more people in this decade.
Do some children at BCC go to vocational schools instead of traditional high schools?
Yes, those that don’t score high enough on the national primary exam do vocational training instead. Some do carpentry, welding, tailoring, or cosmetology. But it is not easy to find sponsors from vocational training. We need more sponsors to accommodate all the children who want to learn new skills.
Why is it more difficult to find sponsors for children to go to vocational schools and higher levels of education?
The importance of vocational education has not really caught on yet. People don’t understand why it is necessary. But, especially in Kenya, it is very important. There is a lot of competition for jobs. Helping a child doesn’t end in high school. If you don’t continue supporting that child through vocational school or higher education, that will be just as much of a setback as not finishing primary or secondary.
We have a boy here who is brilliant and an orphan. He finished secondary and was accepted to a university to study electrical engineering. He was previously sponsored by a company, but they stopped sponsoring when he finished secondary. He cannot afford to go to university. So, he is jobless and without opportunities. It is very painful to see that a child is not be able to continue in their education. They cannot reach their dreams or potential. It doesn’t feel right.
Some of our children came to us as street children who had drug additions and needed help. We have been able to rehabilitate them and they perform very well in school. They finish high school and their funding stops. Some of them end up reverting back to their old habits.
You mentioned that you have two homes for orphans. Do those children have any extended family they could stay with?
The children who live in our homes are the most vulnerable of all our children. Some of them do have relatives but they may be violent, or not willing to take the children. But, we do not believe that BCC should be their permanent home. We have a strong integration program which connects the children with local community members, their extended families, or even classmates’ families.
They gradually build relationships and act as foster families for the children. Usually they go stay with their relatives or foster families for one holiday. Our hope is that their relationship will grow strong enough that the child wants to go live with them permanently.
Do you interact at all with the government in your programs?
Yes, not all of our children come from Nairobi. Some come from other areas like Kisumu or Mombasa. The Children’s Department of the government will sometimes refer cases to us. We have five beds that are specifically for taking in children that have been battered and need a place of refuge. The police station brings the children here in those cases.
Do you also do counseling for those children who are rescued?
Counseling is a major part of our programming because even the children living in our homes have come from traumatizing situations. They have great emotional pain. The government has given us a trained counselor who comes every Thursday to meet with the children. One of our teachers also helps with those services.
Is BCC a public school?
No, it is a community school which means it is founded, funded, and run by the efforts of the community. We receive some public funding and some teachers from the government, but we are not considered a public school.
Because of this, our school is really a labor driven by the community’s compassion. If you don’t have the call to serve people in need, it is very hard to work here. You do not work here because of money; it has to be something from the heart. We are all watchmen for the school, the students, and the community.
Do you also work with single mothers in your programs?
The majority of our church members are actually widows or single mothers. They have very hard lives. Through our school, we help take care of their children, but we also want to help the mothers.
So, we have a weekly program where the mothers meet and work together to apply for small grants to start up their own businesses. We are just facilitators. We can’t give them financial support, but we offer guidance, direction, and emotional support. Through these meetings, they form friendships and work together to start businesses. It has been a great program. They have been very successful at paying back their loans.
We also have a group for HIV/AIDS victims who meet every week. They discuss their issues and support each other. They also bring small contributions every week and then give it to one member. The next week the contributions go to another member. We call it ‘merry-go-round.’ They enjoy coming together and having time to laugh and be happy while sharing their experiences.
All these groups are aimed at creating support systems. Any group is welcome to hold their meetings on our compound. We act as a center for the community!
Do you often engage in community issues?
We are very active in the village. Right now there is a project going on to build water and sewer pipes in Soweto. They have torn up all the roads. We have been very involved in overseeing this process. We meet with stakeholders and convey the needs of the community to the managing organization. We represent the Christian community here in Soweto. There are other groups that represent the Muslims, youth, or people with disabilities.
What challenges do you face as an organization?
Funding is always the biggest one. We have been very fortunate to receive some funding from the Australian High Commission and the British High Commission, but funding always runs out. We are trying to find ways to make our schools and homes more self-sustaining. We have just started an irrigated farm where we plan to grow enough food for all our projects as well as have extra to sell at the markets. A few years ago we found funding to bring a water source onto our property. So, we sell that water now the community which helps earn a little for us.
But, even with the funding we have, there is not enough to buy sufficient textbooks, learning materials, and supplies for the children. Most of our materials are outdated and we don’t have enough to give to each child. The other main challenge is space. Here in Soweto, it is very cramped and crowded. We don’t have any space to expand. We have a number of extracurricular clubs, like drama, health, scouts, sports, and debate, that the children are very involved with but we need more space to keep growing our programs and school.
There is no space for a playground which really limits our sports clubs. We need to create a safe place where children in the community can come and play. There is a little field near the entrance of Soweto, but in five years it will not be there anymore. Everyone is building houses and stores with no thought to preserving open areas for the kids.
In our rural location of BCC in Mwea, space is not a problem but the language barrier is very challenging. The children grow up speaking their local languages and when they go to school, they cannot really learn because everything is taught in English or Swahili. They don’t even feel motivated to learn the school languages. They just want to speak their mother tongue. When we find a very bright child in our rural location, we will often bring them to the city so that they can really develop their language skills and progress their education.
Do any of the children have problems with drugs or falling into bad groups?
Within the village there are a number of emerging groups that are a bad influence on the children. They’re smoking, doing drugs, not going to school. They’re basically small gangs. Some of our kids have even joined these groups. We’ve been able to identify them and are now working with the parents to get the children counseling. This is particularly a problem with the boys. But, due to some strict rules and discipline, we are successfully tackling this issue.
The church influence also helps. We lead them in prayer every day. We believe in the conviction of the Holy Spirit. So, the children always know that there is a name above everyone else. Whether the child wants to pursue it or not, that is not up to us. But, as long as the child is with us at BCC we will work to instill good values and morals. That has reversed the thinking of some of the children.