I had the privilege today to meet Lily Oyare (pictured above), the founder and Director of Little Rock in Kibera. I had heard a lot about her from Jacquie Collins, who’s husband is the Canadian High Commissioner in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Jacquie had helped support Little Rock over the past few years, saying it was one of her favourite projects not only because of its incredible story, but because of the determination and bravery of Lily.

Lily – a wife and mother, had a very nice life in Kenya. She and her husband had good jobs, sent their children to good schools, and were very comfortable. One day in 2000, Lily (who was born and raised in Kenya), visited Kibera for the first time. She couldn’t believe the squalor so many people lived in, only within a few hundred meters of her beautiful home and community. Lily particularly remembered visiting one house (consisting of one room) in the slums, where a grandmother was taking care of 18 grandchildren. The grandmother had had 5 daughters, but 4 of them had died from HIV leaving small children behind. Her 5th daughter lay dying on the floor, also a victim of the disease. The husbands were nowhere to be found. Far from extreme, this shocking scenario painted a very typical home scene in Kibera.

Over the next two years Lily struggled with the debate of picking a few children in Kibera to support, or using her teaching background to support an entire community. In 2002 she finally decided to volunteer as a teacher, and was given Class 2 in a Kibera primary school called Calvary. Within the first few days of school she made a rule for the children: they must come to school clean. Clean faces, clean hands, clean clothes. Many responded that they couldn’t wash because there was no water, despite a jerrican only costing 2 KES (a little over 2 cents) to fill. Lily insisted that every child could find a cupful of water to at least clean their face and hands, and maintained her rule. Over the next week half of the children were coming to school clean. For the others, she one day arrived with buckets, soap, and her children’s old clothes. She took each dirty child to the bathrooms, scrubbed them, and dressed them. She made a rule that hair had to be kept neat or shaved completely. She made another rule that every day, when students went home they had to do their school work before the sun set (no electricity), and then after they could help their parents with chores.

The students embraced these rules with zeal, and Lily told me that what they did was restore dignity to the kids. The parents were so impressed with the response of Class 2’s that they wondered what Lily could achieve with older kids, and within 2 months she was asked to run the entire school.

Lily described how the systems at the school were inefficient and vulnerable. The food, for instance, was constantly stolen by local hooligans (18 – 21 years old, although technically enrolled in the primary school), leaving the rest of the students hungry. Knowing she was no match for these ‘young thugs’, she decided to empower them. She appointed them as her lieutenants, and make them responsible for protecting the food, saying she would hold them accountable for food that went missing. It never happened again.

(photo credit: www.affid.org/uk)

She introduced uniforms for the school, helping the parents secure micro loans to pay the cost over time. Eventually, seeing the need for ECD as well, Lily left the school and started Little Rock (photo above), with the idea that it would be a feeder school for Calvary. Starting with 12 students in 2003, it is now at capacity at 300. As students left ECD to go to primary, they missed Little Rock so much they would come back, so she started an after school program from 4:30-7:00, feeding the kids and giving them a library to do their work in. On average, 150 students per day come to after school. In 10 years, 15 students from Calvary have graduated University, an enormous feat for students from Kibera. These students have all kept in touch with Lily, crediting her and her enthusiasm and belief in their abilities to their success.