Illiteracy was declared as one of the key enemies of development by Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta when the country regained independence from colonial rule in 1963. However, 55 years after its independence, roughly 39% of the Kenyan adult population is still illiterate.
Very wide regional disparities indicate that some regions in Kenya are more literate than others. A survey conducted by Uwezo Trust in 2013 found out that communities in arid and semi-arid areas have the highest levels of illiteracy in Kenya. For instance, at 9%, Baringo county has one of the lowest literacy levels in the country. Nairobi county on the other hand, has the highest level of literacy at 87%.
Various reports have cited insecurity and poverty as being the major contributing factors to low literacy levels in Baringo and other arid areas. The main ethnic communities who live in Baringo are mainly nomadic sheep and cattle farmers. The nature of their lifestyle and their deep-rooted cultural practices such as cattle raiding, are a major hindrance to education, security and stability in the region. The area has therefore remained poverty-stricken and marginalized.
With little or no support coming from the outside world, local professionals have now resorted to help develop their community. A case in point is Kuwa Mwenyewe, which is a local mentorship and community development organization based in Baringo county. Kuwa Mwenyewe runs the Kamrio mentorship program to advance efforts towards the realization of education for every child in Baringo and other areas through mentorship and talent development. The organization also implements food, water security and other community economic empowerment programs.
Obsurvative conducting an ice breaker with the students.
Photo from Kuwa Mwenyewe
Ronald Kimutai, also known as Obsurvative, is the founder and CEO of Kuwa Mwenyewe. The 29 year-old spoken word poet and hip-hop artist was born and raised in Eldama Ravine, in Baringo county. His efforts are largely a means of giving back to his community. Although he is a graduate of agricultural engineering, he has chosen to become a creative social entrepreneur to apply engineering principles as well as art, music and poetry towards developing his community.
Kuwa Mwenyewe is coined from the Swahili language which means, ‘be the owner’. Through Kuwa Mwenyewe, Obsurvative encourages the local community to truly own who they are, their talents, arts and skills, and to utilize them to impact their society positively in a bid to enhance and actualize synergy towards sustainable growth and development.
In a recent interview with Change Magazine, Obsurvative shared that the organization’s main objectives are to create awareness of self in every individual; to raise and nurture creative and critical thinkers; and to develop entrepreneurial mindsets among students and the community.
“The low literacy level in Baringo is very disturbing. It’s very sad to report that Tiaty sub-county in Baringo county has the lowest literacy rate in Kenya. There is therefore so much to be done to promote education in the county. First, we must transform the traditions and culture of the local communities so that they can embrace education as the only means to sustainable peace and development. Secondly, the government and development partners must continue to improve infrastructure such as building more schools, hospitals, water points, roads and other social amenities like sports fields and community libraries,” Obsurvative said.
He explained further that there is also an urgent need to deploy more teachers and adequately equip the existing schools in Baringo. The teacher to student ratio is currently 1:37. Supporting the community to embrace alternative means of livelihood will help to reduce over-dependency on livestock which will mitigate high poverty levels and provide a conducive environment for growth in education.
"Most locals feel the media only highlights insecurity incidences in the area but fails to highlight steps made by the community and organizations, towards attaining peace and reducing poverty in Baringo.
Because of such mistrust, it takes a while for the community to accept even good programs brought to benefit them. Thus, there is need for development workers and organizations to be patient and understanding."
Obsurvative also shared that the deep-rooted culture of the local community is their greatest obstacle. He also added that the community still lacks trust towards outsiders due to perceived media misreporting. "Most locals feel the media only highlights insecurity incidences in the area but fails to highlight steps made by the community and organizations, towards attaining peace and reducing poverty in Baringo. Because of such mistrust, it takes a while for the community to accept even good programs brought to benefit them. Thus, there is need for development workers and organizations to be patient and understanding. People usually need a lot of time to buy into your thoughts and ideas so as to shift from a prevailing paradigm of what is to what is not. Personally, I’ve learnt to understand the people and to be patient with them while you reveal your love and care towards them so they can listen and allow you to help them in their progress and thus you realize results eventually,” Obsurvative said.
Photo from Kuwa Mwenyewe
Through Kuwa Mwenyewe, Obsurvative and his team visit various schools to conduct mentorship sessions and motivational talks for students. The organization also runs mentorship and volunteering activites during school holidays when most students are said to drop out of school beacause of early marriage, circumcision, or other cultural rites. This helps to motivate, inspire and keep the students in check until they go back to school after the holidays.
Obsurvative also uses music and poetry to inspire, mentor and to communicate important messages to the students and the community. He says music enables him to deduce the Kuwa Mwenyewe concept and general life lessons to palatable forms which someone can sing along to and easily remember.
“I usually write and recite poetry using the Pokot language, which has enabled me to reach more local people who can hardly comprehend English or Swahili. This approach has been very successful now that the community is entrusting us their children. The platform has also given a voice to young artists to develop their talents as well as pass vital information to the community,” he shared.
Mr Obsurvative says they employ factors like the continuous increase in the number of mentees participating in the mentorship program, feedback from the parents and teachers on the progress of the children, and the notable increase in the number of parents sending their children to school as the key indicators in tracking the program impact. He states that this is a major disruption of the norm in his community which previously does not value education.
When asked where he sees the organization in the coming years, Obsurvative said that he sees the organization going beyond borders to develop more communities in Kenya and other nations in Africa and the rest of the world. He also believes that the organization will be doing consultancy and be involved in policy and strategy development for organizations towards sustainable community development.
“But I’m allowing God’s grace to lead us there so we will be able to accomplish whatever is asked of us when the time comes. My role as the director of Kuwa Mwenyewe will be to continue to solve problems through design. I will be developing concepts and strategies to solve community problems and I will continue to integrate art and engineering to develop holistic approaches to community development,” he added.