The Exchange speaks to Ken Ondoro, researcher, about his experiences living and working inside some of Kenya’s poorest communities.
Exchange: Ken, please tell us a little about yourself
KO: I was born in a town called Oyugis in the west of Kenya but later moved to Kisumu where I stayed with my father and went to high school. I then went to the University of Nairobi where I majored in sociology with a minor in economics. After university I started my career in research. I’ve worked extensively in Kenya but also in Somaliland and Puntland.
Exchange: How did you come to work on children’s issues?
KO: In the past I’d worked on youth issues as well as environment and education issues but I started to get more interested in children’s issues after I did some ethnographic research on community based child protection mechanisms
Another reason why I ended up concentrating on children’s issues is because as a high school youth I lived in a slum in Kisumu for four years with my father. This personal experience makes me feel lucky that I made it to university, as well as passionate about giving back something to the community where I grew up.
Exchange: Do you think your experiences growing up has helped you in your current work?
KO: My current work is supporting a research project in Kenya where we look at community responses to child protection in both urban slums and rural areas. The work is ethnographic in nature and requires that the researchers stay in the areas where we are working. For me it has not really been such a great challenge to move into a slum area, as I have already experienced living in an environment like this. Four of us are sharing a 36 square metre room and it feels just like I’m going back to my life in Kisumu.
In many ways I see it as a blessing to have been able to grow up where I did – as I found the motivation to leave and I can now try and motivate others to do the same. My links with my own community remain strong, as my best friend still lives in the same compound we grew up in, and I still visit from time to time.
I’ve also been able to do some mentoring for children living in my old compound. One girl I mentored from there has since graduated from university.
Exchange: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for children in the areas where you have worked?
KO: For me one of the biggest challenges is access to education. When lots of children are out of school this can lead to many other child protection issues such as early marriage, teen pregnancies, abuse and exploitation. All these harms to children are quite common in the places where I have been working.
Whilst schools in Kenya are meant to be free in reality there are many hidden costs which students and their families must cover to be able to attend school. This creates problems for many families who are so poor they barely have enough money for food. I have seen how girls, for instance, will attend school in a sporadic manner, being absent for weeks at a time. During this time they often become involved with older men who lure them away with gifts and other promises. Boys might leave school so that they can get a low paid job. Sometimes children actually experience harm from inside the school, such as psychological or sexual abuse by teachers, which also makes them stay away.
I have seen the potential of schools to empower all children, especially girls, and I feel that we all should be working harder, especially the government, to make sure that all children can access safe schools.
Exchange: What do you think are the opportunities and the challenges for communities to protect children?
KO: I feel that communities can and do play an important part in protecting children but I believe that programmes should try to support community responses which already exist. For example, I’ve seen how village elders can often act as important links between the community and formal child protection systems and services, as well as the positive impact of good parenting on children.
However, I’ve also witnessed how so-called “community leaders” are sometimes the perpetrators of harms to children. We can’t assume that because someone is a village elder he or she is automatically respected from within their community. This has important implications for how we might go about supporting a community based child protection programme which involves linking with community leaders.
In fact, I have seen many interventions which may have caused more harm than good. For example, programmes which sponsored a single child from within a large family to attend school had the unwanted effect of demotivating the other siblings to the point where some of them actually dropped out of school.
In another case I witnessed how child rights training for children had a destabilising effect on the families. Children came home demanding their rights but the parents were not sure how to respond because they had not received any training. In some cases parents gave up trying to parent their children because they did not know how to implement an alternative form of parenting. In response, one primary school decided not to teach the child rights curriculum.
If we want to support a community based response we need to take adequate time to understand the dynamics of the community. We should not rush in but rather invest in understanding how the community works first. We also need to appreciate that communities are complex and that effective community based child protection will result from a longer social process, not just a single intervention. We need to learn from our past experiences, and not keep repeating programmes which have demonstrated little positive impact on children. I do think it is then possible to support the “right” intervention.
In conjunction with this, we also need to use a family strengthening approach, which targets parents with information, support and services, and not single out individual children or groups of children.
Exchange: Can you tell us more about the impact of positive parenting and family strengthening?
KO: I believe that the role of the strong family is very central to child protection at the community level. From my own personal experience growing up I have seen how my mother and father played such an important role in giving me the confidence, motivation and support to try and succeed. My father always told me to focus on my education and not to hang out with the other boys drinking, and that I would have to work hard in order to be awarded a government sponsorship to get to university. My father also tried to introduce me to people he thought who could help me. I think it would be hard for any one child protection programme to equal the strength and passion which I got from my parents’ support.
As an example of how a lack of positive parenting can impact children, in one community there was a discussion where the men, who were often absent for much of the time and away drinking at local establishments, complained that it is their wives who are encouraging their daughters to go out and find boyfriends or get married early. The wives responded that they could not cope alone in the home with up to eight children to care for and that financially and psychologically it was easier if the children could get married or leave home early. In this case, positive forms of parenting had given way to short term coping strategies because of the weak family structure and poverty.
Exchange: Ken, can you provide us with any final worlds of wisdom?
KO: “Focus on the family – the family is the “medicine” for child protection challenges”.
To read reports from Ken’s latest research in Kenya on community child protection mechanisms follow the links below.