A LIFE-GIVING OASIS IN THE DESERT OF ABJECT POVERTY

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Frank Oshea, director, Ruben Centre.
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A non-profit organization steps in to give a future to the children and youths of Mukuru Kwa Ruben slum

By Caroline Mwendwa

‘From womb to tomb’ is what the Ruben Center director Frank Oshea, says about the care beneficiaries of Ruben Center get from this multifaceted, charity institution. Ruben Center which is situated in Mukuru Kwa Ruben slum in Nairobi was established in 1986 by Sister Mary Killeen as a small nursery school. 30 years down the line, the center which is now run by Christian brothers, has grown to be an oasis in the desert of Mukuru Kwa Ruben Slum. Walking down the dusty, overpopulated neighborhood of Mukuru Kwa Ruben, one would be surprised to find this green, blissful, center for skills development at the very heart of the slum.

Facilities at Ruben Center
Ruben Center is a hub of education, vocational training, and human development and life skills training among other services. It is built on the foundation of nurturing a consciousness that respects and promotes community development and advocates for the transformation of unjust structures. To achieve its mission, the center is equipped with several facilities including: education centers, health centers and social and economic empowerment programmes.
The institution is also equipped with facilities to offer aid to victims of gender based violence and a police station for security purposes.
One of the education projects at Ruben Center, is an established institution, called Ruben Center Primary school, which is government sponsored,offering free primary school education and with similar curriculum to the one offered in other public schools. “Our children receive two free meals daily, porridge for younger children from nursery to grade four through the contribution of staff from Unilever and lunch to all the children courtesy of World Food Programme,” explains Oshea. The major support given by Ruben Center is home based whereby the care givers of the children attending school are supported. “Mothers and guardians are given support in school fees payment, buying school uniform, and providing other basic needs for the children,” says Oshea.
The facility has also a baby care center, where mothers from Mukuru Kwa Ruben can leave their children and go to work. This service is a solution to many mothers in this area, as it only costs Kshs. 30 a day, and one is free to go look for some money to sustain the family. For many people especially in the informal settlement, the income if any is very low, which makes it difficult to hire a house help to take care of little children who have not yet attained the school age. This results to malnutrition in children due to lack of food and other poverty related constraints. At the baby care, children are given porridge, and their meals are packed and brought to the center. From the baby care, the children are enrolled to the primary school, and thereafter, they can either go to secondary school, or join the vocational courses offered at the center.
The second educational project at the center, is the human development and skills training course which is basically on vocational training. Through this project, the center seeks to promote the quality of life for the young people living in the Mukuru slums. The program empowers students to look at work place and business opportunities through a number of vocational training courses in partnership with NITA (National Industrial Training Authority).The following technical courses are provided within a period of one year: dressmaking, tailoring and computer programming. The computer classes, are offered in partnership with Nairobits. NairoBits which is a multimedia training Trust, established in 2000, seeks to positively change the lives of vulnerable youth by improving their socio-economic well-being through building both technical and innovative skills in ICT. This is achieved through ICT Multimedia training courses aimed specifically at youth in informal settlements and aligned with successful local ICT businesses.
These courses are designed to ensure competitiveness in the work place and competency in the Government’s Trade Test Exams. Apart from the technical courses, students at Ruben Center are equipped with other complimentary skills including: workplace English, Business Management, Design and Marketing, Health Education, Life Skills and Entrepreneurship.
Students throughout the course are given opportunity to contribute to the Ruben Center Production Unit, and display work in the center’s showroom. They also participate in workplace trainingwith other stakeholders.
Some of the products made at The Ruben Center include: weaving and loom work, uniform design and production, embroidery, beadwork, handcrafts, jewelry and African Heritage handicrafts. These courses are offered at very low costs, as low as Kshs 500 per month, and they are flexible enough, in terms of period. One can take a one month course depending on their needs and prospects.
Students who go through training at Ruben Center, are assisted to transit from skills based learning to building their own businesses. There are also small startup loans to students wishing to develop their own businesses.
Plans are underway, to introduce a course on urban farming at the center. “There is no institution offering urban farming as a course yet, we will be pioneers,” says Oshea. Brother Oshea goes on to explain why there is dire need to inform the youth especially in informal settlements, on the possibility of practising agribusiness, even with very small spaces. “Urban farming has very many options that young people living in congested areas can make use of,” he says, demonstrating with a garden just outside his office. Oshea has also established an urban aquatic farming project, where improvised tanks, have been used to rear tilapia and cat fish. “All these are ideas we train students at Ruben Center to venture into”, he says explaining that there are very many ways in which people can benefit from agriculture despite the setting in which they live.
Not only is Ruben center an institution of learning but a support system to the community of Mukuru Kwa Ruben. In partnership with WanguKanja Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides survivors of sexual violence with access to medical, psychological, and legal redress, Ruben Center offers a solace to victims and survivors of Gender Based Violence. “We have sensitized the community of the code to dial, and seek for help, in the event of gender based violence such as rape or battery,” says the officer in charge. Here, people report cases of rape and violence and the staff at Ruben Center dealing with these cases offer help immediately. With a clinic within the institution, victims are first given the health care they need before launching a legal complaint and further seeking redress.
The center has two clinics, one for hospital purposes and another for health care services. Maternal care is also given to mothers at Mukuru Kwa Ruben. “Mothers come for antenatal and post natal care here,” says Oshea. The clinic at Ruben Center receives over 60,000 patients in a year. Health care at this clinic is highly affordable, costing only Kshs. 40 for treatment. “Without health, economic development is impossible, and that is why, this facility is critical in our course,” says the director.

Challenges
With all these projects running, the center requires large amounts of money for sustainability. So much of these costs are met by donations from sponsors, and partners as well. “The staff is there, the infra-structure is there, so the biggest challenge is for us to diversify our donor base. Programs have grown rapidly responding to the needs, and the challenge now is to have donors come on board for each of the programs,” says Oshea. He further explains that all the funding they have so far is coming from abroad despite the efforts they have made to woo local donors.
“We have plans to build a secondary school in a five acre piece of land near our institution,” says Oshea. Explaining that the land has already been allocated to the Center by The Nairobi City County government but there is delay from the Office of The Commission of Lands. This step will no doubt be a huge milestone in lifting the people of Mukuru Kwa Ruben since there will be easy transition from the primary school, at the center, to the secondary school.
Another plan held by the management of Ruben Center is to launch a radio station. The radio station will target residents of Mukuru Kwa Ruben and the surrounding communities including: Pipeline, Kingstone, Donholm, Kayaba, Kwa Njenga, Kwa Ruben and Mombasa Road regions. The radio station is set to air community based programs that will create awareness to the people on self-reliance ideas. The programmes will focus on entrepreneurial skills and ideas, abit of spiritual content for nourishment, and as a tool for civic education alongside entertainment. “Through this project, The Ruben Center will create more employment opportunities in addition to those already employed, whose number amounts to over one hundred employees,” says the radio project manager.

Beneficiaries
Having been brought up at Mukuru Kwa Reuben, Muli Anastasia schooled at AEF Reuben up to class 8. “I passed very well and secured a scholarship for secondary school education with the Christian brothers,” she narrates. After form four, Anastasia secured another scholarship with Faraja trust a partner with the Ruben Center through which she was able to do a two year course at Eregi teachers college and graduated in 2010 with a p1 certificate.
As a result of the scholarships, Anastasia is now utilizing the knowledge and skills she got at AEF, to teach other pupils in the same school while at the same time supporting her family from the salary she earns. “Am happy too because am giving back to the community dealing with the parents and the pupils from the same environment I came from so I understand them better,” she says. Anastasia also managed to enroll for a degree programme at Kenyatta University in 2012, with the help of the Christian brothers and is due to graduate in December. “Finally I thank God and my well-wishers that am able to get higher education which was my dream from way back when I was young,” she comments.
Isaac Swale, 23, is another beneficiary of the institution. Swale was born and raised at Mukuru Kwa Ruben. At the age of 16 he and his only brother were orphaned and he had to take up the responsibility of being a mother and a father to his brother.
Due to common challenges facing the youth like unemployment, peer pressure and substance abuse, Swale almost gave in but thanks to Ruben Centre his future was saved.
He joined Ruben Centre and trained in tailoring and now with 2 years of experience his work speaks for him. The two year experience he gained at Ruben Center, equipped him with skills that he uses to make products such as bags, hats and mats. These skills have given him a starting point for his enterprenuership journey. Judging by his products, Swale has high potential in the industry and his financial benefits can only get better with time. From the sales of his handiwork, Swale, can afford to cater for his daily needs, and provide school fees for his siblings, while saving funds to expand his business.

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