Kenyan women conquer poverty through Notre Dame-sponsored business academy

Author: Shannon Chapla

In the southern outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, is a square mile that contains one of the largest and most desperate slums on the African continent.

Kibera, the second-largest slum in the world, is crammed with almost 1 million people who live in shacks without electricity, running water or sewage systemsa stark contrast from the modern hub of business and culture that is Nairobi.

It is here that David Moss, Notre Dames assistant vice president for Student Affairs, is trying to change lives by working to empower the women, often single mothers, whose children play in the garbage-strewn alleys where diseases, including the AIDS virus, are commonplace.

You can smell and even taste the filth, dirt and grime,Moss said.It assaults every part of your physical presence.

Five years ago Moss, representing the University on a Congregation of Holy Cross mission trip, first traveled to East Africa.He met Edel Quinn Odongo, a social worker who had close relationships with families in Kibera and had developed the framework for a plan to teach business skills to women.Moss and Odongo collaborated on what is now the Father James Karaffa Business Academy for Women (named after an American Holy Cross priest serving in Kenya who was trampled to death by a giraffe in a wildlife park in 2002).

I helped her restructure some things, and we created a model that is both educational and holistic in nature,Moss explained.Its not simply about teaching better business principles. We counsel on good nutrition for families, physical and sexual health, positive child rearing practices, issues of self-esteem and worth, personal empowerment, leadership development, personal communication with the opposite sex in a male-dominated culture, and spiritual growth, so the women can develop their own relationships with God.Then, we combine all of this with some business instruction and small loans.

The academy runs a three-year program that currently accommodates about two dozen women.It was founded through the collaborative efforts of Student Affairs, the Congregation of Holy Cross and two Notre Dame student groups: the Student International Business Council (SIBC) and the Knights of Columbus (KofC).It is managed by Odongo, Moss and Cleophas Kyomuhendo, C.S.C, a Kenyan Holy Cross brother who oversees finances, including the secure transfer of funds coming from Notre Dame.

To date, the SIBC and KofC have contributed some $15,000.It costs only a few thousand dollars a year to run the program because the academy does not have its own building, although Moss hopes to be able to purchase one in the near future.Until then, workshops are scheduled in varying locations, such as schools and community centers, and the women are paid a small stipend to compensate for any wages they may be losing in order to attend.

Given their extremely poor conditions, they are amazingly committed,Moss said.Its funny, when I first visited, they were just getting started and had nothing.When I went back last summer, four cell phones rang during the course of a meeting, so clearly they are becoming true businesspeople.I was amazed.

The academys entrepreneurs sell fruits and vegetables, candy, charcoal, firewood and clothing.One runs a hair salon, and, perhaps the most innovative of the group hires men to cut stone from a nearby quarry then sells it to other businesses.

Additional goals for the academy include adding classes each year until capacity is around 100, and the interest is already there, if not the resources.When Odongo, a well known and loved face around Kibera, walks through the slum, she repeatedly is approached by people begging her to let them join the program.

When initially designed, the academy was to incorporate Notre Dame undergraduates in the teaching of business skills, English as a second language and other workshops for academic credit.In return, the women of the academy would provide these students with basic Swahili lessons and hospitality.A travel warning to Kenya has prevented that so far, with the exception of two newly graduated students who joined the trip two years ago.But, for Moss, the most important aspect is that lives are being improved throughGods work.

Its not just about money,he said.Its about changing womens perceptions and perspectives of themselves in the world, so when theyre given the small loans and then start to enjoy better income, they are more capable of creating a powerful and lasting impact for their families, the surrounding community and Kenyan culture.

Contact: David Moss, 574-631-5550,


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