Small Beginnings … Big Dreams

It began with six grade school students and their lone, mainly unpaid teacher, Jacqueline Syombua Kilonzo, holding classes in borrowed space in a church building. A trained teacher, Kilonzo wanted to give the kids in her community in Mwala, Kenya the chance of a future and a way out of poverty that only education would give them. With no government support, she started the little school, bringing in benches each day so her students had somewhere to sit. Their laps were their desks.

In Kenya, while education is free, families have to come up with fees. These monthly fees would pay Kilonzo, but parents were not always able to afford them. Nevertheless, she was undaunted.

But help would soon come from an unexpected quarter.

When her grandmother, 116-year-old matriarch Faith Mutheu, died, Kilonzo’s brother, Geoffrey, traveled from the United States to attend the funeral. As families do, there was a lot of catching up on their lives. Jacqueline told Geoffrey about her school and invited him to visit her school and meet the kids.

He was impressed with their cheerful faces – they were actually happy to be in school! And they were ready and eager to learn. They had no idea how “underprivileged” they were. Poverty was a way of life.

From a Western perspective, Geoffrey and his 12 siblings also had just such a childhood.

He remembers how, like other young boys in the village, he grew up taking care of cows, sheep and goats. He also learned how to cultivate food crops, including coffee beans. There were no modern conveniences in the village, and first the morning, he would run to the nearest pond and dip his feet into the water. His toothbrush was cut from a eucalyptus tree. But the Kilonzos kids were fortunate to have a grandmother who taught them resilience and persistence in a world of limited resources, and parents who provided for their needs and made sure they were able to get an education. This would be their way out of poverty.

When Geoffrey visited his sister’s school that fateful day, he recognized himself in her students and saw that, just as it was for him, education was the door that would open up worlds of possibility for them. Thus began the Imara Academy.

The Academy’s mission is to make sure that no child misses school for lack of tuition. And every one would have the textbooks they need. From their base in California where they live and work, Geoffrey and his wife, Irene, began a fund-raising campaign via personal contacts and social media to secure sponsors, with the long-range plan of making Imara Academy self-sustaining. One of the steps is securing a water supply for the school – and the village – with a generator to pump the water from a borehole they had sunk. Access to potable water and for sanitation and hygiene are key not just for the Academy for economic development for the village.

In the meantime, there is still the challenge of building new classrooms and bathroom facilities to accommodate a growing student body. Today, there are classrooms for preschool, kindergarten, and 1st and 2nd grade. As the Academy expands, the big dream is that one day, Imara Academy will become a high school.

If you’re inspired by this story and wish to support Imara Academy, your contribution of any size will go a long way to making sure that every child in Mwala, regardless of ability to pay, will have access to an education.