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Inspired by alumnus, Alvarez reaches out to Kiambiu

March 27, 2008

Linda Alvarez, multicultural services advisor at UW-River Falls, brought hope to a Kiambiu slum outside of Nairobi in Kenya, Africa last summer after being inspired by the words of UWRF alumni Sigurd Hansen

“Sigurd Hansen encouraged this question in me ‘what can I do that would be unique?’ I thought about my connection with orphans and I found myself down here and it was really amazing,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez was orphaned as a young child after her parents died in a car accident in the late 1950s.

The slum of Kiambiu has an area of about 7.5 square miles and a population of about 100,000 people.

Alvarez teamed up with the Leo Community Development Network (LECDEN), founded by Steve Olito and H. Kelli Wambua, to bring food and supplies to the community of orphaned children. 

“We’ve done work in the U.S. and will continue to do that all the time, but you realize that you are in a very special position being a U.S. citizen,” Alvarez said. “You live with affluence that is rarely seen anywhere else in the world, even if you’re poor here.”

There are many orphans in nations such as Kenya due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. According to the 2007 world population data sheet, compiled by the population reference bureau (PRB), the population of Kenyans between the ages of 15 and 49 with HIV/AIDS in 2005/2006 is 6.1 percent, which is down from 15 percent in years prior.

The estimated number of orphaned children in 2005 due to their parents dying of AIDS was between 890,000 and 1.3 million, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Alvarez saw the need to help the orphans in this distressed nation.

Connecting with the kids
Alvarez brought 5 suitcases of books, clothing, shoes and hygiene products with her, and that still wasn’t enough. She had to go out and buy bundles of secondhand clothing so that everyone would have enough.

“[We were able to give] each child two changes of clothing and a pair of shoes and socks,” Alvarez said.

She was also able to give each child at least one book that they could bring home and read to themselves and their younger siblings.

“The littlest thing you do for these children is huge,” Alvarez said. “When we went down, we also brought bags for each child and in the bags was a plate, a cup, a spoon, pencil, paper, an activity book, stuffed animal, a ball, a little car, soap and a washcloth.”

She also had a community t-shirt made that she presented to the orphans. 

“I thought it would be nice if we could have a community t-shirt so they kids could look at it and see that even though they don’t have parents, they belong to something,” Alvarez said. 

Alvarez said the children enjoyed having UWRF on their community t-shirt because it reminded them that people at UWRF care about them. 

“I hope that someday we will be able to have some sort of formal connection with UWRF,” Alvarez said. 

Education
Alvarez recently got word that 15 children from the Kiambiu slum have gone missing. Children are often abducted and made part of the child slave trade, sex trade and trafficking.

The abductions generally occur when children travel alone or when children are left alone all day.

“[If the older children are able to have] uniforms and shoes and socks, [it] would really prevent the kids from being stolen and that’s what I’m really afraid of now,” Alvarez said. “There’s no such thing as an Amber Alert [in Nairobi].”

A school uniform costs 1,300 shillings, which equates to $20. On average, a family in Kiambiu makes 150-300 shillings a month.

The children that are able to go to school are in a small classroom, generally with about 100 students to every one teacher, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.  There are few books, workbooks and pencils that the students all have to share. The teachers receive no formal training and are without proper teaching materials. 

“They’re lucky if they have a pencil,” Alvarez said. “Most often they will use nubs of pencils to write. These folks may earn something like 300 shillings a month and a pencil costs 10-30 shillings; that is how precious pencils are.”

Education is essential for developing nations.

“If you can get a kid at least semi literate, especially the girls, you reduce the pregnancy rate and you increase the ability for children to resist temptation,” Alvarez said. “Education itself is life changing and gives people an incredible kind of hope.”

According to Alvarez, the children of Kiambiu want to be educated in any way possible. 

“In a place where there are few TVs, few movies, you’ve got these kiddos who are dying to be educated,” Alvarez said. “Their whole innate force is channeled into education. They want to learn as much as they can.” 

A hand up, not a hand out
Alvarez said she has truly been touched by her experience in Kiambiu and wishes she could go back this summer, but will not be able to due to the cost of the trip.

“It’s so amazing. One gets the sense that these are your neighbors,” Alvarez said, “There’s not that much that is different. It’s like the neighbor down your block.”

Alvarez had a similar experience when she worked with AIDS affected children and families in Chicago.

“You look into the face of one of the mothers and you see yourself. You look into the face of one of the babies and you see your babies,” Alvarez said. “How is it that any of us feel so distanced from each other when [we are all so alike].”

Alvarez wants people to understand that the people of Kiambiu are hard workers.

“They don’t want a hand out, they want a hand up,” Alvarez said. “A hand out you can never count on, but a hand up with your own industriousness, you can really move forward.”

Being a slum, Kiambiu is not part of the government and local authority plan. They do not benefit in budgetary allocations. As a result, there are very few jobs in Kiambiu, according to the Kiambiu.org Web site.

“You don’t realize how much a job gives you dignity, gives you something to look forward to, gives you the opportunity to serve, take care of yourself and your family,” Alvarez said. “Just the dignity that a job infers is an amazing thing and it’ll keep families together.” 

The future
Alvarez continues to work on getting donations for the people of Kiambiu.  She says she hopes that she and other organizations will be able to raise enough money to build an orphanage, a preschool daycare center and is also accepting donations for the Kiambiu community.

“We’re asking for contributions of school supplies, shoes, socks, books, pencils, hygiene products including soap, shampoo, eating utensils, washcloths and used clothing,” Alvarez said.

If you’d like to contribute, items may be dropped off in Alvarez’s office in the basement of the Chalmer Davee Library, room 107.

Alvarez also extends a thank you to everyone who has contributed to the project in Kiambiu.