Meet Karambu Ringera, the Kenyan woman who is mother to 73 orphans, vulnerable children
By Olabisi Adesina
London, June 22, 2020 (AltAfrica)-She is Dr. Karambu Ringera, a Kenyan woman of steel who has dedicated her life to serving humanity. A woman of many colours, a formidable force for change who has taken the development of children, particularly orphans and the vulnerable as a personal hobby .
As a testimony to that commitment, Karambu Ringera founded the International Peace Initiatives, IPI to promote Cultures of peace by supporting sustainable initiatives that improve livelihoods and enhance quality of life.
She told Olabisi Adesina of Alternativeafrica.com that the core of IPI’s mission is “to build a new generation of leaders through peace and ethical leadership programs and provide orphans, women living with HIV/AIDS, survivors of violence and communities with the tools and resources to move from violence, poverty, and crisis to stability and self-reliance, thereby building resilient communities”
And if you think raising a kid or two is difficult, you’re in for a shock. Currently, Karambu Ringera is raising about seventy three, many of them orphans and vulnerable children. More difficult so, under the same roof and in lockdown.
“what we did was that immediately covid-19 was announced, we locked our gate to outsiders. No one comes in and so we know we’re contained and so we live just like a family, So for all of us here, there is no way we can do social distancing.
“That’s how we work here. Like now, because the staff have gone, the older children are helping me at the children’s home, We cook, we clean and we teach each other. The university students are teaching the high school kids, the high school kids are teaching the primary school kids. So it’s really a place where any kid who has the right mind will grow, move out and become an amazing citizen.
Born and raised in Meru, Kenya, Dr. Karambu Ringera earned her Ph.D. in Intercultural Communication in 2008 from the University of Denver. She earned a Masters Degree in Media from Natal University, South Africa, as well as a Master of Theological Studies (with a Peace and Justice emphasis) from the Iliff School of Theology in Colorado.
She received her Bachelor of Education degree and Postgraduate Diploma in Mass Communication from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Dr. Ringera is also a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
Dr. Ringera is a 2016 Cordes Social Entrepreneurs Fellow; a 2015/16 Next Generation Leader Fellow of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, USA; the 2015 Life Achievement Award and 2015 Master Scholar Award winner, University of Denver, USA; and the 2012 African Achievers Award, UK – for her cutting edge work in innovative and sustainable models of development and peace building, women’s human rights and global leadership programmes around the world.
In a special interview with Olabisi Adesina of Alternativeafrica.com, Dr Ringera went back in time to how it all started.
Karambu-It came about in 2002 and in 2002 I was in Kenya for my summer holiday, had gone to the U.S for my graduate studies the previous year. So in 2002 when I came back home, I met a group of women meeting in my mother’s compound, as you know, women do meet, to share ideas, to raise money , to buy each other kitchen items and things like that. So I met this group of about thirty five women, and I sat down to experience their process and said to them: is this all? Because the money they raised, they distributed among themselves. They had a system of doing that , and then they kept some to buy kitchen cutlery for each other. So I said to them , is that all?, because my thing was that are they keeping any money aside to save for when one of them needs school fees or when one of them is sick.
They told me this is not all because seven of us recently lost their husbands to…..to what I asked, and they were like, we don’t know. Well 2002, 2003, 2004 , HIV/ AIDS was the main thing in Kenya, so I said , you need to go and find out what killed them. You know they don’t like us to know even the doctors they went to see , we don’t have the documents they said.
AltAfrica..(cuts in) everything about Africa is always hush-hush, you keep things to yourself .
Karambu-(laughing) yes. but i said no, you have to go and find out so that if it was a disease, you need to know how to take care of yourself so your kids don’t go to the street because if kids don’t have parents, the next place they go is the street. So they said they would do that. So all the seven of them found out that their husbands had died of HIV/AIDS and all of them were positive. Two of them had young kids, and one of them was really really ill. So I said to them, well … so that was the first part of them losing their husbands.
The second part was that they said seven of the kids of the women in that group were not going to school because their husbands were the income earners and so the kids were not going to school. Then the ladies had no jobs. So they said can you help us take our kids to school and I said I am a struggling student myself in the US, I don’t know how I can help but let me go and think.
AltAfrica-Why do you think they spoke to you, why did these women decide to ask you for money to send their kids to school?
Karambu-Because they think anybody who is going to school in the US is wealthy and they didn’t know that to go through my graduate education, I applied for about 600 scholarships and I got only six.
AltAfrica-(Cuts in)…600 scholarships?
Karambu-Absolutely, actually i think its somewhere around 1000, I am serious, I applied for between 600 to 1000 scholarships and I got six and that’s how I finished my graduate studies in the States without debt. They think that if I could afford to go to America, come back home and pay school fees, I had money. So I told them I am a Student, I don’t have money but let me think, pray and see what I can do.And truly in November of 2002, I created something I called ‘The Kenyan cultural night‘ and I invited people to come, I made a lot of Kenyan food, got a group of African drummers to come and do some music. I talked about Africa, my culture growing up in a very patriarchal system, talked about our food, talked about what we were doing about HIV/AIDS in Kenya and how it was affecting women and children . And I was able to raise $400 that night and that is what enabled me to send those seven kids to school the following year in January.
AltAfrica-At that point when you went back to the U.S , is that when you started having that brain wave.
Karambu-I tell you, when I fly, that’s when I think. On the flight when I was trying to think about how to help those children, that’s when I got the idea of making the cultural event. And it started with just making Kenyan food, invite people to come and pay something at the gate. That’s when the idea came from . So when I went, I implemented it in November and I got some people to help me organise it, help me cook, and there it was.
AltAfrica-Wow !!! good on you, what can I say . At the end of the day, IPI, International Peace Initiatives kicked off. Looking at the mission of your organisation: It has to do with promoting a culture of peace, change lives by educating and inspiring children and that’s through many of your projects. Now the question is, how have you been able to achieve this , bearing in mind that your base, Kenya, just like many other African countries is riddled with communal conflicts.
Karambu-Kenya is not riddled with communal conflicts. it is not riddled. When you use the word ‘riddled’ it looks like its every where. I live in a community where we have various types of conflicts. But really, the problem is not the conflict because everybody, and every community has conflicts. The main thing here is how do people resolve those conflicts, because conflict is part of our lives. So we are not riddled in the way the word ‘riddled’ implies, but we have conflicts but we look for ways to resolve them.
Number 2, in my community, I feel my Parents didn’t try to get me to obey them, they taught me respect. So it’s not just about blind obedience it’s about respecting them as my parents but also as elders as am expected to respect all elders in my community.
However, I can say I have been able to achieve what I have achieved because first of all, even though I work with orphans, some of them have either a one living parent or they have guardians or relatives who they identify with so the work has been about…. you know working with children and parents is like a cooperative, its like , you know raising children is like a project, we don’t do this by competing, like children competing with parents or parents competing with kids and all that stuff, but its really about how do we cooperate so that we can build our families, and achieve the goals we want for the kids which is getting an education so that they can break the cycle of poverty in the homes.
So my approach has really been different because when I went to school in the west ,their idea of development and their idea of self empowerment is based on a very individualistic framework . And I realise that for us we are very communal, we are very family orientated , community oriented. And that first , when you go to that system , it seems like that there is something wrong with us. But then I can to realise that actually , we need to harness our community spirit because that is how you build communities. The individualistic attitude of the West has not served them well, you can get all you want – you can build a big house, drive , if you can drive 12 cars , have 12 cars and things like that . But at the end of the day , they are lonely. Because they built their lives on what they think is achieving all these things is success . But really success is an aspect of the heart , you know , how happy are you, how satisfied are you . What I realise then is that I wasn’t going to build on a system of telling the kids : you are better than the other, you must beat the other one , a competition mind set. I decided to build our work on the platform of cooperation:, ‘I am because you are’
I talk about Ubuntu -Ubuntu, the African philosophy of ‘I am because you are’, is about how I am in relation to community , I am fully human in community . I say there is something else called Utu. Utu informs my Ubuntu. Utu is the humanness that informs my being fully human in the community, what do I bring, how do I bring it…
AltAfrica– ……So everything in totality
Karambu-Exactly, that is what saved me. The understanding that whatever I learnt, I could come and add value to it but using my cultural richness because we have that in abundance and that has really created a very different kind of project.
AltAfrica-It seems you’ve really built all what you have said into your different projects, the different projects that you’re involved in. That brings me to my next question-.Your organisation has different projects like the Bettering Our Lives by Design , which you call BOLD, The Triji Eco Centre, The College Scholars Programme and Armani Children’s Home. How are you able to bring all projects together using the mission of the organisation?
Karambu-Building Cultures of peace. Note, I actually don’t say a culture because culture is like one thing, but I talked about building ‘Cultures of peace’, because there are different strands in different aspects of our lives that inform who we be and who we become. What I realise is that I wanted to be a peace builder but I wanted to understand what type of peace builder, I wanted to be by beginning to build that within myself first and foremost because if I don’t have peace within me, I cannot be a peace builder with other people. In fact, Mother Theresa said ‘we have no peace because we’ve forgotten we belong to each other’ and for me I add that we forgotten who we are with each other because we’ve forgotten who we are, (laughter)…it has to begin with me.
When I started the children’s home,I realised that the development ethics has taught me to build things linearly. Build one project….take one child to school, let them succeed and then scale it up-and I realised that when I paid school fees for one kid and I don’t look into the context within which the child is living, he has no parent or has one living parent who is sick or not able to take care of him, the school that he goes to, the church community he goes to, I have to work within the context that kid is growing up. then I realised that it’s not going to be lineal, but circular, it’s going to affect everything, Then I realised that the children’s home is not going to be an island, I wanted to build a community , because in the beginning, the community was saying I keep kids who were HIV positive and so they didn’t want to work with us, they were calling us the home of AIDS…..
AltAfrica-(Cuts in)… so there was discrimination at that time
Karambu-Yes, there was discrimination at that time. Then I also deliberately decided the kids must to go to the public schools around so that they can integrate within the community because if i created my own school, then they will even be more isolated. Even today, the kids go to the public schools around us, we don’t have our own school yet. Then I decided it would be a centre where the community come to find its’ empowerdness’. For me I say empowerment is what someone does for you but ’empowerdness’ is what you choose to do with that empowerment.
So what I did was that when we created the children’s home, I realised that the children who lost their parents when they were young would come to the children’s home but the kids who were in high school or primary school when their parents died , dropped out of school, and then some of them went and got married, they have started having children and they are jobless and they married boys who were also not working, so they were starting to be another problem in the community. So I decided to start a skills training programme for those kind of kids. There were skills training and self esteem building programmes that my kids also at the children’s home could attend.
Then from there, I realised that we have women…if we wanted to stop the flow of orphans, we needed to support the widows who were left so that when they have skills and can raise money for themselves, they can take care of their kids and prevent the kids from going to the street. So that is where the support for the women came. And then from there, I realised that those young people who got married early and are having children needed to understand who they are, so we started what I called the New Generation Leaders Programme. That is a programme to teach young people who they are, to discover their power..because the society has programmed us to look at ourselves as if we are the circumstances in our lives and my belief is that I am not my failures, I am the courage that enables me to wake up, dust up and move on with my life.
AltAfrica-You must have been doing a lot of counselling and motivational talk. Its seems like a lot of hard work but you must have been drilling for people to start seeing themselves differently , that you are not to be blamed for your circumstances.
Karambu-So what I realised then is…it is not possible to do one project because all these things are feeding on how do I want to bring up these children that by the time they leave the children’s home , they are a whole kind of human person who know who they are, what their vision for life is and all that stuff and more importantly, who have recovered from the trauma of loosing their parents early and to understand exactly that it is not their fault. So when we did that and the children started coming to the home, then I realised that I have never brought up more than one child, how l’m I going to raise, 10, 20 , 30…and now we are 73…(laughter)
AltAfrica-cuts in 73 kids? Wow. imagine a mother with 73 kids ?
Karambu-(Laughing)-Exactly. So right now if you think of COVID-19, we are at home, all of us.
AltAfrica- So how are you cooping ?
Karambu-what we did was that immediately COVID-19 was announced, we locked our gate to outsiders. No one comes in and so we know we’re contained and so we live just like a family, So for all of us here, there is no way we can do social distancing (laughter)
AltAfrica- Dr Karambu, it seems you have your hands full. You have a lot of projects for women who are positive , programmes for young people to go into leadership, children’s home, the Eco-centre. Now you have to pay school fees, staff, knowing fully that you can’t use volunteers for all the projects. You have to cloth the children, buy them food, and give money to to support the women to sustain themselves. Where does the funding come from?
Karambu-When I started doing the work, a lot of our funding was coming from…you remember once I started in 2002, I graduated in 2007. So every year I did the Kenya cultural event, then I started finding people who were interested in supporting and sponsoring the children. So a lot of my funding ….I started building that in the U.S. I also have …the women’s programme especially is supported by a partner in the UK and then I have other organisations in Europe, Hong Kong that send us money probably for paying school fees, money for keeping the kids at the children’s home and stuffs like that.
But I realised that that is not sustainable because in 2008 when the global economy went down, some people lost their money so they couldn’t support us any more. So I started building sustainability programmes or projects for us and that’s where the Eco Centre comes in. So I started growing our own food at the Eco centre. We have two pieces of land outside where we live and that’s where we grow our own maize, beans, fruits and things like that. And then we also built a B&B kind of space where people can come and stay and pay. We bought a Safari van …
AltAfrica-(Cuts in)…I think I will come and see how it looks like.
Karambu-You really have to come and see because its not like nothing anyone has done. And we also have a public transport vehicle, we use it for the children’s home but we also use it ferry people around and they pay. So we have all these projects that bring in money , that’s how we work here. Like now, because the staff have gone, the older children are helping me at the children’s home,we cook, we clean and we teach each other. The university students are teaching the high school kids, the high school kids are teaching the primary school kids. So it’s really a space where any kid who has the right mind will grow, move out and become an amazing citizen.
AltAfrica-So what is the age range of the Children
Karambu-3 years, our youngest came when, they were one-year-old, right now they are all grown. The latest came when she was three, so now she is five, so now we have from 5 to 24 years old. So the 24 year olds are in the University. In fact, 5 of them are graduating this year, if Coronavirus permits.
AltAfrica-You must be a very proud mother
Karambu-Absolutely, I am for sure. You need to come, you need to come, you need to come and see it.
AltAfrica-I will, I will talk to you about it. So when you look back at when it all stared for you in 2002, what will say has been your greatest achievement.
Karambu-My greatest achievement has been the kids. Recently I had one of the kids talk somewhere, I don’t know what we were talking about in a group of people. One of our New Generation Leaders programme and I heard this kid say, “I may be an orphan but am not one who is dead.” So for me, for a kid to get to say they are, is not their circumstances, was like Wow!
This is, this is it. Because most of the kids, who have lost their parents, you know the wallow in their sorrow of I don’t have parents, these kids are taking their lives in their hands. So that’s for the children.
For the Women, I have a number of women who when we started couldn’t even buy uniform, you know uniform, like 25 cents. After they went through our programme and did the skills training programme, they now have been able to take their kids through University, they have paid school fees for university. And for me that has been amazing. None of them come to ask me for money anymore, they actually bring me things now. They bring, they make and sell, and so for me that is a great achievement, because they don’t ask for things but come now to bless us.
And in the last four years, we have trained about a thousand young women and men on what we call ‘The New Generation Leaders Programme’ and it teaches them to really know who they are and to choose what they want to do with their lives. And am telling you, half of them, am talking about a thousand kids, half of them have either started their own projects or involved in initiatives, use lead initiatives that they invite me now to just go and motivate them and things like that.
AltAfrica-That’s absolutely wonderful, you have been giving, and they are now giving back to you. And am sure when you look back at what you have achieved you must be at the same time collaborating with maybe other organisations who share your values and ideals, I guess.
Karambu-Yeah, you can never walk alone. So what I say is that a tragedy of a people is when they don’t know who they are, the tragedy of a person is when they don’t know who they are . Because, when you know who you are, that you know I am, I am because you are and am fully human in community, you can never work alone because you don’t, I don’t know everything, I really don’t know much (laughing)
AltAfrica– Team work, its team work.
Karambu- Working with other people has taught me the power of making things happen in communities. But the most important learning I have done is the way we say we are helping people, there is no one who is helpless and hopeless. We have taken agency from people, so that we can justify helping them and giving them aid. But when you listen to people and when you allow the so called victims, they are not victims, we have victimised them, so that we can make money out off them. But when we allow them to see who they are and what they can achieve, that is what I have learnt from the Women and the Children. I mean they’ve taught me more than I can say I have given them . I have learnt so much from them and I have learnt that when someone knows who they are , you can not stop them , societal programming and conditioning through systems and ideologies and stuff like that, that is what keeps people , that is what keeps people boxed. So once you get out of that box , then you are free, that is freedom for me. getting out of the societal boxes of the programming they have done for us.
AltAfrica- So where do you see yourself, say, in the next ten years. Where do you see IPI
Karambu- You know this Coronavirus has come with amazing opportunities, for reflection and really focusing on what is important. So right now am going through the process of weeding, pruning and really looking at what is the core of what I want to do in the next ten years. And what I have decided; am growing, still thinking and reflecting through this is the creation of a foundation. I started it actually last year, I called it The Triji Foundation and I have decided that I really want to build on what we have achieved right now, in terms of…, I know aid and development they way we have been taught doesn’t work, it perpetuates the dependency mind set. And so what the foundation is going to do is, it is going to find ways to raise funds, to enable, like these young people that I have worked with, the women I have worked with, those who have created their own programmes to build their capacity. Whatever it is that they need so that they can grow their programmes not within the framework of aid and development but through the thinking of a systems thinking approach, that talks about, that talks about empowerdness , reclaiming , reclaiming our voice , our agency and really grounding our development on our spirituality because that is something that is we have lost and you cannot develop as a human being holistically if you have forgotten your spiritual roots. So development based on our spiritual grounding is what am developing now.
AltAfrica-There is something am taking from what you have said so far, is that ‘I am who you are.’ I must say Dr Karambu, it’s been a pleasure, you have said so much. And as a woman, as a mother, you have trained a lot and continue to train. We can’t help but wish you all the best. So as the Founder and President of the International Peace Initiatives, Dr Karambu Ringera, we say a very big thank you to you for having a chat with Alternative Africa today, thank you very very much.
Karambu-You’re welcome, thank you for inviting me and be safe and stay healthy.
AltAfrica- Say us well to the children and women down there, thank you very much again.