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North Texas Professor Empowers Girls to Improve Life in Kenya

With help from friends and colleagues, a University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) School of Public Health professor, students and alumni are working together to build a school in Kenya and help empower girls to improve their communities through a locally sustainable effort.

“Kenya is a country of rich traditions, colorful people and so much to experience, but it is also a country of great poverty, corruption and deadly disease,” said Dr. Katherine Fogelberg, UNTHSC School of Public Health Associate Professor and founder of a new nonprofit organization developing the school. “This makes Kenya a place of great opportunity to positively influence many through formal education and public health training that can improve quality of life.”

The mission of this project is to bring much needed resources to Kisii, Kenya, a city of about 400,000 people that is centered on agriculture, where the role of males in society is dominant and certain cultural practices are harmful to women’s health.

Kisii is still a healthier place to live in many ways, Dr. Fogelberg said, than nearby Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in Africa and the second largest slum in the world.

Kibera, on the outskirts of Kenya’s metropolis of Nairobi, is estimated to house from 250,000 to 2 million people, all living in 12’ x 12’ structures and having to pay to use the toilet or take a shower, Dr. Fogelberg said.

Flooding, poverty and disease are ways of life in many Kenyan communities like Kisii and Kibera.

“These are the types of communities we hope to help,” Dr. Fogelberg said. “It is very striking to work with these people and see firsthand how human life can be drastically different just because of where you live.”

Initially, Dr. Fogelberg and team members will build a primary school in Kisii, called Msomi Academy for Girls, targeting grades 1 through 8. In Swahili, the most commonly understood language in Kenya, msomi means scholar.

Msomi will focus on liberal arts and applied science, to give girls practical tools for improving quality of life in their home communities and beyond.

Several team members visited Kenya this summer to look for land, meet with families, learn more about the region’s different cultures, deliver mosquito netting and teach prevention of infectious diseases like malaria, typhoid and cholera. A return visit is planned for December.

“We talked with girls who want to someday become pilots, lawyers and physicians,” Dr. Fogelberg said. “Many believe, for the first time in their ethnic cultural history, that this is possible, in large part because of a local role model who’s become the area’s first female to graduate from medical school. They are starting to see possibilities that might exist for them too.”

The curriculum will relate to ways Kenyan women can be successful in an agricultural society, so they can take on bigger roles typically reserved for men in their communities, said UNTHSC MPH student Ms. Sarah Matthes, who is interning with Msomi and recently traveled with the team to Kenya.

“Math and science classes through agriculture, using gardening and farming as teaching tools, will cover topics like planning and productivity of crops, composting techniques, when and how to plant, watering and other aspects related to the needs of their daily lives,” Ms. Matthes said.

Basics like reading, writing, culturally-relevant reproductive health and sex education will also be offered.

“As we are connecting with families and support organizations in the region, we are asking what people see as their biggest challenges, to learn more about how we can help,” Ms. Matthes said. “A big problem among women in Kenya is not knowing what their options are or thinking they might not be capable of going after what they want. We hope to change that.”

Msomi is currently in the process of acquiring 501(c)(3) status and fundraising to purchase land, construct the buildings and hire teachers, medical support and other needed staff.

Dr. Fogelberg’s plan is to use Kenyan resources, both human and material, to ensure the program is locally sustainable.

“We want to do something good in the world. My colleagues and I are passionate about education and improving public health,” Dr. Fogelberg said. “If we can have an impact on girls who may not know they have options, by giving them tools for a better life and ways they can make their communities better for all, then the effort is well worth it.”

[Photo: Traditional dance (Photo: courtesy of Msomi Academy for Girls)]