Foundation in Kenya’s Lake Victoria region battles poverty, sends youth to school

Behind the breathtaking beauty of the place, there are many children born into a stark reality and a daily life marked with hopelessness. Poverty is the order of the day in these stunning islands.

  • 2 years ago
  • December 25, 2022
7 min read
Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya where UN Ambassador Michael George Okeyo grew up and the region supported by the foundation today | Photo courtesy of Ryan Harvey
Deborah Aya Okeyo
Interview Subject
Deborah Aya Okeyo, 87, is a former teacher and employee of the United Nations. She was born in the Nairobi Pumwani hospital in 1936. Currently, she lives in the suburbs of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. After the death of her husband in 2011, Deborah founded a foundation to honor his memory. Ambassador Michael George Okeyo not only represented Kenya to the UN and at embassies around the globe, he supported causes aimed at educating underprivileged children on his childhood Rusinga Island and other regions in the Lake Victoria area. His vision was to make the dreams of boys, girls, women, and men come true, no matter the circumstance – a legacy that Deborah seeks to keep alive.
Background Information
The Ambassador Michael George Okeyo Foundation was established in 2016 to help brilliant children from underprivileged backgrounds complete school. The right to education has been globally acknowledged as an overarching right. In Kenya, the right to education is explicitly provided for in Article 53(b) of Kenyan Constitution 2010 which guarantees the right to free and compulsory basic education for every child for eight years. However, research shows that households with many children not only struggle with poverty but cannot support their children educationally. The foundation provides support for secondary and college education, changing stereotypes, and now seeks to help provide water resources to the islands so children can focus on school.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The moment the villagers lowered my late husband’s coffin into the grave, reality sunk in. My trusted confidant – my friend – was gone forever. Five years later, at the age of 80, I established a foundation to honor him and help the children around Lake Victoria.

[Deborah’s husband Ambassador Michael George Okeyo grew up on Rusinga Island and in a stroke of fate, went to the U.S. where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. A student leader and activist, he interned with the United Nations and his lifelong work in international development began. In his career, he held numerous, high-level roles with Kenyan embassies and as the Kenyan representative to the U.N. He did extensive work personally helping youth.]

Through the foundation, I started out supporting just one young girl. Six years later, she attends Maseno University and will graduate in 2023. In total, the foundation now provides school fees and aid to 85 students, 60 of whom are children attending secondary school and 25 in universities across the country. They pursue degrees in Medicine, Engineering, Education, Environmental Studies, and Computer Science.

Former Kenyan UN ambassador paid out school fees for children on his death bed

When my husband died, I became stressed, confused, and afraid. He always told me, if I die first, I will wait for you at the gate of heaven so we can go in together. Seeing the grave in our garden, tears trickled down my cheeks, wetting my clothes. In that moment, I would have given anything to have my Mike back, but God loved him more.

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As a result of the loss, I fell ill and made many visits to the doctors. The doctor asked me to share my fondest memories of my husband. I began to recollect our old times together and it aided my healing process. I also remembered how selfless he was, always putting the needs of others before his own.

As Michael lay on his deathbed, frail and ill, he paid out the school fees for brilliant but underprivileged children in our community. This trait absolutely amazed me. I admired his character so much, and remembering him this way, I made a vow. I would continue Michael’s legacy.

My children and family vocalized their concerns. Was I too old to do this? What if I began losing my memory? Irrefutably, I defied my age and forged forward. As a result, the foundation continues to blossom.

Behind the breathtaking island views remains a stark reality

The foundation gives hope to many children in Lake Victoria, a dreamland amidst the ancient, historical, magical islands of Rusinga, Mfangano, and Ngodhe. With amazing skies and birds, the islands offer a glimpse of the diverse aquatic culture in the world’s largest tropical lake.

Behind the breathtaking beauty of the place, there are many children born into stark reality and a daily life marked with hopelessness. Poverty is the order of the day in these stunning islands.

The world that I thought crumbled down around me when Michael passed, took on new meaning when the foundation launched. I call those whom we support my adopted grandchildren. When I see their faces beaming with happiness, I cannot explain the feeling. I know Michael is happy with what I am doing, wherever he is.

Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya | Photo courtesy of Ryan Harvey

In addition to my personal work, the foundation boasts a capable board managing it. I take pride in the fact that we advocate for a reduction in disparities between the handling of girls and boys. This work not only improves the retention and quality of education in the Lake Victoria Islands, but it also sensitizes the community to vulnerable populations of boys and girls. We promote the enrollment of girls in courses outside the gender stereotype and introduce projects to rehabilitate and send children back to school and vocational training centers.

Chief’s daughter had privileged life, seeks to change gender roles

Born in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, when I turned two, my parents relocated to Kisumu, a port city in western Kenya. My mum passed away immediately due to a short illness and my maternal grandmother took custody of me. My brother stayed with my father, so it became just my grandmother and me.

As the granddaughter of a chief, I had the privilege of going to school. At that time, of all the girls in our community, only the chief’s daughters could recieve an education. After junior school, I became a teacher. During this time, I met my husband. We fell in love at first sight and didn’t think much before eloping. Later, he came to ask for my hand in marriage officially and we formally married in 1967.

We stayed in Kenya for a short while before relocating to the United States. We settled in Chicago. I enrolled at a university to pursue accounting and after graduating, worked with the United Nations in New York, Zimbabwe, Egypt, and then Uganda. In 1996, while in Uganda, I decided to retire and come back home to Kenya.

Today, I work hard to close the gap for the children here to make their dreams come true, no matter their circumstances. I live by my late husband’s mantra: “Those who dare to dream, change the world. Everything that has been accomplished by mankind started off as a dream.” During my life, I had the opportunity to study. However, the fate of these children from Rusinga and other islands lies in the hands of philanthropists and good Samaritans. 

From education to water, Lake Victoria residents need support

My biggest desire in life today is to see every child pursue their dream and realize their full potential. This mission continues to grow, progressively. Challenges do come up, especially inadequate financial resources, but I believe like-minded people with the same vision will join me to see these innocent souls thrive.

Besides education, access to safe water remains an elusive dream for many locals on these islands. They get water from the lake, which can be harmful for human consumption. In fact, they bathe in the lake and use the same water for cooking, watering animals, and doing laundry.

The people of Rusinga Island | Photo courtesy of Ryan Harvey

Often the children must go fetch the water after school for home use. This wastes a lot of their time, which would be better spent concentrating on their studies. I dream of a day when we can pipe water so children did not have to walk long distances every day for such a basic necessity. Water tanks would go a long way to solve this dilemma.

In addition to the school fees and aid we provide every year; the foundation started an endowment fund so that Michael’s legacy can carry on for many years to come. I hope that, by the time I turn 90, at least 100 children or more will be prevented from dropping out of school. I do all of this knowing Michael waits for me at the gates of heaven.

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