In thriving cities such as Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa, I can’t even imagine the other side where productive learning is not even possible. The AMARA women explained that some schools they found in regions with limited resources were no more than old stables with no desks and dirt floors. These kinds of unsupportive educational environments can only guarantee that those in the underserved areas will stay further behind. At stake is the growth and futures of thousands of children. Acknowledging the sad reality of these structural inequalities is a difficult errand, but fundamental to the innovative and generous work carried out by the women who have founded and are managing the AMARA charitable trust, is their belief in ‘the birthright of every child to have an education’. Through conversations with these women, one pointed out to me:
‘Our government is, unfortunately, letting us down. I don't know where our bureaucrats have gone wrong, but they have. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't help, right? It doesn't mean that we have to sit back or point fingers. We do what we can.’
In justifying their charity’s actions, the trustees of AMARA highlighted governmental shortcomings leading some schools to receive 137 shillings a year per student instead of the expected 10,400 shillings. Despite foregrounding education as part of the government’s Vision 2030 development goals; many schools in Kenya fail to receive necessary infrastructural readjustments which could enable a sustainable and productive learning environment. The AMARA women explained how schools simply have no capacity to provide for their students. The problem is easy to identify, and their solution is a holistic, corruption-free approach.
AMARA’s mantra is to ‘educate, empower, and enhance’ the lives of children from low-income backgrounds trying to make-do in under-resourced schools and low income environments. While cognisant of the ongoing problems creating the shortfalls, the women are assiduous in their responsibilities. They choose to focus on the improvements they can provide rather than the criticisms they could make. To this end, they have worked alongside the Ministry of Education to improve conditions in government registered schools in Machakos, Kajiado, and Makueni counties. I found their commitment inspiring.
‘We are not just building classrooms and forgetting about them.’
The trustees have taken on the challenge of encouraging lifestyle improvements even though education is a central value in their project. This is also because they choose to work with and not against local authorities. AMARA equips schools with learning resources and improved buildings, but also provides school meals for almost five thousand children. For many of their children, this may be the only meal they have in the day.
AMARA’s lifestyle focus pushes for sustainable and long-term improvements, such as growing fruit and vegetables at their schools, and organising vocational or skills training workshops. Through regularly visiting their schools, they can keep track of what their students need. Some of their projects are refreshingly unconventional for an educational charity, such as a recent workshop teaching girls to sew their own sanitary pads.
This form of flexibility positions AMARA to easily reassess their work when crisis calls. At the onset of the Covid pandemic, they redirected funds to support Covid-relief charity work organised by Team Pankaj and Earth Angels. By April 2020, they returned attention to their school communities, distributing food parcels for the childrens’ parents. This support continued until December.
On a national scale, the Covid pandemic exacerbated inequalities visible in underserved schools. Many in poorer regions were excluded from continuing their education, left behind after shifts to e-learning. The schools represented by AMARA were certainly not in a position to provide uniform support to access e-learning resources. Human Rights Watch found that the lack of educational access during the pandemic posed a risk of complete disengagement from some children who were unable to participate in their studies. The response from the AMARA women was to reassume their in-school provisions as soon as the schools reopened, to ensure their students would persevere.
Reflecting on the choice to keep the management of AMARA as an all-women team, the group insisted this meant they could approach the project as mothers, understanding what children need. I’d say this reason is self-effacing. They are all like-minded, with the same passion and enthusiasm towards their cause. All clearly share a great respect for one another. They take on their responsibilities as maternal carers, but are so efficient and productive because they work so well together.
The women run AMARA as if it were a business, where accountability is key. Their commitment to transparency means they sometimes have to disconnect from organisations which are not providing reports which they can forward to their donors. Their own contributions are unpaid, and only 7% of donations are used for administrative fees.
Their financial support comes from many diverse groups in the South Asian community. The women have amicably connected with many disparate Asian communities through a common interest to help. Despite this, their donation circles seem to be only from the South Asian community in Kenya. Volunteers come and go, but their outreach efforts seem to be a separate struggle altogether. To that end, the group has to (disappointingly) restrict its ambitions and provisions, despite consistently observing how much more the children need.
Clearly there’s a problem if charities such as AMARA are expected to step in and make up for the government’s shortfalls. This is a bigger—and unfortunately more time-consuming—problem which we should consistently discuss. Instead, these women have shown that the conversation against government input and individual charity can be simultaneous. Their work shows how simply giving in any capacity can still make the largest difference. AMARA works in a hybrid capacity with government schools. This bolsters state educational provisions, but also ensures that their constructions will not be challenged by land contestation claims. This also allows the group to focus more specifically on welfare concerns, as academic and administrative staff are chosen and managed by the Government.
Despite only speaking to all of them over Zoom, their positivity and resilience was palpable and inspiring. Learning about the generosity and support offered by the inspiring women of AMARA despite the difficult conditions of their work was a great comfort in a year of otherwise bad news. Thanks to the generosity of many like-minded donors who connect with the positive energy of these women, their influence is only continuing to grow. Their focus on infrastructural improvements rather than short-term funding ensures that the donations are used to create real and long-term lifestyle improvements. My brief discussions with them have led me to reassess the environments of my own learning and my research sites. I will certainly be keeping up with the impressive work organised by AMARA.
Many thanks to Vasha Vora, Smita Shah, Manisha Dave and Bindi Shah of the AMARA board of trustees who took the time out of their busy schedules to speak to me about their work in AMARA.