Making sure every child has a school uniform

In March last year parent Elizabeth Wanjohi walked into The Billian Music Family, an organization that offers scholarships, talent management and youth empowerment to people from Nairobi slum Mathare. She wanted the organization to buy uniforms for four girls who were going to school with totally worn out clothes. 27-year-old musician and Music Family founder Billian Okoth decided to visit their school where he found more students who badly needed uniforms – and Ficha Uchi was born.

Ficha Uchi is a Kiswahili phrase meaning ‘restoring dignity’. Okoth was born and raised in Mathare and knows first hand what it’s like to go to school in a torn uniform.

First hand experience

“I went to school with torn uniforms so I know how it feels,” he said. “In Mathare slums almost half the children [are in this situation] because of the parents’ low income. If parents have to choose between food, shelter and clothing especially uniforms – which are seen as luxury – the latter will always have to wait. This motivates me to ensure the next generation is protected from ridicule”.

According to research by Poverty Action Lab changes to national policy whereby schools provided free textbooks and notebooks led to dramatic increases in school participation. However, schools still required students to wear uniforms – a problem for families on subsistence incomes.

“When I was in primary school I had torn shorts with patches and holes everywhere. Children would make fun of me. This really lowered my self-esteem and made me stay away from other children. I was a social outcast,” Billian recalls.

3,000 uniforms in 30 different schools

Ficha Uchi now provides uniforms across the country, in Nairobi, Kiambu, Kakamega, Machakos and Bondo. In span of one year they gave out 3,000 school uniforms in 30 different schools, giving an average of 100 uniforms per school.

There have been a few bumps along the way. “We have not been very consistent because we depend on people and organizations to come on board as we wait for their timelines. We really need a structure for future sustainability, where our tailors can make uniforms for the needy kids as we supply to well establish schools with uniforms for a pay. We have created a volunteer network with 1,000 students from five universities so far,” says Billian. The volunteers are in charge of research, communications and marketing. During the regular Ficha Uchi events they help with organisation, cooking and assisting the tailors.

Rosemary Anyango from Kibera is the head tailor making the uniforms. “I am very glad that I have been part of the changemakers in the community. I know we are making a change in a child’s life. We receive the uniform material, then five tailors from different slums in Nairobi and I, make uniforms for students selected from different school.’’

Push and fight

“I want the uniform to be the last thing a child has to worry about,” says Billian Okoth. “Torn uniforms affect their self-esteem, confidence and how they relate with other kids in school. It slows them in schoolwork because they sit at the back in a classroom and won’t stand to answer questions. My push and fight is to ensure that every child has a decent school uniform.”