By the time Christine Akello Otieno was in high school, she had already decided she wanted to get into social work when she grew up. Having lost her father in early adolescence, she had seen her mother be a “mother to everybody” besides Akello’s six siblings, taking in homeless children and orphans or victims of trafficking, while also being the sole breadwinner for the family.
“My mother just couldn’t send people away,” Akello shares. “If we complained about the costs, she always said, ‘You don’t understand. God will provide.’ And somehow, we survived.”
Born in the picturesque sea town of Mombasa on the east coast of Kenya, Akello was raised in Kisumu, an old port town that had been used strategically by the British during their rule.
Today, the town is famous for its fresh Tilapia fish and its Hollywood connection: it is the hometown of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, who has starred in blockbusters such as Black Panther and 12 Years a Slave.
In her childhood, however, Akello was exposed to the brutal injustices of cultural vices through the girls and women her mother worked with.
“The girl child is an inferior member of society – often, the husband is allowed to divorce his wife if she only bears him daughters. If a young girl gets pregnant in school, she is treated as ‘soiled goods’ and often married off as the second or third wife of an old man. My mother would take care of these girls, and advocate for them to be taken back to school. You don’t stop cooking just because the cooking ladle breaks, she would tell them, advising them to be stoic and never give up,” Akello says.
Akello travelled alone to Kampala, Uganda, to complete her A-levels. She ignored her late father’s wish for her to be a lawyer and her mother’s wish for her to be a journalist, and instead did her Bachelor’s in social work from the prestigious Makerere University there.
She could not attend her graduation ceremony, however, as her mother passed away: Akello was back in Kisumu, burying her mother the same day.
Akello then worked for a few years in the development sector, before returning to Kenya and settling in Mombasa. “I spent a lot of time with street kids, talking to them about their situation. When I saw what was happening with orphans, my heart broke,” she recalls.
She did a thesis about the situation of potential orphans – those whose parents had HIV for instance – and worked with kids with neurological problems, and with those in juvenile prison. She counseled them, and taught them music and games to empower them emotionally. Initially, she worked only with boys, but then realised girls had more problems.
“In some villages, the poor girls wear leaves during menstruation, and when the leaves leak and soil their clothes, their male classmates laugh at them and taunt them, ‘Oh, now you will get pregnant’,” Akello says. She decided to educate young girls on menstrual hygiene and sexual reproductive health.
“Some girls take pills all year round because they don’t want to menstruate as they cannot afford sanitary towels. Or some of them sleep with the shopkeeper or bodaboda (motorbike) riders for a packet of sanitary towels or for food. Their bodies are abused so young,” she goes on, shaking her head sadly.
She talks of a 21-year-old girl she knows who has four children from different fathers who visited the tourist town – “She talks proudly of her British child, her Italian child… But eventually they are all hers to take care of, aren’t they?”
Besides educating the children, Christine also works with the community, and educates them about the hazards of marrying girls off early. Initially, she faced resistance because she is an unmarried woman herself.
“They thought I’m too independent, and would be a bad influence on their submissive and respectful wives,” she says, but over time, they have come to accept Akello, and even come to her for marital counselling.
Akello registered Toto Afrika in 2012 and started operations in 2013. She now has about 70 children in the age group six to 17 who come in to study four times a week, play rugby and learn how to use the concept of rugby tackling to “tackle life”.
Most children also stay till late evening to finish their homework, as their own homes don’t have electricity or lack space or the required books. Akello invites mentors from different walks of life to give motivational talks and career guidance, so that the children can have ambitions beyond being somebody’s house help or guard.
Toto Afrika has a small library, and offers the children basic meals, the means for which they receive as contribution from the NGO’s board of directors.
“If society doesn’t take care of its orphans and vulnerable children, these kids will grow up and turn into thugs and harm society itself. It’s a collective responsibility,” she says.
To contribute or volunteer, contact Akello at firstname.lastname@example.org