A one might expect, life is not easy in Korogocho, Nairobi, Kenya’s fourth-largest slum. Finding a way out is even harder. But Aggrey Otieno, MA ’11, didn’t let the circumstances he was born into douse his ambitions. In fact, those conditions drove his desire to leave his home to pursue an education, only to return to make a difference for children like him—and the mothers raising them.
Otieno’s life work has focused on building a better tomorrow for communities like Korogocho. His path took him to Ohio University to earn a master’s degree in communication and development studies, training that enabled his work in community health and social development. But home was where his determination to make a difference took root.
“I was from a single mother because my dad had died when I was still very young,” Otieno said. “It was very, very expensive during those days for somebody to be taken to school, so my mom really struggled to pay for my school fees.” His mother somehow managed in Korogocho alongside more than 200,000 people living in one-half square mile. Slums like Korogocho are considered illegal in Kenya—and, therefore, ineligible for government aid.
Students also had to purchase textbooks and other learning materials, adding to the prohibitive cost of an education. Otieno wondered if a library of used textbooks could help.
We [students] talked to people from other communities, especially those who finished high school, so they’d donate their textbooks. We got a number of positive responses,” he said—so many that creating enough room to house the books became the next challenge.
The students asked a local Catholic church for space to store the books and were allotted a 4-by-3 feet room to build their library.
“When I finished high school, I got an opportunity to go to the university [in Nairobi] and continue developing my skills in … resource mobilization and fundraising. This is when I first spoke to UNIFEM [United Nations Development Fund for Women],” Otieno said. “They gave us money in 1999 to expand the library and we continued getting other donors to support it.”
The library has grown exponentially, and is now a permanent, two-story building that can support approximately 350 students in one sitting.
Otieno continued organizing members, particularly youth, to tackle other daily challenges, like hygiene. Because of his involvement and innovative thinking, several individuals suggested Otieno run for a political seat in 2007. Instead, Otieno researched education programs that would offer the greatest return for his homeland and chose OHIO’s Center for International Studies.
Within his first months at OHIO, Otieno was given an assignment to complete a grant-writing proposal. Otieno used his “homework” to seek funding to establish a mother-and-child health center in Korogocho. The United Nations Development Programme approved the grant at $25,000. With that first assignment, Otieno realized he made the right choice in OHIO.
“I am really happy that I made such a good decision to go for the communication and development program. The courses were extremely appropriate to what I really wanted to do,” Otieno said.
Shortly after receiving the award for the health center, Otieno learned of his sister’s failing health while pregnant. This setback, coupled with the lack of resources in her area, caused him to rethink his direction, an effort that led to his latest innovations.
Because Korogocho has been dubbed the worst place to give birth in all of East Africa—with infant mortality rates almost seven times higher than those in the United States—Otieno decided to explore maternity and child healthcare and, accordingly, took some community health courses.
“The government doesn’t plan for slums because they are illegal settlements, so there are no social amenities, there are no public amenities, there are no hospitals. The infrastructure is very, very bad,” he said.
Three main delays cause some of the largest maternal and child health challenges, Otieno explained. Households are unsure whether or not to go to hospitals for treatment; there is a lack of transportation resources to health facilities; and there are few physicians and long lines at clinics.
Otieno began conceiving of a way to diminish these delays. Initially, he focused on intervention for health communication through mobile phones, which are ubiquitous in Kenya. He developed MPATH, a bulk SMS technology that allows a direct link to multiple women through texts.
Otieno received $10,000 from the Clinton Global Initiative University, a program established by former U.S. President Bill Clinton to engage the next generation of leaders on college campuses around the world, to fund this project. Otieno also shared his vision with students and faculty at OHIO.
After returning to Kenya to conduct research for this thesis project, he learned of more challenging news about women in Nairobi, particularly pregnant women: Many contracted tuberculosis.
“Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease, it is very communicable, and Korogocho is highly populated and houses are very small,” Otieno said. “The air circulation is not good, so people are prone to giving it to each other.”
So he set to work on another proposal—this one also successful—for funding to stop the spread of tuberculosis through awareness and outreach.
It is out of that and all of these initiatives that I was doing that now I started thinking, ‘What about forming an institution?’” Otieno said.
With the help of OHIO students and faculty, Otieno founded Pambazuko Mashinani, a non-profit grassroots organization focused on building the capacity and power of young Kenyans to help overcome economic and social injustices.
Otieno received funding from the Ford Foundation Fellowships Program, accepted his award from the Clinton Global Initiative University, developed the groundwork for Pambazuko Mashinani (Swahili for “grassroots reawakening”), and graduated from OHIO in 2011 alone. Compiling these bona fides turned out to be good preparation for what came next: being tapped as a 2012 laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, an international honor to improve lives or protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage.
Such accolades don’t surprise Steve Howard, director of Ohio University’s Center for International Studies, professor for the Scripps College of Communication School of Media Arts and Studies, and member of the Pambazuko Mashinani board.
Aggrey Otieno impresses me by combining two characteristics. He is abundantly modest and he gets the job done. And he does it all with a great sense of humor. I am a sociologist who works on urban Africa, so I have seen many slums. But Aggrey’s origins, in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho, is the most difficult I have ever experienced,” he said. “While many would run away from such a place when the opportunity presents itself, Aggrey Otieno has let this community inspire him to innovation and compassion, to the improvement of its residents’ daily lives. I’m proud to be connected to him.”
Through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Otieno earned funding to build a telemedicine center in Nairobi. The center’s objective correlated with the Kenyan government’s Community Health Strategy, a nationwide effort to create quality healthcare for people within the communities.
The Kenyan government supported Otieno’s project by training 450 community health workers through the program. Otieno also trained 30 women to become safe delivery advocates.
Also, a support group was organized within each neighborhood, made up of reproductive-aged women, pregnant women, and one community health worker. Around 20 support groups were created.
Volunteers traveled to homes, particularly to residences with pregnant women, and discussed health strategies and ways to diminish the three main delays. Volunteers also employed Otieno’s MPATH, which allowed them to send and receive text messages and phone calls to on-call doctors at the telemedicine center.
The computers in the telemedicine center were linked to five hospitals and the community at-large. And because the system can send up to 100,000 text messages at a time, the team was able to share information to mass audiences.
“My role comes in terms of helping to mobilize those women and also to make sure that they have a space where they can meet with their facilitators,” Otieno said. “Coordinating all these people [will make it] so that we can have prompt responses to medical challenges that people are facing within the community.”
Otieno considers simply speaking up as among the most important things he’s done for his community.
“We make a lot of noise doing advocacy with the government because I believe that for all these changes to be enacted and for them to be sustainable, they have to be within a certain policy framework,” he said.
From this advocacy, Korogocho’s first public hospital was established. It serves any individual within the neighborhood for free. But some members of the community remain skeptical. Religious beliefs, traditional ideals, opposition to Western medicine, fear of mistreatment from nurses, and worry of child trafficking turn individuals away from the hospital.
“Again, we have to work with the 480 [trained volunteers and advocates] so that they can inform these people of the importance of going to the hospital,” he said.
Now that the project has been running productively, Otieno seeks a successor so he can bring his leadership skills and innovative mind to a larger body: Kenya’s parliament.
I feel that now I need to take up the challenge, so in the next election I’ll be running as a member of parliament in one of the constituencies,” he said.
Click on the links below to see coverage of Otieno’s 2015 visits to OHIO:
Otieno receives the Alumni Award for Excellence in Global Engagement
Otieno delivers lecture on the state of maternal and child healthcare delivery
Video by Jarrett Lehman, BSC ’16