Donor threatens to cut funding to Dandora schools over alleged graft

 Dandora estate

A woman walks down a lonely alleyway in Dandora estate. Future of two donor-funded community schools that have provided free education to needy children in the area now hang in the balance.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The future of two donor-funded community schools that have provided free education to needy children in the Dandora slums for three decades hangs in the balance after a donor threatened to withhold funding due to alleged corruption.

Kinyago Dandora primary and high schools, with 495 and 295 students respectively, were founded by the Kenya Children’s Fund (KCF), a non-governmental organisation established in the early 1990s by Christian missionary John Schwarz, a former lecturer at Daystar University, and his wife Bobby.

Circa 1984, the couple, on their visit to Kenya, had been touched by the risk posed by waste and garbage trucks to children attending a community nursery programme next to the Dandora dumpsite.

They promised to help raise money for the project after going back to the United States, which they did by registering KCF in Minnesota.

But they realised they needed to have financial or legal footing in Kenya in order to remit funds for the project and approached a lawyer by the name Onsando Osiemo.

Mr Osiemo registered an NGO called Wezesha Watoto wa Kenya (WWK) to help manage KCF’s activities and interests locally as the couple were out of the country fundraising.

It was agreed that the NGO would be registered as the legal arm of the donor, KCF.

Mr Osiemo later became a member of WWK and eventually chairman of the board for two decades.

Through WWK, KCF would send Sh100 million on average annually to Kenya that saw Kinyago Primary School built, a clinic set up to serve the children’s health needs, and a kitchen and a dining hall added. The kitchen provided early morning porridge to those who came to school hungry, lunch at noon and even some take-out for needy cases.

During the December holidays, parents would receive Christmas care baskets from the school consisting of cooking oil, flour and other basic food items.

Later, KCF established a high school that offered education to needy children for free. More children were also sponsored for higher learning and vocational training.

But recently the donor discovered that money from KCF was going to a WWK account that bore the name “limited”.

A search of the company revealed that Mr Osiemo had registered a private firm called “Wezesha Watoto wa Kenya Ltd” and had been using it to illegally conduct KCF’s activities.

This was discovered late last year when the current CEO of KCF, Ms Ginger Palm, who lives in the US, announced her intention to retire and appoint one Collins Mugele, a lawyer and a beneficiary of KCF, as her successor.

Further internal investigations revealed that KCF money was being misappropriated, with money going to individual accounts and the payroll not following the budget.

At the height of the revelations, WWK was asked to step aside to allow a forensic audit into the claims but declined.

Instead, the WWK board sacked some members of staff and closed both schools on November 7 last year.

Mr Evans Mwangi Gitau, the head teacher of Kinyago Primary, reported the closure to the Ministry of Education through the sub-county offices in Njiru and the school was reopened the following day.

“On the material day, November 7, they called the children to assemble and informed them that the school was closing indefinitely. They then ordered all porridge and food made for the day poured. That day, very young children who are often picked up by their parents walked home alone,” Mr Gitau recalled.

Teachers who spoke to the Nation said learning resumed, albeit with delayed staff salaries, inadequate food for the children and non-payment of staff statutory deductions like pensions.

“This school has helped take all my four children through school. The last-born is in Grade Five and I have another one who is graduating in March,” said Margaret Nyambura, a member of the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) in charge of Grade Five.

“If the school is closed, our children will go back to scavenging at the dumpsite and turn into criminals. We are calling on the government to intervene and solve the current stalemate.”

Mr Osiemo defended the move to close the school in his correspondence with KCF, accusing the NGO of micromanaging the school’s affairs.

At a meeting of parents on January 8, it was resolved to have Mr Mugele succeed Ms Palm so that KCF could continue funding the operations of the schools.

The parents wrote to WWK on January 24 informing them of the decision.

“We as the parents stand to lose should the operations come to an end and the school close down,” the letter says.

On January 30, KCF dissolved its partnership with WWK and appointed Health Relief International (HRI) and the Kinyago Alumni Association (KAA) to serve as its fiscal and legal agents in Kenya.

But the future of the schools is uncertain as the donor demands that the matter be investigated and action taken before normal funding resumes.

In his response to our questions, Mr Osiemo, through his lawyers Mugeria, Lempaa and Kariuki Advocates, said he is the chairperson of WWK Ltd, which was registered on April 22, 1994.

He adds that WWK, the NGO, was registered on October 18, 2012 under the Non-Governmental Organizations Coordination Act.

"In all the above cited registrations there was nothing personal as these are public organisations carrying out charitable work in Nairobi, Kenya," he said.

He then rejected the claims that money had been misappropriated, adding that he is a stranger to any employment contract between him and KCF.

“Our client contrary to any allegation has not misappropriated, embezzled, pilfered or expropriated any funds belonging to Wezesha Watoto wa Kenya or in any other way barred, prevented or interfered in any way with the alleged Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Children’s Fund from discharging his duties,” he said.

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations is looking into the matter.

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