‘Watoto Kesho Africa’ Advances Children’s Rights
Volume 1, Issue 3 / February 2009
Through founding his own NGO, a local refugee fights for children’s rights and aims to “win their future at any cost”
Watoto Kesho Africa (Africa’s Children Tomorrow, or WAKA) is a non-profit organization based in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Etienne Katamea founded the organization to promote children’s rights and “win their future at any cost.”
As a humanitarian worker and a refugee, Katamea was inspired by the desperate conditions of life he witnessed in Kenya and his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2007, he decided he had seen enough and felt compelled to take action on behalf of children’s rights. Soon afterward, WAKA was formed to advocate for the rights of children and ensure their positive development and bright future.
“I had seen enough”
Katamea made the decision to support the future of children through an NGO while he himself received humanitarian support as a refugee. Despite his humble circumstances, Katamea believes that he is well prepared to advocate for children’s rights.
In the DRC, Katamea was prepared to join medical college when he received an opportunity to serve with the Polyclinic Task Reproductive Health and CARE International in providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable children. The NGO provided children displaced by war with education, health care, and other basic needs.
In 1994, he witnessed millions of Rwandan refugees crossing the border into DRC to escape genocide. Thousands arrived in Bukavu, Katamea’s home city. Vulnerable individuals, unaccompanied minors, orphans, disabled and the sick were among those who sought refuge. “They were as sheep without a shepherd,” he recalls.
When war erupted in DRC in 1996, thousands of children were separated from their families and many of them forcibly recruited to fight for both government and rebel troops. In 1998, war broke out again and displaced thousands of children who faced increasingly desperate conditions of life.
After intense persecution, Katamea succeeded in fleeing from DRC and found himself in Nairobi, Kenya, on 25th December 1998. He had dropped out of medical college in his second year. The UNHCR in Nairobi directed him to Kakuma Refugee Camp where he began living.
In December 2007, Katamea traveled to Nairobi from Kakuma to enjoy a short leave from Kakuma Camp. When election results were announced by the Kenyan Electoral Commission in late December, Katamea was present to witness the urban violence. In Nairobi, children were desperately affected. Katamea visited the Jamhuri Park Encampment where thousands of children were wandering unaccompanied. The Jamhuri Park Encampment accommodated thousands of people internally displaced in Kenya following the 2007 post-election violence.
This was enough to convince Katamea that he must stop watching and do something to change the world. He envisioned an organization to promote children’s rights and win their future at any cost. Drawing on his experiences with an NGO assisting displaced children, Katamea says, “The inspiration came to me to continue with this service and extend it all over Africa through WAKA Now.”
A vision of accountability to children’s rights
In founding WAKA, Katamea recognized several challenges to the realization of children’s rights in Africa. He observed that conflict and displacement inevitably break and weaken the social and political structures for the protection of communities and their members. As a result, he saw children’s rights in and around Kakuma Refugee Camp were falling far short of international standards.
Katamea envisioned an NGO whose primary motive is accountability to human rights-the moral and legal responsibility of every humanitarian worker. He holds that we are all accountable to respond to crises and to take actions in a proper and responsible manner to uphold human rights.
Katamea points out that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) must be complemented by real actions that enhance the welfare of children and reinforce agreed international standards for the dignity and integrity of every individual without distinction.
WAKA focuses particularly on education as a right for all children. Kenyan law guarantees all children, including refugees, the right to a free basic education. This means refugee children have the right to enroll in public schools on the same basis as Kenyan citizens. According to the Kenya Children’s Act, preventing children from receiving education is harmful to the child. It is particularly important that both girls and boys be given an equal opportunity to attend school.
Katamea says education is critical for technological and economical progress to be achieved. He cites C. Arnold Anderson, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago, who exhorted the public “to put science in service” for the living conditions of human beings. In place of the old slogan, “Life, liberty, and freedom,” Anderson argues for a new slogan echoes in today’s world: “Independence, development, and modernization.”
Education is equally important in uniting the world’s people so that the modern globe can become as one nation, says Katamea. He points to research demonstrating that an informed citizenry is necessary in order to successfully enter international markets. People cannot understand their fellow citizens if communication is impossible, and they will not have an influence in public affairs if they are illiterate. Katamea believes that education orients the mind of the children towards the future; “so we can say that education contributes to the modernization of a society,” he says.
Ultimately, Katamea believes that education contributes to the development of leaders with the spirit of creativity-men and women who practice imagination, inspiration, productivity, and talent. “So we really need to prepare our children for life and secure a lasting future for our children,” he says.
WAKA’s founding and progress
Katamea built upon these ideas and principles to develop his own NGO, Watoto Kesho Africa. Today, WAKA is providing boarding and education for both local and refugee children, and supplying them with school-related needs such as books, uniforms, notebooks, and desks.
WAKA is registered under the umbrella of a local church, Ebenezer Christian Church. A board mandated by the church is responsible for the management of WAKA.
The NGO is supported through a community-based structure of partnership and volunteering. Voluntary contributions from church members bring in donations of money, books, food supplies, clothing, lotion, soaps, and provide voluntary assistance with health care and other basic needs.
WAKA’s vision and objectives include short-term, medium-term, and long-term objectives. The first goal of 2009 is to provide education for the most vulnerable children in the Kakuma community, including local Turkana and refugee youth.
“All these children have a right to education as the foundation for their lives,” says Katamea.
First priority is given to children living in the village of Kalamchuch, a cluster of homes in the shadow of a majestic rock outcropping several kilometers from Kakuma Refugee Camp. Some of these children are already studying at Pokotom Boarding School through WAKA’s assistance.
WAKA has also opened a school at Kalamchuch village for local Turkana children who are illiterate. Through the school established in coordination with Ebenezer Church, WAKA provides food and uniforms to the students. Plans are underway to construct a home for vulnerable and disabled children, including a program for malnourished youth.
In addition, Katamea hosts several unaccompanied and orphaned children in his own home, where he follows up their day-to-day activities and provides food, educational supplies, and recreational activities. Although his resources are humble-he relies on his food ration supply and incentive payments for survival-he believes it is important to provide the support of a home “where children can sleep quietly” and be guided in their development.
Katamea expresses his appreciation to the Government, UNHCR, NGOs operating in Kakuma, churches and the local community. “We are going to work in cooperation and collaboration in harmony for the welfare of children,” he states.