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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 28, 2008

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UI graduate student working to help Kenyans back home

In December University of Iowa graduate student Wangui Gathua (pronounced Wong wee Gat hoo ah) traveled to her native Kenya to visit family and friends over the winter break only to find herself caught up in the violent aftermath of the disputed reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. What Gathua saw both shocked her and spurred her to action.

Election monitors have found widespread evidence of vote-counting irregularities in the Dec. 27 vote that returned Kibaki to office and sparked ethnic violence that claimed 1,000 lives and forced 400,000 Kenyans to flee their homes.

Gathua, who is originally from the market town of Thika in Kenya's Central Province, found that young girls whose families could no longer pay for schooling had become particularly vulnerable in this turbulent environment. Polygamy, pregnancy, AIDS and sexual exploitation further marginalized them. So when Gathua, a third-year doctoral student in the UI College of Education's Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation and Student Development, returned to Iowa City she decided to form the Kenyan Humanitarian Fund, a branch of the School Outreach Community Based Organization (SOCOBO) Iowa founded in 2002.

SOCOBO, which Gathua helped found in Kenya in 2000, was created to raise awareness about the plight of young Kenyan girls and help advance their education. Through the SOCOBO Iowa Kenya Humanitarian Fund, Gathua is working as a liaison between her country and the United States and has been collecting money and supplies in her garage in Iowa City and at a designated drop-off point in the College of Education's Lindquist Center.

She accepts donations of canned and dry foods, clothing, books and other supplies and hopes to send these to people back in Kenya, particularly young girls, who are in need. But to date she says she's only collected $100, which she says is likely insufficient to cover the cost of shipping and handling.

Still, Gathua remains hopeful that she can make a difference.  Although her own education and age afford her a place of honor back home, she says that her upbringing in a communal culture makes her sensitive to the needs of every person in her community. More than that, she says, her position brings with it the responsibility to look after the young women in her community who lack her advantages.

"It makes me feel both humbled and highly placed when I see little girls looking up to me," Gathua said.

Gathua's visit to Kenya took her into one of the most dangerous parts of the country.

"People were targeted and killed based on the shade of their blackness or what tribe they were thought to be a part of," she said. "My brother was beaten up just because he is a lighter shade of black."

On Jan. 2, she and her sister's family were forced to spend the night outside of the house in the yard for fear that her house would be burned down. To protect the sleeping children, Gathua and the four other adults of the household stayed awake until 5 a.m. keeping watch on their home and four surrounding houses. Nine children in her sister's household, ranging from 10 to 17 years old, had come home for the Christmas holidays.

"This was my life from Dec. 30 to Jan. 10, when I was evacuated from Kimilili to Central Kenya," Gathua said.

The violence delayed her return to Iowa City until after the start of the spring semester.

"My friends and colleagues were trying to call to see if I was even alive, but they could not get through," she said. "I have never prayed so hard in my life."

She finally returned to Iowa City on Jan. 24 and on the very same day formed the SOCOBO Iowa Kenya Humanitarian Fund after discussing with colleagues her desire to help displaced women and children in Kenya and to further the work already done by the Kenyan organization.

Today, SOCOBO boasts 35 teachers from seven regions in Kenya and offers paralegal training for members, raises funds for communities and creates scholarships for girls in need. By providing both the means and opportunity for getting an education, Gathua said the group empowers women and helps them become self-sufficient with the goal of leveling the balance of socioeconomic power among Kenyan men and women.

Eventually, Gathua hopes to broaden SOCOBO's efforts in the United States by obtaining tax-exempt status from the IRS.

As for her own career, Gathua hopes to use her degree as a powerful tool for fighting injustice in Kenya and will seek a job that allows her to work in both Kenya and in the United States. She said she, her husband and children came to Iowa with the hope that, by further educating herself, she could learn how to educate and counsel others.

"I'm not able to give them back their lives," said Gathua, who is one of 14 students from Kenya studying at the UI. "I don't have the power to fix it. But there is hope."

David Duys, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation and Student Development in the UI College of Education, said that as a doctoral student Gathua has been able to fully integrate her interest in counseling, healthcare and empowerment with her academic program.

"She is already planning to use her education at Iowa to help others in need by doing things like research on effective interventions for children and adolescents affected by AIDS/HIV in Kenya," Duys said.

SOCOBO Iowa welcomes donations of money, supplies and food. Checks should be made out to School Outreach Community Based Organization-Kenyan Humanitarian Fund. The drop-off locations are at 537 Terrace Rd., Iowa City, or N 153B in the Lindquist Center on the UI campus. All donations will be shipped to Kenya from these points.

For more information or to learn how else to help, contact Gathua at or at 319-930-1883.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Wangui Gathua, SOCOBO, 319-930-1883,; Lois J. Gray, University News Services, 319-384-0077,; Writer, Jenna Ely; Video by Jay Knoll