“Joshua would you take the baby out of the kitchen before she gets hurt. Ben come tidy up the dishes.” Regina likes a well-kept house. Living with 21 kids she can’t allow disorder, otherwise it quickly disintegrates into chaos. “And Theresa please stop singing,” she says in exasperation. Theresa had been singing the same tune over and over, all morning. Theresa stops but it’s far from quiet and the other children talking animatedly outside as they play.
Although sometimes Regina gets tired, she does not regret the ten years spent looking after children who are not her own in Kibera, the largest slum in East and Central Africa. She also manages to provide academic scholarships to 90 other youngsters from the area.
Born and brought up in Kibera, Regina Oluoch was familiar with the sight of children begging for food instead of going to school. Their parents were either dead or had abdicated their responsibility. With crowded state run children’s homes made worse by limited resources, these kids choose to fend for themselves rather than join a broken system.
Regina never got accustomed to the situation, so when she was old enough to earn a living she decided to do something about it. She began teaching them the alphabet for a few hours every day and giving them a snack. Soon she realized that some had nowhere to sleep, so she started living with them in her mother’s home. Over the years their numbers have grown. Taking care of them has shaped her.
It’s Saturday and Regina has invited her two good friends, Evelyn and Rosie, to help prepare a special meal for the kids. “When will it be ready?” Rosie responds, “It won’t take long, I am just about to finish cleaning the chicken then Evelyn will cook it.” Regina says, “I bought two, I think that will be enough for everyone to get a piece. I promised Arnold.” In jest, young Arnold had told Regina, “Have you noticed? We only eat chicken when there are visitors” – a cheeky way of saying they had not eaten chicken in a couple of weeks. So Regina saved money and bought chicken for lunch to make him happy.
After making sure the meal is coming along well, Regina walks back to the room opposite the kitchen where earlier she had been distributing water bottles that someone had donated. After lunch, she will give them clothes and toys brought in by another sponsor. Well-wishers who visit the home are so touched they encourage their friends to help. That’s how she gets assistance.
The most generous contributions are scholarships. Although the government instituted free primary education, many schools have come up with additional fees that parents have to pay before their child gets into a class. So, for a long time, the children learnt from home. They were divided into two classes – age 7-9 years 10-13 years – and Regina and a friend would read textbooks and then teach. One day she received food from someone who encouraged his friend to visit the home, who then volunteered to educate 54 children – some of the ones she lives with and others from Kibera.
Though few, these sponsors have always provided invaluable assistance especially now during the Corona pandemic. Decathlon Nairobi has been helping Angels of Hope Kibera since 2019. It is an international sports shop located in one of the wealthiest areas of Nairobi. Dealing with opulent clients has not made them impervious to the needs of the less fortunate. When Nairobi recorded its first Covid-19 case, Pascaline Asser, Corporate Communication Leader and Sport leader at Decathlon Nairobi, immediately provided masks for the children “so Regina could spend money on more essential things.”
Regina leaves the kitchen and walks to the opposite room. Where she finds Fidel. “Go out and play… are you hungry? Where are you going with that toy? How could you pick it?!” Not wanting to get into trouble, Fidel quickly gives away the real culprit. “Novix, how could you take something that does not belong to you?” As Regina says this she gently chastises him, like a true African mother. For Regina, running the home is not just about making sure they are fed and educated. It’s about guidance. She wants them to be resilient to face the challenge of living in a slum. Kibera like any other slum, has many social evils and one has to make a great effort to remain untainted.
Most importantly, she tries to show them love, as Alice A. Kiarie, a benefactor, has noticed. “Regina has great affection for the kids, even though they are not her own,” she remarks. Alice was introduced to Regina by her daughter and was so impressed that she immediately begun to help. She has been donating money for food every month for the last three years. Whenever she can, she also pays rent, gives clothes and maize, harvested from her farm.
A few years after starting the project, when it was time to leave her mother’s house, Regina had the children in mind. Instead of moving to a part of the slum with cheaper and harsh living conditions – houses made of mud, music blaring all day, sewage flowing freely between houses, and a toilet outside making it risky to get to at night – Regina chose to move to a slightly better part of the slum with concrete houses, indoor plumbing and civil neighbors. Even though it costs more, a different environment would give the children something to aspire to. For Regina it’s not just about living in a good neighborhood, it’s also about maintaining high standards. It means, often, rallying the kids to paint the house so it doesn’t look decrepit – a detail Pascaline Asser notes: “She tries to make it a home by making sure it’s always well-kept.”
From the beginning, it was difficult to meet the children’s physical needs, but 2017 was a particularly bad year. The sponsor who used to pay rent stopped, there was hardly any food and the children were looking to her. She felt like she was going mad. She even contemplated shutting the home and sending all the kids away. She shaved off her hair, borrowed money, bought food for the children for a week and went upcountry. Perhaps, contemplating nature would give her a fresh perspective. In the country she came across three children living with their poor, ailing grandfather in a dilapidated hut. Regina was moved and took them in. Seeing the helpless children reminded her why she had started the home, which was the impetus she needed to soldier on.
Regina goes back to the kitchen and says, “Ben help me serve.” He works quietly, focusing on the task. His mother, though alive, does not support him so Regina has housed, fed, clothed and educated him for the last four years. He is 13 years old and his favorite subject is social studies. When he grows up he would like to be either a Priest or a Pilot. But whatever vocation he chooses, he knows one thing is for sure he would like to set up a children’s home just like Regina. He starts giving each child a dish.
The children are in high spirits as they queue for a plate of rice and a piece of chicken. After getting a plate, they start eating and chatting. “Did you remember to pray before eating?” Regina asks. “I did not hear, pray again.” The kids recite a prayer they all know by heart. “After lunch Michael will do the dishes and Suzie will sweep.”
After giving the instructions Regina goes to the next room to rest and perhaps chat with friends on Facebook. It is a well-deserved break before she starts making dinner as well as checking how Michael and Suzie are doing the chores, to correct them if need be. She mothers all of them, gladly. It’s a huge responsibility for a person to take on, willingly. But Regina does. She believes, she can change many lives, by just trying.
Sally Jepkorir the Public Relations and Communications Manager at Mövenpick Hotel & Residences Nairobi, who last year hosted all the children for a Christmas lunch has been inspired by Regina. “At 21 she had the maturity to start this meaningful project. At that age, most people are doing frivolous things, that’s why I think she is a hero.”