Nearly 30 years ago, when Vincent Onywera was just 21 years old, he found himself for the first time in the busy City of Nairobi and at Kenyatta University, “fresh from the village, I was a tiny little individual” he laughs, and eager to study his chosen field of physical and health education. Fast forward to today, when he is now Professor Vincent Onywera, the Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research, Innovation, and Outreach at Kenyatta—and a longtime advocate, friend, and partner for Pathfinder.
At 21, looking for a place to call home at the university, Vincent found an office with a blue Pathfinder sticker on the door. Curious, he met the person coordinating Pathfinder’s efforts there, which ultimately led to a 30-year relationship between Pathfinder and Kenyatta.
Over the years, Pathfinder has supported Kenyatta University to provide, and sustain, an integrated campus-based health education program. This work has included informing and educating the student population about sexual and reproductive health and rights, building students’ leadership skills, supporting community development projects, and providing low-cost health care services.
Early on in his time at Kenyatta, Vincent became head of the Student Council and invited a Pathfinder representative to come speak to a group of students. That person was Pamela Onduso, who at the time, was a Program Officer at Pathfinder. Today, Pamela is Pathfinder’s Acting Country Director in Kenya, as well as Pathfinder’s Regional Advocacy Manager for East and Southern Africa.
“Around that time, HIV was increasing and a real pandemic,” says Prof. Onywera. “Pamela came to Kenyatta and talked to me, and my peers, about HIV, but she also talked about gender inclusivity, about environmental awareness. She also talked about issues around climate.”
“I love to give an introduction where I look right at the boys,” laughs Pamela. She continues, “I say, ‘Welcome to university. These women aren’t here for their ‘Mrs. degree.’ They are here to get an education!’”
At the time, Pathfinder was running a campus-based, youth-friendly peer education and reproductive health service delivery program at Kenyatta, which aimed to increase students’ sexual and reproductive health knowledge, and prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS. Peer outreach was a critical element of the project, training students to promote life skills and responsible behavior among their peers.
“We create paths for others to follow,” says Pamela. “The model we created at Kenyatta was a model where we came in with technical assistance and resources, we developed curricula, and we then trained university staff and students to teach the curricula. After that, the university took on ownership of the project. In short, we worked ourselves out of a job!”
Not only was this the beginning of a long-term partnership, but Prof. Onywera credits Pathfinder in helping him become the person he is today. “Pathfinder helped shape me into a responsible person, the leader I am today. I graduated with a first class honors bachelor’s degree in physical and health education, and came back through a scholarship from Kenyatta University for my master’s degree. I then graduated and went on to complete my doctorate. From there, I was appointed the Coordinator of the university website and later on the Director in charge of International Programs at Kenyatta.”
Pamela, too, has grown at, and with, Pathfinder. Soon after joining the organization, she became the Regional Coordinator for programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Then, the Technical Associate for Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health. Later, Pamela became the Senior Technical Advisor for Institutional Capacity Building, and most recently, the acting Country Director in Kenya!
Though both had different paths, both have grown alongside Pathfinder over many years, and worked to cement the partnership between Pathfinder and Kenyatta. Most recently, their ongoing collaboration led to Pathfinder’s participation at the All Africa University Games, where Kenyatta University hosted 2,000 student athletes from 45 African countries and more than 60 universities, and First Lady of the Republic of Kenya, Her Excellency, Mrs. Margaret Kenyatta conducted the opening ceremonies.
“When Pamela recently visited,” said Prof. Onywera, “we discussed the games. I said, look, we have this massive event, and we should have Pathfinder’s footprint. We will have young people from the whole continent here!”
As a result, Pathfinder’s student representatives, the modern day “KU Peers,” worked at the games, providing sensitization and education about sexual and reproductive health issues. They worked at the competition venues, as well as the athletes living quarters. Pathfinder provided branded t-shirts with the Pathfinder and Kenyatta University logos, and provided visiting athletes with information in a designated tent set up in the athletics village.”
Collaborations like the University Games are part of Pathfinder’s holistic approach to incorporating sexual and reproductive health and rights work into Kenyatta’s fabric. Keeping up with the times, in mid-2014, Pathfinder developed a mobile application to mobilize and advocate for increased uptake of youth- friendly services at Kenyatta by students, understanding that the digital adaptation would further increase Pathfinder’s reach and impact.
“Over the years, our curriculum has shifted,” says Pamela. “It’s a living document. Part of the reason this project is still around, is that it is dynamic, flexible, and adaptable. It’s like Pathfinder. When you work with young people, you can’t be stuck in the mud. You have to be adaptable and listen to what young people are saying.”
Pamela adds, “When they hold national days or events, Pathfinder continues to support the project. We provide publications, or resources, like when we installed and filled female condom dispensers in the dorms. It’s a living relationship. Today, students who have graduated from our university based programs are now in national leadership. This includes sitting governors and sitting senators! When we set up this initiative, it was to help young people navigate their university education, while at the same time contributing to national development in the country.”
And why is this kind of partnership so important? We will let Prof. Onywera tell you in his own words:
Adds Pamela, “When people ask me why I’m a Pathfinder, this is what I’m talking about. It’s about creating a legacy, and models that are adopted by your host country. We’ve now created leaders, and these leaders become allies and advocates for Pathfinder.”
“We have shown through deeds, words, and actions that this kind of sustainable partnership can be created,” says Prof. Onywera. “And, it can be emulated and replicated. We welcome others to come to Kenyatta University, and to learn how to build a sustainable story of collaboration.”
As Pathfinder approaches its own 65th Anniversary, it’s long-term partnerships like this that have proven their ability to effect real change.