On Tuesday last week, Kenya and the children and youth sector in particular lost one of its upmost illustrious voices in the name of Mr. Aloys Opiyo Otieno, who until his death was the Executive Director of Undugu Society of Kenya. Aloys, as he was fondly referred to, passed on April 6, 2021 morning while on his way to hospital to seek medical attention.
Aloys joined Undugu Society of Kenya in 1994 as the Executive Director, the second Kenyan to serve in the position after his predecessor, Ezra Mbogori, who had taken over from Fabio Dallape, the first non-founder Executive Director.
It was during this time that the street children menace then at its peak in Nairobi and major urban towns was beginning to receive the attention of authorities, ostensibly, due to the public embarrassment they were causing foreign dignitaries, tourists and shoppers when they ventured into the main streets in town. Criminal activities associated with the street children was also becoming a cause to worry.
The late Fr. Arnold Grol, the Dutch Missionary Priest, who from about a decade earlier, had become synonymous with street children in Nairobi, and the poor in the slums of Nairobi was already thinking of retiring from active day to day running of the organization which was already attracting the good will of international partners, and was keen to leave the organization in secure local leadership.
Those of us who knew Fr. Grol would also recall of his constant concern at the time of the future of Undugu Society of Kenya. Speaking during his funeral service of Fr. Grol in 1997, Aloys recalled as much. “In 1997 Fr. Grol came and told me that he could now retire physically and spiritually from Undugu with the conviction that Undugu would not die in my hands”, he said.
Perhaps it was the unique mix at Undugu Society of Kenya that made it attractive to many people, both local and abroad – a culture that was brewed by Fr. Grol but served and maintained by Aloys. The workforce at Undugu Society of Kenya truly reflected the face of Kenya. Then there was the network of friends both in The Netherlands and Germany, which provided regular flow of undesignated financial support as well as technical capacity including inflow of volunteers.
But there was also a great mix of ideas, a colabo of minds, which were conspicuously reflected in the multiplicity of programmes and projects uniquely threaded to deliver a mission – the empowerment of children, youth and communities. There were the likes of parking boys and street girls programme, community health, basic education, informal skills training, micro-finance, appropriate technology, low cost housing, dry land farming, metal, wood and mechanic workshops, export, a music band, sports club etc. – it was a whole social engineering industry that Aloys was called upon to superintend for 17 years.
Managing transitions did not come easy and were always very testing times for Undugu Society of Kenya and the leadership. First was the change in its initial intervention philosophy of curative care to a more sustainable preventive care and policy orientation approach to dealing with the issue of the disadvantaged children and youth. Then came the transition from what was clearly a chaotic but rather appropriate Delta House at the ever crowded junction of Landhies/Jogoo Road that served as the head office of the organization for close to two decades to a modern Arnold Plaza complex on Woodvale Grove in Westlands.
While the organization is not quite what it was during the peak period in the 1990s and 2000s, with the majority of the workforce at the time having moved on, the organization remains very much alive. But perhaps the most important element of this life are the thousands of people, young and old, that the organizations touched their lives forever – the young people who were sponsored to pursue higher education or to acquire employable skills as well as families that had a reliable source of income because their businesses received a boost of credit and business capacity.
Even as people were coming together to deliberate on how to give Aloys a befitting send-off, the voices of the people whose lives were impacted by Undugu Society of Kenya during the time of Aloys came through in not less powerful way. They made it known that they too were part of Aloys sprawling network and community.
Aloys’ contribution very much went beyond Undugu Society of Kenya. Under the watch of Aloys, Undugu Society of Kenya working in cohort with likeminded organizations ensured that the voice of disadvantaged children and youth came through when and where it greatly mattered. Among the key contributions in this regard include the enactment of the Children’s Act which was seen as a significant step towards mainstreaming and domesticating the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. Then there was the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children in which a document on a World Fit for Children was adopted.
Aloy’s journey was illustrious – it that began from the classrooms of primary school between 1970 -1982, before enrolling for further studies to obtain M.A. Degree in Rural Social Development from University of Reading, UK. The knowledge and experience acquired during this journey certainly became a reliable add-on capacity that made Aloys.
Besides serving at the helm of Undugu Society of Kenya in two separate periods, Aloys also served as the Chief Executive Officer of African Network for the Prevention and Protection of Children Against Neglect and Abuse (ANPPCAN – Kenya Chapter), a member of the Board of Export Promotion Council, Chairman of the Council of Uzima University School of Medicine and Board of Director, County Education Board, Siaya. Previously, Aloys served as the National Coordinator of Development Education Programme under the Catholic Secretariat/National Secretary Justice and Peace Commission.
Having retired from the service at Undugu Society of Kenya in 2010, with over 17 years of service at the helm of the organization in his name, Aloys left such indelible mark in the life and psyche of the organization as well as the children and youth sector in Kenya, particularly those that are more vulnerable. No wonder, when the Board of Undugu Society of Kenya was, in 2019, was looking for a safe pair of hands to vector the Undugu ship to a desirable direction, Aloys became a sure bet. It is unfortunate that the cruel hand of death has cut short the life of Aloys slightly over one years since his return to the organization, dealing a major disruption to the renewal efforts at the children and youth organization. May the passing on of Alloys and the outpouring of sympathy from all those whom he touched their lives, bring renewed attention to the plight of the less advantaged children and youth, deprived of access to food, shelter, health and education and a realistic chance to better life in future.
Aloys body will be laid to rest on Saturday the 17th April 2021 at his home in Uyoma, Siaya County.
Tribute by Bernard Outah, formerly with Undugu Society of Kenya, currently Regional Director, World Fair Trade Organization –Africa & Middle East.