Materi Girls Centre started in April 1973, mainly through the joint initiatives of Father Andrew Botta, a dynamic Consolata missionary, and Brother John Koczka, an American educator who previously taught at and headed Nkubu High School in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In the first year, the school was located within Materi Catholic Mission with a small Form One intake of 26 girls –really, young women. But given the fact that more land and facilities were necessary, especially an improved water supply, Brother John moved the school up to its present site, near Tunyai and the Kithino River, on a 205-acre plot. But before leaving the catholic mission, construction had started on a girls’ dormitory, a building that later became the Materi Boys High School tuition block and administrative office.
Young though she was and situated in an arid, undeveloped region, the secondary school had no trouble attracting Form One candidates given she was Tharaka’s first high school for girls, the respect and freedom offered its students, its outstanding disciplinary record — which continues to date, and its very low school fees.
In those early days, nearly every student had an overseas sponsor, mainly from Canada — a caring and loving person who helped the families financially and through encouragement.
In 1979, the school had a triple-stream of girls sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).
Right from the start and while concentrating mainly on the secondary school, Materi investigated obvious local needs and tried to help out the local community. One of the first initiatives was to tart a well-stocked and daily Medical Dispensary for the students and local Tunyai/Kithino community. Before then, sick people had to travel 30km on a rough road to Nkubu to seek treatment.
Very soon thereafter, and observing that about 31 per cent of the children under the age of five years died too early in life, with mothers also losing their life in child birth, the Centre began its maternal Child and Mother Health Care Unit, first staffed by a religious order of Irish Franciscan nuns and a team of local nurses and nursing aides. The unit provided medical, and sometimes, nutritional relief, mainly from the US through the Catholic Relief Services, as malnutrition then and still is a serious prevalent condition in the community around the Centre. Even today, 35 years later, the Tunyai/Kithino area lacks a single hospital, a single doctor or dentist, piped treated drinking water or electricity among others.
But thanks to loving care, responsible follow up and visits to local homes and the setting up of numerous kitchen gardens in the area, child mortality and morbidity dropped dramatically from 31% to about 3% today. The unit still runs today within the Centre.
To improve the teaching of English and Mathematics in the primary schools, Materi began in 1978 its own boarding primary school with Ms Elizabeth Gaceri, its first headmistress. Being a boarding school, the girls in Standard 5 to 8 now had well-trained teachers, three meals a day, clean drinking water, medical care when ill, comfortable sleeping quarters, electricity, books and tuition materials, and uninterrupted evening preps. In addition, they shared a host of religious and extra-curricular clubs and activities enjoyed by the secondary school girls. They ate together, prayed together, worked in the fields together and grew healthy and strong together as one family
However, given limited funding and the plan to double the intake into the high school to 800 boarders, the primary school closed down in December 2012 with all its facilities going to the secondary school.
In the early 1980s, we also started a day, pre-primary kindergarten school for boys and girls aged 4-6 years. This was to counteract a prevailing situation in the local community where children only started Standard One around the age of nine or ten years. Before then, the boys would be found herding and grazing cattle in the fields while the girls did a host of household tasks and gardening.
Backed with meals, monthly medical check-ups, clothing, field trips in the Centre’s bus, child sponsorship and when possible family assistance, the children and their women instructors were well on their way — thanks to instruction and modest training — to complete at least the full 8-year primary schooling. Before then, most children dropped out midway. The Kindergarten still runs today with its dedicated staff of mothers and trained responsible teachers and role models.
In the late 1980s, the Center started a two-year vocational training programme for secondary-school leavers, ladies aged between 19 through to 24 years, full boarders in search of income-generating and employment-oriented skills and attitudes. This was known as MAWOTI, The Materi Women’s’ Training Institute.
Three main courses were offered at Mawoti: Food and Beverage, Production and Service; Secretarial and Computer Studies; and Tailoring. Additional offerings included Crop Production, Appropriate Technology, Income Generation, Marketing, Social Development, Family Life Education, Child Care and Hygiene.
Mawoti staff members also reached out to into the Tharaka community with livestock activities, boreholes, a credit loan scheme, an agro-chemical shop as well as weekly in-service seminars. For the seminars, lodging and food were available for 48 participants.
Most of the programmes and activities were carried out within the Centre alongside the other ‘schools’ there. Danish “Save the Children” funded this most useful unit for 12 years. When the funding ceased and no new donors could be found, the Mawoti work stopped.
Finally in 1997 the Centre, with generous funding from Finnida and Save the Children (Helsinki) started the Tharaka Primary Health Care project or PHC, to serve the people of South Tharaka, especially the 24,000 residents of upper South Tharaka. Like so many other projects, it fell under direction of Materi Girls’ Centre and her legal holder, the Catholic Diocese of Meru.
Its principle beneficiaries were to be mothers and children in this rural, undeveloped region but not to the exclusion of men, schools and market places.
The major reasons for the establishment of this project were:
Poorly developed health infrastructure
Poor access to preventative and promotional health care services, especially immunisation and
Lack of awareness in the use of available, simple and effective health interventions.
Lack of training of health workers in the effective delivery of PHC interventions.
Ineffective health worker supervision.
The main objectives of the MCH were;
To alleviate crippling poverty and strengthen the socio-economic conditions in the area by reducing morbidity and mortality.
To improve the nutritional status of child-bearing women and children under the age of 5 years.
To strengthen the environment through safe water delivery, achievable sanitation systems and home improvement plans.
To control malaria, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
To promote greater health education in the schools.
To give ill-developed communities greater access to advocacy programs and funding schemes.
In short, the project was concerned not only with disease prevention and control but more so on health promotion and delivery services. The complete physical, mental and social well-being of the individual was to be addressed.
It also sought to help individuals and communities to be more self-reliant, to improve through their own efforts and with minimal external assistance, in bettering their all-important health status.
Initially planned to be a three-year funded scheme, the PHC initiative ran for 11 years, served nearly 30,000 men, women and children and institutions, before it had to cease operations due to lack of adequate resources. During those eleven years, the project carried out valiant and very effective strategies and programmes in:
The selection and training of 200 health care volunteers.
Ran weekly training sessions/workshops for local leaders and its principal beneficiaries.
Conducted integrated practical educational interventions in the areas of water sanitation, nutrition, infectious diseases especially malaria
School health clubs, reproductive health and home improvement.
The PHC project won the first ever and very prestigious National Health Insurance Fund award in 2004 in Public Health Education and delivery. The award was presented to Materi at internationally famous Mt Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki. A cash donation of $5,000 also accompanied the plaque.