By Jesse Masai

When exams began on March 22 for the Kenya Certificate for Primary Education, which completes the first eight years of schooling, reports filtered in that many of the nearly 1.88 million candidates had failed to show up at school. Others took their exams from hospital wards because they had recently given birth.

Public health officials estimated in July 2020 that 152,000 Kenyan girls became pregnant during the country’s three-month spring lockdown. That was an increase of 40% in the monthly average in a country which already has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in East Africa. In 2014, the most recent year with complete statistics, 15% of 15-year-old Kenyan girls had already given birth and another 3% were pregnant.

It is a situation Carol Erickson has known well since God led her to Nanyuki, Kenya, just over two decades ago.

“When I was about 10, news broke in the United States about the gross mistreatment of orphans in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” says the Episcopalian with ties to St. Martin’s Church in Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota, and, these days, the Anglican Church of Kenya. “In church, I watched a video of the Romanian orphanages and how babies were dying from lack of human touch. This broke my young heart, and that day God whispered a dream that still echoes to date.”

She adds: “Promptly after the service, I asked my mom to put me on a plane to Romania. No orphaned baby should die due to lack of touch if I was available to hold her. Of course, Mom did not send me to Romania.”

Carol began visiting Kenya in 2006 as a young adult, the first of several mission trips to a girls’ boarding school. It was then she realized that God was calling her in another direction.

“Often in Kenya, young women do not have the opportunity to finish school,” she said. “When this happens, a cycle of poverty begins. They can’t get a job, they get pregnant, and they are forced to do what no one should have to do to stay alive. Due to lack of education and employable skills, these girls are destined to a life filled with abuse, violence, and poverty. During my trips, I noticed a gap. What happens to these teenage girls, and how can we help them?”

Still uncertain about what God wanted her to do, Erickson joined with a friend to pray about her concerns.

She recalls: “Looking back, I may have been daring God to say no. One after another, he provided everything we had laid out as a pre-condition for my subsequent decision to move to Kenya. From left to right, friends volunteered to work on a website, logo, and every other thing I needed, including $67,000 I needed to get going. Every single person we reached out to told us Nanyuki would be the location.”

God had taken away all her self-imposed barriers and excuses.

Nanyuki, 200 kilometers north of the national capital of Nairobi, is a popular military town, which hosts an air base for the Kenya Defense Force and the British Army Training Unit Kenya.

In the fall of 2011, Erickson and a small group of friends completed plans for a mission in Nanyuki, where she traveled to determine the need to save teenage moms and their babies.

A strategic plan was formed and the dream of Imara International came to fruition.

In Swahili, Imara means strong or resolute.

By April 2012, Imara had formed a board of directors and attained 501(c)3. After being commissioned at Messiah United Methodist Church in Plymouth, Minnesota, Erickson relocated to Nanyuki two months later.

Carol Anderson with a community member

“We acquired a rental house to accommodate up to 10 teen moms and their babies. Imara supporters traveled to Kenya to help set up the rescue home. By November, the first moms and babies arrived at Imara House,” she says.

From the beginning, Imara has worked closely with Kenyan government health officials who screen and refer mothers in crisis, who must be 14 or younger. After setting up a curriculum and regular studies between 2013 and 2014, Erickson immediately noticed Imara program participants making progress.

“Early-childhood development was put in place for our infants and toddlers. The local community showed strong support, along with mission-trip talent for vocational skills development,” Erickson says.

A capital campaign was later launched for the Imara Village acreage, which has since become a working farm with infrastructure and security in place.

From 2015 to 2016, Imara rolled out full Africa-branded marketing for products and services produced by its vocational training programs in baking, sewing, and salon skills.

“Our cakes are now a big hit and give Imara moms a chance to learn business development. Imara Sewing and Imara Salon are two other growing skill areas. A generous donation of 12 computers from the National Cristina Foundation opened up great opportunities,” she says.

Between 2017 and 2018, Imara supporters funded a deep-water well that provides clean, reliable water for the village and those within its vicinity.

Kenya’s leading telecommunications company, Safaricom, provided sewing machines and a bigger oven for Imara’s developing bakers.

Imara House also moved to larger quarters, with expanded space for more moms and babies, along with new classrooms for moms and a dedicated pre-kindergarten space.

“With God’s help, Imara International is giving teenage moms a chance to practice life and parenting skills, finish their education, learn vocational skills and build their faith. Their children are cared for and have access to proper nutrition and early learning and education,” says Erickson, who commends the institution’s wealth of local volunteers and mission trip volunteers. Local business owners and mission teams also share their skills to train, teach, and counsel Imara moms.

The moms, on the other hand, volunteer as Sunday school teachers, vacation Bible school leaders, and missioners among the Kenyan poor.

Raised in a society in which reproductive health and sexual violence are largely taboo subjects, it is a remarkable transformation for the 19 moms currently at the institution with their 20 babies.

“No topics are off-limits here,” Erickson said. “We tackle emerging issues by providing medical and godly knowledge.

Similar crisis centers in nearby Nyeri and Nakuru towns have begun looking to Imara for direction.

Imara has also not reported any COVID-19 cases, despite being in the middle of a country hit by the pandemic with increasing severity.

“There was no guidebook when we embarked on this journey of ministering to teen moms, who in many ways are themselves children with unique needs,” Erickson said. “We have made our mistakes. But our focus remains on the God who responded to our daring faith by bringing the people and resources we needed to get going.”

Jesse Masai is a freelance journalist based in Limuru, Kenya. For more information on Imara, visit imarainternational.org.