Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Interview with Irene Mbari-Kirika, Founder and Executive Director of inABLE

Exciting things are happening at Thika Primary School for The Blind. We had blind children blogging during the World Cup and they are now building websites for their school. In the words of one student:

“The computer program has restored back our sight. If I can now read newspapers, send emails, and do research for my project, it’s a whole new world, it’s amazing!”

6th Grade Student, Thika Primary School for the Blind

To find out more about this organization that is making such a positive difference in the lives of these children, Makuti Lounge sat down with Irene Mbari-Kirika, the Founder and Executive Director of inABLE and the driving force behind this change. (In the interests of full disclosure for our readers, I should point out that my husband is a co-founder of inABLE).

Makuti Lounge: What is the mission of inABLE?

IMK: Our motto says it all; “disability is not inability”. inABLE works with blind and visually impaired children to provide them with the resources they need to enable them to become productive members of society. Our vision is to provide the same educational, technological and employment opportunities that are available to sighted children.

Makuti Lounge: What inspired you to create this organization?

IMK: In 2006, I founded an organization called “Our Reading Spaces”. The goal of the organization was to build libraries in rural Kenya. Our first library was scheduled for Kairi Village where the local community had donated land for the project. Before the library was built, we organized a program at Kenya National Library Services in Thika. The library invited children from the schools in Kairi Village and the nearby Thika Primary School for the Blind. Despite the presence of the blind students, the reading event did not change their program to accommodate the blind students. At the end of the reading program, there was a competition among the children and one of the blind kids won against a sighted kid. I realized that there is no difference in the ability of blind kids compared to sighted kids. After the program, the teachers asked if we could set up a library at the school. They have a severe shortage of books. Braille books are very expensive. A typical Standard 6 Math textbook costs about Kshs. 380. The braille equivalent costs about Kshs. 7500. That is way out of reach of either the school budget or the budget of the individual student. Most books in the school are shared between 3 to 4 students. I committed to helping them but I have to say I did not know what I was getting into.

Makuti Lounge: So it seems that the organization evolved from Our Reading Spaces to inABLE. Tell us more about that.

IMK: When I came back to the US, I started doing research on resources for the blind and visually impaired. I realized that it would not be easy to simply set up a library and stock it with braille books. They are very expensive even here in the States and they are big volumes, taking up a lot of space. Through my research I realized that computers could fill this gap that was created by a lack of books. Because of the specific needs of this school, their “Reading Space” needed to be a computer lab. Our first computers were generously donated by individual donors. The project took off quickly and with such success that it has now become our main focus. We continue to maintain “Our Reading Spaces” as one of the programs run by inABLE, and the library at Kairi Village has been open since October, 2010.

Makuti Lounge: How do you deal with the challenge of managing projects from so far?

IMK: inABLE has excellent staff on the ground. Robert Mwaniki the Computer Program Manager and the Computer Instructors, Peter Okeyo and Caroline Ngondi, are very committed to the cause. We also have a very dedicated inABLE team member, Catherine Wamwangi, who serves as our liaison between the schools and our various sponsors and partners. Through Skype and Google Talk, we are able to have very frequent meetings with both our staff and our partners and sponsors in Kenya. We also use Skype for conversations with the students to learn more about their experiences in the computer lab as well as their hopes and dreams.

Makuti Lounge: What success has inABLE enjoyed?

IMK: We have successfully maintained the computer lab for 2 years and currently employ 3 instructors. More importantly, the children have learnt how to use the computers, how to type, and send emails. They have mastered the special software for the blind. Some of them are even able to work on special projects such as blogging and building websites. The kids were blogging during the last World Cup and they are currently building a website for the school. We have also trained their teachers to be computer savvy. Some English teachers now require the kids to type their essays and submit them via email. By developing such strong computer skills we increase the employment opportunities for these children.

Makuti Lounge: What has contributed to the success of inABLE?

IMK: Apart from our staff in Kenya, we have a very strong team of founders and volunteers. People who strongly believe in the cause and are committed to the success of the organization. Most importantly, the whole school has embraced the project – the principal and the teachers and above all the children, who are so determined. We are very grateful for the support from our local partners such as ABC, Rotary Club of Thika and ICEVI. And for the support of local sponsors such as Safaricom Foundation and Access Kenya.

Makuti Lounge: What challenges have you experienced in building inABLE?

IMK: Our greatest challenge and the one thing that keeps me awake at night, is that we need funding for training both the students and the teachers at the school. Without training this program cannot succeed. We have been very fortunate to have some dedicated sponsors that have given us grants for equipment and we are very, very thankful. Without the computers we would not have a starting point. On a whole, funding for recurring programs such as training is much harder to get because many grants are not structured that way.

Makuti Lounge: We understand that you are participating in the Global Giving Challenge. What is that about?

IMK: This month we were selected by the GlobalGiving Foundation ( to participate in their Open Challenge. If inABLE raises $4,000 total from 50 or more donors by April 30 we earn a permanent spot on their site. That will give us access to many new streams of donors. GlobalGiving is a respected portal for charitable giving and they have several corporate partnerships. Plus, many donors and companies go there to look for worthwhile projects to support. I am asking your readers if they can help us achieve this goal by donating on our website,

Makuti Lounge: What is next for inABLE?

IMK: Our immediate goal is to roll out the current computer lab program to the other 8 blind schools in the country. We continue to work with our partners to create programs that will develop strong employment related skills to give the children viable employment prospects. Long term, through the Mwangaza project, we are working closely with Georgia Institute of Technology to research and develop assisitive technologies to teach math and science to the visually impaired.

Makuti Lounge: What advice do you have for others who want to create a non-profit organization?

IMK: Take the time to learn from others. Similar but older organizations have gone through their growing pains and one can learn from some of their lessons. Also, take the time to learn the needs of your community and be willing to let those needs influence and change your mission if need be.

Makuti Lounge: inABLE is a full time job for you, and working across 2 time zones I am sure sometimes it feels like 2 jobs. What else keeps you busy?

IMK: You are right; it is a full time job. I spend a lot of time with my family, my husband and 4 year old son. And also with my parents and siblings and my 8 year old niece. They make life worth living.

Makuti Lounge: You are currently living in Atlanta, Georgia. Can you talk about your experiences as an immigrant? What obstacles do you think immigrants have to overcome to be successful in the US?

IMK: In the 12 years I have been here, the most important thing I have learnt is to take advantage of the opportunities that are here. Whatever you can learn and take back home, then do so. The greatest obstacle that we need to overcome is the fear of being different. Many of us have had the unfortunate experience of being treated negatively because we speak with accents, don’t understand the culture, etc. We spend a lot of time either trying to fit in or trying to stay apart. Instead, embrace the fact that you are different and that you have had different experiences. I consider myself a global person and I am open to meeting and learning from other people. To do that successfully, I have to present myself as I really am even though I may be different from the people around me.

Makuti Lounge: How has the experience of developing inABLE changed you as an individual?

IMK: I have been totally humbled by this experience. To see these kids with challenges and to see what they have overcome, I have developed great compassion for others and I have learnt to count my blessings. I am also learning not to judge a book by its cover. I do not focus on what the blind and visually impaired students cannot do but on what they can do.

Makuti Lounge: Irene, we all want to know, how do you do this? What keeps you going?

IMK: My faith; realizing that indeed there is a higher power who makes things happen. I believe this work is my calling. And I am committed to doing it. I don’t really know how it gets done. All I know is that there is a job to be done and somehow it is getting done.

Makuti Lounge: Any final words?

IMK: I will leave you with my favorite quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.,

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve”.

To support the inABLE GlobalGiving challenge, please go to

To follow inABLE, please visit their blog at

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:01 PM

    Very inspired by Irene. Great Job!