“They shaped my whole life”: An interview with Eliud Koto, a data scientist taught by Suas volunteers

June 18, 2024
background photo, a young black boy. on top, the same person but grown up.

Eliud Koto today, with a photo of Eliud as a young boy in Gatoto Primary School.

Overseas volunteering has a tumultuous history. The industry which thrived in the late 90s to early 2010s is now looked at with a more critical lens and an understanding that this practice can disrupt communities and be fueled by a “saviour complex” mindset. Often, volunteers would gain more from the experience than those they travelled to help. 

But what was the experience like from the other side? Eliud Koto, a Kenyan data analyst, was taught by international volunteers for over seven years. Eliud currently lives in South Africa, where he works for Onfon Mobile. He grew up in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, and studied at Gatoto Primary School where he was taught by Irish volunteers who visited with Suas Educational Development’s overseas volunteering programme.  

In part due to the influence of the volunteers, Eliud went on to study at Machakos High School, get high marks in his national exams. In 2020, he completed his Bachelor of Science, Statistics and Programming at Kenyatta University. He has recently been offered a place in a Masters programme at Robert Gordon University, Scotland, but needs to raise funds to attend

Eliud met with me over Zoom to talk about how Suas volunteers fundamentally shaped his educational journey, and what he hopes to achieve in the future. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

a group of people

Suas volunteers.

What was your primary school experience like?

I enrolled in primary school Class 1 [around 6-7 years old] in 2001 to go to primary school. At school I got to interact with students, with my classmates for the first time and I got to have an education.

We faced a lot of challenges in life where I grew up. The school is situated in a very poor suburban area, in one of the biggest slums in Kenya. We used to go to school to know that we’d be able to eat at least one meal, to get some food in addition to the education. Schools ensure that students eat. Sometimes at home we‘d miss meals, but we’d get excited to go back to school because we knew that we’d get something to eat as well as learn.

The learning was challenging because we lacked a lot of resources. We had few books, we had few teachers. We used to push ourselves a lot so that you can match up to students from other schools. 

In Kenya, when you get to Class 8, we all do the same exams, regardless of where you are from. Irregardless of how you started, whether you're studying in a slum or in a richer area, you do the same exams. So we had to push ourselves more so that we could compete with those students who are able to get all the resources they need. 

Our teachers used to push us and tell us, “You guys need to work harder compared to students in other places, so that you at least get the ability to catch up.” 

When Suas volunteers came in and started teaching us, they engaged us and provided us with some of the resources we needed. The volunteers acted as extra teachers, and they really made a big impact on our education in primary school.


Were the volunteers present throughout your whole primary school education?

The volunteers started coming when I was in Class Four [around 9-10 years old]. They used to come during the Second Term [May to July], so not the whole year. 

When the volunteers initially came—let's say they were there for three months, right?—so the first month, they work with our teachers. Our teachers would come in for one lesson, then the volunteers would switch with them in the next lesson. For the second month, they would get used to teaching, and then in the last month they would take care of the subject that they had been assigned to.


Were there any particular volunteers that you kind of were close to, or did you find it hard to form connections because they changed every year?

That's actually a very interesting question, because of the way they usually used to change every year. So yes, of course, it was hard. We would have wanted the exact same volunteers to come every year, since you remember them, and then you're used to them. 

But what I remember very, very well is that each year, I always found a way to make a friend among the volunteers, because it was so easy to connect with them. They were so social. It was so easy for them to interact with us. We felt like, “Oh, we were with you last year,” even though it would be their first time visiting us. Irregardless of the fact that they changed, each year, I was able to get a new friend.

Irregardless of the fact that they changed, each year, I was able to get a new friend.

Eliud Koto

What kind of extracurricular activities would you do with the volunteers?

Beyond the classroom, beyond teaching, volunteers gave us the opportunity to experience new ways of learning. They would find a way to connect education and activities, whichI really liked.

When I started school, we were used to just sitting in class, receiving lectures, reading books—a very strict study routine. When volunteers came, they introduced unique methods of learning. And we were able to relate what we learned in the classroom to the real world. 

They became not only our educators but our mentors and our friends, because they helped us in developing our personal lives and our social skills.


Were you ever able to keep in contact with them?

Unfortunately, no, I didn’t really have the opportunity to keep in contact with them. But I remember there was one of them who left me his number. He gave me a book as a present, and he left his number inside but unfortunately I lost the book. So I've never had an opportunity to interact with any of them after they left. 


When did you realise you wanted to pursue further education and study data science?

It was definitely a gradual shift for me. Before the volunteers came, the study routines were very strict, and the funny thing was that I really didn't like mathematics. It has too many equations, too many formulas that you need to remember. 

Then we got one of the volunteers to teach us mathematics in Class Four or Five [9-13 years old]. They not only used the books to show the formula, but they used to do creative activities, they used to give us real world examples of how mathematics is applied. They made me realise that maths has a lot of influence and impact in the world, and made me feel like, “Oh, this can be quite interesting.” They brought maths alive. 

Later on, when I delved deeper into mathematics in high school and college, I got to see how the world of numbers can have a huge impact in the real world; with enough data you can predict the future. You can see this in AI models that use numbers to predict language processing.

I developed a love of mathematics, because I got to understand how it can help us make decisions in companies, like the company I work in right now. When I got more and more involved in mathematics, I began to feel that I could have a big impact on the world, a positive impact on the world.

When I got more and more involved in mathematics, I began to feel that I could have a big impact on the world, a positive impact on the world.

Eliud Koto

What about mathematics and its ability to change the world drew you to it specifically, as opposed to say, politics or engineering?

With mathematics, you are able to find the areas of need. When I was growing up, I observed how issues such as education, inequalities, and lack of balance in the society affect people, the people who don’t have these opportunities. Numbers can help us identify the areas of need. Those numbers can also help us to optimise the resources we use to solve these needs and can help us find solutions.

For example, look at the education gap. Most people growing up are very smart, but because of a lack of funds, they’re not able to continue their education or go to secondary school. If you look at the numbers, you can see that this issue affects people who live in certain areas more compared to those who live in other areas. 

I’m passionate about using numbers and statistics in dealing with social welfare, and I hope to grow and learn and help societies with these skills.


What are your plans for the future?

My sister [Joyce] and I started a Non-Governmental Organisation at the end of 2022 called Urban Slums Education Programs. We provide mentorship to students who live in Mukura Kwa Reuben. We have an alumni organisation in our primary school where we interact with students who are still in primary school and those students who go on to high school. 

When the students go on holiday, this is when they’re more likely to engage in drug addiction, pregnancy, and other issues because they are not engaged in studies. 

So we thought, “Maybe we can start a volunteering programme,” me and Joyce and a few of our friends. During the holidays we meet the students, we teach them and mentor them and tell them, “There's a lot of opportunity beyond here for you guys, if you just put enough effort.” 

I applied my love of maths to this. In the programme, we were able to understand the issues that students are facing. We can look at the numbers: how many of these students we mentor go on to university or go on to pursue their dreams in different areas of life. So that's the starting point. But I hope to have more impact, not only in where I grew up, but across all of Kenya. 


If you could now speak to the volunteers who taught you when you were a child? What would you say to them?

I would really like to meet one of the volunteers. If I got that chance, I would tell them how much I miss them. I mean, it has been a while, over 10 years! I would also express my gratitude for the impact they had on my life. They shaped my whole life. When I got to interact with them, I gained new ideas. I got the opportunity to open my eyes to new cultures, new ideas and opportunities beyond my surroundings. 

I appreciate them so much for their commitment to helping us learn and grow. They were the ones who ignited my passion to learn. After interacting with them, I felt like, “Yeah, if education can make people travel across the world to teach others, then this is something that I can try and I can enjoy it.” When they came to teach us, they gave us an opportunity to learn and grow and develop our skills, develop our knowledge. I would thank them for their commitment to helping us grow.

One thing I would want them to know is that their efforts were not in vain. They made a difference in the lives of so many students, including mine. My key statement—this one I even noted down—is that their legacy lives on in the knowledge we gained, the skills we developed, and the dreams we continue to pursue.


On a similar note, what would you say to someone who's currently in Gatoto Primary School, or maybe your younger self? What do you tell the kids that you mentor over the holidays?

Although it might seem impossible, you need to believe that eventually it will work out. If you put in enough effort, the opportunities will come. 

Growing up and studying in such an environment, your dreams are usually limited. You see your older friends and assume you'll end up living the same life as them because you grew up in the same environment. But with enough effort, you have the opportunity to grow and achieve your wildest dreams. With enough effort, you will get there. 

As an example, I grew up in such an environment but now I have the opportunity to work outside my country. This shows that eventually, when you put enough effort in you’re able to achieve your dreams. You can go even farther than you planned for. 

As you grow older and older, the opportunities open up more. You get that chance to make a real world impact in so many other areas. With education, your horizon will go farther and farther than you even imagined.

As you grow older and older, the opportunities open up more. You get that chance to make a real world impact in so many other areas. With education, your horizon will go farther and farther than you even imagined.

Eliud Koto

Eliud is currently raising money to attend Robert Gordon University in Scotland. Please consider donating or sharing with family, friends, or peers who are in a position to do so.

If you were a volunteer in Gatoto between 2005-2010 and met Eliud, please get in contact with us, as he would love to be able to reconnect with volunteers who taught him as a child.