A Love Story

It’s a long one today folks but I’m leaving Kenya in a few short hours and I’m feeling all the feels right now so bear with me. Since arriving in Kisumu, actually since the very beginning of my journey with Mama Hope I have been struggling to truly express the energy that has come in to my life. So today I am writing from a place deep in my heart. Today I am full of gratitude. Today I will borrow a line from a fellow global advocate and ‘tell you my love story.’ (Thanks Neale). There have been so many moments, seemingly insignificant interactions in the street or observations from a matatu that have made a little voice in my head go ‘man I love this place.’ Men breaking in to song as they hawke clothes outside a busy market, women fighting over a matatu window to sell bananas through then collapsing in laughter together upon realising no one wants to buy anything, children making me feel famous by following me on my morning runs. That little voice has always been followed by a twinge of pain in remembering that eventually I’d be leaving. But as the time is creeping up on me I am taking comfort in the connections I have made. I’m not talking about networking or new LinkedIn friends, I’m talking about real, human connection. When we travel or meet foreigners we love to make comparisons, not because we want to point out differences but because we like to find the similarities, the things that make us all human. Of course there are big differences here as well but today I want to focus on the things that have made this place feel just like home. This first thing might not be quite related to the human connection I’m talking about but it is just too good not too mention. I love a good sunset and spent many afternoons watching them at the beach before leaving for Kisumu but let me tell you, Kisumu did not fail to impress. I’ve seen colours I didn’t even know existed in the sky here. They might not have been over a beach but Lake Victoria is more than a match for that. Eva, Erick, Meggy, David, Sheila and Alyssa, now my extended family, how I have laughed and shared with you. Meggy and Alyssa are two of the happiest, brightest and loving little girls I have ever crossed paths with and that is truly a reflection of the homes you keep and your attitudes towards life. I simply can’t find enough words to explain to anyone how amazing you all are but I do want to give a special shout out to Erick for reminding me of my Dad – always watching the news and keeping me informed about the country’s political status. Obambo will always be home. More than anything I’ve found people everywhere dedicated to making the world a better place and not a single person who doesn’t believe it is possible. Neighbours helping their neighbours, families investing their money in to community run initiatives, people who dedicate their whole lives and almost all the minutes in their days to tackling the most overwhelming of problems and making real change. These things can be found all over and when we look at the entire world as our home it is not hard to feel total admiration for all the wonderful people within it.  I will always be grateful to Kisumu for showing me that connections can happen anywhere, anytime. Connection and context are what we need to find our common humanity. It’s always there but to find it we just have to open ourselves up, be vulnerable and let the light in and out! Context is what gives us that connection, so ask questions, learn from each other and be empowered by the knowledge you gain. To anyone thinking this sounds like hippy dippy bullshit, it’s not. It works. I can tell you that because I’m living it right now. Mama Hope and the global advocate program works because they find those connections. In Kisumu there is laughter, there are smiles, there are 3 men and two wonderful families behind them, driven beyond words. There is a wealth of untapped resources in the minds and hearts of these people and by making connections we can draw it out and our world will explode with all the love and knowledge that I have seen. We need to keep giving a voice to all the good in the world because that is the force that has the power to move our world in the direction we all want. Everyone connected to Akili is doing just that and I feel so lucky to have seen it in action. These aren’t just bright smiling faces, these girls are our future. They are brave, they are strong and they are smart. Akili Preparatory School is facilitating their empowerment and helping them reach their full potential. So as sad as I am to be leaving I feel like the luckiest person in the world for getting to meet such a resilient, determined and happy group of people. Akili’s success is due to the combination of these three things and there is no doubt in my mind that the best is yet to come!


GETTING TO WORK! Today I’m writing this at the beginning of my fourth week here. Four weeks already! Time is flying by and I am soaking up every minute. I still can’t flip chipatis using just my hands but I have managed to pick up a few words of Kiswahili here and there. ‘Cheka’ meaning ‘laugh’ and ‘twende’ meaning ‘let’s go’ are my favourites so far. I will also definitely be using ‘sawa sawa’ when I get home. It means ‘okay’ but I’ve noticed it is also used to end casual conversations, plus it just sounds so damn cool! Today is also the beginning of a busy week of budgeting and designing the first project that the funds many of you have helped raised will be allocated too. As you know one of Akili’s main focuses is their overall sustainability and the wonderful thing I am coming to understand is how future focused everyone involved with Akili is. While providing quality education for its current students they are simultaneously making sure they will be able to to do the same in 20, even 50 years time. As such, every project that is implemented serves a dual purpose. The first portion of the funds we have all raised together will build shower cubicles for the 30 boarding students at the Obambo campus. Currently the girls are showering out in the open and unfortunately they have reported men watching them at times. The showers’ second purpose will solve another problem – finding enough water for the 200 fruit trees that have recently been planted around the campus. Water is scarce in Obambo but David and Erick know these fruit trees will eventually provide shade and food for the future classes of Akili and provide extra income for the school. We will be implementing a grey water recycling system attached to the showers so that these trees will receive the water they need to grow. Electricity is also an issue so instead of using a pump or filtration system we will be filtering through wetland plants. Simple but effective, and in my opinion way cooler! Stay tuned for pictures as the project progresses. I also wanted to introduce you all to Dennis. He is Akili’s Sustainable Farm Manager. He is hardworking, optimistic and has been very good at putting up with my learn and teach on the go approach to google spreadsheets (why can’t it just be the same as excel?!) Together we’ve come up with a way to record the farm’s outputs and expenses and are looking forward to a years time when there will be a clear picture of the farm’s annual productivity.   Dennis showing off the impressive tomato crop at the farm inside Obunga slum   Dennis’ biggest priority each day is making sure every student can be nourished with food straight from the farm. He also takes orders from the locals and their respective markets stalls. He is looking forward to the day the farm will produce enough goods to sell at Kisumu’s supermarkets, and he is working hard to get there. Another project on the cards is increasing the depth of the farm’s bore hole to access more water and increase productivity. The tomatoes are currently the Akili Farm’s most lucrative vegetable. They started with one greenhouse a few years ago and realising they could make a profit from the produce is what spurred the idea for an entire sustainable farm. Outside of work with Akili, each ride to a new destination in the city provides new sites and scenes. Yesterday a cruise through a bustling market street, today, a bumpy journey through the streets of the city’s mechanic work shops. While some things are familiar – I can tell that man is a mechanic – there is a system of operation here that works in such a different way to home. So I observe, and to be honest, it’s hard to explain but there is a real beauty in not understanding how things work here. Every man in the street is dressed in the same blue workman’s jumpsuit. Are all the workshops owned by one company, are they freelance workers jumping on jobs where they can, or are they simply competing businesses working in harmony together? I have no idea but I do know they are getting the job done. To me it looks like organised chaos, to the locals I’m sure it is simply organised. I’m spending a lot of time here being in awe of what I don’t understand and appreciating experiencing everyday life in a different setting. I won’t lie. I’m having a mini freak out about how fast time is going already so every day I’m taking the opportunity to keep observing, keep soaking it in and keep on taking strolls in perfect settings like this. I took this on my walk home from Akili’s Obambo Campus Thanks for reading, love Jane

Akili Girlz!

  Nellie, Class 4, Age 10 What is the difference you see between boarding school and day school? Because boarding school is so very beautiful. In boarding school teachers they take care of us pupils. I love boarding school. Nellie is the second born in her family, with two brothers and one sister. Her mother works as a waiter, while her father is a laundry worker in Kisumu. Nellie is one of the sweetest girls at Akili, always the first to run up to me and grab my hand! Nellie hopes to be a doctor when she grows up, and LOVES singing (I know this for fact because her voice is always one of the loudest when we’re singing). Please donate to Akili to ensure that girls like Nellie are ALWAYS able to raise their voice!     Macreen, Class 4, Age 10 Why do you like the new uniforms? Because it helps us go to school. Macreen is the oldest out of her siblings, living with her hard-working single mother in Obunga, who works in a saloon. Macreen is incredibly shy, but so sweet- you can just see it in her smile in this picture! Please donate to ensure girls’ education for girls like Macreen 🙂     Mary, Class 4, Age 10 Why is education important for young girls? I should go to school to learn. Mary lives with her mother, a vegetable vendor, and her father, a tailor in Obunga. She is one out of nine, and her parents work hard to ensure that all the kids are in school. Mary is incredibly friendly and has many friends at Akili, she also happens to be one of the sassiest girls! She hopes to be a doctor in the future, and is very dedicated to her education, ranking in the top three of Class 4. Please support feisty, funny, and lovable girls like Mary to continue their education!     Jane, Class 4, Age 10 Why do you love Akili? Because we learn. There are teachers in Akili. There are classes. Jane lives with her five siblings and parents in Obunga, where her parents work as a firewood vendor and a fishmonger. Her dream is to be a nurse when she becomes older. Help ensure a bright future for girls like Jane by donating here.

Our perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Come bask under the Kenyan sun.

I am spending three months working in a community in Kisumu, Kenya. Kisumu is a contradiction of dusty streets bordered by lush, rolling hills. Modern expansion lives alongside traditional methods in this western Kenyan city. Driving to my house takes you along the super highway, a marvel of concrete and bridges. The highway forks into a dirt track that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountain bike adventure trail. Local motorbikes swerve through rain filled potholes and mud with great skill. Kenya may not have the world’s best education system. However, almost everyone is trilingual, learning English, Kiswahili and their tribe language. Property is less rigidly enforced. Kisumu lacks an ownership registrar, and many plots of land have spray painted signs proclaiming “this property is not for sale”. At first, the law student in me was horrified. How do people count and protect their assets? Freely wandering goats regularly stop highway traffic. Yet all vehicles stop to let them pass. In the Obunga slum, people’s chickens and cows graze indiscriminately. No one watches them, or brands them, or herds them home. Yet they are never stolen. The little Obunga store that sells me drinks should charge extra if you take the glass bottles. Yet I have been trusted to return them days later without paying extra. Market vendors always give “a little extra” food for free, simply because it’s tradition. In Kisumu, traditional systems coexist with modern expansion.   The tin houses that populate the Obunga slum surround the Akili Farm   The Akili girls have computer classes every week, but are still fascinated by videos of themselves on my laptop  The stereotype of poverty stricken families languishing in a slum, flies buzzing around their hopelessness like vultures, is rife in Australia. Now I am actually living here, I appreciate how harmful and belittling these stereotypes are. Ambition, ingenuity and entrepreneurship is everywhere in Kisumu. The unoffical motorbike taxis organise themselves at specific pick up and drop off points. They hold meetings to discuss their productivity. A local group set up a microphone and speakers in Obunga, using music to fundraise for a funeral. People live their lives here. Generalising a community along lines of poverty (seeing only what they lack) completely misses the point, and disempowers the people who have the keys to their own advancement. The Kenyans I’ve met are diverse, and have multifaceted inner lives as complex as anyone in Australia. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to wrap our minds around. The stereotype of children with distended bellies, eyes huge in shrunken faces, is also harmful. Charities use these images to evoke our pity. We sell pain, promising our White Christian perspective is the only route to pain alleviation. Pity evokes the white saviour complex that imbues much Western aid. From my point of view, selling pity is a fast track to disempowerment on a grassroots level. The girls at my project, the Akili Preparatory Girl’s School, live in a slum. They are bright, complex individuals, with dreams and potential. They eat ugali and kale for lunch, they play games in the local field, they have parents who love them. They are more than the simplistic photos of bare footed urchins we are shown.   0 0 0 0   The charity I work for, Mama Hope, puts the community at the centre of everything. Community leaders decide where funds should be spent, because they understand the complexities of their situation. Project staff (like the Akili Girl’s School teachers) direct my work, because in January I will leave. They are the ones who must live with my decisions. So far, my greatest revelation is this: open mindedness allows us to see the beauty of worlds beyond our own. Your perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Broadening it means you get another piece. 

Pre-Departure Pitfalls #SWEDOW

Look, aid is complicated. Development is a complex web of interconnected issues that are difficult to itemise and act upon. I have two degrees, I’ve read books and reports and attended global conferences to try and understand it. I indulgently smile at 18 year old Rachael, proclaiming she understood the realities of poverty after gaining a Distinction in Intro to Development. All my knowledge seeking has left me with one sure fact: I know nothing. You, dear reader, know nothing. Tough break, hey? I leave for Kisumu tomorrow, and I know that the world I’m heading for cannot be surmised by a CIA World Factbook page. Reading about HIV/AIDS prevalence, primary school enrolment rates and average income levels does not mean I have a single answer about the path to prosperity. I am no white saviour, marching into Kisumu with my malaria tablets and Kathmandu waterproof sandals. I have a set of skills (mostly theoretical) that those who know better (community leaders) will put to use. Claiming any shred of knowledge about the development challenges in the Obunga slum would be the height of ignorance and self involvement. I leave tomorrow, prepared to be a tool for and a student of David and Erick, the community leaders. The community leaders, whose visions Mama Hope supports I recently read a book called The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade. In one chapter, she spoke about SWEDOW – “stuff we don’t want”. It’s a nifty little acronym used to describe poorly reasoned development planning that has little or no use, or does actual harm. But how can aid cause actual harm?, you may ask. Good question – and possibly one you’ve never considered before. Foreign aid has many benefits, but we in developed nations have been lulled into the idea that aid will administer the solutions “Africa” needs. While a comforting notion, this ignores the inherent complexity of development. (Also, Africa is a continent. New Zealanders don’t like being confused with Australians. I bet Egyptians feel the same when compared to 53 other nations). EXAMPLE OF HARMFUL AID: sending used clothes to Africa. For sub-Saharan Africa, secondhand clothes has done incredible damage to local textile industries. The flood of clothes, given freely by good intentioned Western citizens, puts tailors and clothiers and labourers out of a job. This excerpt from Olopade, on page 53, sums it up; “In 1997, Nigeria’s textile industry employed 137,000 workers. Six years later, the number had plummeted to 57,000, largely as a result of free clothing from fat economies. In the past decade, Malawi’s largest textile manufacturer has closed, and similar companies in Mozambique and in Uganda, where 81 percent of clothing sold is secondhand imports, are teetering towards bankruptcy. In Zambia, garment industry   workers have staged strikes in protest of this importation. Ethiopia and Eritrea have outright bans on worn and used clothes. Mali, one of the largest cotton producers in sub-Saharan Africa, has not itself produced a single T-shirt.” That is absurd, and difficult to fully recognise. Importing secondhand clothes to African nations may come from a good intentioned place. But good intentions do not make an undesirable result suddenly desirable. This was a shift in perception I didn’t even realised I needed. My good intentions in Kisumu may mean nothing, if all I intend to do is import my version of what a community needs. It is comforting to think that African nations have a straight path to development. The complexity and interconnectedness of poverty is daunting. However, I’m keeping my lens focused on David and Erick’s vision for the girls of Akili. 0 0 0 0   The charity I work for, Mama Hope, puts the community at the centre of everything. Community leaders decide where funds should be spent, because they understand the complexities of their situation. Project staff (like the Akili Girl’s School teachers) direct my work, because in January I will leave. They are the ones who must live with my decisions. So far, my greatest revelation is this: open mindedness allows us to see the beauty of worlds beyond our own. Your perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Broadening it means you get another piece.