WCI in Nairobi 2

Oct 18 Nairobi

In an effort to conserve our travel money, I guessed wrong about a guesthouse and we spent a virtually sleepless night under a net in a mosquito playground of a third floor room. The “en suite” shower spurted scalding water sideways, a single electrical socket hissed and sparked when adaptors were inserted, the blankets provoked contact dermatitis and the advertised wireless network’s inaccessibility baffled our distracted concierge. Weary and skeptical of prospects for the complimentary breakfast, we fled at first light to the nearest high-end hotel. It was the saving grace of an incredibly demanding day.

One of the things I love most about Kenya is the exuberance of the Kenyans. They flow through the city like rushing water, navigating menacing traffic with near fatal disregard for the laws of physics. The weather is gentle and inspires joyfulness, industriousness. Glamorous ladies attract head turns; men with astonishing deformities scoot along the sidewalks. It’s all mixed together until late at night, when the drunks with the South African horns take over and the streets empty like a small town on a work night.

The city is also bristling with security, a reaction to the perceived threat of the large Somali population that trades in weapons and drugs. Kenya is currently an occupying force in Somalia, trying to subdue Al Shabaab militants.

We spent Tuesday in numerous meetings and activities at Kariua. We arrived at 11am to find about 6 guys ready for a scheduled men’s meeting. Within forty-five minutes another twenty joined us. We wanted to learn what the men knew about the Center we are putting in motion and what their reservations and questions might be. Perhaps predictably they wanted first to know what was in it for them. We guided the conversation into what they could offer in terms of protection and community infrastructure projects. In the end, they seemed to arrive at a feeling that they could unite and be useful. There are some ugly power politics as well as serious substance abuse habits. If resistance or blow back, emerges, this is where it will come from, so we are gathering allies as best we can.

The women started to arrive for their “close ups.” We proposed, to their relief, that they should not have the burden of providing photos of themselves for ID badges. We took photos of every woman. Most offered little affect for the first photo, but one of the younger ones began to tease and cajole them into smiling. I showed them each the “before” and “after” – the “after” shot being the one in which they smiled. I could sense the beginning off appreciation of the own good looks (though some clearly had been ill and or beaten and there are tons of serious dental issues.) This is one of many small WCI exercises in acknowledging the individual woman. I love doing this; it always generates a lot of laughter and bonding.

Our first women’s committee – business development – met to discuss their fears that some women would take advantage of loans or grants and disappear, that their new stalls would suffer harassment and theft by the askari (security guys / police) in their little stalls and that it would all come to nothing. This is when we began to have fun, reminding them that they knew the women in their community (who would allow them to welsh on a promise that affected them all?), that they could think beyond merely eking out a living with another stall selling minor stuff, that they would learn how to solve problems, think big and that WCI would back up their learning and growing. They need a lot of practice in respecting their own dreams. Again, an upsurge in ideas, allowing hopefulness to emerge. I see the strength and beauty of these women and find such pleasure in reflecting it back to them. A photo of the committee group seemed to help cement their mood of cooperation.

In the evening we met with Ikal Angelei, an amazing young woman who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa last year. She has organized the Turkana community to preserve their rights and resources in the face of encroaching threats posed by resource development around Lake Turkana. The award has afforded her a high profile in terms of representing women’s needs and rights. We have been corresponding and talking for several months about a Women’s Center in Turkana. She wants us to come there and make the sort of connections we have made in Kariua. She wants input and help with the programs already in motion – with an emphasis on self-reliance.

More than 150 women turned out for the first meeting for the Women’s Center in Kariua

On Wednesday we met with two other committees:  Health and Education. I suspect that though there have been many efforts to assist this community with their many and continuing needs, WCI may be the first to begin by fostering a sense – particularly among the women – that they are fully capable of charting a new path and achieving their own goals. We have already seen the emergence of three very powerful leaders.

There is much more to tell, but I am tired now and still have some admin work to do.

As we do with the ladies, we invite you to imagine being part of a transformation much larger than any of us. We get to do important work by committing to step up to important issues.

Our immediate goal is to raise $25,000 by Nov 6. That will allow training to begin in mid-November. The first year of operation requires $200,000. We want to reach that funding goal by January 15. Let us know how you can help. We’ll provide whatever details you need.

WCI in Nairobi

Nairobi, October 14, 2012

The flight on Emirates Airlines evolved as a cross between adult day care and life support:  attentive cheerful and good looking attendants, gourmet meal packaged so obsessively that managing the wrappers became a use-of-space issue, an overwhelming array of unsatisfying entertainment options – and the inevitable ennui and fatigue of sleepless containment for 13 hours in a pressurized cabin.

En-route to Nairobi, we had a three-hour stopover in Dubai, the least intuitively laid out airport I’ve been through. At 8am, the terminal was awash with travelers consuming mass quantities of high-end consumer goods. Right along with electronics stores and couture fashion shops were McD’s BK, Cinnabon, Starbucks and Bloomingdales. There’s just no containing viral corporate America.

In Nairobi, it’s the time of the “short rains.” Weather is cool, downpours a frequent event. All the frangipani and flame trees are in glorious bloom – burst of startling purple and effervescent orange even in unlikely places. The city suffers frightful rush-hour gridlock; the rain adds additional accidents to the mix. The “Road Conditions” update on one radio station begins with the sound of a collision.

We’ve been treated to a very soft landing by my friend Maina and his wife Adeline and their lovely eight-month old daughter, Abigail, joyful, feisty girl who finds crawling un-amusing and would like to be independently upright and mobile soonest.

We met with our fabulous manager, Stiffin, truly the most competent, compassionate and imaginative man I have worked with in Africa.

Our first meeting on Sunday with the women at Kariua was a spectacular inspiration. Any fears we had about the “fit” of the women’s center program here were quickly banished. More than 150 women turned out with many children in tow. They came not just from Kariua but also from the adjoining neighborhoods. Word had gotten around.

We had a modest first-day agenda:  introductions all around with an explanation of our registration process, our plan for photo ID badges and the agreement to democratically select a name of the center – most suggestions related to hope and faith. The women wanted to keep going and so we did for three hours. In particular, they were keen to know when we would start training. Tricky question in view of our modest donations relative to our overall budget. Unwilling to give my worry on this front any quarter, I saw that we needed to understand how they wanted the various training structured  (that is, their actual availability given their obligations as moms and day workers)

We formed up four committees of six women each  – all eager to weigh in on the resources we plan to offer. No surprise: they wanted to focus first on earning income, building businesses.

We saw cheerful excitement grow among them. They badly wanted a Center with all that WCI had to offer. I badly want to deliver it to them.

We met on Monday with our partners Catherine Wanjohi and Mukami Mwangi of Life Bloom Services International. The ideas of how we can make this Center work flew fast and furiously. We are incredibly lucky to have them as allies able to bring to bear so many local human resources as well as their accumulated wisdom working with marginalized women, particularly sex workers.

In only two days of work we already see the glow of right time, place and people for a durable success. If fact, we’re almost giddy to be in the midst of this incredible surge of hope and determination to forge a new future for the Kariua family – the word they use to describe themselves.

WCI needs a minimum of $25,000 to maintain this rare and astonishing momentum. We’ve got to open the facility, pay our dedicated staff and trainers, buy textbooks and instructional materials…the list goes on. We’re ready to move from planning to doing. We will not disappoint these amazing women.

We have set in motion what I believe will be one of the most compelling community transformations that most of us are likely to see in our lifetimes. I’m counting on the people I know to give this baby wings with generous donations – soonest.

Much more to come.