Kenya on my mind

Reflections on my time here in Kenya:

Nairobi on the cheap is less than fun but tolerable.  The city is all noise and hard surfaces; dust constantly swept and wiped, glass seldom clear, lighting never kind, no trash cans (which explains the mess on the streets), and drivers executing terrifying maneuvers. This is the part I’ve experienced. Outside city center, the lush amazing Kenya asserts itself.  For better or worse, Kenyans seem to adore and emulate things American.  T-shirts emblazoned with logos from Michigan State, Detroit, Arizona, etc. Rap music. I’ve seen vegan items on menus! Giant commercial vibrating signs a la Times Square.

Since my arrival, I’ve fretted about Baraka Women’s Center’s future.  It serves a large population of women who really need a safe place to learn and grow. Too many women – increasingly the younger ones – are lost and alone until they find Baraka Center. Mary, an older woman who joined seven years ago, came to see me.  She reminded me that had learned to read at the Center.  Over recent years, she’d lost her husband and two children.  She stays with a sister who recently had back surgery, making Mary somewhat of a caretaker.  She told me feels alone and troubled – except when she’s at Baraka Center. She wept when I gave her the equivalent of $5 to afford regular matatu fares to keep coming to the Center.

A recent dearth of funding has severely limited BWC’s ability to fully deploy programs. A mere $2,900 would completely equip the entire vocational training program and the computer lab, which SO needs a new printer and at least three new computers. Lucky for us, a potential new partner has arrived.

I flew to Kisumu yesterday with Peter Ndier, Founder and Chairman of SOWO, an NGO with programs similar to those of Baraka Center.  Kisumu is a mid-sized town northwest of Nairobi on stunning Lake Victoria.  An open, human-scale country town much less frantic than Nairobi.  We visited SOWO’s projects in Kogelo and Siaya.  A soap-making enterprise branded LASH, for which the new county governor provided a pricey mixing machine. Nearby,  a tidy compound with  a large meeting room, an immaculate well-equipped office, two large classrooms, one for tailoring and one for hair and beauty skills training.  And a row of dukas (small shops) where women display and sell their crafts.

There we saw what Baraka Center aspires to be and could become – if not constrained by the realities of the big city, with its indifferent politicians and slum-lord property management style. A beautiful place of its own.

Susan Jane with Mama Sarah
Me with Jane K and Mama Sarah Obama in Siaya, Kenya

SOWO’s guiding light is Mama Sarah Obama, the 97-year-old matriarch of the clan that produced our former President.  Barak is her grandson.  Mama Sarah is a gracious lady with a ready sense of humor; she’s nurtured by extended family who reside in a peaceful compound with fruit trees and a half-dozen cows grazing the well-tended grounds. She charmed me.

SOWO is interested in partnering with WCI and BWC in creating more Women’s Centers in Kenya. (Our vision for some time now!) The exact mechanism is yet to be worked out, but a great opportunity has been presented.  We’ve also made new connections with USAID Kenya and UN Women.  BWC has three new well-connected members who are passionate about the mission.

On balance, my work here of reviewing and connecting has been a success – with much follow-up to be done. Wheels up in about  eight hours for the 20-hour flights home.

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Baraka SoS

How to convey the oeuvre of Nairobi? The fulminating heap of humans tumbling through their dusty days, industrious as army ants. NBO JamSpeed bumps and pedestrians crossings on freeways. Gridlocked traffic into town all day. I’ve developed an aversion to traveling anywhere in a vehicle, knowing that I will sit in the heat and exhaust for up to 45 minutes, no matter the ‘real’ time of a journey. So I walk a lot.

We are making steady progress in reviewing and refining all the systems at Baraka Women’s Center, as well as making new connections with potential funders. I am ever humbled by the power of relatively small amounts of money here. One woman to whom I gave the equivalent of ten dollars tearfully launched into a lengthy prayer of gratitude.  Baraka indeed gathers in the lost and the hopeless; the energy of inclusion in this community is a miracle to behold. To belong is to have new power, new hope, even joy. A safe gathering place matters, and that’s what the Center provides.

Yesterday, twenty-five women gathered to mark the seventh anniversary of the Center, as well as to celebrate the graduation of the vocational program trainees.  Our food offering was peanut butter sandwiches (would have been plain bread had I not brought peanut butter) and cake.

BWC Staff and trainers
BWC Staff and trainers

This and other daily events painfully remind me that I came mostly empty handed. No month can pass without an infusion of cash; BWC has not located its August infusion. Shifting BWC into ‘thrive’ mode takes money. It means reallocating  some of our wealth to women with the greatest needs, to those who can set things right in the long haul.

$10 transforms a woman’s life for a week.

Add zeros and the prospects for the sisterhood grow exponentially.

What will move you to contribute what you can?