Baraka Women’s Center Part 3

29 July 2018

I’m so humbled and inspired by the women who’ve told me that Baraka Women’s Center changed their lives. A teacher who volunteers to help women learn to read in write. A woman who was abused and missing her front teeth last time I saw her looks fresh and vital (all new teeth), has a successful business selling fruits, and helps women in the slums get government allowances to send their kids to school – and is on the BWC Board.  Women learning to manage money in group ventures.  A lady who started three businesses after her training at BWC.  An older woman who was in the Adult literacy

hair-and-beauty-group.jpg
Hair and Beauty Skills training group

Program and wants badly for it to start again. Old allies still help as best they can.  Never enough money for all that needs doing.  We’ve drawn up a budget for the next 17 months – through 2019.  Five major programs, four paid staff,  a passel of trainers, a bigger office (SO needed!). In Kenya Shilling it looks daunting:  8.3 million. But works out to US$83,000. Such vast and positive effects for a relatively small amount of money. Seems it should be out there and moving here pronto. You can also contribute to BWC through WCI’s website.

BWC’s new Board clearly has committed itself to rebuilding the Center to its former glory – and beyond.  They want to register BWC as an NGO to allow them to establish Centers all around Kenya. It’s a brilliant plan.  However, it will have to wait until BWC itself is financial stable with new staff on board. Fortunately, many of the right individuals have presented themselves.

Cultural notes

Walking  in something I enjoy  but maneuvering on busted-up concreted with ragged deep holes and the occasional protruding metal objects, in the midst of hundreds of harried people, enveloped in clouds of exhaust fumes, is not my idea of healthful exercise. On a previous trip, I mistook the energy for a kind of exuberance, but now I realize it’s a frantic response to an environment that is simply not worthy of human habitation.

IMG_3280.jpg
Lydia, Highridge Activist

Teresia escorted me to a couple of slums. She feels, and I agree, it’s necessary to understand where the members come from. The main thing that scares me about these raw poverty pits is that they continue to exist year after year without improvements. Lately, the government’s priorities appear to be displacing residents to build roads. The residents are fighting the move; at minimum, they want land to resettle.

On the street, I see solders toting AK47s, beggar children in filthy clothes, lurching, yowling drunks, people carrying heavy bundles on their backs or bicycles or battered hand-pulled carts. A new skyline with the tallest office building in Africa takes shape above them. Housing seems an afterthought.

Above:  some of the beautiful fashion accessories handcrafted by BWC’s members.  I have samples!  You can contact me directly – Susan@WomensCentersIntl.org –  about purchasing. BWC is building this business to support the livelihoods of many women.

Keep up to date on WCI’s work with Baraka Center and news Center sites HERE

Baraka Women’s Center Part 2

Continuing my journals from two-weeks at Baraka Center in Nairobi...

Sunday 22 July 2018

Most Kenyans go to church on Sunday. Not necessarily formal churches as we know them, but ‘pop-up’ gatherings in various halls.  The singing excites the soul.  I like to walk to get my bearings and often am accosted by children and young adults asking for money.  I do not respond when people call out to me ‘muzungu’, a term for anyone white. I did hear my first “madame muzungu” call-out. Gave me pause.

On this morning’s walk, I passed four boys, about 10-years old, two curled on the sidewalk and two huffing glue from plastic bottles. Their brains will be irretrievably destroyed in no time. I also passed two women with five young children sleeping on filthy cardboard on the sidewalk.  For women, I gladly offer enough shillings to get through the next bit of her hungry journey.  I stopped in a small park where men curled in sleep dotted the grassy areas. Lovely plantings of trees and shrubs whose names I need to look up; the park a small oasis except for scattered piles of human shit.

Much like Oakland’s city government, Nairobi’s is unable to contend with the problem of

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 7.23.28 PM
Highridge – Parklands slum, Nairobi

homelessness. Slums, both small and large, occupy bout 60% of the City. Efforts to build new (or restore deteriorating) apartment buildings that are affordable are about as rigorous as in the Bay Area – which is to say, largely absent.

Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with BWC’s new Board of Directors.  The options for programs are as vast and varied as our imaginations, but the goal is to get back the basic programs like Adult Education, Computer Training, Entrepreneur and Leadership Development. Underfunding cannot forever limit progress, no matter how instructive ‘scratching around’ might be. Life is way too short to worry every month about paying the bills.  Been there, done that – and it was in no way gratifying.  Surely there is enough money in the communities – both in the Bay Area and in Nairobi  –  to support this work for the most vulnerable women.

I met a few of the women who attended BWC’s earliest (2013) workshops on Entrepreneurship.  They’ve created successful small businesses that keep them housed

Lucy Nyambura, businesswoman
Lucy Nyambura, businesswoman, former trainee at Baraka Women’s Center

and fed. Teresia buys from them whenever she needs certain supplies,  and supports some enormously talented bead craftswomen through displays at craft exhibitions. (More on this in the next post.)

Some of the young women in the Hair and Beauty Skills Training cannot read or write. Some shelter in a local church that provides cardboard mats on the floor for sleeping. They are always ready to eat at the Center. Mostly PB&J and milk tea.

In terms of WCI’s big picture, I’m working on a way to integrate the Women’s Centers Model into humanitarian response to refugee crises. Oddly, ‘gender equity’ is still merely part of the humanitarian agenda, and not yet integral – as it must become.

Monday 23 July 2018

BWC Board group

BWC’s new seven-member Board of Directors met today. I’m impressed by their can-do attitude. They bring enormous creativity to networking for the funding BWC deserves.

Photo from left: BWC Board members Teresia Waikuru, Shelmith Njeri, Wanjiru Ngigi, Beatrice Ongoto, Grace Wangari, Peris Wanjiru, Emily Kiboi

Tuesday 24 July 2018

For the first time in my work in Africa, I visit a hospital devoted to mental illness. Mathare Hospital, a large campus bordering on Mathare slum is, I’m told, the largest such hospital in Africa.  Many single-story units sprawl among islands of lawn and trees.  The unit Teresia took me to was for women. Stepping through an iron gate, I am accosted by at least a dozen women, offering to shake my hand, asking me my name. They seem like starved creatures eager for a new experience. Evidently a mzungu will do. Large signs forbid photo-taking on the grounds; I offer the link below to provide some idea of the neighboring slum.

http://www.africanslumjournal.com/tag/mathare/

We came to see a 42-year-old woman Teresia had brought in two weeks earlier after a call for assistance from a local chief. Seems she was shouting and creating a distrubance for a long time. Evidently she’d reached the break point. Not surprising given that she’d been serially raped, had no family, and was separated from a young son born of one of the rapes.

At the sight of Teresia, she fell into her arms, sobbing.  A number of patients gathered to greet us, inquiring about my name and wanting to hold my hand long after the handshake greeting. I saw restless women milling about, aimless. One sat on the ground, unmoving from what looked to be a painful position.  Another sat weeping loudly nearby.   We were escorted to a small office through which staff and patients freely roamed. The staff make notes in large yellow files; no computers in evidence. A large hand-written sign on a wall describes the processes of admission and assessment.  Mental health issues still carry much stigma in Kenya, shrouded often in elements of witchcraft.  The patient we’d come to see would be released later in the week, but that got complicated when the doctor in charge did not show.

A flock  of patients escorted our departure through a locked gate.  Some were rubbing my hand as if for good luck. Teresia opined that some of them might believe a muzungu has such power.  I felt their inquisitive touch on my hair and sleeves. I’m sure their stories would make me weep.

Part 3 Coming Soon

Visiting Baraka Women’s Center Part 1

July 18

Arrived in Nairobi via Rome and Doha. About 11,000 air miles and 10 time zones. I should be recovered from jet lag a few days before I return to the Bay.

Baraka Women’s Center is organizing a 6th Anniversary fundraiser following a week-long fundraising workshop with Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF).  A new Board has been selected to work on this event and others related to fortifying and expanding BWC’s work.

BWC Temporary office Ngara
BWC office

I’m spending most of my time with Teresia Waikuru, Baraka Center’s Manager.  The Center has moved a couple of times since early 2016 when a strange ‘coup’ was organized by the first Center Manager in concert with formerly trusted colleagues, to undercut Teresia’s authority. Despite numerous betrayals and weird intrigues, she prevailed in her vision for the Center.  Currently it’s on the lower level of a commercial building in Ngara, one of the poor neighborhoods near Nairobi City Center. The Center is a single room about 12×15 feet. Space for a desk, file cabinet, supplies, and an area dedicated to a vocational program teaching women hair styling and related salon skills.  Poor lighting from two weak tubes on the ceiling. Unlike an earlier site in Pangani, seriously too small. Put 20 people in it, and you’ve got no room to move.  The search is on for a bigger space – and money to support expanded operations.

As with Oakland Center, eating is a regular group activity, but not nearly as elaborate.  Today’s lunch was spiced rice with bits of meat.  Some days it’s PB&J. Heavy carbs to fuel up. And always milk tea.

View out front door of Center
View from the entrance to Baraka Women’s Center

Most non-Kenyans drive or are driven where ever they go. I walk to the Center from a little hotel about a half-mile away. People stare at me curiously and a few offer friendly greetings. I’m beginning to get my bearings; my last visit here was three years ago. The equivalent of 2 cents will get you a bus or matatu ride downtown. Matatus are basic passenger vans seating 15-17 people.  Some are tricked up with slogans and art.  Too many have aggressively loud music.

Inside a Nairobi bus; the wide screen TV is something new.

Weather is much like the Bay Area’s this past May:  cool, cloudy days in the 70s, maybe a splash of sun in late afternoon. The long rains are couple of months away. The Great Migration has started in the Masaai Mara.

Busted-up sidewalks splattered with trash are the norm in Ngara.  The main street in this neighborhood is  lined with second-hand clothing and shoe dealers. Some hawkers sell slices of pineapple or roasted corn on the cob.  A whole block of fabric stores, mostly run by Indians, many here for generations.

I’m so proud of how Teresia and a few key allies (including two devoted sons, Christopher and Alexander)  have nurtured and expanded the Baraka Center vision against big odds.

Shelmi, teckla, Adrianna, Me and Teresia
Shelmith Njeri (BWC Board member), Teckla Onyach (former BWC staff member, now teaching tailoring), Adrianna (Teckla’s amazing daughter), Susan Burgess-Lent, (WCI), and Teresia Waikuru (BarakaCenter Manager and Board Secretary)

Part 2 coming soon.

Title X – Looming evisceration of women’s body rights

Title X, enacted in1970, is the only federal program specifically dedicated to supporting the delivery of family planning care.

Administered by the HHS Office of Population Affairs (OPA), and funded at $260 million for Fiscal Year 2019, the program serves over 4 million low-income, uninsured, and underserved clients.

Nearly 4,000 clinics nationwide received Title X funding in 2016, including specialized family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood centers, community health centers, state health departments, as well as school-based, faith-based, and other nonprofit organizations.

The Trump Administration has issued new proposed regulations for the federal Title X family planning program that would make significant changes to the program and to the types of providers that qualify for funding. These proposed regulations would:

  • Block the availability of federal funds to family planning providers like Planned Parenthood that also o er abortion services;
  • Curtail counseling and referrals to abortion services by Title X funded providers;
  • Eliminate current requirements that Title X sites o er a broad range of medically approved family planning methods and non-directive pregnancy options counseling that includes information about prenatal care/delivery, adoption, and abortion; and
  • Direct new funds to faith-based and other organizations that promote fertility awareness and abstinence as methods of family planning.
  • Sites that do not o er abortion services may still qualify for Title X funds, but may decide not to participate because of concerns about clinical standards of care, medical liability, and burdensome administrative requirements.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 5.16.31 PMIf fully implemented, the proposed changes to Title X would shrink the network of participating providers and have major repercussions for low-income women across the country that rely on them for their family planning care.

Find more details at https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/issue-brief/proposed-changes-to-title-x-implications-for-women-and-family-planning-providers/

A Moveable Life

Written in 2009   

When my daughter left home for college, she asked me to promise not to move anywhere for at least a year so she could come “home” if needed.  I was willing to make this commitment, knowing that at the end of it, I would be ready for the move I had been dreaming of for several years.  I wanted to live and work in Africa.

With her departure, the minutia of parenting evaporated. I no longer kept to a meal schedule, or did laundry every other day, or needed to monitor her comings and goings.  This was both a liberation and a great loss.  I cherished having her around, with her friends dropping by, listening to and/or spectating the dramas of teenage life and loves.  No one could excoriate an errant boyfriend with more vitality than her friends, a loyal group of talented, funny young women. Our home was a haven for that energy.

dusty trail
Traveling in Darfur 2009

I filled the empty space with work that fed my passion. For four years, I’d been riveted by the escalating chaos in Sudan. As the genocide in Darfur shifted into gear, I sought ways to replace my outrage with meaningful action.  I could not tolerate the unanswered brutality, kept pinching myself that, in spite of all the “never agains”, a full-blown premeditated mass slaughter was happening on my ‘watch.’  To be a conscious adult in such a time meant having to do whatever it took to make the killing stop.  I grieve that it does not, but I don’t give up.

The reason that many people don’t change their lives when “hole in the fence” presents is that takes a concerted work to jettison the accumulated trappings of adult life. We’d managed to buy a house. I finally had a collection of decent furnishing that didn’t previously belong to someone else. I’ve saved my daughter’s artwork and baby clothes, the sports gear, the miscellaneous tools and home-care devices, the photos, books, CDs , the files of tax returns and once-important documents, and all that weird stuff you save to  cleverly craft into some artistic statement … one day. In the end, it’s mostly baggage that sucks you in place like uber-gravity.

Fairness and justice seemed to have lost ground on our watch in our global village, and we still don’t have a clear line on what the hell we’re doing here. When the irrationality of it begins to weigh you down, get yourself promptly into something you consider important. You can transform the world one life at a time – and that’s really the best most of us can hope for.

What do you carry forward?

Turn off the TV.  Its purpose is to distribute anxiety.  Make your own news.

Never lose  the capacity for outrage, but learn how to channel it productively.

What do you need?

To linger

To laugh

To give – mentoring, resources, service, the wisdom of experience – at any age.

It takes a lot of persistance to make a ripple of change, and you might not live long enough to enjoy the eventual wave. But life is short and you’ve gotta get to it.