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

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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.

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.