Category Archives: WCI

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 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.

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 – –  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.

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.


Strange to wake up in nearly complete disconnect from people, habits, my usual work.  I had forgotten what it’s like to feel rested. I’m lonely but, to a large extent, cannot bear the company of others. The reset process is terrifying that way. Becoming untethered, bumping about to find the new and right tie-downs to anchor a rebooted vision.

I had high hopes that 2018 would be less ass-whoopin’ than 2017.  It has, so far, just extended the ‘proving ground’ of my life.

The recent months of turbulence of my daughter’s life – the loss her beloved dog, a move to a new home – certainly roiled my soul.  My husband spent a month seriously ill with pneumonia and a month recovering. Concurrently, the loss of Oakland Women’s Center.  Four years of work – good and productive efforts – could not survive what the brilliant singer Jessica La Rel referred to in an intro to her song All We Could Do (I paraphrase here):  a scary unwillingness of people to step up to work that needs doing and is bigger than just them.

No pressure.  No diamonds.

Scarlet Ibis, symbol of transformation

One thing I’m sure of:  a Women’s Center has the most enthusiastic uptake where women have no reliable backstop or support: military conflict zones, slums, and refugee camps.  Parts of most major cities are ‘war zones’ for the disenfranchised, but city governments tend to lack incentive to rally/deliver support for the community-restoring power of women.  Baraka Women’s Center in Nairobi has made good headway over the past five years, but could be so much stronger with reliable funding.

I believe that women generally are unaware of – or incredibly soft-spoken about – their egregiously compromised ‘position’ in the world.  Witness enduring pay inequity, inferior health care delivery – especially mental health services, and pervasive violence against females of all ages – to name just of few of the fixable injustices of millennia–old, swallowed-whole patriarchal values.

I have enduring faith in the efficacy of the Women’s Center Model to help build restorative power bases for women.

I need more and stronger allies to help refine and expand and fund Women’s Centers.


Women’s Issues – Show Us the Money

“Women’s issues” are not a priority. This is the subtext of polite rejection letters from foundations and philanthropists – when they bother to respond.  My experience is not unique.

The Women’s Philanthropic Institute found that between 2000 and 2014, 1,226 gifts worth $6.22 billion were directed specifically to Women’s and Girls’ Issues (W&GI). The figure represents just 1.6 percent of all gifts included in the data.  From another perspective, women’s funds and foundations have estimated that only 5- 7% of all foundation giving is directed specifically to W&GI.  in most data, W&GI are not even a category.

This range of giving – between 1.6% and 7% of all charitable giving – is indeed a sad commentary on the disconnect between donors and the needs of women and girls.

In the five years since I founded Women’s Centers International, I’ve written over 100 proposals for funding for support of WCI’s two Centers, as well as for further expansion of the Center network. Admittedly, the early stuff was less than tight; I thrashed around looking for the right words to distill what is a wildly urgent mission:  provide key resources to women trapped on the margins – at or below poverty level. The range of soul-damaging needs among them is breathtaking Theirs are twisted, overlaid wounds – with all the vulnerabilities – of homelessness or inadequate housing, poor heath, lack of education, egregious abuse (often in childhood), rape, and/or domestic violence.

I see women desperate for safe, personal help. I see women who can heal from a LOT of damage.homelessness011515-600x450

Here’s an analogy:

To fish, water is environment, invisible even when toxic.

For over two millennia women’s ‘less-than’ status has been our global psychological environment – largely invisible, even when discussed. But the facts don’t go away.

Women with 'please stop' on hand     Women are the targets of epidemic levels of violence  – with no apparent brake in sight.

Access to competent health services for women declines precipitously with income. Most conditions are preventable with more culturally responsive, woman-informed providers. Health risks are highest among women of color, generally also least able to afford the best care.

Almost two-thirds of all illiterate adults globally are women. (At Oakland Center, about 24% of the members have made it only as far as high school.)

Women still earn about 79% of men in similar jobs. That disparity widens for women of color who, if the trend continues, will not see pay equity for over 200 years.

Women are so resilient it’s killing us.

Here, the analogy between fish and human environments ends. A fish out of water dies. A woman rising out of her second-class status is a force to be reckoned with.

How do we improve the environment so this can happen? We nurture strong, self-possessed women who work together and support each other.

Women’s Centers International creates environments that enable this ‘rising up.” Ultimately, a critical mass of women imbued with the power self-worth and sisterhood transforms communities to reflect women’s priorities.

Listen to one week of news about the unremitting horrors that men’s brutality and greed inflict on women and children, and you’ll grasp how urgent this mission is.

Now we women have to stand up and tell men: “Take a seat, we’ve got this.  Time for you to move aside and let women drive the ship until we set things right.”  Even a slightly conscious male would have to admit men really have messed up the planet. Women are inherently better at urgent tasks at hand: healing and restoring a damaged humanity. We have to re-balance gender privilege, and we’ve got no time to waste.

Back to raising money to do the job.

Foundations generally are slow to make decisions about grants.  Six to eight months is not uncommon. Few are emphatically women-oriented, and those that claim to be seem slow to embrace innovative services to women on the scale that’s required.

I’m looking for people who will act decisively and give big.  Probably you are women.

Women are more consistent and generous in their giving than men. Surveys show we often find motivation for generosity in our personal experiences (like rape, abuse, harassment, inequitable pay). We believe funding woman-focused initiatives leads to progress for society.  Women Moving Millions co-chair Jacqueline Zehner puts a finer point on it: women donors hold the key to unlocking the potential of women and girl around the world.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I live and work, is one of the wealthiest urban areas in the U.S.  It ranks 45th in charitable giving among major U.S. Cities. My fundraising struggles unfortunately bear this out.

Black and white groups siting

I want to engage with women, individually or in groups, willing to refute the lack of social commitment that ranking represents.  Not to bolster ‘local pride’ – but to engage in generating sea change in the lives of women.

It surely deserves serious money.  Let’s talk.