Category Archives: Who Does She Think She Is?

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.

Support Women’s Centers International!

 

Trouble Ahead, the Movement Behind

I have it from a number of reliable sources: Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Missions with Desperate People is a fascinating read.

I’m a fairly harsh judge of my own work, but I’m proud of this book because it’s so … different.  How many people do you  know who’ve worked in Darfur during the genocide,  visited a half-dozen slums in Nairobi, Kenya, and braved the incendiary politics of Oakland CA, to bring safety and respite and tools to women excluded from the wealth of their communities.  This is the history of Women’s Centers International and the Women’s Centers Movement –– living, breathing stories of unusual and compelling people and events.

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Buy HERE. I’ll love you best if you leave a review.

The work is not a ‘noble’ undertaking or a ’cause’.  It is necessary initiative. How long will you hesitate to jump in bringing on the full power of women who’ve been excluded?

We’re certain of this path, but we need more allies:  Board members and, as always, donations – preferably with at least three zeros following the first digit(s).

The work cost money; it’s time we respond with our wallets to the reality that women are assets requiring investment. And so are we.  Support WCI today.

Trouble Ahead – My New Book

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Amazing, the response I’m getting to my new book Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Mission with Desperate People.

One colleague said he picked it up and never stopped reading. I do like to tell a good story.

This book was one of the most demanding writing projects I’ve done. I’m proud of all I’ve accomplished in my many missions in Africa, with the tools I could marshal at the time. Of Particular note is the wonderful vibrancy of Baraka Women’s Center, the first Center WCI created in Nairobi, Kenya, and worth every trip it required.

Read my book! 25% of sales support the important work of Women’s Centers International. And please review on my book site.  Every good word helps!

Baffling sights, aural delights, and notable encounters of 2018

Navigating life is a daunting challenge most of the time, to say nothing of the considerable regular effort required to behave like a competent, contributory human being.

I do not have a television, having abandoned the device and the medium ten years ago in an effort to firewall my thinking, to improve my experience of a day.  Avoiding the mawkish, trite, corporate free-for-all of advertising relieves me of some anxiety.  If I feel a need to escape, I watch movies without commercials.

Without the clutter of factoids about shootings and disasters, money- or sex-related scandals, political embarrassments and rumors delivered by TV news, which is sandwiched among depressingly un-nuanced dramatic shows and unfunny comedies, I’m able, on more occasions, to be more attuned to observing and listening to the lives and life around me. It’s never boring.

Oakland, California where I live:

Plagued by a volatile racial divide. Some days it cools and softens with the balm of open relaxed conversations or random acts of humanity.

Too many people wandering across busy streets against the light and with no fear.  Suicide by random passer-by.  John George, the psychiatric facility where adults experiencing severe and disabling mental illnesses may commit themselves or be committed, has patients sleeping on mats on the floor in a dorm, unsheltered from each other, medicated but unhealed.

The upcoming Women’s March, spending an obscene amount of money on an events that is unlikely to produce any timely or tangible assistance to swelling ranks of women on the margins of our community,  where domestic violence shelters are always full, too many women have not completed high school, do not know how to use computers, and virtually stagger through their days under the burden of traumas rooted in their poverty.

The City’s infested with the cheap scooters that expose riders without helmets to head injuries and pedestrians without warning to vehicular assault.

The losing battle in West Oakland against graffiti and random trash piles. Not much sense that this is a neighborhood worth valuing. We need to change that.

On the plus side:

white unbrella fungi on tree CU
photo by David Lent

The Yuba River still flows with enormous power; a hike in the forest in the riot of furry mosses and spritely fungi and elegant ferns and nude oaks that have lain down rugged brown carpets on ochre clay – that resets a weary soul.

Women’s issues steadily are gaining traction in the public conversation, suggesting more action to correct the inequities and predations on women that are inherent in our society.

 

I’ve discovered the amazing music of Jessica La Rel  http://www.jessicalarel.com/  

ODI Dance Kenya   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqmIT3dVQyY   

Sol Development   http://soldevelopmentmusic.com/

JAX (Haiti)   https://www.facebook.com/pg/jaxmusic4/about/

WCI and I survived and rebooted after soul-busting betrayals by trusted women.  New strong allies are arriving with reassuring regularity.

Several extraordinary women I know through Oakland Women’s Center have become wonderful friends.  I cherish my connection with them. Black and white women have more than they usually realize to offer each other.

My next book is coming out in January:  Trouble Ahead:  Dangerous Missions with Desperate People

3D-coverIt’s a compilation of journals – commentary from my numerous missions in East Africa and the birth stories of Women’s Centers International.

Publication announcement to come.

After the holiday slack-off, I’ll be ready again to advance WCI in serving the women who need it most.

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.