6 Jul

Yesterday my friend Gigi and I refused to pay the fare on the bus, as the driver had ignored our repeated requests to reduce the volume of the deafening music.

That threat quickly led to changed behaviour. The volume came down and finally we could communicate verbally with the conductor: “Will you pay our hospital bill and hearing aids when we need one?”

My friend told the crowd: “Now you think the loud music is cool and I’m a crazy woman. But in ten years you’ll be deaf and remember me!” She further explained to the other passengers what influence loud music has on the human ear, especially when exposed at a young age.

I couldn’t tell whether the mothers on the bus holding infants were listening or understanding. Certainly the adolescent males on the bus laughed it off.

Low information of issues affecting health in the general public.
It’s the same issue with cars driving directly behind lorries and their passengers inhaling all the unfiltered Diesel smoke for several minutes before overtaking. Similar to cabbages being stored on the muddy road side, where village sewage flows.

Learned helplessness frustrates me so much: This is not an earthquake or flood which can only be controlled through action on a macro level. These are the actions of human beings right in front of our eyes. We HAVE influence on them.

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Help – What to say when islamphobic statements are thrown around?

19 Dec

It was at a barbecue in Nairobi’s posher neighbourhoods that I lost it.
We talked about the proposed security bill, actions of Police and Defence Forces and how Kenyans may never hear the truth about events like Westgate and killings of Muslim clerics if not for courageous investigative journalists.

Then, as if she intended to bring the conversation to a good end, the lady in her late 20s next to me says that “not all Muslims are bad”.

After weeks of feeling angry and helpless, I exploded.

“Would we ever even consider saying that not all Christians are bad? We know that Christian extrimists are funding an aggressive and dangerous anti-gay and anti-contraception movement.
Would the words ‘not all Americans are bad’ even pop up in our heads even after the recent CIA-report and Guantanamo?”

She weakly defends the anti-gay movement as less deadly and more convicted says that “we humans believe what our leaders tell us” and that it’s a “problem of the majority being uneducated”.

I tell her that I have little respect for giving up responsibility for our actions, for generalizations and for self-defeating language.
I ask her why not more people go to mosques to ask questions or if that’s scary to just google “what does the quran say”.

I can’t quite grasp this is happening in a country, a continent, where both religions where brought in from outside and have lived side by side for over 100 years.

She says “people” like short-cuts.

I feel like telling her about my Muslim friends, how bright, funny, hospitable they are. How some of them take their religion more and others less serious. How my Shia and Sunni colleagues got along extremely well despite millions of victims in related conflicts. How Somali-Kenyan youth are turning against the FGM practice. How the vast majority of those affected by “Muslim” extrimism are Muslims.
But I don’t. I feel alienated.

I’m still angry and helpless.
I’m looking for ways to make a difference.

The gift of health

27 Nov

In the coastal region of Kenya I shared a (public transport) motorbike with a stranger this morning. It’s not just physically intimate to do that (at high speed) but in these brief conversations any topic can be discussed – between strangers.

(The gentlemen are conversing in Swahili, where it sounds more simple and poetic at the same time.)

Driver asks the other passenger: “What were you doing there?” – “I was trying to offer my services!” – “Oh you are in business. How is it going (/flowing)?” – “We thank God for giving us health.” – “Yes, we are blessed” – “If you have health it’s better than to have a lot of money”

Off he jumps and dashes to his bus.

I thought the exchange serves as a great reminder.
For most of us who read this (= internet users) our key resources which will run low or dry one day are our time and efforts.

Let’s invest them to truly fulfil the potential we were given.
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Weekend wisdom

14 Sep

This has been a weekend full of reflection, as I’m about to wrap up my third year in London and preparing for a few months on the move between Kenya, Brazil, India and Europe.

I wrote down three of my insights.

We’re only in transit in this life and to seize our opportunities, we should travel light. In conversations I’m realizing how blessed I am: My roots are strong and my wings even more so.

Call it prayer, the law of attraction, looking ahead with fresh eyes, but when you’re honest about what you want in life, most likely life is going to give it to you.
It’s okay to ease my self-protection and to courageously let go, the eyes on horizon, walking in faith.

Patience with myself led to increased patience for others.
You’ve got to allow others to develop at their own speed. I commit to opening safe space for those close to me. I commit to improving my sense for others. I commit to allow others their own learning experience.
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Dartmoor get-away

31 Aug

I spent a few days in the South West of England, in Devonshire. Just me, my bike and my rain jacket 😉

Very recommended in this area: The book ’50 Hikes across Devon’, a lunch at the Warren House Inn, the Youth Hostel in Bellever (great fireplace and no mobile phone coverage!).

The cost of secondary ed in Kenya

3 Aug

Last week I wrote a blog post about child poverty in urban Kenya, my observations from years of community engagement in Mukuru and a few suggestions on what can be done. I got great responses on the text, thanks everyone! Keep spreading the link and sending me your comments.

In this post I want to dive deeper into the cost of providing a child with secondary education. The aim is to inform all who are interested and to document my experience for those planning to start this rewarding endeavour.

I’m going to show how incredibly expensive it is and how the current system affects especially vulnerable children (which I defined in the former post). Most of this will feel informative to foreigners and will sound familiar to Kenyans. Often though even locals are surprised at the cost and awful logistics around Secondary Education.

At the bottom of this post I’ll break down how providing a child with simple secondary education and extremely basic nutrition and clothing easily costs over 1000 USD (100,000 KES) per year (using 2014 data).

  • Short-notice admission – Now how it works is that you get the admission letter from the Secondary School only mid January and the deadline for payment is around 10 days later. For vulnerable children in specific, this is challenging, as most donors and sponsors (local or international) will only start considering to support a child after seeing the letters.
  • Distance – Cost of schooling in Nairobi is very high and the chances of being admitted to Nairobi day schools are lower, too. When submitting the list of schools they’d prefer to attend, our children therefore tick boarding schools in the rural areas. So most of our children attend schools between 4-10 hours travel away from Nairobi. I believe the emotional impact is high. Having lost parents and guardians when young and now deciding to live away from friends and trusted teachers who effectively brought up the child. Financially speaking this means they have to travel six times a year (after every of the 3 terms and in the half-term breaks). It also means that to attend the annual ‘parents day’ our volunteers incur costs, too.
  • Transport costs – Gas prices tend to go up and down around high travel seasons in Europe, too. We all know this is an effect of the local market, not the global oil price. In Kenya traditionally around the christmas season the bus tickets get more expensive and this “tradition” has now extended to the opening and closing dates of schools. Since night bus travel has been outlawed in Kenya, the prices have again increased.
  • Inflation – When our first two kids were admitted to secondary schools in 2011, their fees were around 300 Euros annually each. Of course, there were additional costs of buying a school uniform and other items. Now fees have nearly doubled, also owing to increase in food costs and teachers salaries. While this is a natural turn of things, it doesn’t help low-income parents or guardians to send their children to school.
  • In-transparent fees – Some schools’ fee breakdown includes things like “bus maintenance fee”, “holiday tuition”, “award money”. Rarely accountability is provided; we have yet to see a bus, any holiday tuition or the impact of an award.
  • Additional expenses – The food provided in the schools is really basic and children are expected to carry some pocket money to pimp their meals (e.g. buy sugar locally for example for breakfast tea). You’ll also want to think of renewing clothing, getting additional books to support practice etc.

Secondary School Sponsorship Cost Breakdown

This picture shows an approximate breakdown of costs for a child to start in 2015, quoted in Kenyan Shilling.

Every year in Upendo, we have at least 10 graduates who have good enough grades to attend Secondary School. We have been able to find sponsors for 2-3 graduates in the last 4 years.

Please get in touch if you would like to help in 2015! The costs are high but the outcome very rewarding. You can mobilize family, friends or colleagues to cater for a child together.

And what happens to the others” you may ask. Every year we also have a couple of graduates, who are talented in working with crafts and have interests in learning tailoring, carpentry or other vocational skills. For example two girls started a 3-year tailoring course with an organization. If you would like to find out how to support our graduates in learning these skills and starting up a small business, we’re interested in exploring this with you!

Important tips for anyone thinking of sponsoring a child through your own effort (not through us I mean):

  • Don’t do it without knowing the child or believing you have understood his or her situation enough to willingly give. A four-year commitment is ideal for the child. Spend at least one day with the child, visit their home, talk to the family, neighbours, teachers to cross-verify the basic information. If you are planning to be a “light touch sponsor”, you will need a trusted relationship with the close guardians. They will visit the child for parents day, they will discuss with the teachers and school nurses, the child will know them much more than she/he will know you.
  • If you are very short of time, you can take a short-cut by talking to established institutions, like international NGOs or church-run schools (NOT private schools run by so-called pastors!) to point out children and families to you. Insider knowledge comes through trust. And trust is earned – often over time! Also remember that they might worry you could be unreliable or have second thoughts regarding the children under their care.
  • Accountability issues. Often, numbers will change in the course of the year, the child might have a sickness which needs costly medication, suddenly a certain fee pops up that wasn’t discussed before. Always use your common sense, ask for written proof, ask for references and actually talk to them. Ask for photos and letters from the child, the scanned report card. If you’re abroad, get them verified from a third party on the ground.

 

Feelings and lessons after 6 years with Nairobi orphans

27 Jul

Since 2008 I have been a member at a community-based school in Mukuru, a Nairobi slum and since 2010 I have gotten engaged in the processes evolving around the “Kenya Certificate of Primary Education” and around sending children to Secondary Schools in Kenya.

In fantastic collaboration with other community members we have been able to send 10 very bright orphans to Secondary Schools. Speaking numbers, it means that alongside other international fundraisers I have channeled over 9,000 Euros into the lives of Kenyan underprivileged kids to allow them to pursue secondary education.

I have felt humbled, rewarded, grateful, relieved, proud, worried, terrified, sad and many many more feelings. The secret to success? Hard work, believing in the impossible, getting out of the comfort zone and consistent communication with stakeholders involved.

In a second post I will share about the cost of sending kids to school in Kenya, but in this one I want to share a few things I have learnt along the journey.

The list of challenges related to urban poverty is never-ending

If you have visited a house in the slum before and talked to a few families there, you will know:Mukuru street

  • People in slums spend a lot of time on cleaning, preparing, networking and organizing their daily lives. Because finances are scarce, because the weather determines your life and health a lot and simply because water and electricity are disrupted regularly.
  • Slum houses are unsafe housing, which are easily broken into at night. Being robbed is always harsh, but imagine it was all your money; or that you saved for a health event; or it was borrowed at 30% interest rate. Slums also burn down easily in case of fire accidents.
  • If you made it to urban Kenya, you rarely tell your family back in the rural areas, that life in the slums sucks. And if you do, they might not believe it. They will ask for money during holiday visits, so some people cut ties or visit on fewer occasions. This in turn makes it less likely to one day return home and the aim “to make it in Nairobi” grows (while the odds don’t necessarily).
  • Health care is hardly affordable. Some NGOs are bringing relief regarding maternal care, malaria and HIV/AIDS related ailments, but you have to know where to look for them and how to qualify for support. Which comes back to bullet point number 1.
  • 30 shillings mean all the difference when providing dinner for a family. That is why there is a lot walking involved.

Now let’s imagine, you are a “vulnerable child”, meaning you could have a poor single parent, you could be an orphan, you could be living on the street or you could have violent or substance-addicted parents/guardians. This adds a few items to your list

  • If you don’t have a birth certificate, you will find it impossible to register for KCPE. While you don’t even know what that means, nobody around you will know how to solve this.
  • You will need a place to pee, sleep, eat and you will believe many things you are told in order to find such a place.
  • You will easily catch throat and ear infections, colds and worms. You will diarrhea often and catch malaria more easily than kids in middle-class homes.
  • You have seen and heard adults around you having sex since youb can remember, those who are married and those who are not. Most likely you have seen still-born babies and know a few things about home-abortions.
  • Once you turn 12-ish you will find that the mattress which you shared with 3 or 5 other children is too small now. You will find that the neighbour or aunt who hosted you becomes more impatient with you and that the food portions are never enough.
  • You will have lost at least one close relative in the last two years, either due to a disease, crime or a traffic accident.
  • You have never reflected on religion critically. You have been to the city center once or twice and never to the National Museum. Obviously you have seen pictures of the Massai Mara but you don’t know anybody who’s gone there.

These are the type of things I’ve learnt from conversations with children, youth and adults. What I can’t imagine is what this does to children, youth, humans. Or a nation.

Many middle-class Kenyans are concerned and often too busy to get involved

Whatever the exact numbers, let’s assume Nairobi has 60% odd percent of the population living in slums.

Many of my friends are educated, concerned Kenyans between 25 and 35. They too are disgusted with the greed of the elite. They understand the cycle of poverty and crime. They don’t buy the shady covering up of land issues and tribalism through the political elite. Many have joined me (or other NGOs) in the slums for visits, volunteering and donated clothes or food. c

They challenge their own assumptions, connect to their humanity and take heart to do what is needed.

But very few regularly engage with their neighbours in the ghetto. Very few build relations with leaders in the slums. When slums burn down, few come with food and clothes and help rebuild homes.

Understandably. Many are busy building their own lives, doing a second degree, starting a side business, hustling to buy a car to get out of the (cough cough) public transport system, the eyes to the horizon. On weekends you take care of your spiritual, emotional and health needs after a tough week: collapsing on the couch, playing with the kids, partying all night, going to church, everyone has a conscious or unconscious coping strategy.

80% of Kenya’s population is systematically excluded from participation – stunning! I believe it will bite us in the back. How will an elite (even if it wants to) find solutions to transport crisis, security, housing and health, truly disruptive education approaches which work for all? How will we build an inclusive society if we aren’t aware of just how exclusive we currently are?

What is needed is creating platforms for conversations and connections between these two groups of the population, between poor and (aspiring) middle-class. Our futures relies on each other, but we don’t talk. We have the same aspirations and the same fears, but we don’t even know each other.

Ubuntu in urban Kenya? Sometimes ni ngumu kuipata.

Education needs an overhaul

Of course it is not proven that going to Secondary School will allow poor Kenyan kids to escapea poverty. The opposite might be true. It might teach them to repeat instead of think; or sit instead of run; or shut up when they have an idea or question. It might as well lead them to university, a National science competition or let them create friends across tribes and classes.

Maybe it’s more effective in terms of livelihood creation to use the same money to teach them to start businesses and give them seed capital. I am more than happy to engage in conversations and activities around this!

What I do believe though, is that children under 18 don’t belong on the street and below-16s don’t belong in jobs. They need boundaries and learn how to navigate them while growing up. They need opportunity to discuss ethics, politics, religion and history. They deserve something as close to a loving home as possible. It’s their right to be protected from teenage pregnancy, drugs and disease.

And if the best current tool to do this is Kenya’s Secondary School System, it’s easy to see: Our job is just starting.

It takes a village to raise a child

This is a fantastic African saying, which I came to understand much more now. Over the last four years I have witnessed generous contributions from “across the village” of our children:

Community members of Mukuru who find family members in the rural areas to take in the secondary pupils for half-term break to save bus fare. Neighbours who send children to our center, having witnessed abuse through guardians. Upendo voluntary staff dedicating nights and weekends, heck, their lives, to raising these children. Kenyans coming in to play with the kids and to donate food. Sponsors in Germany and other countries, who just because they know me have agreed to spend hundreds of Euros per year on an unknown child. Boarding school nurses who avail their phones to call home when the kid feels the need to talk. Head teachers who allow fees to come in a week late.

These are the types of actions that we need to see more. A spontaneous donation, giving someone a ride, asking for the story behind the face, offering your ears, greeting a stranger, taking time to make a new friend, connecting to our human side.

If somebody asks me (and it definitely happens a lot!) whether I have children, I now answer “Of course!” and start showing pictures on my phone. And I feel proud to, in my own small way, help create connections, hope and awareness. And to contribute to the next generation, without being a biological mother.