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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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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.

Celine Dion on the Underground

8 May

These terrible commutes.
Twenty six minutes in an underground train flying through tunnels but the only entertainment is pregnacare and mortgage ads.
The only?

Don’t think I can’t feel that there’s something wrong.

Opposite the black guy with his hair in lines and shoulder long braids. Tired face and eyes jumping around the floor. Returns my gaze first briefly then more steadily.

You’ve been the sweatest part of my life for so long. I look in your eyes, there’s a distant light.

Over there a mid-aged English guy with round glasses and a golden ring on the pinkie finger. Black long trench coat and somehow uneasy in his seat.

You and I know there’ll be a storm tonight.

And this Robbie Williams type of guy with headphones is sitting right next to the door. He’s very upright in his seat and ready to jump up and out.

Baby, this is getting serious. Are you thinking about you or us?

Holding the rolled up free newspaper with his one hand and controls two suitcases with the other. A traveler, randomly shaking his head and staring towards the dark window.

Don’t say what you’re about to say. Look back before you leave my life.

Now getting on is a black old professor type with a checked blazer and a briefcase. Two litres of juice in a shopping bag, pictures of mango and pineapple shining through the white plastic. Silver curly hair above the ears, closed eyes.

Be sure before you close that door. Baby think twice. For the sake of our love, for the memory.

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Skewed memories

11 Apr

Isn’t it strange what happens when you go back to a place you visited in your childhood?

Everything seems bigger in memory than to your mature eye today.

It’s much less of a movie scenery but much more of a processed reality.

Walking on a pebble beach was more fun, now it feels more of a muscle workout.

Reminder to self: Memories are just where you laid them. Don’t stop creating new ones!

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19,000,000,000$ for a bit of personal data

20 Feb

My Whatsapp chats range from “Stuck in traffic, give me 5” through funny pics to pillow talk. I just found out they’re worth around 100 USD to someone.

You could call it a massive exit for a young entrepreneur or FB trying to eliminate the competition.

Yes, we are aware that Whatsapp was never a safe bet to use (after all I give them permission to read my SMS, my pictures and full network access to send data out).

Do I feel better about the NSA reading my data or about facebook doing so? Is there a difference anyways?

One of my favorite Ted talks still is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv7Y0W0xmYQ

After all I’m wondering where the madness of Dollars for Data is going.

Where does enjoying the journey stop and procrastination start?

8 Jan

It must have happened in Uganda. Or maybe in India, Rwanda or Kenya. Or even in Mexico. It must have been when sharing shoes or using communal showers. Or maybe when dancing barefoot in dirty places. God knows.

But it must have been in the year in which I worked in Uganda. I know that because my favorite pedicurist near Makerere University was the first to tell me. “You need to treat this” he said pointing at my toe nail.

I really didn’t pay attention to the advice. Not that I thought he was wrong. But really, it wasn’t a concern. It didn’t hurt, did it? Usually wearing open shoes I covered up in purple, pink, red, blue or green.

Beautiful on the outside, increasingly discoloured below the polish. Everybody had some expert advice and so over the next years periods of half-hearted creme treatments with exposure to fresh air alternated with months of covering-up. I can’t say that I didn’t try. Somehow.

When I finally consulted a doctor, the lab results were negative. You see, I took the step, but my environment just wasn’t supportive. And I was busy, too!

I was in Kenya, when the nail fell of. Coincidence? I starred at it. And now I had proof. And what I saw below didn’t look healthy. After a liver function test I was allowed to swallow tablets for 6-9 months. One daily. To stop the evil at the root. By treating the root.

4 months later 3 millimeters of progress are visible. 5 millimeters of ugly past are also still visible.

I celebrate the progress, though it makes snail pace resemble speed of light.

Healing takes time. And patience. And commitment.

Which fungus are you treating in 2014?

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