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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.

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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.

Feminism

17 Jul

Recently I was asked whether I’m a feminist. Well here’s the thing:
* I truly believe every human should have equal opportunity and rights.
* I know that both, women and men can suffer where gender roles are rigid.
* Exploring sexual identities may feel frightening but I find it liberating and it enables more human behavior in the mid and long term.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article on feminists:

“Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women.
This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.

Feminist theory, which emerged from feminist movements, aims to understand the nature of gender inequality by examining women’s social roles and lived experience; it has developed theories in a variety of disciplines in order to respond to issues such as the social construction of sex and gender.

Feminist activists campaign for women’s rights – such as in contract law, property, and voting – while also promoting bodily integrity, autonomy, and reproductive rights for women.

Feminist campaigns have changed societies, particularly in the West, by achieving women’s suffrage, gender neutrality in English, equal pay for women, reproductive rights for women (including access to contraceptives and abortion), and the right to enter into contracts and own property.
Feminists have worked to protect women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
They have also advocated for workplace rights, including maternity leave, and against forms of discrimination against women.

Feminism is mainly focused on women’s issues, but author bell hooks and others have argued that, since feminism seeks gender equality, it must necessarily include men’s liberation because men are also harmed by sexism and gender roles.”

Am I a feminist?

The problem with this question is that it feels loaded. Someone who hates men, who breaks all clothing rules, an esoteric witch.

Leave aside these pictures.
Define the feminist idea for yourself.

Where could you have benefited from this ideal in your life?

Of course I am a feminist!

Stockholm

15 Jul

In July I attended the wedding of my friends near Stockholm and took the opportunity to see the city and meet old friends. Here are the pictures of my trip through the city and its surroundings.

My first impression was that there’s a lot of water. The city itself is built across a dozen islands, which gives it a unique flair. An island for museums, one for swimming, one for the old town, one with a natural park, you name it. Approaching the airport, you fly across the archipelago with thousands of them! Very beautiful 😀

I heard a lot about high equality between women and men in Scandinavia, but seeings the uncomplicated way of dealing with femininity with my own eyes was just liberating: Women are cycling with flying mini skirts and no one gives a second look. Male toilets with nappy changing unit. Ladies toilets have simple plastic bags as bins and not those “automatically disinfecting, push the pedal, then put your pad on the flap bins” you see else often. Adults simply change into swim gear on the cities beaches and again: no stares.

The most remarkable thing about Stockholm to me was that they have instituted a sort-of human right of access to a bicycle. You simply pay 32 Euros and you get access to rental bikes for 6 months! And not those annoying 30-minute slots common across the big cities in the West – no, you get the bike for 3 hours straight!

What do do in Stockholm?

Visit the parliament for a free tour in English! Very recommended for its beautiful view from the 6th floor and the architecture. It was also very interesting to hear a few facts about democracy. For example only in Sweden and Norway the parliamentarians are sitting organized by region not by party! There’s a ladies room in the parliament showing pictures of famous “first women” in Swedish politics. The room also features a mirror, where female visitors can see the reflection of the potential future prime minister of the country. A fantastic conversation to have with school classes and other groups of visitors!

Don’t miss out on a drink on a boat bar near the old town, watching the sun set slowly between 9pm and midnight. You’ll walk home in the twilight, it just doesn’t get dark in summer in Sweden!

I also did the early morning boat tour, getting a nearly undisturbed insight into smaller islands. Below are some pictures of the defense equipment still installed on the island to protect Stockholm city (but unused).

Another highlight for me was the museum of photography with a great video installation about Chinese migratory workers.

On the day of the world cup final we were lazying around with the German friends and family of the couple. We ended up playing football. As i was in a dress and flip flops, I started carefully at first to test the shoes. Later I even scored with the left foot. We had a couple of trees on the pitch, which made it even more exciting and surreal.
Another exciting physical challenge came in form of “a slackline”. We tried to walk across a rope spread between two trees.
This weekend I really found new joy about physical mastery which I hope to continue in London 🙂

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Grillen zum Eröffnungsspiel

14 Jun

Familienfest im Hochhaus in Sao Paulo

Der 12. Juni war ein Feiertag. Keiner sollte arbeiten in Sao Paulo, es sollte gefeiert werden. Ereignis war aber nicht der Brasilianische „Tag der Liebenden“ wie ich romantisch träumerisch erst annahm, sondern tatsächlich der Eröffnungstag der Weltmeisterschaft. Jenes Ereignis, was die Nation seit Jahren bewegt, was eine halbe Milliarde verschwendet hat, in einem Land in dem jeder zweite mit schlechtem Gesundheitswesen oder inakzeptabler Bildung oder Behausung lebt.

Meine Kollegen hatten mich eingeladen, am Grillen im Hof des Hauses teilzunehmen. Ein Rentner-Ehepaar hatte über 40 Hausbewohner zusammen getrommelt. Es wurde ab 13 Uhr bis spät in die Nacht gegrillt. Die Spielerauswahl war definitiv ein diskutiertes Thema, die Proteste und Korruption eher nicht.

Alle Generationen waren vertreten: Kinder tollten umher, schwangen kleine Brasilien-Fähnchen und aßen Würstchen aus der Hand. Junge Erwachsene saßen auf Klappstühlen und tranken Bier. Die Eröffnungsfeier wurde wenig beachtet. Mir wurde erklärt, dass die Hymne viele Menschen nicht anspricht, da sie sprachlich äußerst kompliziert aufgebaut ist und außerdem, aus dem Unabhängigkeitskrieg stammend, vom patriotischen Tod und der Gleichheit schwärmt.

Am meisten beeindruckt war ich vom Feuerwerk, was bei jedem Tor über der Stadt zu hören war. Eine große Tradition in Brasilien, wie mir erklärt wurde. Eine Nachbarin betrieb früher einen Feuerwerksladen und erzählte, wie Fußballfans ihr drohten, den Laden abzufackeln, sollte sie an die „falschen“ Fans verkaufen. Als ich von den strikten Regelungen zum Verkauf und der Verwendung von Feuerwerkskörpern in Deutschland erzählte, wurde ich (erwartungsgemäß) fassungslos angestarrt.
Nach dem Spiel erklärte mir ein älterer Herr im feinsten Portugiesisch, dass ich wieder kommen soll zum Grillen. Nicht nur ich, sondern auch meine Familie, Freunde und alle, die ich kenne. Herzliche Gastfreundschaft!

Die WM ist im vollen Gang. Die Menschen haben sich damit abgefunden und bauen sie eben in ihr Leben ein. Viele meiner Freunde sprechen sich gegen FIFA‘s Klammergriff und die Geldverschwendung aus und haben trotzdem Stadion-Tickets erworben. Die Präsidentschaftswahlen stehen im Oktober an, es besteht Wahlpflicht.

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Wurst in heaven

25 May

This Saturday night out in London I’m following the invite of a friend who’s tagged along some other folks.

I meet them in a restaurant, after introducing himself he says that he likes my earrings. I was wearing the red ones, obviously with matching shoes and hand bag.

He’s 1.86 m or so, the perfect skinny, a cool hair cut and is well dressed.
We leave the restaurant and queue outside the club where we’re hoping to watch a concert of the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.

He runs a tech startup in London and tells me of the expansion and VC raising plans. He offers chewing gum. Intelligent guy, witty and well mannered.

After passing some high touch security checks we head in and unrequested he gets me a drink. He’s from Manchester. Explains the accent, I think!
The crowd moves to the music and so do we. It’s getting full, several hundreds of guys in their twenties are here waiting for Conchita to sing a few cheesy love songs. Everybody here has a story and many moved countries to find the space to live their story.

People want to be close to the stage and keep pushing forward while the club fills up and the AC does her job.
Is it the anticipation to rise like an eagle? That the heart will go on?

He dances, I dance, the crowd does. Suddenly a guy chats him up, quickly they laugh and talk like old friends. Then they start kissing.

And nobody cares, cause this is heaven.