A Sweet Reunion

My host sister here in Kenya is a 30-something mother of three with a caring husband, a good job and has just returned to school to pursue a degree in Community Development. She is hard-working, confident and full of integrity – so many things that I strive to be. Shortly after I arrived in Kenya she told me a bit about her life. My host sister grew up as the youngest of ten children in very poor area of Nairobi. As a child, her family ate only one meal per day because they could not afford more than that. Her mother and father did their best to take care of the children, but could not cover the costs of their education, so none of her siblings finished high school. She explained that at the age of 12, she was taken on by Compassion International, a non-profit organization that allows individuals around the world to sponsor a child in need so that they can attend school and access basic necessities. It was this divine intervention that changed the trajectory of her life.

My host sister’s sponsor was a young man from Australia, not too many years older than herself. They communicated over several years, and she remembers celebrating when he got married to a young woman who began to correspond with her as well. Thanks to their support, my host sister was able to attend a high quality boarding school outside of the city where she received a good education, room and board. It wasn’t until her first day of boarding school that she realized most people ate more than one meal per day. She was the only member of her family to complete high school, which has enabled her to secure employment that supports her family and pursue higher education.

While she was telling me her story, my host sister explained that she had been searching for the sponsor couple for several years and it was her dream to get back in contact. (Understandably, organizations like Compassion International are strict about not sharing detailed contact information between sponsors and children in order to protect the children). She wanted to tell them how their support had changed her life. She wanted to thank them for their gift. She wanted to see how they were doing. The anticipation in her voice was thick. At that moment, I made it my personal mission to find the couple and reunite them after over 15 years with no communication.

My host sister knew her sponsors names and that the man had been a relatively well-known landscape painter in Sydney, Australia (she had kept all of their letters and a painting he sent). I thought the search would be quite simple, but it appeared that the man had not been involved in art for many years, and there was almost no information about him available online. So I went through all the other major websites like Facebook, the White Pages, and some general Google searching. Still no luck. Finally I decided to create a LinkedIn account in case he was listed on the website. During my first search, I found 3 people in Sydney with the same name. One had a personal email listed and the other two had companies listed, so I found the general inquiry email addresses for them and sent messages explaining who I was and that I was looking for the Compassion International sponsor for a girl in Nairobi.

A day later I got a response from the man whose direct email address I had, but was quickly disappointed when he explained he was the wrong person. Another email came from one of the companies, but the woman explained that the person I was interested in contacting had left the company and they did not have updated contact information for him. So I waited a few more days. After a long day of classes, I returned home the following week and there was a new message in my inbox – it was from my host sister’s sponsor! He explained that he and his wife spoke of her often and had wondered for many years how she was doing but didn’t know how to get in contact. He was ecstatic to be reunited. Moments later, my host sister walked into the house from work and I told her I had located her sponsors. As I read his email aloud to her, tears flowed from our eyes as her dream had become a reality.

Since then, my host sister and her sponsors have been emailing back and forth, sending photos of their families and sharing about what has been happening in their lives for the last several years. I am thankful for the gift they gave my host sister whose life was changed by their generosity, and that I could be a part of the sweet reunion.

*Note: This post is not a mandate to sponsor a child nor an endorsement of Compassion International, as every organization has both positive and negative aspects of its operation. If you choose to sponsor a child, please take care in researching the quality of the organization you work with. Thanks!


Kipepeo: Employment and Savings in Kibera

*click on photos to enlarge

One of the most interesting and rewarding experiences I have had in Kenya thus far has been participating in a microfinance internship. I volunteer with a Christian organization called Kipepeo, meaning “butterfly” in Swahili, which teaches women from the Kibera slum how to make handmade cards from recycled materials for an income that are sold around the world through fair trade distributors. The members stay with Kipepeo for five years while learning important personal finance principles and Christian discipleship.

In addition to card-making and training, the women participate in a savings group. Each woman contributes 1,000 Kenyan Shillings per month (about $12) that goes into their personal savings accounts. From the collective savings, the group then provides loans to members to start or expand their own small businesses.  The group is completely self-governed, establishing their own rules and regulations, and voting on who should be granted loans. Leadership roles of treasurer, secretary and chairwoman have been established which provide members with newfound empowerment.

Currently, Kibera’s unemployment rate hovers around 50% and those who have work primarily participate in the informal sector or have unstable jobs. Parents often find it challenging to provide for their families and when emergencies arise they fall into extreme debt or cannot covers costs to care for their loved ones. Kipepeo provides women from Kibera with a steady income and a means to save money for the future as well as start their own businesses. I spent many days making cards alongside the women and visiting their homes and churches, asking them about how Kipepeo had impacted their lives. Many of the women told me that as a result, they could afford to put food on their table every day and pay for their children’s school fees. One woman said the following about her experience:

“I have known the significance of love, thanks to Kipepeo. Some of us are orphans. Some are widows. Some are married. Some are separated. Some have been abused. But here we have each other and we can discuss freely and we support each other. We are a family. Kipepeo has changed my life – physically, spiritually, and economically.”

Kipepeo is just one of the many savings, microfinance and employment models changing the lives of people in poverty in Kenya and around the world. To order cards for yourself, donate to the cause, or read the stories of the women who are a part of Kipepeo, visit: http://www.kipepeodesigns.co.uk/.  Kipepeo is currently looking for a fair trade card distributor in the United States – if you would like more information, contact Harriet at: kipepeodesigns@gmail.com

Kenya is My D.J.

One of my favorite things about life in Kenya is the music. It’s loud, it’s good, and it’s everywhere. As I leave my house each morning, I walk along the busy dirt roads in my neighborhood filled with people on their way to work, school children in uniform, and ladies wrapped in beautiful fabrics selling mandazi hot out of the oil. The first thing I hear is music, which resounds from the small shops that line the road. I arrive at the bus stop and music rings from the matatu as I climb inside. Sometimes the bass is so loud that I feel as though my head might burst. Other times my ears are tickled by smooth, soft beats.

At language school, which is attended by students from all over the world, we break though language barriers with music. During tea breaks we play music on our phones as we sing along to the sounds. In Kiswahili class, we learn traditional songs and dances from our teacher when verb tenses become too tiresome. As I board the bus to return to Kibera, more music. When I get home, there are music videos playing on television, which get the kids dancing around the living room and keep my host sister entertained as she cooks ugali. Enter almost any home in Nairobi and you’ll hear music playing. Even Nakumatt (Nairobi’s version of Super Target) and Java House (Nairobi’s version of Starbucks) have a fantastic mix of music playing at all times. And of course, no social activity is complete without a DJ.

The style of music heard throughout each day varies greatly, and much of it comes from local radio. In Nairobi, there is a station dedicated to every music genre imaginable and commercials are rarely played. The most popular styles tend to be Kenyan hip-hop and pop (and some from other parts of Africa like Uganda and Nigeria), reggae and dancehall, as well as some American music. But by far the most frequently heard music style is Christian Kenyan hip-hop, simply referred to as Gospel.  And I can’t get enough of it. The hooks are catchy, the beats are loud, and the dances are delightful. Nearly every song has an accompanying music video, which give viewers a good sense of popular clothing styles here in Nairobi – like neon colors, soccer jerseys, skinny jeans and beaded jewelry.

These songs aren’t just reserved for Sunday mornings; they are so popular that they’re played in night clubs, matatus and churches alike. Here are three of my favorites. Bet you’ll get addicted too :)

“My Call” – MOG featuring Juliani (I saw Juliani at Java House the other day and must admit I was a little starstruck…)

“Furi Furi Dance” – Jimmie Gait

“Mmmh Baba” – Kris

An Introduction to Kibera Slum

The master’s program I am currently enrolled in focuses on the issue of urban slums across the globe.  All students participating in the program live and work in or near slum communities from Kenya to the Philippines to India to Brazil. Slums are informal settlements that go unrecognized by local government and therefore lack basic infrastructure like roads, running water, electricity and waste management. Each slum has its own history, but generally they result from rapid urbanization as people move to cities to look for opportunity. 1.3 billion people in the world live in urban slums – a number that is expected to rise to 2 billion by 2030.

I live in the community of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, just a 3 minute walk from Kibera slum, which is the second largest urban slum in Africa. The local college I attend has set up a “campus” inside Kibera, so between my classes, my internship, and visiting friends, I spend 2-3 days per week there. No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera, but the population is estimated to be between 200,000-800,000. Yet it is only the size of New York’s Central Park.  Kibera is divided into several villages, though I am still learning where one ends and the next begins!  Homes are made of mud and sticks or mabati (iron sheets).  The conditions for residents are dismal, as there is only one latrine (toilet) for about every 50 households, and there is no sewage or waste disposal system, so human waste and garbage is dumped into the river that runs through the community or left along the roadside. Crime and disease run rampant. The U.N. estimates that 1 in 5 children die before their fifth birthday.

The Kenyan government actually owns the land that Kibera sits on, yet refuses to officially recognize it and therefore cuts it out of all government services. People who live in Kibera pay rent to the building owners, but are technically squatters. The government has attempted “slum upgrading” projects, which sound promising at face value, but during the process they have demolished homes without any notice to residents, leaving them homeless. Shortly after I arrived in Kenya this occurred and thousands were evicted, watching their homes destroyed by heavy machinery. The reasons people live in and stay in Kibera are varied and deep – and too complicated to discuss here – but attempts to give Kibera a facelift have failed time and time again.

One of the frustrations I’ve had since moving to this community is that Kibera is depicted to outsiders as a suffering, dirty place without human dignity (tourists will spend money to get tours of the slum so they can take pictures of children playing in piles of garbage). But Kibera is FAR from that one-sided picture. Kibera is a lively community with shops, restaurants, pubs, schools, services, churches and mosques. The people who live here are hard-working and extremely resourceful – they are students, artists, employees, and family members. As you walk the pathways in Kibera, you will see children laughing and playing, women braiding each other’s hair, men gathered for an afternoon chat, music playing, and people worshipping. While there are many tragic things about Kibera, it is also a place that is truly alive.

I will continue to communicate through this blog about the community of Kibera, as I hope to share about the people who live here and the many goings-on in the community. In the meantime, here are a few resources to learn more about urban slums, and Kibera in particular:

Nadishi! Kenyan Cuisine

I have yet to meet a plate of Kenyan food that I didn’t like. (Okay, except for the intestines).  Meals are made of fresh, locally grown ingredients from neighborhood markets and corner stands, which make them nourishing to the body and full of flavor, though never spicy.  In my home food is cooked over a charcoal fire in a large pot called a jiko. Chunks of charcoal are sold in small buckets on the side of road throughout Kibera and beyond. At around 8 or 9pm, the family eats dinner together in the living room with Mexican soap operas (dubbed into English) or the news playing on the television. Here are a few dishes we eat on a regular basis:

  • Ugali is the staple of the Kenyan diet and is included with most meals. It is made from maize flour cooked in water until it turns into a thick cake that can be cut into triangles and enjoyed (like grits, but thicker).  Eaten with your hand, Ugali serves as a vehicle to scoop up bits of meat and side dishes. (When Ugali is not served it is often replaced with rice).
  • Sukuma wiki is made from greens similar to kale or collards, and cooked with onions and tomatoes to make a delicious and healthy accompaniment.
  • Other common side dishes include fried cabbage, cooked until soft and given salt and spices. Beans (maharagwe), lentils (dengu), maize, green bananas and potatoes are also used regularly. Finally, porridge (uji) made of millet and maize is a common comfort food.
  • Meat (nyama), roasted or stewed, of beef, chicken and sometimes goat is eaten regularly. Meat can be seen hanging in small shops along the roadside in Kibera. Ugali soaks in the juices and flavors of the stew, making for a messy but delicious experience.
  • Fresh fruits (matunda) are enjoyed after dinner or as a snack, and are perhaps more ripe, juicy and bursting with flavor than fruits I’ve had anywhere else. Mangoes (my favorite!), pineapple, melon, oranges, bananas and plump avocados are the most common fruits sold at stands that line the streets in my neighborhood.
  • Indian-influenced favorites include chapati, an addicting flatbread cooked in lard and served piping hot at local hole-in-the-wall eating spots in Kibera, and samosas, which are fried pastries stuffed with ground beef and onions and often sold by street vendors.

Tea is one of the most delightful things about life in Kenya. Life stops regularly so that people can rest and enjoy a cup of tea. It is served with breakfast, then again mid-morning, at lunch, mid-afternoon, and after dinner. The tea is brewed with milk rather than water and spiked with a delicious masala spice mix made of cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and black pepper – which leaves the slightest bit of warmth in your throat. For breakfast, tea is served with mandazi (a mildly sweet fried bread) or with jam and margarine sandwiches. Other common drinks include Coke and Fanta, as well as an array of juices made from local fruits.

As for restaurants, Nairobi has many to choose from including Indian, Chinese, American, Italian (including pizza shops), and Ethiopian, though the city has remained almost untouched by western chains. Local Java Houses provide patrons with a Starbucks-like experience with free Wi-Fi, delicious local coffee and American fare like burgers and sandwiches.

Kenyan food is truly a delight. If you are able to locate a Kenyan restaurant in your city, I recommend you give it a try!

Swahili Language School

As a new resident of Kenya, my first task is to learn the local language: Swahili. In Swahili, the prefix “Ki” is added to the beginning of language names, so it is actually called Kiswahili. Most people I have encountered are trilingual, speaking English and Kiswahili (the two official national languages), as well as the mother tongue of their tribe. In fact, most people mix English and Kiswahili, and one sentence can go back and forth between the two several times. After learning “proper” Kiswahili in school, my next task will be to learn Sheng, the local slang – a combination of Kiswahili, English and several African dialects.

18 hours per week I attend Kiswahili classes at one of the oldest and most well-regarded language schools in the region. There I have met students of all ages and religious affiliations from across Africa (the Congo, Tanzania, Madagascar, Somalia and Sudan to name a few) and from all corners of the world including Korea, the Philippines, Germany and the United States. The school provides classes for English, Kiswahili, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish – and everything in between.

Each morning, Abby and I catch a matatu to language school through rush hour traffic which takes about an hour (see previous blog post). The school is located in a business district. The streets nearby are bustling with business people and vendors selling fresh mangoes, samosas, candies and soda. The small campus is full of lush green plants, trees and grass. Our teacher, Mwalimu (teacher) Evelyne, is a patient and lively teacher. Abby and I meet with her two-on-one in a small classroom. We spend hours learning grammar, verbs, possessives and noun classes, stopping to practice what we’ve learned and construct sentences. Just when we start feeling tired, the entire school breaks for tea like clockwork at 10:30 a.m. each morning, which is provided by the school.  During tea breaks, Abby and I spend time with our new friends from around the world at the outdoor canteen, helping them to practice conversational English and somehow sharing stories and laughter through the language barriers.

While learning a new language is not a simple task, I am starting to get the hang of Kiswahili thanks to my teacher, new friends and my host family, who are always eager to help me practice – and who laugh with me when I accidently call someone’s grandmother a toilet!

Getting Around: A Lesson in Matatus

Life is busy! I have mastered the art of a bucket shower, Swahili language classes are in full swing at four days per week as well as a class at Carlile College, two online classes through Azusa Pacific University, and a microfinance internship to start next week. That doesn’t include spending time with my friends and host family, studying, trying out new churches, and exploring Nairobi. Therefore, much of my time is spent transporting myself from one place to another via the world’s most exciting form of transportation: the matatu.

Matatus are privately-owned 15-passenger vans and Nairobi’s most widely used mode of transport. Many of them are moving works of art, adorned with decals and themed graphics ranging from political figures to musical artists to Biblical references. Some have names painted across them like “Black Reign” or “God’s Chosen One” or “Mystikal.”  My host mom will pass up several matatus before selecting the quietest one, but I prefer those with bass thumping and music blaring – usually Kenyan hip-hop, dancehall, gospel or reggae. A few matatus are even equipped with television screens that entertain passengers with music videos during their commutes to and from work. (Abby and I like to think that the louder the music is, the faster we’ll get to our destination, and generally it has proven to be true).

At each stop, matatus cram into a tiny space and a conductor hangs out the door yelling the route and price at the top of his lungs (which at first sounded like incoherent rhythmic shouting). The only way to know which route goes where is to ask a local, or figure it out by trial and error. Bodies cram into every seat and the conductor collects the fare along the way, tapping each person on the shoulder to pay up. The price of a ride varies depending on the time of day and route, but generally costs between 10 and 40 Kenyan Schillings (approximately 12 to 60 U.S. cents). Experiencing Nairobi traffic in a matatu is half the fun. Traffic jams are inevitable at most times of the day, but matatu drivers are experts at flying over medians and squeezing through impossibly small spaces, occasionally side-swiping a car, though stopping only if a necessary part of the vehicle has fallen off.

Matatus are also notorious for being the most likely place to get pick-pocketed. My local friends have taught me some of the most common tricks of matatu thieves. For example, someone may cover part of your bag with a newspaper that they are “reading,” while pick-pocketing or even cutting your bag open with a knife to steal its contents. Or the rider next to you may “accidently” drop coins on the floor by your feet so that when you kindly bend down to pick them up your bag will be snatched. But as unsettling as it may sound to some, matatu rides are just one of the many things that keep life interesting in Nairobi – and they will get you just about anywhere you need to go!