10 years ago OVAAT was born of a dream and 1 generous donor who wanted to help me make a difference. I was so naïve back then. I was like so many Americans with big hearts who think that by just caring and donating to a project things will happen.
This has been a very difficult journey, which only now I can tell you about. How do you tell the world about your doubts? How do you write about your heartbreak or fears of failure? Will that make people not want to invest in OVAAT? What would my board think? I wasn’t really sure if anything we had done over the last 10 years was self-sustainable. And that’s the whole point of OVAAT. We want to go out of business. We want to not be needed!
My minister preached a powerful sermon about the “Turning Point” and how we face those moments, which are turning points. I confessed my fears to him about being hurt again. I explained how hard it was to have to write my children and grandchildren a “goodbye letter” in case I didn’t come back. Really to get ready to die on a yearly basis without any terminal disease haunting the halls of my body.
And then there were the questions I had about the program. I have been having a wretched time getting reports form our partners. And the reports I have gotten detail the same difficulties with the feeding program we have had for 10 years. Parents dropping out, not giving the tithe to the program, finding ways to just not support the most vulnerable children. I don’t want any child to go hungry, but frankly if a community cannot sustain what is started then they are really no better off for having been there. They will revert to their old life.
So yesterday, as we left the bucolic and surreal atmosphere of The Naivasha Country Club and drove the bone jarring roads to Kisumu I was trying to take it all in thinking that this was probably my last trip. Driving the Rift with it’s magnificent skies, and rich green earth, the outcropping of rocks left from prehistoric times, I thought remember this Susan. You may not see this again. And then came Kericho and the tea plantations so verdant and full. I tried to imagine walking the rows of tea as the pickers do, and wondered how they ever fit between the bushes. . The skies clouded over and the rains set in. Storms in Africa are a wondrous affair and I love the huge splashes on the windshield or if I’m lucky enough to be inside a place with a tin roof and hear it pound a salute to mother nature.
We got to Kisumu at dark. I’m not afraid really of the dark city and all the bustling people so much as I feel my whiteness. And given the events of the last few weeks, being white is not necessarily a blessing. But there is also the thrum of activity and the riot of vendors on the streets and the business of life.
Last night as I struggled to stay awake and prepare for today, to pray for guidance, to channel my pastor, to read and be still, I truly wondered how I would handle today. And then God laughed.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but indeed the feeding program is not sustainable. Not the way we have done it in the past. However, the PICD part is a miracle.(Participatory Integrative Community Development). I listened to 4 soft-spoken women explain how they got a community to feel empowered. How they helped them see their “Bag of Resources” (which might include, farming, a river, someone who can build things, whatever might be a resource). And then from there how to develop a plan to use those resources to change things. It looked great when they presented it in power point.
Then in the afternoon they delivered the coup d’état. They brought me to the poorest school with the most reluctant people. They have been working with these people for a year now. And guess what? The members of the community decided to help the most vulnerable children, they decided to form a cooperative, and they set up a weekly meeting and began donating a few ksh per week. As one woman said, “We were sleeping and we woke up. We couldn’t wait for everyone to wake up at the same time so we just started without them. They’ll wake up when they smell the food cooking!”.
THEY had decided to care for the orphans, THEY decided how to mobilize, THEY started a cooperative, THEY built a cooking shed, THEY pooled their money, and THEY started the feeding program. And all they needed was training from PICD. I had waited 10 years to meet these villagers. THEY were what I had hoped for, despaired about, and finally met.
I stood with tears in my eyes and my voice shaking. I thanked them for giving me hope and helping me see how things can work. And once they planted the seed I could see the whole garden. I can’t wait to start planting tomorrow with Monica.
It began with Lillian really. I fell in love with her, her courage, the dignity of her mother. And I fell in love with being able to give in a way I could see. Lillian was part of our first project. I had one donor, $4000 and was feeding 22 children. I thought I was really doing well. I knew all the kids names and families and how they were doing in school. Lillian was a special case because her AIDS had finally been diagnosed.
Lillian contracted HIV at 13months due to a transfusion. She was sick off and on for years without a diagnosis. Finally as she was practically dying her mother got her tested and indeed she was positive. But there was hope, since Lillian was enrolled in a drug protocol so she could get the drugs. I loved bringing her a new dress and her family news that a minister would help with their bus fare. Yes I did.Her story is in the link below.
And the I was the problem. Giving is an interesting human phenomenon. We do it for so many reasons: for recognition, for our faith, to feel good, to be praised and noticed, the list goes on. And I was doing it, though somewhat noble, because I felt good about it. It became too personal. And in the end it was a bit of a fiasco. Much of the money we sent over there was siphoned off, the kids weren’t being fed, and furthermore I found out that we could feed a lot more in schools.
Moving to a school based program allowed One Village to feed more kids effectively. I still didn’t have the protocol down well. I still didn’t have community contributions as I had wanted, and it was still an I.
Then the new board arrived. They were bright, connected, great ideas and wanted part of the organization. And by the grace of God I let them in. (So many ED’s disempower their boards and make them yes men). One helped me find a partner through Kiva, another helped get a fundraiser off the ground, someone kept the books properly, and 8 years after Lillian we had a program that runs smoothly, is effective and helps communities turn the corner.
So why am I writing this? Because I hope someone will read it and know that you can do a small thing and make a difference. But if it’s not about you and you join with others then the small thing becomes bigger . And if you can put down your ego the chance of learning and growing is beyond your imagination.
School has begun in Nambale and Siaya. Our kids are back in school and a new year begins. I am so far away from them and yet they are with me every day.I see their ragged uniforms, I look down at their unshod feet, I cringe at the disease I see in their eyes and on their scalps. I tweet for them, I solicit donations to help get them fed, I pray for them and for all the adults I’m counting on to care for them. I’m also praying that their parents really take on this community feeding program and make it their own.
I am also readying for the naming ceremony of my latest grandchild. I am looking at Shel Silverstein poems to read and I am remembering my own children when they began a new year at school. How privileged they were. Not only did they have entire new wardrobes, but they went to private schools and private universities. Health concerns or food were never even thought of. Their father was a doctor at Man’s Best Hospital, and their mother was a great cook who could go to the store and buy whatever she felt like cooking paying no heed to sales or limits.
For me, it is trying to get the world I knew to know the world I know now. I just read Bill Gates letter for the Davos Convention. It’s really good (and I don’t like him very much). He has a bully pulpit and tons of money to get his ideas out. I no longer live that other life, and getting people to care about starving children continents away is a challenge. So tonight I think about all my children, the ones that I bore, the ones my daughters bore and all the ones over in Kenya. How do I meld the worlds and make the one that needs it the most a better place for the children who live there?
I have an ongoing problem with the millennium projects. I know they are the darling of Jeff Sachs and countless famous and important people. However, there are a couple of projects in Kenya where I work. The first one (and no campers I am not going to name it lest I get blackballed from the international community), is a feeding program and farming. When I visited it in 2006 the claims of success were astounding. But that was 2006…it’s 2012 and the Millennium Projects are finding it difficult to leave.
See they came in like a swarm of bees, told folks what they needed to do to improve their crops, gave out imported fertilizer, gave out nets for mosquitos and assumed that everyone would continue to do well. No…the community never owned the project. What Millennium has done in countless ways is to continue the culture of” donorism” thinking they could change attitudes by just showing people the right way to do things.
There is another project (and I’m proud to say it’s in Kisumu) where the people owned the project and guess what. The French who aided the villagers are able to leave. Until the Intellectual Powers, the World Powers, recognize the need to change attitudes first poverty will continue because people will continue to be dependent on donors who always leave.
I just had lunch with a lady who helps non-profits get the word out. She had some good suggestions all of which I will honor. As we were talking about the industry of charity and non-profits, I posited this dilemma. We are very small. Our budget is $25,000 a year. It costs about $3000 to sponsor a school. The problem is that big business and folks like Gates won’t give out $3000 they want you to ask for $300,000. And because we don’t want nearly that amount we can’t get any. So I’m asking you folks…do you want to sponsor a village? Would you and your company want to change a whole village for $3000? If so please get in touch. We only want to go into a few more villages.
What you say? What happened to the past 10 days? Ok I didn’t come back to the US in one piece, actually it was 3 pieces but that is a different story entirely. I wanted to wrap up the trip for you all.
That Saturday after we had finished visiting all the schools we returned to KMET for a team meeting.. Everyone showed up at 11A on a Saturday to develop the plan for 2012. We covered so many topics. We reviewed the difference between ACK, Nangina and Nina.
We realized that. 1. We had to develop criteria to see trends of when a school is failing before it gets to the level of ACK.
2. We noted that when I was the man behind the curtain the community immediately looked to each other instead of the muzungu
3. We realized that starting fresh meant there were no rumors of untold wealth and goodies and that we would struggle with that in Nambale
4. We all agreed that Nina is our new shining star and it holds so many hopes. For me it will hold my heart and I will be so glad to get back there
Then we set up a budget. First what needed to be done and a realistic number for what it would cost.
We needed to cost share the feeding programs in the 3 schools. We knew that it costs $1.80 per term for each child. Now OVAAT will get a list of the children and will base the donation on a realistic number. Further, after the first term, if ACK is not at 50% their feeding program will be dropped. And further to instill in the other schools that this is their program, the second term we will drop down from 50%-40% subsidy.
Our girls need sanitary towels to stay in school. For $400 per term ( 3 terms to the year) we can keep hundreds of girls in school by supplying them. Pretty cool huh?
We need to keep the community involved. We need the PICD team to visit each school each month to help the community develop a plan of action and a budget so that in 2 years they can take over the feeding program. The team not only teaches community development, but we have a nutritionist and a nurse as part of that team. The cost per term $1200.
Just before I sat down to write this wrap up I saw an add for “Save the Children” which shows you a tragic child in horrific conditions. Trust me these kids and these villages exist. But they’re not getting the community involved. They’re not teaching the community how to feed their children, how to work together and own the problem and thus, it seems to me they will be there forever. My goal for One Village at a Time has always been to go out of business. If we do our job right the community takes over, they are empowered, and everyone wins.
So for less than $5000 per term or $1500 per year we can change the attitudes of the people, make them self-sufficient and they can feed their kids. I call this a spectacular trip.
I am back at the Blue York after a day in the field. The torrents of rain are hurtling against the roof and windows, and of course there is no power now. It was not a good day. I am frustrated and disappointed by Nambale ACK .
It didn’t start well and went down hill rather rapidly. Last year when we started there were throngs of people. There were people from the town and the district who didn’t have kids in that school. I met with resounding endorsement for the idea of the feeding program. And by resounding I mean over 1000 people were clapping and enthusiastic for it to begin. Feed just the lower grades? No they wanted to feed all the grades and they were going to do it.
It is now 1 year later. There were less than 60 parents there. The feeding program which was to be shared by the community, is in the toilet. I found out today that they are only feeding the ECD (early childhood development) class. They are the only parents that are still contributing. Blank stares and innui looked out at me. When I asked them if they knew that our money was leaving in a year, they looked shocked. Now folks, I know, and KMET sat on the same stage telling them this is how the program works. But see a muzungu face (white girl) and it’s donor time. I was beyond tired and angry, but you can’t show those things to the villagers; it would have to wait until we had team meeting at night. I sat numbly through the rest of the meeting, sometimes I slipped on my headphones so I could leave without leaving.
Monica and her team did their thing, but by the end even Monica was angry and said if they didn’t participate she had other places to go. Funny that was my feeling, but I’m glad she said it. The community responded that they were going to make it compulsory that every parent contribute their share. I’ll be waiting to see.
So here I am 10 years later, wondering if it can be done. Can a small non-profit partner with an NGO and get a community to take care of their children? Micro-finance surely works, but getting a community to come together to feed their children, with all the support that they are getting…Nambale ACK was a real slap in the face, and Manyole was a chasm that OVAAT will not put more money into.
My hope lies with the 2 new schools. Can the new approach of PICD work? I need to see the schools, surely, but perhaps tomorrow I won’t tell them where I am from or what I am doing there. Maybe I shall just be a consultant, so that they don’t see an unending source of money. We’ll talk about it in team meeting.
As for me today, I am tired of the rain, the mud, the lack of power, the lack of connection to the outside world, ha no connection to the outside world. Maybe that’s the key. If you don’t know what is going on outside then you see yourselves as victims, you are passive, you wait. Only when you think you are part of a future, part of a plan might you decide to change your attitude. Perhaps; but as for me, now, it’s time for another cold wash from the spigot and creepy food.
Yeah and I’m a crispy critter too. So much for SPF 30, there’s no fighting the Kenyan sun. You only have to be out in it 15 minutes to fry, so I will be a dermatological dream again.
I am constantly telling my clients that they must surrender ego, that it is always up to the universe to make things happen. Old ego and I had a real smack down today. We were supposed to get to Malanga at 11A, then it was changed to noon, but we didn’t get there until 2P. That made me crazy since I, of course, was on time. But it turns out the KMET van broke down, Monica didn’t really know her way and wasn’t traveling with us and well it’s Kenya. By the tie we got there folks had been sitting waiting since 8A. And to make things worse the headteacher, Maloba, had told the new school we would be there by 11A. So we were pissing people off all over the place. We had to apologize at Malanga, then we had to split up so some of us could go and placate the new schools while the others worked out the exit plan at Malanga. Suffice it to say ego did not like where this was heading. Ego likes things organized, ego anticipates problems and leaves time for them, and ego was really snarky.
I went to the new school ,Nangina. By that time it was 3P and they had been waiting 6 hours. I felt terrible and apologized as best I could but they were still not having it.
So I got Francis to go to the car and get a bag of sweets that I always carry for the kids. In this case I needed to sweeten the mood of the parents and passed out the lollipops. I had to make a joke of it and they seemed a bit better.
But you know you’re in trouble when there are no speeches and few introductions. And the dancing girls were no where to be seen. The KMET team was first up and gave their schpiele for the first 30 minutes. We covered micro-finance, nutrition and partnership. We were missing a lot of the team cuz they were back at Malanga.
And then it was Mama OVAAT time. And something miraculous happened, it wasn’t’ about me anymore. It was about them. It was about building a team, a partnership. It was about telling them how much I believed in them and that with a little push they could make it on their own. I asked them if they would join our team, team Nangina and they said YES!! And then the old cheerleader or preacher in me broke out and I got them chanting yes we can and passed out faith bracelets to everyone of them so they could identify as members of the team and they were united and it was glorious and it was all about God not that dirty little ego. It was truly amazing grace.
We broke for a quick lunch (which I always avoid). I’ve gotten so good at it I take out my diabetic kit and prick my finger at the table, then shake my head and say sorry the number is not right for me to eat that. (trust me I don’t care whether it’s 80 or 180 it’s “never right”). So after a few handfuls of rice I want to see the children. The children breathe life back into me as surely as water lifts a marathon runner. Maybe it is runner’s high.
We finished at 5P and went to the lovely Blue York. Dinner and review of the day followed by no internet and very little electricity. No matter, since I’m so dirty I’m totally ok with washing with cold water. I didn’t have a choice really,
What always continues to amaze me is the teamwork that happens with the KMET crew. As I reflect on the day, and I see how they work as a team, reflect on the good and the bad and plan the next day I know I am with a group of remarkable people. Everyone is equal and respected and while sometimes it is not the most efficient process, their staff is dedicated, inventive, and a delight to work with.
So I end the night in grace and for that I am grateful. I’ll post this when I can.
Keep the faith y’all
It is difficult to watch the starvation in Somalia and now stumbling into Kenya. It’s not that it’s new. But it’s so much worse. People can think there is nothing I can do and so they turn their heads away. I understand, it is daunting.
Monday I went to meet with a donor though who understood our purpose and wanted to help. Like the Drummer Boy he gave what he could. He gave me 2 awesome tickets to the last pre-season game for the Patriots. These are not just any tickets, but 50 yard line tickets. They’re not up in the boonies they’re right on the field. And we are raffling them off.
Each raffle ticket is $20 and only 100 will be sold so people really get a chance to win. But what’s really cool is that if you don’t win you get a tax deduction. And we get to keep feeding the children. Maybe today is your lucky day. Please take a chance, buy a ticket to see the Pats V the Giants on 9/1 at Gillette Stadium, and if not, you’ve fed 10 children.
Pretty cool eh?
Everyone has a place they call home, but not everyone has a heart home. It’s a place that makes you ache to go back; it’s a place that makes you shiver when you know you are going back; it’s a place that takes you in and warms your soul. For me…it’s Kenya. I made my plane reservations today to go home. So much is happening stateside that it has been difficult to plan on returning, however I’ve nailed down the dates and I’ve written Monica and Francis that I’m coming.
I know it will be a bit crazy. I have so much to accomplish in only 9 days. 2 Schools are graduating the program so we shall have to have ceremonies for them. 2 schools shall be entering the program and yeah that means ceremonies and education for them as well. And of course there is all that driving.
Friday night I had a film gang over to talk about shooting a movie over there. When they heard that it can take 2 days to go 200 miles they were astounded. I always remember Monica saying (when she was in the States) “Oh my such a good road!” Driving the Rift is a bit of a bone cruncher but it is better than it used to be. It’s a 6 hour drive no longer 10. We are going to Siaya as well as Nambale. Now as I remember the roads to Siaya they are not “good roads”. What I remember is driving from one side of the road to the other to try and avoid the ruts. I remember the red mud slurping up the sides of the tires and swaying back and forth trying to traverse them. And yet my soul soars and I’m wiggling in my seat yearning to get back there. You see, it’s my heart home.
It should be the time of the short rains. Watching the rain roll across the sky from a distance, feeling it drench the roads and windshields and listening to its short rap rap on the tin roofs is spectacular. That is if the rains come this year. They haven’t had them in a long time. So probably there will be drought and famine, cows lying dead by the road, children with eyes bulging from their gaunt faces, and lots of flies. I must go back, I must keep trying. You see, it’s my heart home.
Monica and I shall share some talk together. On the long afternoons we shall drink tea with the women, sweat in the shade ( no African ever stands in the sun on purpose) and dream about the changes we want to make. The electricity will probably go out several times, the wifi spotty at best. Tall, sassy Asuke will come in with the rest of the team and talk about our schools and how to make the program better. I will find out how Miriam died. She was the headmistress at a couple of schools we worked with. She was in her 40′s. People die very young in Kenya. I need to bring as much medication as I can. You see, it’s my heart home.
And all too soon, weary from 16 hour days. It will be time to go back to the States. I will ache all over from the bad roads, the awful beds and sometimes the dysentery. I will long for a clean shower and clean sheets and food I can recognize. And miraculously everything that needs to get done will get done. And once again, I shall cry a bit as the plane takes off. For you see, I’m leaving my heart home.