My Kindred Country: CARE in Kenya Day One


Have you ever encountered a kindred spirit? You know, a person that you meet and somehow, within minutes, swear you”ve known for a lifetime? That perhaps you met in another life? Well, I have. Kind of. I have a kindred country. It”s Kenya.

I have wanted to travel to Africa since I was eight years old. Not on safari, but to really see Africa, experience life as so many Africans do. During my elementary school career days, I was the one that wanted to be in the Peace Corps or an aid worker while my friends all wanted to be lawyers and fashion designers. It has been a lifelong love affair.

When I found out I”d be traveling to Kenya with my job at CARE, I was overwhelmed. And to be honest, a bit anxious. What if after all these years of anticipation, Africa didn”t feel the kinship back with me? What if I was not strong enough to handle such a life-changing experience?

The purpose of my trip is twofold. One, to capture the work that CARE does on the ground in our programming through stories, videos and photos and share it with the wider world back home. And secondly, show an NBC journalist our work with the Sports for Social Change Program. I”ve been itching to see CARE work since I started all of four months ago, but the fact that my first trip with CARE would be to Africa felt like a dream come true. After what felt like a 75 hour flight, I finally landed in Nairobi. I found an ATM, took out what I later found out was the equivalent of six dollars and headed to my hotel. As it was night, I saw pretty much nothing heading out of the airport. But I could feel the energy. Whether it was that of the city”s, or just my own head rush, it felt palpable in the whizzing car.

Kisumu and Siaya
The next morning I woke up at 5 am, again missing Nairobi through the darkness. I flew out to Kisumu, a mere 40 minute flight from Kenya”s capital city, where Refa, a broad and quiet CARE staffer met me. Finally the sun had risen and I got my first real glance at a land I had wanted to see for so long. I was breathless.

Kenya is a paradox. In the two hour ride out to the Siaya District, I saw both incredible beauty and absolute heartbreak. New to the whole development world, I sat mostly quiet, asking Refa more about himself and his background than the questions that really were running through my mind: “Do people actually consider that a habitable structure?’ “Why is a country where the tin roadside stalls lining the (loosely defined) roads named things like ’˜Praise Jesus the Lord Electronics Shoppe” have such issues with domestic violence, rape and gender inequity?’ “Are there any traffic laws here?’ (There are some pretty crazy traffic scenarios with motorbikers, bicyclists, rickshaws, walkers, peddlers, schoolchildren, buses, and trucks all competing for the right of way.)

But in between these questions, my jaw would drop. The landscape near Victoria Lake was lush and dense and green, almost like a Hawaiian island. The women were stunning, poised and graceful, carrying things on their head that I couldn”t manage in a shopping cart. Little children, shouting “White Girl’ in Kiswahili and “How are you?’ in English smiled at me with faces that shined with a tangible inner glow.

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When we finally pulled up to the CARE office in Siaya, I was greeted with hugs and handshakes that made me feel immediately welcome. The work done in Siaya, a rural district in Western Kenya, is nothing short of astonishing. They touch so many different areas, and I saw throughout the day, they are thoroughly integrated into the community.

The Family Planning Results Initiative

After a quick briefing with the team, we headed to the Siaya District Health Center, a facility that CARE partners with as part of the Family Planning (FP) Results Initiative (RI). In a country projected to have a population of 50 million by 2015, population explosion is a major threat to human development in Kenya. Utilization of FP services in Kenya are low, some 39 percent, while the unmet need of FP services is high at nearly 25 percent.

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Launched in 2009 with support from USAID, the initiative seeks to increase sustained and consistent usage of FP services in the Siaya District by not only using traditional programming, but by also incorporating social change efforts. FP is much more than using preventative measures. What really impressed me about RI is how comprehensive the approach seems to be. It involves building the capacity of the community to challenge social norms and practices and improve gender inequity by confronting long-standing behaviors and practices. Kenya in particular faces the tough reality of traditional gender roles and discrepancies for women when it comes to accessing services, including health care. Often times a women doesn”t even realize she has choices when it comes to planning her family. RI is doing some great work to make sure that reality, along with local attitudes around FP, changes.

With a full day planned, we headed next to Awendo to meet with a group of elders, the Provincial Administration, who represent the government at the local level. We pulled up to a circle of men sitting outside in plastic lawn chairs of varying sizes. One thing about the Kenyan people is that they are overwhelming gracious in their welcome. They greet me like an American movie star. After hearing at the health clinic about the difficulty in breaking through ingrained gender roles, I am amazed at how frank and open the Administration is with me. They explain how CARE has educated them about the importance of open dialogue around difficult but critical issues, such as maternal health, HIV/AIDS, and family planning. It was evident how successful the partnership has been just by how candid they are with me, a complete outsider, and a female to boot. It”s one thing to say that I work for an amazing organization, one that really focuses on the root causes of poverty and teaches communities how to empower themselves. It”s another to go half way around the world to hear the people that are served by CARE reiterate the same thing. I will later find I hear this again and again.

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As captivated as I was by the discussion I couldn”t help but notice a small boy standing on the outer edge of our circle. Eyes wide open, I could tell he was incredibly curious about me. After our meeting, I slowly walked over to him and greeted him in my (very) limited Kiswahali. He stared at me in amazement and then broke into a big grin. Before I had a chance to blink, I was surrounded by a dozen or so kids, all of them in absolute wonder and gratitude for the smile and hug of a stranger.

Men Leading a Women”s Movement

At that moment, choked up as I was, I realized something. In America, there are ton of compassionate people, people that work for those who have less, the unfortunate, the poor. But in Africa, there is a level of poverty that is hard to come by in America. I would venture to say it doesn”t even exist. It”s easy when separated by an ocean to think that developing countries have nothing to do with us. We have enough problems of our own, after all. I could argue about how investing in foreign countries through education and improved health care for the extreme poor is a matter of national security. Desperate people are more likely to take desperate measures, after all. But at that moment, seeing how a 6 year old girl reacted to a smile made me feel it was much simpler than that. I”m not saying we shouldn”t care about our problems at home. What I am saying is that this little girl has the right to a future too. By partnering with CARE, local communities throughout Kenya are making tremendous strides so that she can shape that future for herself. In Awendo, she is growing up in a community where the male leaders are learning to value women”s roles and opinions. By the time she”s a teenager, perhaps she”ll have more options because of that shift in thinking. It”s a pretty powerful thing to imagine.

Ligega”s Village Savings and Loan Program

By this time of the day, I was exhausted and emotionally drained. Adding to my weary state was the fact that I had gotten a total of four hours of sleep over the past two days. But we had one last stop to make before heading back to Kisumu for the night. And I had been looked forward to it for weeks. So we drove to Ligega to talk with the women of CARE”s Village Savings and Loans (VSLA) program.

CARE”s VSLAs are unique in that they are able to penetrate extremely poor and rural areas, places where people live on less than $.50 a day, places traditional microfinance organizations have been unable to reach due to high costs and access issues. By pooling small amounts of funds (a few cents to a few dollars), women in VSLAs are able to use joint savings in case of emergency health situations or to buy supplies to help their businesses (fertilizer, for example). By becoming part of a tight knit group, these women begin to be able to discuss critical issues that are harder to do in more restrictive societies, as well. Issues like family planning, HIV/AIDS, maternal health and domestic violence.

The road to the health clinic where this particular VSLA was meeting was a rough one. We were several hours behind schedule and I felt awful that this group had been waiting around to meet me. As we pulled up, windows down, I heard a soft chant, and as we got closer I realized there were about 45 women who, on seeing the CARE truck, had started singing and gently swaying. Their voices grew in a harmony until it was a full on choir and dance fest. Refa leaned over to me, “They are singing thanks to CARE for bringing them a visitor.’

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I have never in my entire life been so overwhelmed and welcomed so graciously. The thing that has struck me so far about this country is that no matter how dire the situation looks to an outsider”s eyes, Kenyans are nothing if not grateful. It”s truly a blessing to experience.

With such a welcome, I knew that my time with these women would be compelling. And I was not let down. One women”s story particularly resonated with me. Her name was Shelfa Aninja. Sitting next to her in the grass was her 3 year old son. When I later took his picture on my digital camera and showed it to him, he looked at me in complete awe. He had never seen his face before. He was her fifth child. But he was the first one to have survived. One lived to six months; another seven. One was stillborn. She said she owed her son”s life in large part because of her involvement in CARE”s VSLA. Through the VSLA, Shelfa learned about the importance of pre- and post-natal health and the warning signs for when she needed to go to an emergency clinic. I was struck by her poise, in the way she held herself, her confidence in telling her story. This woman may have once been considered broken, but now, standing before the group, she seemed strong and proud.

Several other women shared their stories, there was more dancing and song, and a community health worker demonstrated how to use PUR tablets to clean water for drinking. Several girls gathered around me and my camera, gesturing for me to take a picture. When I showed them the results, they laughed like hyenas. I later found out they were all HIV positive.

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When it was finally time to go, I was once again surrounded. Everyone wanted to thank me, to hug me, to touch my hand. Seeing the “outcomes’ of CARE”s work, meeting the people whose lives are changed, and then going on to change others lives, has been completely and utterly life-changing. And that was just day one.

Looks like my kindred country may love me back after all.

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