Warm greetings. These are the blog postings of Mary Jane Collier as I journey through Kenya in July and August, 2012. I have been a member of the Board of Directors of International Peace Initiatives since the founding of the organization by Dr. Karambu Ringera ten years ago, so I am particularly delighted to be visiting the Amani Home for peace, sponsored by IPI. My last trip to Kenya was in 2003 and I will be referring to all the changes I have seen since that time. I traveled 30 hours to reach Nairobi from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Dr. Brandi Lawless, my former doctoral student, now colleague teaching at University of San Francisco, is making the trip with me. We arrived in Nairobi very late at night. Hint to U.S. travelers—keep $50 in U.S. dollars available (or the required amount) for your Kenyan visa. Silly me thought Kenyan dollars would be fine and discovered there were additional fees for paying in Kenyan money and a less than ideal exchange rate. Oh well.
Karambu and her brother, Peter, met us at the airport. How good it was to finally see Karambu—it had been over three years!
Amani Guest House, Nairobi
Peter took us to the Amani Guest House, which is very convenient to the airport. We joined an intern from the University of Denver, Sarah Gates, working on an MA in International Relations, and two other volunteers. Liza Hollingshead is from Findhorn, Scotland, and she is the founder of Ecologia Youth Trust, an organization that supports orphans through a foster family approach in Russia. She came to Kenya to spend a week exploring possibilities of joint projects and grant possibilities. Susan Cockerton is a volunteer from Canada and the UK and also met Karambu at Findhorn. She is volunteering at KACH for a year to help with grant writing, networking and development. We are in good company indeed!
Kenya United Nations Action Plan meeting, Nakuru
After a few hours sleep Peter drove us in the Amani van to Nakuru, about a three and a half hour drive from Nairobi. We attend a Validation meeting for the Kenya National Action Plan for UNSCR 1325, a resolution for ensuring peace and security for Kenyan women and children, and incorporating women’s voices in governance and institutional reform. We joined about 40 other women and a few men, who represent nonprofit organizations, and local community based organizations at the event. Karambu co-facilitated along with members of a planning team and Betty Murungi, an attorney and feminist activist. Women and a few men from the Rift Valley and nearby areas attended along with Commissioners of Gender Equity and UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women. This was the third of four regional validation meetings throughout Kenya. It was a very informative and inspirational day. After welcomes from various governmental offices and UN offices, the resolution was overviewed. There are 18 mandates around 4 main pillars: participation, protection, prevention and relief & recovery. Groups met and discussed the language of the resolution and added suggestions and examples. Discussion also included strategies for implementation and holding the government accountable for monitoring. What an example of what grassroots organizing can produce.
Interviews about Initiatives of Change
Still in Nakuru, Karambu, Brandi and I began our research project on peacebuilding by interviewing four women working with Initiatives of Change, a Community Based Organization (CBO) in Kenya. We heard from Ann, Teresa, Jane and Esther. They work in the Camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). The numbers of persons in these camps have swelled due to the election violence in 2007-2008 and many have been displaced from their land. Each of these women works in the IDP camps to support women and children. The conditions are extremely poor, tents leak during rains, and basic needs for food and shelter are not being met. They have conducted over 30 trainings for peace initiatives for women in the IDP camps and worked with Nakuru County Women Elders, worked with the District Peace Committees, UNCR, Forestry Department Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Foundation for Women’s Rights, Center for Democracy and Good Governance, and trained communities in peace, understanding the new Constitution, labor laws and land laws. They also participated in the Peace Caravan launch held the previous week, having to assert themselves into the male organized activities by demanding a time to speak. They also visit prisons to inform women and children there, of their rights.
One tool they find particularly powerful is a program called Creators of Peace, which they have offered at various IDP camps and communities including Baraka camp. We talked for four hours about achievements as well as challenges of this work. These women deserve to be celebrated and thanked for their tireless work!
Moof Biodiversity Farm. Nanyuki
Drove to Nanyuki, passing over the equator. Went to Moof Biodiversity farm. The farm was started to promote organic sustainable gardening practices. We also had a very tasty lunch of organic products that included a very fresh salad, strawberry juice, snow peas, sweet bananas and oranges. Peter agreed to come to the Amani Home to teach the kids and local community members, particular organic farming practices around pest control and using worms and composting to improve the quality of soil. These efforts can contribute to increasing food security locally and in the greater African region. Peter and John, his assistant, are well aware and fighting the spread of genetically controlled seeds and fertilizers by Kenyan and global organizations. Yet another inspiring meeting!
Arriving at KACH (Kithoka Amani Community Children’s Home)
We arrived in Meru. How it has grown since 2003! When we drove through the Amani Home gate I began to cry. It has been ten years since Karambu talked to me about her vision for an Amani Home and here it was, appearing before my eyes. Though I’ve seen pictures, the sights and sounds and energy of happy children, was overwhelming. The home is impressive, well built, beautifully landscaped, and made my heart sing. It is a powerful image of such an achievement, and a space from and in which the community will benefit for many, many years.
Right now there are 24 kids living at KACH. Some go to local schools during the day, and a few of the older ones board at local schools since their night classes don’t end until after 9 pm. The stories of some of the kids are heartbreaking. They have survived loss or absence of parents, often due to HIV/AIDS, malnourishment, sometimes abuse, and neglect. Though this is a community committed to caring for their children; poverty, lack of opportunity for work, alcoholism, corruption among many police and political leaders, and patriarchy, all act to create conditions that leave women and children to fend for themselves, and not enough resources to go around.
Walk-about Tour of KACH
We did a walk-about tour of KACH and farms and eco-lodge under construction. In addition to the organic farming and greenhouse at KACH, there is a 2-acre parcel of land that Karambu leases to grow organic crops and house the goats and pigs. This field is next to Karambu’s house, which is where Brandi and I made our home during our stay.
The Amani community is a bright example of local community support and participation, international resources being put to good use and exemplary collaboration. The Seely Foundation, based in the UK, helped to build not only the structure of the Amani Home, but also the dining hall, greenhouse, and just last month, Chris Seely installed solar panels for electricity. The Seely Foundation also provided funding for an eco-cottage to house many additional visitors. If all goes well, the eco-lodge will be available by December 2012.
We saw the Amani Home kitchen that was funded by the work of Alpine Initiatives, based in Colorado. Students Shoulder to Shoulder, from Vail Colorado, also offered labor and materials to help finish the kitchen, provided a drip irrigation system for the farms, built a corral and pen for goats, and constructed the gate and gatehouse for the eco lodge. KACH and place, has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 5 years!
Kithoka Community Peace Forum, Meru
Today was the day for the Kithoka Community Peace Forum held at KACH. Forty-four women and several men attended. The purpose of this community forum was to follow up on an earlier forum identifying the needs of youth, as well as identify ways to move forward around issues such as fighting alcohol distribution. Karambu co-facilitated with Mrs. Elizabeth Martin, Chair of the Community Peace Forum Committee. After reviewing a summary of issues that the youth shared the previous week, problems that had been identified were discussed and solutions proposed. These included strategies to deal with joblessness, drug abuse, available of alcohol(some of it being privately distributed is also laced with drugs that cause blindness and sexual proclivity), poverty, financial instability, peer pressure, and lack of guidance from parents.
The Assistant Chief (a woman among several male assistant chiefs) was present and is a key local leader involved in the forum. During the forum, a meeting of parents and children was also planned to have fathers and mothers discuss alcohol use and other issues with their older children.
After the forum, we had another wonderful dinner of fresh vegetables and rice and beans and fruit. After dinner we played musical chairs with the kids.
Meru Women Stage a Successful Protest
An intervention/demonstration, which was planned at the Community Peace Forum, was held a few days later in which community members marched to the home of an alcohol distributor. A representative of the local school read a letter demanding that he will stop selling the illegal alcohol. Additionally, the community volunteered to pay an unfair fine levied against the assistant chief for her recent arrest of another alcohol distributor, because the community had asked her to take this action. Those who attended the forum kept saying things like, “We will not wait for others to solve our problems—it is time to take our own action.” This demonstration resulted in the District Officer attending the event, promising support, and the liquor distributor later being arrested. Justice prevailed!
Brandi and I met to discuss our research in the morning and outlined a proposed structure for the joint article with Karambu. In the afternoon we went to Meru Town to a cyber café. There is no Internet access at KACH, which is quite challenging. After finding a cyber café that was open, we went to see two waterfalls and hiked to the smaller one. We took a steep trail but decided it would be a wonderful site for a future picnic! Nearby tea was being grown so everywhere we looked we saw green and lush views.
KACH becomes a Safe Haven for a Community Member in Need
Late that night Karambu went to investigate noises and female screams she heard from up the road. Many community members, who were equally concerned, joined her. They discovered a man beating his 18-year-old wife. The community members intervened and enabled the woman to get some clothes for herself and her 1-½ year old baby and get away. Karambu and others at the Amani Home met with her, and gave her a place to stay. She remained a few days and took opportunity to figure out a plan to move forward with her baby away from her husband. The Amani Home is truly a save haven, not only for vulnerable children, but also women in the community. This incident prompted Susan and Karambu to start a discussion about the need for a transition house for women, perhaps as a future Amani project.
Later that afternoon, we gathered the kids together and gave them the pictures sent by Jody Madson, a former IPI Board member. Many remembered Jody when she visited KACH a few years before, and enjoyed looking at the photos very much.
KACH Staff Meeting in IPI Office
In the morning we attended the weekly IPI Staff Meeting and heard reports from Department heads about their past and coming week’s activities and accomplishments. Silas is the manager of KACH and oversees the eco-cottage project, Judy & Cecilia are the housemothers, Kenneth is the assistant accountant, and Tony is the Director of Communications. Tony posts work on Face book, works on newsletter stories, and coordinates social media. We announced that with Karambu’s approval, Brandi will begin interviewing various members of the staff and kids as part of evaluation efforts of the IPI US board. Silas announced progress on the eco lodge. The first floor of the eco lodge is in place, and builders are adding partitions to the top floor for two bedrooms and a living/meeting space. Purity, who is the Coordinator of BOLD (Bettering Our Lives by Design) jewelry and weaving projects, could not attend the meeting, but returns soon from her holiday.
We Invest in Jewelry and Invite you to Do the Same
Tony took pictures of the women who work on jewelry and weaving projects for BOLD. The jewelry designs are changed every few years, so it was time for me to buy presents for my family and friends. It took me over an hour and half to see everything and chose gifts for everyone. Brandi and I had such fun! And readers, remember that you can purchase this same jewelry from the IPI website and know that the proceeds go primarily to the kids at KACH, and second, to the women and men making the jewelry so they can support their own families.
The staff members are all productive and working hard on so many tasks! They deserve our thanks and applause!
Brainstorming about Grant Funding
Later Liza, Susan, Silas and I met to brainstorm about grant possibilities. We also discussed finances and clarified numbers of kids being served at KACH, costs, income and needs for both KACH and IPI generally. We discussed information needed for grant proposals and funders as well as for the IPI US board. We also clarified issues related to current salaries for the staff, and the need to increase them. We shared ideas for sources for increased funding. Most kids had just headed home for the school holiday, so it seemed suddenly very quiet at KACH.
The Research Continues & Muslim School Group takes up Residence at KACH during Ramadan
Brandi and I worked on our research and set up additional interviews with community women. Brandi began interviews for evaluation. Karambu left for Kisumu, to co-facilitate the final Validation meeting for UNSCR 1325.
A Muslim school group of 29 from Mombasa arrived to stay at the Amani Home for three days as they compete in the National Music Festival at Meru. Since it is Ramadan they are eating dinner quite late and up very early to eat breakfast. Several of the staff and visitors have gotten the opportunity to see them practice their performances. The Amani kids who are not on holiday with their families were watching and learning. Betty, one of the KACH kids, even went to her room and got a headscarf because she thought that was a new style. She draped it over her head so she could look like the other girls. The Amani House was very lively for several days with the visitors’ singing and chatter!
African Biodiversity Network, Thika
Liza & I went to Thika to visit the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) offices. Guthuru Muburu explained that their work was about creating African networks to enhance food security, fight the spread of genetically engineered seeds, and to promote organic farming. ABN representatives and I compared community engagement strategies in use in New Mexico, USA, to create seed banks and protect corn and chile seeds, and efforts to protect seed in ABN’s community empowerment trainings. The challenges as well as the strong commitment to preserve heirloom/indigenous seeds were very similar, evidencing the need for global strategies for changing the domination of corporations and increasing the abilities of farmers to develop sustainable practices. Yet another example of inspirational work being conducted in Kenya! From Thika, we drove to Nairobi.
U.S. Embassy, Nairobi—-Looking for Democracy
Karambu and I went to the U.S. Embassy. We met with the Cultural Affairs Officer. We learned about the role of the US Embassy in the promotion of US values such as democratization, human rights, and security. The office does fund small projects related to the elections in the coming year, and places emphasis on women and youth and particular regions that have been the site of hot points of previous violence. Since the work of IPI fits into these priorities very easily, Karambu was invited to apply for grant funding in the coming cycle. Additionally, the office sponsors a journal and Karambu’s work may be a very good fit for this journal.
While these were definitely opportunities for upcoming funding and publications that arose, we also learned about the complexities and control exerted by the US Embassy in terms of visas for Kenyans traveling to the U.S. We had heard from several women at the UNSCR 1325 meeting that the granting of visas seemed arbitrary and inconsistent. We asked about criteria and ways that information was shared when visas were denied and told that the staff behind the window simply “could not provide any explanation or information”. When we asked how those who were denied were supposed to get information, we were told, it cannot be provided. Huh? Everyone is told that s/he is free to re-apply, but also not told that re-applications that are denied are “counted” as “red flags” on an individual’s record. Really? We were also told that if an individual has a “red flag” on his/her record that the only way to remove it is to involve the Office of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. Senators’ letters advocating for particular individuals have no effect, whatsoever, since the Kenyan citizen is not a constituent of any U.S. Senator, we were told.
We also heard that, for instance, if someone is traveling with the wrong visa, by mistake, and a Customs Official somewhere in the U.S. stamps the passport and allows the person to come into the U.S., doesn’t inform the individual that s/he is in violation and should not be allowed into the country, this becomes “illegal border crossing” at some point in his/her file. Then this border crossing can be grounds for future denials of visas for life. We also learned that some 70% of those who are undocumented in the U.S. are NOT from Mexico, but are those who are granted visas and then overstay. So all of this protection of information, and keeping applicants in the dark, is to “prevent overstaying and ‘flight.’” This is the model of U.S. democracy in action. Needless to say, I left with more questions than answers, and more issues than answers.
Mt. Kenya sighting
We traveled back to Meru. The 5-hour trip, depending on traffic, etc. was beginning to feel more familiar. I even got a glimpse of Mt. Kenya, snow capped and jutting up in sharp contrast to the rolling foothills. We arrived in time to go to the Shadenet hotel (a rather new and “Meru posh” for a glass of wine (a lovely South African Nederberg Cabernet) and ended up having dinner. The tilapia filet was also excellent.
Day 12 - Saturday
IPI Board Meeting
I attended the IPI Board meeting at noon. Board meetings are held three times per year, with one being a retreat with an overnight stay. Twelve people were present. Silas was an excellent facilitator and the staff members presented written and oral reports. IPI has clear and ambitious goals. Some funding goals, for the eco lodge for example, have already been met. One board member traveled from Nairobi to attend the meeting. There are also two teachers on the board and a community member who is HIV+ and a year ago, near death. Now that she has proper medication and care, she is much stronger and shared how thankful she is to IPI for looking after her daughter and she credited Karambu and IPI with saving her life.
Purity, Community Member, Donates Maize & Beans as a Way of Giving Back
Later in the day, Purity stopped by with large sacks of maize and beans. Purity worked as the IPI Community Liaison some years ago for the children whose school fees were being funded by U.S. donors. This was before the Amani Home was built. She worked with Karambu and the kids in the Meru area for many years, until 2009. At one point she took a visitor from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to local schools to meet the children being supported by IPI. They ended up marrying. He built her a house, and enabled her to start her own program to help kids infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. She now supports 16 children, some of which are the ones that Karambu had to stop supporting when the Amani Home opened. She is building a home for these children on her father’s compound. She also credits Karambu for teaching her life lessons and supporting her as she developed her own dream to help vulnerable children in Meru. Purity is an example of how children who benefit from IPI, don’t forget and continue to give back to the community. Not only did she start her own program for vulnerable children, but also donated maize and beans to the Amani Home.
Vincent, Whom I met in 2003, is Still Involved in KACH and also Giving Back
I met someone else who is another example of continuing reciprocity, and giving back to KACH. I was introduced to Vincent in 2003 when he was about 6 years old and living with his grandmother. He was practicing the alphabet with a piece of chalk on a wooden door at his grandmother’s modest wooden shanty. Now he is in school but still helps out at the farm near Karambu’s house. The shining examples of the power of the IPI community just keep popping up!
Interviews with Women Community Leaders Continue to Inspire
In the evening Brandi, Karambu, Board member Kathy, and I went to the home of Eva, another Board member, in Nkubu, (south of Meru) to interview her about her community based work. Eva created the Chure Community Based Organization in 2009 and met Karambu that same year at the Women’s Congress. Her organization works with 100 other, smaller women’s organizations working on life skills development, new agricultural practices, micro-enterprise, and leadership.
Eva is the epitome of other strong women leaders we met—she is passionate, practical, and unquestionably committed to community engagement for social change. She said she will continue to partner with Karambu in this important work for many years to come. What was different about her work was that in this particular site, there were mostly Meru people and only one Muslim family, and the men in the community were supportive of the women getting expanding their life skills and meeting regularly. This contrasted a bit with other sites in which inter-tribal tensions and violence were driven by land disputes and political clashes, and where larger numbers of Muslims were present.
Interviews Spark Even More Admiration for Peacebuilders who are Persistently Dismantling Patriarchy
We interviewed Mrs. Elizabeth Martin, who is the Co-facilitator of the Kithoka Community Peace Forum. We learned more details about the Youth Empowerment Forum, Community Peace Forum, results from a demonstration in front of the home of liquor distributor, response from the District Officer, increased security patrols, and upcoming events. There was much to celebrate and appreciate in terms of communities taking action and seeing changes occur.
I also interviewed Tony, IPI Communications Director, about his work with IPI and his views of conflict and peacebuilding. We all agreed that we needed the views of males as well as females. Tony met Dr. Karambu when he was a student in one of her classes at the University of Nairobi. He was a rich resource of information and gave a rich description of the history of conflict in Kenya since 1963, which is decidedly driven by politics around election time. Tony named patriarchy as an issue in the country; like other males on the IPI staff, he is completely committed to overturning patriarchy and advocating for vulnerable children as well as women’s rights in Kenya. Now I understand why he is increasingly successful writing grants for IPI; I got a concise and coherent view of peacebuilding and now better understand the complex context.
Farewell to Sarah, University of Denver 3 Month Intern at KACH
We had a farewell dinner for Sarah, who is returning to the U.S. after her three-month internship at IPI developing Peace Clubs and peacebuilding in local schools. Sarah’s fluency in Kiswahili is laudable and put to very good use in her work. The children who are not on holiday each wrote her a sweet letter thanking her for her work at the Amani Home and for volunteering in their schools with peace clubs.
More Visitors from Scotland
A new group of visitors from the UK passed by briefly for a day to learn more about the Amani Home. They had met Karambu at Findhorn in Scotland, and have been in Kenya with a group building a school for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, west of Nairobi. They were interested in the community-based model of the Amani Home and discussing the possibilities of a school at KACH. Findhorn is a rich source of networking!
Many of the children returned from their week holiday so the Amani Home became lively once again!
We visit Karambu’s Family Home, and meet with Karamana and the Obama Family
We made a brief stop at Karambu’s mom’s house so I could say hello to Karamana, Karambu’s sister, and her mother. I met them both in 2003. Karamana became a source of rich support for me during that trip, endlessly explaining Kenyan culture and trying to teach me to speak Kiswahili. Karamana has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, reminding me of my bravado walking on a path one dark night saying I didn’t need a flashlight. When she turned out the flashlight, I immediately stumbled and grabbed her because I couldn’t see a thing. She has teased me about “seeing in the dark” ever since. She has been ill and I was particularly glad to see her up and about, having tea with us.
Also, the Obama family seemed to greet us wherever we were in Kenya. At Karambu’s family home, there is a calendar in the living room with Obama family pictures. At both KACH and the Amani Guest House, there are placemats with photos of the Obamas from the election. It’s always nice to see the president!
Travel to Meru Game Reserve through Fields of Miraa
We worked on our research in the morning and left for safari in the afternoon! We passed by acres and acres of miraa bushes, which are grown to produce khat, an amphetamine-like, but much less addictive, stimulant. Cultivation is legal in Kenya, though sales to several neighboring countries are not. Miraa is grown in the Meru area. We saw large busses with stacks of harvested miraa on the roof, and trucks and SUVs piled high with new harvests. We continued our journey of about 3 hours to Meru Game Reserve and checked into the Murera Lodge.
Day 16, 17 and 18
Safari! First day of Game Drives! Amani Tours and Adventures!
Brandi, Karambu, Jacob and I decided to list and count all the animals we saw (admittedly, some more exotic than others…). We saw giraffes, zebras, and three white rhinos! These are the grazers rather than the black rhinos who are the browsers. We saw many water buck, a bush buck, Thompson gazelle, common gazelle, impala and buffalo, baboons, vulturine, jackals, spotted hyenas, Somali ostrich, crested crane, helmeted guinea fowl, grouse, swallows, egret (sitting on buffalo), termite hills, ant hills, horn bill, gosh hawk, and buffalo river bird, splendid glossy starling, (a turquoise & black beauty) superb starling (they sing “go away”) parasite weaver birds, and African morning doves! Imagine!
Safari! Second day of Game Drives! Amani Tours and Adventures!
We had a particularly magical morning. We saw zebras. Then three cheetahs ran right in front of our van! Right after that, we then saw two male lions who were lounging in the sun. Ten minutes after that we saw a herd of elephants!
We saw warthogs, eland, oryx, hyrax, dik-dik, kudo (lesser with white stripes), gerenuk, owl (grey), snowy owl, velvet monkey, hippos, crocodile, hawk, agama lizard, common lizard, snake, spur fowl, ground squirrel, bastard, heron and tsetse fly! 54 sightings! Can you imagine!
Peter is an amazing driver—the van moved through deep sand, flowing water, mud, and volcanic rocks the size of watermelons. We actually saw the big five in two days! Meru National Park has many small rivers; though it is dry in some parts and the trees are completely barren, in other parts, there are swamps and there is a large river we visited called Tana River where we saw Adamson’s Falls.
Jacob, our Amani Adventures intern, was very knowledgeable about all the animals and also was a good spotter. What an amazing experience. I highly recommend it to everyone! Also, I would recommend doing your safari at a time that does not fall in high season; significantly cheaper. We were a bit surprised to learn that the gate fees of $65 U.S. are better to be paid in U.S. dollars and are not a one-time per vehicle fee (like in U.S. parks) but per day.
Heading Home to U.S.
After buying a few more last minute gifts, we had to go to the airport for the late-night, long flight home. There are so many people to thank for making this trip so extraordinary. First and foremost, I thank Dr. Karambu. Daktari, as she is called, is an outstanding host; a beloved and revered kind of auntie to the kids at KACH; an insightful, astute trainer; a well-informed, thoughtful scholar; a respected feminist and indisputable leader in IPI, Meru, and Kenyan communities; not to mention an outstanding host. I thank you for honoring me by introducing me as your teacher and professor. I was gratified that this earned me immediate respect—I got to stand on your shoulders as feminists say. I know our work and our connection will only get stronger. Brandi, you were such a good traveling companion and I loved being able to hear your reflections and contributions. Our work will also continue, without any doubt! To all the IPI staff and volunteers—thanks for the genuinely sincere caring and warmth that each of you shared, time and time again.
In short, I feel profoundly enriched by what I’m calling my Amani experience in Kenya. I’m already looking forward to the next visit.