Thursday, April 14, 2011

Project Complete in Maralal

They named it the Blessing Kiosk!  ;)
The last two weeks were some of the most rewarding weeks of my life. Its hard to explain why, I'll try, but first I'll start with where we are today!

The girls now have a new grocery business, that after some time will split into two. One kiosk for each person. A community of 10 women and girls, mostly Turkana have also started adult education class!

The type of places Turkana are used to living in, though not in the city
After learning more about the community it turns out very very few Turkana women have ever gone to school, especially ones who have recently arrived from the north. This is one of the main issues why they are struggling so much with the transition to city life. They can not speak, read or write Kiswahili (the national language), Samburu (the local tribal language) and certainly not English. They can not read or write in their own language (Turkana) either. They also have the most rudimentary math skills only from selling small things, but can not write or keep a tally or items. So it obviously became very important to obtain training, mentors and education for Regina and Mbayen who were starting the business and assist with adult education for the greater community of women who are living in their most immediate neighborhood.

The desert landscape Turkana's are used to in the North
I spent most of the two weeks in meetings with my translators in the community finding out what resources were available and introducing the women to these opportunities that seemed appropriate.

Regina in adult ed class
It turned out there was an adult education class in the afternoons at the nursery school that was only a 3 minute walk from the kiosk we built and the community they were all living. The school can actually be seen from the kiosk, but they didn't know of the opportunity. The teacher was frequently going to class and just waiting around. No students were coming. She said several came from time to time, but none where there the several times I met. I was surprised she was still coming to the class room. I invited her to come to a community women's meeting to talk about the opportunity and some others that I found out about.

Tree nursery
Additionally I found out about a Tree Nursery where community women can go learn to plant and tend to different varieties of tree seedlings as part of a co-op. They can go individually and join an existing group or start their own. Big projects occasionally come in and buy up alot of trees and the women divide the profits. This adds to their own small business income and for some it's the only way they make a living. Its a great social, political, learning opportunity for them because they are often invited to governmental ceremonies to perform traditional dances and plant trees for peace.  It is connected to the Green Belt Movement started by Wangari Maathai and has a bigger picture focus on women's education and organizing to give women more of a voice than just planning trees.

Meeting with Pamoja Self Help Group (Pamoja means together)
One of the best things that happened was a meeting with a group called Pamoja Self Help Group. It's a group of small business people that have organized themselves and contribute the equivalent of 10 cents daily and eventually can take out loans to make business improvements at only 1% interest. The also have trainings for their members on health and business. I went seeking a Turkana women business person as a mentor for the start up kiosk. They really didn't have a mentor program but agreed to set up a meeting with a member in their group and see what she of extending a hand to these women. After hearing their story the "administrative committee" agreed to assist them and the mentor agreed on the spot after hearing their stories. So now the mentor is meeting the girls every morning to walk into town to go shopping for kiosk supplies and talk about how to enhance their business. In addition the organization agreed to look into which other members might be open to a similar opportunity to other women, though more as an apprenticeship. I met with a variety schools in the community to find out what is available. For adults with no prior education its tricky and they just need a skill to get started. They can go to adult education for free, but still are only learning the absolute basics. The one vocational school in the area that teaches tailoring, hairdressing computers, crafts, and food services is still too expensive inaccessible to these women who are only making a maximum of $3 a day doing washing or selling charcoal. The thing is though, many business people aren't making a ton more and could use the extra money if they were paid a few shililngs a day as an apprenticeship for these women to learn a skill. This is something that I suggested to the Pamoja group and they were amenable to setting up the connections for their business people, with the women I had been working with in order for their current members to make a little extra profit and mentor their community to create future members. Yay!
I also met with some other NGO's that serve the community and one of the reasons it seems that the Turkana is not being served is because they have few Turkana's that serve on boards or speak on behalf of their community. Its not that they didn't want to help them (it least it seemed, though of course they are not going to tell me that) but that they need to grow some leadership so that they could be represented. So this became the focus of my discussions with the women. They need to become role models for their community striving to educate themselves and their children to improve the future of their communities.

Bartholomew (the Turkana elder who introduced me to the ladies)
Getting a business permit at the town hall ($18 for the year)
I also met many times with the Child Advocate, a man named Simba (meaning the lion) a name that served him well and the Office of Probation about the girls that were in jail. The reasons these girls have remained in jail seems to stem from the same reason above - a lack of leadership from their community to represent them. Unfortunately the 3 girls that were caught making the illegal home brew (one a daughter of Mbayen) are still in jail. Simba did alot of leg work for the girls, and he still feels there is a good opportunity for the youngest one to get out if the jail officer writes a letter to the jail medical doctor for a medical/age evaluation. The problem is this should have already been done when they arrived, because it didn't it makes the officer in jail look like he was twiddling his thumbs and he may not write the letter for fear of looking incompetent. The other two the Child Advocate feels look older - I don't agree, but he says they look "hardened" and look more like 18 or 20. Well, I can imagine why these girls look "hardened." They have lived a difficult life thus far trying to scape by on nothing, living on anyone's floor who would let them, walking two weeks from a town full of violence only to come to another that isn't helping them and growing up too fast in the process.
one of the adult students first time writing
We became aware of a baptism certificate for Rose, Mbayen's daughter that I thought would be proof.
of her being under age. It had her name, age at baptism and date of birth. Perfect. She just hadn't went to retrieve it due to the cost of the trip. So I paid for her go and return total of $12. Unfortunately she came back and the name on the card was her birth name, different than her name she has been using in Maralal and on record at the jail. At this point I find out it's common for people to change their names when they go to a new place seeking a new life, as a new beginning in this tribal culture. So it became an invalid document for our case.  So things are messy for these girls. One positive is that their extended family of sorts (the women in adult ed and the women with the kiosk) is getting back on track and should be better able to take care of them when they get out. Fortunately government holidays around here generally come with a pardon for petty crimes. I have been told they will likely be out in a maximum of 6 months. I met with a concerned woman probation officer, who came over to sit with me while I was having dinner at a restaurant she happened to be in. I had met with her earlier and she remembered me (guess I stick out like a sore thumb.)We had a really long conversation about the girls and how there is no one in the community to act as representatives for them and she said she would take it upon herself to keep following up with them. She said she has been thinking about them since we met the other day. She said if there is any progress she could get them into a probation/education facility or at least see if she can link them up with education after they get out.  So these girls have fallen through the cracks because they are poor, unrepresented and uneducated. If they or their parents had any education, they would have known its not a good idea to just change their names as well as participated in the appeals process that is 15 days from the court date. I learned of them after more than a month. If any one in their community held any government office or power at all, they would help their community to get their documents in order. I made as much progress as I feel that I could with out hiring expensive lawyers, but tried to educate the women in the process about what their rights are for future situations.

Regina and her mentor returning from the market
So after gathering all of this information I had a meeting with the 10 women that have been hanging around Regina and Mbayen's kiok and a few others we invited from near by. The meeting was pretty good, though slightly awkward through translators. They talked about how they came to Maralal to seek a better life and of thier hardships and difficulty since they have arrived. I wanted to share with them what I had  learned that might help with this transition in hopes that they can share it with their greater community. The adult education teacher came and she invited them to class held M-F from 2-4 pm. The adult education teacher also agreed to help those who were interested in linking up with all of the opportunities I mentioned above. We talked about after they go to adult education class for a while considering forming a larger group that can eventually serve as a voice to their community. They can use the same group as a fundraising opportunity to help other members in need to start a business or similar by contributing 10 shillings each meeting. The teacher said one of the class's goals is to create income generating opportunities for the class so this would be something she would be willing to start for them after they get to know each other better. I hope to later link them up with the women's group from Nairobi who can help them organize further. (I decided I was jumping the gun too much to invite them up for the first meeting.)

It was a jam packed 2 weeks and I am excited about what I learned. I was happy about the little things I was able to do to help the community help themselves. When I left Maralal and these women, I left part of myself there. It's a strong thing that happens when women connect with each other especially for a greater purpose. I've never had super duper close girl friends. Certainly some, you lovelies know who you are but recently in past years I've been trying to make more and it's not always easy.  It just has to happen. Somehow with the last few months I've found some of that type of connection in the groups I've been working with with the women's groups Nairobi and now these Turkana women, even though I couldn't talk directly to them, we shared something.

Why else did it turn out to be such an important week for me? I guess it was because I was trying something that scared me, something I felt I had to do after meeting the Turkana women the first time I was in Maralal.  It was also because it combined everything I've been learning and reading about for sometime into something that was real. It combined everything I've learned about working with people and organizations and it felt comfortable and exciting. It was also that I tried to do it alone and I didn't know if I could. I certainly had my translators, but I needed to grow to trust them and fortunately they were really good guys and they will be available to continue to check in with the project (I wish I could have found women translators, but I couldn't).

I could say alot more, but I think I'll stop there, because if you've reached this far you are probally bored to death!  But on a side note I just arrived in Uganda! I have approximately one month left.  I'm hoping to meet some buddies in the next few days. I hear there is some good  hiking and some rafting on the Nile!