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Harris 1While participating and being actively involved in development work, a bilateral exchange usually occurs whereby the Westerner learns more from the community than aid or help is actually given. During these bilateral experiences, people use clichés such as, “enlightening, life altering and change.”  This idealism, and “do-good spirit,” quickly transforms, when one actually sees the harsh reality facing the developing world. As an African American, I was completely ignorant about Africa before coming to Kenya. My knowledge consisted of a romanticized view of old culture and ancient wisdom. Before arriving, I promised myself to fully throw my being into the culture and the ways of the people in Kenya. I knew I wanted to work in human rights; as a lawyer in the States, rights are coveted, and we are trained to zealously defend people’s rights. Once I arrived at my host family’s home, visions of Africa were streaming into my mind; some of the images were stereotypical but there were also colors, bright ones, with mamas selling sweet breads and fruits. There were men with the arduous task of pushing carts of produce, with the fierce sun blessing their skin, along with graceful Swahili women wearing bui bui and hijabs.  I completely emerged myself into my family life; I gave up my vegetarian diet and I dedicated myself to learning Swahili. For me, Kenya started to change from the stereotypical picture of Africa being a dirty place, corrugated iron roofs, and idle men, into a burgeoning culturally complex country with a lot to offer the world. My volunteer experience truly started at F.I.D.A (Federation of Women Lawyers) office in Mombasa. F.I.D.A is an international well-funded organization that promotes equality and due process of law for women.

Kenya is a country fighting its colonial history and present day social and economic problems.  Many of the economic calamities facing sub-Sahara Africa are rooted in cultural, social, economic and legal upheaval that occurred during the colonial era. Many of the citizens in Kenya believe corruption is rife and that ethnic tensions are thwarting economic and infrastructure development. All of these issues came to head during the 2008 elections with full-scale ethnic violence and the creation of the Grand Coalition Government.

Currently, the citizens are growing weary of the Grand Coalition government. The citizens want more transparency and accountability. Food prices have surged and the local newspapers are inundated with stories alleging corruption by government officials.  Local organizations and NGOs are actively engaging in dialogue and addressing issues pertaining to human rights and good governance. In fact, G10, a prominent women’s group, urged fellow female citizens to boycott sex to pressure the government to act more responsible and accountable to the citizens. Many citizens are discouraged. The resonating theme of doom and self-destruction is all too common as Kenyans discuss their plight. Speculations of extra-judicial killing and assassinations are troubling to the citizens and the human rights activists’ community.

Harris 2Constructive dialogue is the precursor for ideological and paradigm shifts in society. Sustainable development has to be rooted in fostering and creating safe spaces for dialogue, in order for true change to take place. My work with F.I.D.A is inextricably link with empowering the local citizenry, primarily women. Kenya, like some other African societies, is patriarchal. Therefore, certain cultural customs can at times violate Kenyan law and Western perceptions of fundamental rights.  As a western trained lawyer, it is difficult to juggle cultural autonomy and fundamental rights. Many women are solely supported by their husbands, which can place them in a precarious situation if their rights are violated by their spouses. F.I.D.A offers an avenue of legal advocacy and a safe space to foster dialogue to empower women.  It is an awesome experience to actively advocate for women to take ownership of their lives and watch them challenge their spouses in court by exercising their legal rights. A voice, an avenue, a safe space to challenge and debate is essential in equalizing society and addressing the imbalance of power in Kenyan society.

F.I.D.A concentrates on women’s right, but women’s rights are not exclusive, nor does the topic operate in a vacuum, but in a civil society, everyone must have equal protection under the law. F.I.D.A , at times, is viewed as an agitator or “un-Africa,” but the dialogue and discussion the organization fosters concerning human rights is vital. Mombasa, Kenya is perfectly blended with various cultures, ethnic groups and religions. Discussions about rights can easily be muddle with discussions about cultural sensitivity and religious freedom.  Well, the issue of human rights is not an easy discussion and answers will not be black or white but with dialogue and constructive debate cultural sustainable answers can be reached to address the legal ills facing Kenyan society. During the historical Obama presidential campaign, I witnessed Kenya come together under the umbrella of pride for the son of a fellow statesman, such zeal and energy was magical. I firmly believe that same energy can be used to transform society. And with organizations such as F.I.D.A , the dialogues about empowering women and women’s rights are opening doors and challenging the status quo. Granted, F.I.D.A’s work is just a small piece, but that little piece will fit in the large piece of creating a society that can adequately provide shelter, clothing, food, health care and sanitation to its citizens, while ensuring that people live with dignity.

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BlackwellJI had no idea what to expect during my 9 weeks spent in Kenya. I decided it would be best to keep an open mind in order to best handle any situations and experiences that lay ahead of me. All that was certain was that I would be working at MIMA, the micro-finance arm of an organization called LICODEP in a town called Likoni. Shortly after my arrival, I was inundated with a wave of new sights, sounds and emotions. Everywhere I looked it seemed to be chaos with poverty sprinkled in between. As I began to get settled with my host family and MIMA, I saw Kenya for what it truly is: a quickly developing country with positive change all around.

Kenya has a long history of corruption that is embedded deep into its culture; from the elected officials in government to the community run Non Government Organizations (NGOs) that are in place to take over where the government fails. There are many different causes of the deep rooted corruption, but the reason it is allowed to continue is the lack of empowerment of the people.

Immediately upon my arrival in the country locals inform me on how fed up they are with this corruption. They tell me that the only way to rid their society of this corruption is to have individuals begin to organize and speak out. Soon enough I began to see this type of activism by a shocking move at the federal government level. Justice Minister Martha Karua resigned her position citing her frustration with the government’s inability to enact change due to corruption. This shook Kenya as it was one of the most bold and controversial moves by an outspoken female official.

This type of activism is the catalyst for change, but development at the macro level is not possible without empowering the people of the community. My work with LICODEP’s micro-finance program is directly related to empowering people of the community. The majority of MIMA’s clients are female entrepreneurs. Because Kenya has a male dominated society, it is important for MIMA to focus on females in order to balance the power between the two sexes by providing these women with financial opportunities. As I continue to work with these women I have been amazed by their natural business sense. Having seen this first hand it just further confirms that all that is needed is someone to lend a helping hand and provide the opportunity.

While the primary goal of MIMA is to provide credit to promote growth and reduce poverty, the larger goal is to provide people with the confidence and means to promote change. Kenya is a country that is ready to take the next step in development. This next step will be made possible by NGOs such as LICODEP and their work within their community.

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paulm-1When I first arrived at Likoni Community Development Program (LICODEP) I was not sure which direction my internship would take. Located just south of Mombasa, Likoni is a bustling community with a rich culture and a diverse set of development issues. LICODEP is the flagship community development organization in the area and they work on issues ranging from advocacy to public health to microfinance. After several weeks of observing and trying to find my niche, I decided the way in which I could have the biggest impact on the community’s development was to help develop a small business management class with LICODEP’s fledgling microloan program, Mikopo Ni Maendeleo (MIMA), which means “Credit is Progress”. I was impressed by MIMA’s staff and clients, all of whom have come to entrepreneurship for different reasons and had to overcome serious obstacles.

Having started just a year ago through the work of another FSD intern, the program has been serving its clients very well. It started with just 50 clients last September and has over doubled its clients since. The clients join MIMA in solidarity groups of five, usually consisting of friends, neighbors, and sometimes family members. They meet each week with a MIMA staff to contribute their mandatory savings and discuss the status of their loans as well as who will be next to apply for the loans. In addition these groups serve as support for one another on various business issues.

This program serves a wide range of clients, most of whom are women running microenterprises with in the Likoni. After conducting a survey of clients, we found entrepreneurship is one of the only viable options for many individuals, especially women. Unemployment in the area is estimated to be as high as 48%, according to Action Aid Kenya. The jobs that are available often require higher degrees or specialized training, options which are out of reach for the poorest individuals in the community. It was only five years ago when primary education became free in Kenya, so MIMA clients grew up in families unable to afford education for their children. Over half of MIMA’s clients only completed primary school and less than one quarter completed secondary school, thus inhibiting their abilities to compete for the few jobs available.

Because of the lack of education, the sheer numbers of people who turn to business ownership, and the status of the economy, running an efficient and profitable business can be very difficult. When asked how MIMA could serve them better, clients responded overwhelmingly that they needed some small business training classes to help them run their businesses. In an interview with Hope Nyali, a MMA member and small shop owner, she said “I opened this business to cater my life and the life of my family. It is my hope that they will help me to run my business better. I want be a smart business lady.”

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Upon arriving at my new home, my supervisor and I were taken by my host father to inspect the field. Though I could not understand all that was being said, I caught his motioning to the distance, pointing to bare patches of earth surrounded by maize, and the word “Ndovu” – Elephant. The subject of my internship was self evident that day, and is still an all too common occurrence. That is, the human-elephant conflict.

My host father still sleeps outside at night, as well as many farmers in the community, watching for elephants. This despite the establishment of the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary in 1994, aimed at reducing the conflict and increasing revenue to the community through tourism. Coupled with the post election violence that has caused a sharp decrease in tourism throughout the country, Mwaluganje is facing difficulty in both its primary goals. It has been my hope while I am here I can help to help alleviate these difficulties.

I first identified that Elephant Dung Paper Project could be enhanced as a way to raise revenue and awareness of the sanctuary. To accomplish this, I have worked on improving the quality of the paper, arranged for the art club of the local primary school to decorate the notebook covers, and have made an informative stamp to go along with the products. I hope then to market the paper products to tourist shops and hotels around Mombasa.

A project to address the more pressing issue of stopping the crop raids by elephants is also under development. As has been done in Southern Africa, chili peppers can be used to ward off elephants. By informing and assisting farmers in how to grow and use chili peppers, we hope to create a project sustained for and by the local farmers. An additional benefit to this is the prospect of developing the peppers into a cash crop for additional income.

One farmer, Hassan, tells his story, common to so many others in the community. While he sees the importance of the elephants, it is difficult for him to value them himself. He, as well, spends his nights in his field, keeping watch for elephants, hoping to scare them away before any destruction of his maize, and livelihood. When presented with the chili pepper proposal, he is very receptive and hopes it can one day benefit him.

I am glad to say that we have been finding similar support throughout the community and surrounding areas. We have been able to recruit the aid of the district’s agriculture technicians, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Camp Kenya, and Laikipia (a wildlife reserve in central Kenya who initiated their own chili pepper project a few years ago). We have also recruited five willing farmers to participate in the trial phase of the project, who are eager to plant their own peppers and try the various ways to use them to ward off elephants.

And may one day the farmers of Mwaluganje get a good night’s sleep.

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I learned about the concept of microfinance about a year and a half ago, and the idea instantly captured my attention. Reading about Muhammad Yunus’ experience starting and building the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh gave me visions of leaving for an exotic faraway land where I would trudge through sweltering jungles to meet with loan groups in secluded villages, handing out funds and beaming as each proud entrepreneur in turn stood and ceremoniously handed me the coins she had toiled for that week, repaying her loan a few pennies at a time, and watching with amazement as they were able to achieve a level of stability previously impossible.

Every street is lined with small-scale entrepreneurs – clients and potential clients of Faulu Kenya

Being stationed in Mombasa, a city of upwards of one million people, my experience has, needless to say, differed quite significantly from that fantasy. Nevertheless, upon landing in Mombasa, it was immediately clear why microfinance is so critical in developing countries, and what the enormous gap between ‘developed economy’ and ‘developing economy’ looks like. In the absence of a Western-style job market, the economy here seems to be comprised, in the vast majority, of small-scale entrepreneurs selling all manners of consumer goods: peanuts, fruit, Safaricom cell phone credit, Coca Cola, beaded jewelry, secondhand clothes, each of them making his or her living on sales of less than a dollar. The prospects of those growing those businesses are bleak without the access to small amounts of capital that microfinance institutions like Faulu provide.

I imagined the typical microfinance office to be a couple of bare, dingy rooms with flickering computer screens and a small vault for the operating funds. Instead, I work in what could be easily mistaken to be a small, professional, American bank. Employees wear corporate polos and a row of tellers take deposits from behind a thick pane of glass. Operations are smooth and systematic, though they make do with a fraction of the technological equipment found in a Western bank. Attending meetings with loan groups, it was immediately clear that the system is well-polished. Faulu Kenya has, after all, been at it for more than 15 years. After my first few days, seeing how well everything is put together, I began wondering what I, as a foreigner and a mere student, could contribute to such a well-oiled operation. I couldn’t even understand much of the loan group meetings, only catching the words in my limited Kiswahili vocabulary and those sentences where the speaker would slip, as Kenyans so often do, into English.

Members of each group meet to repay their loans each week

Luckily, that contribution emerged and is now my project for the nine weeks of my internship. My supervisor, the area manager for the coastal offices of Faulu, asked me to look into the possibility of starting a welfare association for clients. Burial expenses are high and often very difficult to come up with, especially on short notice, and informal welfare associations are often frustratingly troublesome and unreliable. After researching similar ‘microinsurance’ programs started by microfinance institutions throughout the developing world, we have begun the mammoth task of surveying as many of the branch’s 15,000 clients as we can to request their input in the creation of such a program. The early signs are extremely positive; nearly 80% of those responding so far have indicated that they would participate when Faulu’s welfare association is launched. Faulu’s tagline is ‘Your Bridge to Success,’ and the new welfare association will help to ensure that those working their way across our bridge are not derailed by a tragedy along the way. Though my time in Mombasa will be done before the program is fully up and running, it is a truly amazing feeling to know my work is laying the foundation for an extension of Faulu’s services that will benefit clients immensely.

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Most children in Mombasa, Kenya take advantage of free primary education, enjoy playing football in sandy parks, and have ambitions of being a doctor, lawyer, or business leader. But during my time working for a local NGO, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), I have found many “street kids” who face the realities of the legal system after being unjustly charged with ‘loitering’ or falsely accused of stealing. Unfortunately, the justice system in Kenya lacks an institution to handle juvenile cases, so organizations like MUHURI are stepping in to direct children out of adult prisons during the trial process and provide them with legal assistance.

A Remand Home for Children was recently constructed just outside of Mombasa city, helping to house youth under 16 for the duration of their trials. Situated on a sand lot less than ½ an acre, it consists only of 2 large cinder-block buildings and 2 more under slow construction – an atmosphere that lacks the hope or encouragement necessary to motivate troubled children. After speaking with the Home manager and learning of MUHURI’s work, it is not difficult to understand the challenges of finding volunteer teachers to instruct 65 remanded kids or provide beneficial activities without proper facilities. In order to ensure time in the Remand Home is constructive and used to jumpstart their return into the community, I have constructed a project to renovate the ‘dining hall’ into a multi-functional room, complete with a chalkboard, removable tables, and shelving for storage of art supplies and school materials for youth.

My first visit to the home was shortly after MUHURI provided paper and pencils for kids to draw with, and I have never seen young people so excited to show off their artistic skill: I was overwhelmed with great sketches and pictures about the prevention of AIDS or saying no to drugs. Not only did this small contribution provide hours of entertainment, but also gave distressed teens a creative outlet for frustrations with challenges in their lives. It is our hope that involving these bright, talented youth in reconstructing the dining hall, offering them the chance to draw murals and help repaint the facility, we can offer something more than a physical structure for gathering: we want this space to provide the type of motivation, education, and information (through Human Rights Workshop) that the children of Mombasa need to reintegrate into the community.

After the project is complete, we will work to secure regular visitors – leaders from the surrounding area – to come speak and support the remand children through their trials. Interviews with the youth show that one of the most encouraging aspects of their week comes with representatives of MUHURI walk through the gate, staying to talk about the conditions of their stay or status of their trials. Bringing teachers, aid workers, or successful community members into the lives of these enthusiastic, but misguided, children is the best remedy to a history of bad experiences. With the addition of books and other school supplies, the renovations of the dining hall will also facilitate a peer-educational atmosphere where kids can help one another with studies, ensuring they do not fall behind in school. Experience tells us that such proactive approaches will help stop the cycle of repeat offenders that often plague Kenyan youth.

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