Category Archives: kenya

A sweet and simple thank you from a girl who survived a brain tumour.

Thank you note from the little girl Grace in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Impoverished Children

Pleased to share with you this thank you note from the little girl Grace in Kenya who was diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier this year. When funds were short to pay for medical care, a small group of people came together via Facebook to raise the money she needed. She subsequently underwent brain surgery and has recovered. Here she is, back at her school in Nairobi, with a message in her own words. That’s her with her mother and the school’s principal Catherine Whiting.Isn’t she cute? This great story reminds me of that quote from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


Presentation to Rotary Club of Nairobi East

Click this image to download my presentation and speaking notes in PDF format (2.4MB)

The Rotary Club of Nairobi East recently invited me to give a presentation to their club on my Peace Fellowship experience and work in the water sector.

By way of background, the Peace Fellowship is a generous scholarship program funded by the Rotary Foundation. Every year the Foundation chooses 60 mid-career professionals from around the globe to undertake postgrad study in a chosen field (whether economics, education, journalism, law, or in my case – public health) at selected universities in different countries. These studies must also focus on how we can make a constructive contribution to peace.

For my Fellowship, I chose to undertake a Master of Public Health at the University of North Carolina. In my presentations to Rotary Clubs I talk about this experience and share some of what I learned about increasing access to safe water for vulnerable populations such as people living with HIV, orphans and vulnerable children, pregnant mothers and people displaced by conflict or natural disasters. If time permits, I also give a demonstration of water purification methods.

My presentation focused on three key points (you can download the slides here). Firstly, although access to improved and safer sources of water is increasing worldwide, it is not reaching those who need it most, such as those who live in rural areas or who are living on extremely low incomes; secondly, home-based treatment and safe storage of drinking water are proven public health interventions (and a component of many Rotary water projects) which address this problem but there is a still huge unmet need; and finally, clean water is not just important for health but can also contribute to the broader social and economic progress of communities (and ultimately increased peace) which is why water is one of Rotary’s six core areas of focus.

What carpe diem means to me

The beach always inspires me and gets my mind whirring. Today I was thinking about how our time on Earth is filled with moments that can be sad or happy, painful or pleasureful. We tend to welcome the good and shun the bad but without one we cannot have the other. We need failure to appreciate success, right? It has taken me years to appreciate this but the realisation has changed my life for the better and helped me become more resilient, able to bounce back from disappointment, face fear and live my dreams. I’m learning to live as if each day was my last – appreciating the miracles around me – but more importantly planning for the future with purpose and passion. Truly living with heart and soul – this is what ‘carpe diem’ has come to mean for me. What does it mean for you?

Diani Beach, Coast Province, Kenya

Kenyan children sleeping peacefully

Little children’s bodies and minds need to rest, to allow them to grow up strong, sturdy and smart. Catherine Whiting, the Principal of Shine Academy in Kibera, Kenya and founder of the organisation that supports it, shared this beautiful photo recently on their facebook page, saying:

“Given their dysfunctional home environments, the children look forward to sleep time at school. The one hour of quiet, warm, safe sleep per day reduces the children’s stress and improves their concentration in class.”

One of my favourite scenes from a typical day at the little pre-school in Kibera.
Photo credit: Catherine Whiting / Impoverished Children (




Happy faces in rural Kenya

I put this image together after a conversation with a friend who runs a school in a Nairobi slum. She told me that she recently spoke with one of the parents of her schoolchildren who was telling her a story about a reporter who interviewed her about what it’s like to be poor. The woman recounted how the reporter assumed that because she was poor, she was unhappy with her life. But in fact, the woman said she was happy – her kids were in school, she can pay her rent, she can buy enough food so that they do not starve, and she has a job and works six days a week. But the reporter kept questioning her and she started to think she was crazy to think this way.

It seems to me that too often we who work in the so-called “international development” industry begin our work with the assumption that those who are poorer than we are aspire to be like us, to consume like us, and to live like us. We impose our Western values on them in return for aid, and stipulate that they adapt their economies and societies so that they can become “successful” like us. But success for us may not mean the same to them. We need to rethink and reframe the conversation we are having on global development. This image is intended to provoke some thought around this.

There is a quote attributed to Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal:

“If you’re coming to help me, you’re wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Visit to Nairobi animal orphanage

Today I visited the Nairobi National Park, one of the only major game reserves in the world located close to a major capital city. One of the attractions of the park is an animal orphanage which provides a home to exotic animals found orphaned in the wild. The park is a great opportunity for local people to view Kenyan wildlife without getting away from the city, and is attractive to those people who may not be able to afford the expense of a safari.

The orphanage is home to a wide variety of animals, such as cheetah, leopard, giraffe, hyena and a number of species of primates and birds. We had the opportunity to view and get close to two baby cheetahs (4m old), a baby giraffe (3m old), and a baby baboon (3m old). So cool to hold these little animals! Check out selected photos below and the full album on facebook.



Reminder of Kenyan post-election violence

“Keep Peace Fellow Kenyan”

A couple of days ago, I snapped this shot along Kibera Drive, on the limits of the Kibera community in Nairobi. It serves as a poignant reminder of the post-election violence which shattered Kenyan society in early 2008. Before a power-sharing agreement was established, over 1000 people had been killed nationwide; Kibera was particularly affected. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different perspectives on the root causes of the conflict: some say ethnic tensions, and others point to socio-economic issues. It’s probably both. With elections approaching again in 2012 and no firm resolution to the issues, people are worried that violence will rear its head again.


What a moto-taxi driver in Kisumu makes and spends…

On a moto-taxi here in Kisumu and passed a huge house. Driver and I start talking about incomes and rents. In a month he earns about $200 in his job, working 12hrs a day, 6-7 days/week; pays $15 in rent for one room w/ kitchen which he shares with his wife and three kids, two of whom are in school. He rents his motobike for about $100 a month, leaving him with about 85$ left to buy food, water, clothing, school fees, and gasoline (which is pricey right now) – not to mention medicine if its needed. Don’t forget about sanitary pads and pay-per-use toilets. He lives in a local slum called Nyalenda, where there are no water/toilet connections – he uses about as much water in a day as we would use in a 3min shower. When I tell him I know somewhere he could get cheaper water (about 15% cheaper than the usual market rate), he is very interested to hear about it…

A story of survival…

Hi all,

I have a story to tell but I’m not sure how to tell it. It’s not my story but I was asked to tell it. The people who asked me wanted a window to the “outside world” to explain their situation and build awareness of their cause. They asked me to take photos and listen to what they had to say. It is an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of a group of individuals who struggle daily for survival and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet them.

They are a group of homeless men and boys living in Kisumu. There are eight of them, and they range in age from 16 to 50-something. All have Christian/Western first names like Jared or Richard and second names of a tribal origin such as Ochieng or Owino. In this text, I’ll call them the “Group of 8”. I met them under the shade of a tree in the middle of a landfill on the outskirts of Kisumu City. I was taken here because this is their home.

View of the Kisumu landfill

I was introduced to them by someone who wanted me to see that despite the challenges of their situation they do the best they can with the means available to them. In this landfill, they feel safe from the hustle and bustle of the city where no one wants them and everyone regards them with suspicion.

But sitting there in the hot and humid sun, with sweat dripping off of me and swarms of flies landing all over me, I was totally freaked out. I had just been led through the landfill in my flip-flops, navigating broken glass, nails, splintered wood, discarded tin cans, plastic bags filled with who knows what, egg shells, light bulbs, and so on.

The "ground" beneath my feet

The smell of human excrement and garbage was overpowering and my nose was burning. I realized that this was probably a place where latrine waste is dumped. I resisted the urge to cover my mouth and nose with my t-shirt lest I insult them. This was their home. However, although I was intensely interested in their story, I also felt unsafe. As a mzungu, I am usually (and correctly) presumed to be (relatively) rich and I always need to be on my guard. In this setting, I had no protection, no one to cry out to. If they decided to attack me, my guide would be helpless and no one would come to help me.

It suddenly dawned on me I was perpetuating the very stigma my guide had brought me here to counteract. Doing my best to dispel my assumptions and prejudice, I drew on every ounce of cultural diplomacy I have learned in my travels over the years and also put some newly-acquired public health interviewing skills to work: listen, engage, inquire appreciatively, and smile. I decided to use my new Polaroid camera as a tool – taking a photo of us and offering it as a gift – to hopefully strengthening the initial bonds of trust. This camera, given to me by my girlfriend for my birthday has been a huge hit in Africa! My tactics worked and after 45 minutes the result was the round of smiles you see in the photo below.

The Group of 8

The area in the photo above is their common gathering point where they meet to talk and cook their food over an open fire. Their meal for the day (they only eat once) would be a small bucket of sweet potatoes shared between all of them. To drink – fresh clean water from the local church.

As I soon discovered, my “guide” is much more than that. The Group of 8 call him their leader because he is an example of someone who was able to get himself off the street and re-integrate into “mainstream” society. 27 years old, he grew up on the streets sniffing glue. He slept in the same landfill and recycled plastic to earn 25 cents in a day if he was lucky. Today he has turned his life around and now lives in a shack with half a dozen other people, provides shelter food and education for five street kids on his salary of $100 a month (see photo at right), took on his niece after his sister died from HIV or TB (he’s not sure) and runs a small community organisation to help other street youth rise out of the same situation he was once in. I’m blown away by the impact he has on those around him. This guy is a hero and I could learn a lot from him.

The Leader

The small community-based organization that the Leader is involved with is a group of about 50 former street boys who provide support to street youth in order to empower them to make decisions about how to improve their livelihood. The CBO members provide advice on how to generate income, staying safe as a group, the importance of being positive and the dangers of substance abuse. The Leader also invites them to attend informal church services which he facilitates. He says their attendance at church is one of the highlights of their week as it allows them to “escape” their situation for a while. Christianity is quite prevalent here, as a result of Britain’s former colonial rule. In fact, all these fellows have Christian/Western first names like Jared or Richard and second names of a tribal origin such as Ochieng or Owino. (My adopted Luo tribal name is Oloo, which means “out of the soil” – it’s a great conversation starter!) If the CBOs’ psychological support works, they offer the opportunity to move into a “group home” (to use a Western term) if they commit to dropping their street habits and getting back into school.

That is easier said than done. Many of the Group of 8 have grown up homeless and know no other lifestyle. Many of them are hooked on drugs such as changa’a (local moonshine), glue, paint thinner, marijuana or khat (a plant which is chewed on and has a stimulant effect). The Leader told me these help to numb the pain of being constantly bitten by critters at night such as mosquitoes or kiroboto (African bed bugs which thrive in dirty environments).

Despite the substance abuse, they are clearly self aware and working to help themselves (for starters, that’s what distinguishes the members of the Group of 8 from other street youth). One of them commented to me:

We do what we can to improve our situation. We are adults now and the term “street boys” is no longer appropriate for us. We have to be responsible and find a way to help ourselves.

Street boys working in the dirt

The members of the Group of 8 make a living from collecting plastic bottles or bags from all over the city, scavenging through garbage, storm drains and dumpsters. If they can collect 2kg of bottles, they’ll make about US$0.25, if they’re lucky.

Jared with one of the Polaroid photos

This is Jared (you can see him in the Group of 8 photo above with the outstretched arms). He told me about how he collects plastic bags used to package tree or plant seedlings and that have been discarded once the shrub has been replanted. He sells the bags back to the tree vendor. Great idea – and eco-friendly too! There is no greater motivation to succeed than survival, and I wondered what interesting water-related entrepreneurial opportunities I could identify for them through my research work here in Kenya. As Jared describes himself:

I’m an enterprising individual; I can start my own thing.

Many of them make their living from recycling and so that may be why they have come to call the local landfill home. Each of them were eager to show me how they had made a comfortable space for themselves in the area and were fiercely proud of it. The landfill itself is a large plot – approximately 1 square kilometre. About three-quarters of it are filled with refuse. The other part is mainly shrubbery and is the area where most of them have carved out a spot to sleep.

A place to sleep

As I left the landfill the same way I came in, I thought about what an amazing situation this was. Against so much adversity, these individuals had found a place they felt comfortable in, a group they belonged to, and mechanisms for survival that worked. They also had a goal of a better life in mind and people to help them get there. Glancing back, I saw them watching me leave. I offered a wave to my new friends and hoped to see them again.

Era kamano! (Thank you)

Click here to see more photos on my facebook page.