Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Back to the communities!

I thought it was time to once again uptake my pursuit in blog writing. It has been a long time since I have last written an update. Very briefly, I spent 2 years living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania from October 2013 until October 2015. During that time I worked with both Plan International and VSO International as the Manager of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning.

What started out as a volunteer position turned into a full time job. While I am very grateful for my experience working for international development agencies, I missed learning and working directly with communities. Nonetheless, I learned a lot about operating on a large scale, networking, fundraising and maintaining. Below are some pictures of my time in Tanzania.
Bundling greens with women in Morogoro

Cafe in Zanzibar with friends from VSO

My partner that I met in Tanzania (Andrew)

A night out with friends

A Tanzanian wedding, congratulations Nelson!

Working hard by the beach

Political rally right outside my house 

I am now back in Canada, once again planning for my return to East Africa, though this time I hope to follow the dream that was born back in 2012, to start up my own non-profit organization in clean energy technology, specifically charcoal briquette making. I wanted to post my journey online so people could follow along with me, and keep me accountable to actually turn this plan into reality.
The first step, while in Canada, is to figure out whether there is a need for this business. Though I have always thought there was through literature and my experience living in East Africa, I need to go and talk to the people as well as interview other companies doing similar work to get a better idea of the barriers and challenges. A partnership may be better than forging it alone.

I visited some smaller scale projects while I was in Kenya. Here are some local farmers in Nakuru, pyrolyzing the organic waste themselves, where they make and use their own substitute for charcoal.

My inspiration to return is really founded in the people I met while I lived in Nairobi in 2011/12, many of whom I am still in touch with today. This, intertwined with the people was the lively culture. Tho there is mass poverty, sickness and death all around you, there was also amazing hope there and such an energy, that I really cannot describe with words. Nairobi is a hub for technology, social enterprises, new ideas and innovation. I am very excited to start thinking about returning there.
My small family, back in Canada

Monday, 22 December 2014

One year later

I have found it difficult finding the time to sit down and write about what has been going on in my life. Perhaps because a lot of the work I do now consists of sitting at a computer and analyzing/editing/re-working reports rather than seeing and experiencing things first hand. Nonetheless, I am still learning and enjoying life out here, so let me recap about what has been going on.

I worked for Plan International for one year. During that time, the Manager of Monitoring, Evaluation and Research went on maternity leave, allowing me the opportunity to step in her shoes, gain some valuable experience and contribute a few things from my perspective. This also allowed my travels to Malawi for an M and E (monitoring and evaluation) workshop conference with all of Plan East Africa country offices. My mom was actually visiting me at the time, but if you know my mom, you also know that she fits in with pretty much any crowd, including NGO M and E specialists.

After a year of Plan Tanzania, the time had come to move on. While I had committed to 2 years; I knew that I wanted to do something different. I have had my eyes set on a charcoal project for awhile now. Basically that project involves using organic waste (corn cobs, rice husks, sugar cane bagasse, etc.) and using it to make charcoal for cooking. I have been talking with a PhD student from MIT University and visited some charcoal projects in both Kenya and Tanzania. Right now, people cook over charcoal made from burnt trees. This is not only devastating for the forests and environment, but also for human health as the smoke byproduct is considerable. Cooking over organic waste benefits local farmers, saves the forests, and is better for human health AND can be made cheaper than the traditional charcoal.

This is a picture of a project I visited in Tanzania. Ironically, this organization was also started by someone who used to be a VSO volunteer. I probably also should have mentioned that I got accepted to the MPA program (Masters of Public Administration) at UVic. I applied for the online component so that I could continue with my life out here in East Africa while earning this degree. Suffice to say, I am a little bit busier than I thought and when Russell (my liaison manager at VSO) offered my part-time work with VSO while completing my studies, I couldn't refuse. Therefore, I have not yet started on my charcoal endeavor. Funding for my part-time work as an M and E Specialist runs out in March therefore I am forced to move on to something else in a couple of months.

Meanwhile, life in Dar Es Salaam is hot, hot hot! I have also befriended a street youth (Dani) who was falsely arrested for armed robbery. I am doing what I can to get him out and to let the system know that I am watching this case. I recently visited the State Attorney in Charge for Dar Es Salaam and went over the particulars of Dani's case, and why the charge is atrocious. I have hope that he will be released. In the meantime, I visit him at Segerea jail bringing food, hygiene products and some hope whenever I am able. Here are a few pictures of that experience.

This is a picture of people waiting to see their loved ones in prison. Not surprisingly, it is made up primarily of women. They bring food, soap, toothpaste and whatever else they are allowed to bring to their family/partners. Its a long day. Often I wait for 2 hours before I can see Dani. And seeing Dani is equivalent to about 5 minutes with a billion other people yelling across a wire mesh communicating with someone who stands 30 feet apart.

Here is a sneak picture of Segerea jail through the bush. It is fairly plain, smells really awful, and prisoners (not like Dani who is on remand) are made to work around the prison grounds. Surprisingly for Tanzania, the prison grounds are spotless. The lawns are well manicured, the gardens are immaculate, it is quite the sight.

Here is a picture of Dani's friends. The one in the gray is Edward. He is a loyal friend of Dani, and has become a good friend of mine as well. The one in the pink I have just recently met, and actually cannot even remember his name.

The Christmas holidays are upon us. On a fun note, I have one more working day before I get a week and a half of vacation and I plan on heading up to Arusha, which is much cooler at this time of year. Also, a good friend of mine from Kenya (Jah Pillah) is playing music up there which I look forward to experiencing. I also plan on heading to Zanzibar very soon as I have not yet enjoyed the spices, beaches, snorkeling, or the ancient city that this island has to offer since moving to Tanzania.

Merry Christmas everyone. I will try to update more often. I miss you all, but know that we will meet again soon.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Arrival and introduction

I arrive in Tanzania in early October. The first thing to hit me after departing the airplane is the heat! Thirty degrees is the norm in Dar Es Salaam, a little overwhelming for a Canadian. I am provided with a nice apartment in a wealthier part of the city called Msasani. There are a lot of expats that live in this area, and the prices of food and transport reflect this. Here is a photo of the beach about a 15 minute walk from my house.

Following my warm welcome, I am whisked away for language training in the town of Morogoro for 2 weeks. We stayed at a hotel run by nuns. Here I am discussing swahili with another fellow learner (Chiang is a surgeon from China also trying to learn swahili).

 The first day I arrive in the office I am called upon to work on a logical framework for a rush proposal. While it was a little bit stressful trying to piece together information for a program I yet know nothing about, it was  a good learning introduction. My job involves working with the M and E Coordinators throughout the country and creating a country wide M and E framework and process.

After one and a half weeks of office work I am asked to travel to the north of the country, Geita, to assist with a mid-term evaluation of their child labour project. Gold mining is big business in Geita. It employs men, women and even children. Below is a picture of one of the largest gold mining operations in Geita.

Children are not likely to work with large companies, rather are most often recruited from small scale mining companies providing children with toxic work but steady income. The toxicity comes from separating the gold from the dirt and sand using liquid mercury. My organization strives to get children out of the mines and back into school. There are several strategies being implemented to accomplish this large task. Some of which involve improving the income and livelihood of families at the household level through village savings groups. In addition, we are educating communities, government and village leaders about quality education. Further, we are also advocating to the government to build the capacity of schools to accommodate the stream of children in need of education. Currently, the schools are heavily under-resourced with limited teachers, supplies and infrastructure. I witnessed one school where there was a ratio of 100 children to 1 teacher.

 Together with the evaluation team in Geita, we collected data from schools, teachers, students, and community groups. Below is a picture of a focus group discussion in one of the nearby villages.

It was great to have the opportunity to listen to the community members share their views. However, all of our interactions are conducted in Swahili. This provides me with a big reminder and incentive that I need to continue studying this language.  Below is a picture of one of the staff members after interviewing the children at school.

During one of our visits to conduct interviews with the students, I witness a male teacher beating 10 of the girl students with a stick. They are beaten in front of the entire school and I witness them being hit over and over again (10 - 15 times). I feel completely powerless to do anything as I am representing my organization. Therefore, I stand in the doorway and glare at him hoping to communicate my disapproval. Unfortunately, my plan backfires and he merely moves the beatings inside where I cannot see. In Tanzania, it is legislated that teachers are allowed to hit children up to 3 times. (How compassionate right?) Unfortunately, this provision is not enforced, and teachers are given much leeway to discipline as they see fit.

Below is a picture of an extracurricular program involving drums at a nearby school. (This picture was not taken at the school where the beatings were conducted).

Following field work and data collection for the child labour project, I am provided with the opportunity to attend a Village Health Day. Men, women and children are invited to attend a dispensary for education, information, free vaccinations and check-ups for their children. Below is a picture of a dispensary and line up of women and children awaiting medical attention.

I witness an abundance of young mothers lining up for hours at a time to get their child examined. Young mothers are toting as many as 4 children. One on their back, one on their front, and two little ones walking beside. You can see their struggle trying to transport these children several kilometers without any help. Some children are tired and are crying and the young mothers are doing their best to accommodate everyone. I am always amazed at how much these women love their children. I have yet to witness a women speak harshly to their children, even though the women look exhausted, are underfed, and are committed to endless work.

Below is a picture of a community health worker educating a group of women about breast feeding.

The community health worker uses pictures to clarify her message as many women in the village are illiterate.

Part of the discussion involves the importance of men being involved in their children's lives. There was a small handful of men who attended the village health day with their wives. They were encouraged to set an example for other men in their village. Men in Tanzania are the decision makers and money holders for the majority of families. Women are still often viewed as inferior to men. As such, if a child becomes sick, the woman is often powerless to even travel to a health facility to get medication unless approved by their father. In addition, if a women goes into labour and there are complications with the birth, she often is without money to seek emergency attention unless the husband is nearby (and approves the expense). This results in a high rate of maternal and newborn mortality that is not specific to Tanzania alone. Hence it is one of the Millenium Development Goals that has made little headway.

During the village health day, children's height and weight are measured and recorded for the mother. Stunting from lack of nutrition is a major problem in Tanzania. As such, educating women about the importance of monitoring their children's growth and ensuring they get enough nutrition is a priority.

I am also provided the opportunity to witness how my organization educates and implements their programs on a large scale. Here all the village leaders from two wards are invited to attend and learn about how to implement children's clubs in their respective villages. Children's clubs are an initiative of my organization and have been facilitated throughout the country so that children themselves are promoters of their rights. Children elect child leaders, and run and maintain the clubs. They promote child rights to village, district and regional leaders through community meetings, government duty bearers and through media outlets (such as radio and television). Below is a picture of a workshop with village leaders.

It was great to travel abroad and see some of the field work with my own eyes. It certainly beats sitting at a computer. Though now its back to the office. Time to figure out how to consolidate the massive amount of data into a finely tuned system.

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Back in East Africa, what a whirlwind. Before I start on my journey of Tanzania, let me do a quick re-cap of what I have been doing in Canada. I arrived back in Victoria in May 2012; a week after arriving I was back in my old job working for the government. It was the most bizarre feeling, it was almost as if I had never been away. Road safety had not changed a whole lot and I was working on many similar issues.

The first 6 months took some getting used to; having to build friendships from scratch; something that was very easy in Kenya, but not so easy in Victoria. However, after some time, I got to know some great people and really started to enjoy "island life". I bicycled everywhere, planted a garden, got my horse trained (kind-of), and settled into a routine. Here are some picture from my year and a half in Canada.

My office cubicle; not a bad view

Picnic with my work pals

Birthday bash in Abby

Night out in Vic

My daily bicycle route to see ...

Princess Zinnia (she looks innocent, but was a handful and a half).

My gals from the barn!

Kenyan maize I brought and planted in front of my house

Good family time

All in all, life was good (albeit busy). It was great to be with family again, make some new friends, reconnect with old friends, work and save money. I had the opportunity to work a fair bit of overtime (which was great for saving), I finished my first year of graduate school, and bicycled 30 km almost daily. Despite this good life, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to return ...

Back in Dagoretti

It's good to be back! Will update again soon ...

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Leaving Zion

My days in Kenya, for now, have come to an end. I write this with sadness, though am happy to think about how I spent my time in Kenya: the friends I have made, the experiences I have had, the knowledge I obtained and the generosity and kindness emanating from countless souls. My last few weeks in Kenya were crazy busy as I was trying to wrap up projects and tie up loose ends before leaving the promised land. Though one cannot completely tie up loose ends as the work is continuous, Jah Works never ceases.

I spent my last weekend over at the Rasta farm in Maragua. I arrived on a Sunday and spent the whole day at the market with Ital Wandutu. Though there wasn't much movement in terms of sales, it was good to see the community interaction. I was also awarded the privilege of a drunk follower. He didn’t want to leave my side until he got paid. Apparently speaking more than one word to a foreigner provides ample reason for reward. Lucky for me, Ital Wandutu burned that fire (aka reemed him out). The next day we spent the day at the farm and transplanted avocado seedlings from the nursery to paper bags awaiting planting. The rains have now come to Maragua and we expect another fruitful season. I know they will continue to do good works - I will keep updating on my brothers progress ... onward and upward, from Kibera to Maragua to South Africa - good things are happening here.
Ital Wandutu
I should say a word or two about my close friend, Ras Githaka, founding member of Shiriki (though he wouldn't like it put that way). He was my first contact in Kenya and encouraged me to come out and volunteer. I have worked very closely with him over this last year, and he has been an immense source of information, knowledge and wisdom. In fact, he was always my go-to person should I have a crisis (in which there were a few) or needed quick advice. He was also with me in Kitui for the month I lived on the farm. If anyone wants to know anything about NGOs, agriculture, networking, Africa or African history, Ras Githaka is an encyclopedia of knowledge and one of the most articulate people I have known - thanks for all friend.
Ras Githaka on a treadle pump in Kitui

Next group: I wanted to spend substantial time with my women's group before leaving. They call themselves the Kibera Ladies. I tried to convince them to choose another name, but they could not be swayed, Kibera Ladies it is. Last post I talked about how we were brainstorming ideas for small business income generation. I was eager to get them started on a project before I left and in doing so, I probably rushed them too much. Teaching a group research and data gathering skills is not something that can be accomplished in a few short weeks. Nonetheless, there were three prevailing ideas that emanated positively with the group: making soap, making charcoal briquettes and owning a cereal shop. Making soap was the idea of member Rosinah. It is cheap to make soap, and you don’t need a lot of space for manufacturing. Unfortunately Rosinah did not gather the necessary information for the methodology needed for soap making before I left. Nonetheless, I have communicated with her since being home and the woman are making soap! The cereal store was another curious idea that group member Janet had. The downside to starting a cereal store is that it requires substantial capital start-up costs. I suggested to the group that they start on a cheaper business and once the funds are in place, to go forward with a cereal shop. They thought this was a good idea.

Lucy and Maureen

Now for the third idea: charcoal briquettes. I have long been interested in providing an environmentally friendly alternative to the charcoal that everyone uses for cooking in Kibera. The problem with charcoal is that it is destroying Kenya's forests and eco-systems as people chop down trees and burn them as a means for providing income. Most of this happens illegally and people chop down the trees, burn them, and sell them to middle men buyers who transport them to the major cities. There are many alternatives to charcoal, such as manufacturing charcoal briquettes using agricultural by-products. At the Toi market in Kibera, there is an abundance of agricultural waste that is thrown out. This ranges from rotten fruits, vegetables, banana peels, leaves, sugar cane, corn husks, etc... a goldmine! We found a kibanda (stall) to rent in Kibera, near Toi market, where the women could manufacture or sell whatever they desired and agricultural products were close on hand.
Toi Market

As I was eager to start making charcoal briquettes, me and Lucy, one of my members, spent a few hours digging and hunting through the garbage in Toi. Though not all the members were sold on digging through garbage to make charcoal briquettes, I did have a couple members who were on board. This must have looked a bit bizarre, a "muzungu" (white person) digging through the garbage at the biggest market in the slums. Luckily there was an abundance of sugarcane bagasse right on the surface which we collected and transported to our kibanda. We also managed to find people that were throwing out banana peels, so took a whole ghunia (sack) of that. We found furniture stores who sold us a ghunia of sawdust for one dollar. Dirty and tired, we had a nice assortment of bi-products to try out. Covered in Kibera garbage, I walked away tired, dirty, but satisfied.

I drew up a design of the type of machinery that was needed to make the briquettes to a local welder in Dagoretti. It involved making a hand-held cylinder with a removable lid that could be pounded by a hammer (or in my case a rock) to make a solid briquette. You put your products inside the cylinder and then pound the lid down on top of it to make a nice round briquette. I then went to our kibanda in Kibera to experiment on making briquettes using sawdust and rotten bananas and peels. As I worked away, my local Kibera community members came by to see what I was up to. One response I particularly remember was: "well muzungu - you are trying..." Not sure about the succeeding part, but trying I was.

The briquettes need a couple of weeks to dry before you can cook with them. Also, it is the rainy season at the moment, so drying may take even longer. Unfortunately I had to leave before we could try to cook with the briquettes, but I know the kibanda will be awaiting when I return. Another method that can be used to make briquettes involves burning sugarcane bagasse and corn husks using an oil drum strategically cut with small holes in the bottom and a big hole in the top. I researched the procedure and equipment needed for this project and went to my right hand man: Shuba, to see where I could obtain the supplies. There is a large market downtown where one can purchase oil drums - I went downtown, bought an oil drum, got it strapped to the roof of a Kibera matatu, and went to deliver the goods.

In Kibera I found a welder who was able to cut the holes and make a lid. Though we did not get to start burning before I left, I know the oil drum will be ready and waiting for me when I return. Additionally, the women can begin to experiment with burning the agricultural by-products at anytime to make a charcoal dust. (though I have doubts they will begin this process before my return). Nonetheless, I also managed to contact some different universities already engaged in this procedure with different groups in developing countries. They are willing to partner with us and I look forward to following through and working with them when I am back in Kenya. Here is a demonstration video that I found with a university in the US which I corresponded with. If interested in charcoal briquettes, check it out (cool video) :

As for Soweto academy, I was too scared to go back to that part of Kibera after being chased by gunpoint by the youth gang. They knew who I was and what I looked like and I know they were still looking for us. I figured if I needed to go back there I would bring some serious security with me. Nonetheless, I have made several contacts in Dagoretti who are willing to buy their water. Now it is up to them to follow through and maintain those customers. I would still like to keep looking for donors for the computer proposal back in Canada though - I think I need a bit of God's help to find the right sponsors on this one.
Shuba and Purity

I am desperately going to miss some of the very flamboyant characters I have come to know and love. Walking through Dagoretti as matatus fly by, Shuba yells out: "Jah Will, get in...." Running and jumping inside the moving vehicle I hear a passenger say something something Mzungu. Always my defenders, the dagoretti youth burn fire "Yeye si mzungu!" (She is not a foreigner). The youth have told me "Jah Wil, your skin may be brown, but your heart is black." While there are obvious differences between my Kenyan brothers and sisters and me, Kenya has become HOME.

Speaking of flamboyant youths, here is a fun project I helped a local youth with. Jah Warrior, whom I have mentioned before, the aspiring artist and musician who is constantly painting, drawing, writing movie scripts and making music. I filmed a music video of him performing his song "bedroom gully" in Kawangware. The song is about the wealthy businessmen and politicians of Kenya who exploit the young women growing up in poverty. There is something surreal about filming music videos in the ghetto. As I was filming in this small little video rental studio with the song blaring in the background, people were walking by, children dancing as they heard the music, I remember thinking: is this real? Am I really here ... how PRIVILEDGED am I that I get to experience this complete other world. Thanks to JAH for providing the bridge. Anyways, this video still needs some editing, but here is a draft of his work.

To keep my foot in the Kenyan door, as I previously mentioned, I need to come up with some methods for generating income. One idea that I am investigating involves buying land. As urbanization increases at a rapid rate in Nairobi, so does the value of land. I am particularly interested in buying land close to Nairobi so that I can potentially live on the outskirts of the city and commute to the town. In addition, I am interested in agriculture and having a small farm. I was not able to buy land before I left, though am trying to maintain some of those contacts to buy land when I return.

In addition, we bought a matatu. Oh yes, those crazy Nissan vans pimped out to the nines with drivers chewing miraa (plant stimulant) and crazy conductors hanging out the door fighting eachother to convince one more passenger to come inside. Matatus are quite a cultural item in Nairobi, they blare music (usually reggae) often come equipped with a TV screen (in which music videos are playing) and sometimes have Christmas lights flashing on and off. I shall continue to report on how this initiative is going, or not going.

The day that I have been dreading, April 19th, came far too quickly. I remember sitting in a bus driving through Kibera with tears in my eyes. I see all these animated people, and the truth is, their lives are not easy, but still, there is such a spirit of energy and LIFE here. Yes, this is combined with burning garbage, sewage trenches, and as already mentioned, a high degree of danger, but also there is music, community, a sense of collective responsibility, and the most beautiful land and people one could ever hope to see.

Some of my Dagoretti youth

It was not fun packing up all my belongings to leave though I was overwhelmed and blessed by the number of people who stopped by or called to say goodbye. In fact, there was a crowd of about fifteen youth hanging out by the road outside my gate which included Jah Warrior, Rajab, Mjomba, Willy Wonder from my Seti CBO and many other youth I have gotten to know in Dago. This community has meant so much to me in these last 6 months, leaving... SUCKS.

After saying goodbye to Dagoretti, I head to Kibera to say goodbye to Costanzia, the Kibera Ladies and Shiriki. First thing, we meet Costanzia who has been patiently waiting for me at her kibanda. She gives me about 15 chapatis as she wants my entire family to try her chapatis. The generosity and sincerity of this beautiful women is overhwleming. Unfortunately, since being home, I have been able to communicate with everyone except for Costanzia, I have hope she is doing well and I will keep trying to get her.

Next stop: the rasta foundation. It is 8:30 pm and I walk into the Haile Selassie Foundation. Everyone is surprised to see me, they thought I had aleady left. Ras Benaiya, Ras Faya Ng'ang'a, Ras Maruri and Ras Makoau are all there. The thing about the Rasta livity that I love, is their complete awareness of being conscientious in every aspect of their life, they have taught me so much about meaningful living. Ras Benaiya walks me back to the road after saying my goodbyes. I have worked closely with him on many projects and he will be our Shiriki representative at the South Africa conference. Ras Benaiaya is fairly small in stature but speaks with incredible authority, truth and burning fire.

Ras Benaiaya, Sara and ME (with head covered)

Final stop, my women's group. This group was a tough one to leave because they have barely gotten started. I constantly kept thinking, how can I leave these women? Nonetheless, they will be okay without me. And, since being home, we have managed to stay in touch, Rosinah keeps me updated on their progress. I am praying for them, I will continue to encourage them, and when I return, will be a present source of support for them should they need it! (I wish I had some better pictures of them, but unfortunately my camera broke my last month in Kenya).

I never would have thought I could have had the experiences that I have had. This year has been a crazy amazing ride - and is not over. Though I am back in Canada now, I know I will be returning to Zion. And when I do, I will be there to stay.