Thursday, November 21, 2013

Deng: In His Own Words

One of the goals of the Simama Project is to celebrate the children that we work with in a positive light. We are opposed to the marketing of children as victims and instead choose to focus on their successes. However, we also believe that it is very important that our supporters understand the situations that some of our children come from and experience leading up to their experience with Simama. With that in mind we will be featuring several posts from some of our students telling their stories in their own words. The students featured have agreed to share their experiences with the public. This is in no way a requirement for them to be involved in our program and the children can choose whether or not they would like to participate and what they would like to share/withhold. There are only slight grammatical edits for clarity and, occasionally edits for appropriate content. All parenthetical statements have been added by the editor for clarification.

That being said, I would like to introduce one of our most promising young students, Abraham Deng. Deng towers above his peers at approximately 6'9" and has just completed his first year at St. Mary's Boys in Nyeri, Kenya. He has distinguished himself as being the top performer in his class by leading in five separate subjects.

Additionally, he has done all in his power to raise money to sponsor another Simama student. Here is Deng in his own words:

Abraham Deng at prize giving day at St. Mary's Nyeri where he is a first year student

"Life, a trap of prosperity and challenges, however, I was so unfortunate that it trapped me on the negative side and for that it had not been a morning breakfast. I was born in a refugee camp in the south-west Ethiopia. I was raised by an extended family consisting of three wives and about twenty children. We had no main source of livelihood. We all depended on the food we were offered by UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) and for sure, it was just too little for us. We couldn't afford three square meals. It was either lunch with no supper each day, or supper with no lunch. For matter of breakfast, it was history, I came to learn it the other day.

Despite the efforts of my father and mother, everything seemed to be growing darker and darker. Nothing worked and as a result, life became a hard bone to crack. We tried to do petty jobs here and there to improve our living standard, but everything was null. My parents never got jobs since they had never gone to school. More so, we were not even sent to school ourselves. The school which was there was only one and it was so crowded beyond imagination. Getting admitted in that school was rare, and for those that got it, it was through corruption.

So we stayed at home, helpless, not knowing what to do. We knew it so well that education was a breakthrough to a better life, but what could we have done? If we cannot change the impossibilities to possibilities, we had no otherwise. Life went on and before long, mother developed an illness, I think it was high blood pressure. She got admitted several times at hospital, however, God kept her safe. She survived despite not having gotten sufficient medical care. It was all because of God.

In 2007, our uncle who was living at Kakuma refugee camp heard about our whereabouts. He was so shocked. He thought my parents had been killed in a fight that had been going on in Sudan called the Bor Massacre. Immediately he sent for us. We packed our things and walked on foot from Ethiopia to Sudan since there was no other means of transportation. After we reached a place called Buma in South Sudan we got lucky to get a truck which was heading to Kenya. We entered, and after about two days we arrived at Kakuma refugee cap.

Our uncle welcomed us warmly. He shed tears of joy at having seen my parents alive again. From there we were given our ration card by UNHCR and life seemed a little better. The serenity we had gotten was now vanishing. Reports of death cases each day were really sickening us. The local people in the area were a threat to refugees. They would kill many of us at night, set our houses on fire and raped women. Children were not an exception, they were kidnapped and taken to a destination unknown to us. It was so terrible. How could people be so heartless?

Nights became longer than usual. Sleeping at night was useless, like a smile in the darkness. Everyone was all eyes at night, since no one wants to meet their death while they sleep. Conditions became worse and worse and as a result my parents opted to go back to Sudan. We were to follow them, however, one brother and I were lucky. We were called by our Aunt, who was living in Karatina, Kenya, to come and live with her. My parents went to Sudan and we came to Karatina.

This is the junction where my education started. Despite being illiterate, I joined class four. I worked very hard and by the end of class eight I passed my exam with flying colors. I scored a 393, (for purpose of comparison the best score in all of Kenya that year was 430) which I had not expected. Kiswahili had been a challenge to me, but I thank God I have sound knowledge of it now. Luckily I joined St. Mary's Boys Secondary school where I met Alfred Maina. We became friends and when I told him my story he got touched and told me about the Simama Project. I am quite proud that the Simama Project has given me a chance to continue my education and I am here to utilize it to the fullest.

I am an ambitious guy, with the help of the Simama Project, and others, I know I will make it to the top. After my form 4 (senior year of high school) I would like to study electronic engineering, god willing.

Thank you,"

Abraham Deng
Deng and Alfred at St. Mary's in Nyeri

Friday, December 14, 2012

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Simama Update: Being Thankful

Dear friends, loved ones and people I don't know at all,

I would like to thank everyone for the great show of support that the Simama Project has received this year. It has been an amazing year for the Project and also for me personally.

I am very pleased to announce that this year, because of your support, we have managed to send 32 kids to school who would otherwise have had no chance at education.  Led by a highly skilled board of directors, we have established a Community Based Organization in Kenya, to create appropriate programs and find the most innovative ways to help children get themselves out of poverty.

While I am incredibly proud of the efforts of our students and pleased with Simama exceeding our lofty goal of sponsoring 28 kids, I know that there is still much to be done.  This year I had to look into the eyes of too many well qualified potential students and tell them "no".  Even though many of these were perfect candidates, children who eagerly wanted a chance to get themselves out of poverty through education, I simply could not commit resources that we do not have.

One boy hiked from a village over thirty kilometers away, three times in one week, to ask for a scholarship to high school.  He had an impoverished family and very good grades in middle school, but Simama had already sponsored more children than we had budgeted for.  Another girl from a nearby village wanted to become the first person in her family to attend high school, once again I had to say no.

I am very grateful for the opportunities that your support has given.  Seeing these children flourish when handed an opportunity that many of us in the United States take for granted has been a dream come true for me.  I hope to be able to share that happiness with more of these deserving children and more people in the United States who will get something out of giving.

We are hoping to be able to sponsor an additional 20 kids this year.  At $700, sponsoring a child isn't exactly cheap but it pays for everything a child needs in a year for a chance at success. You can get your friends together and sponsor kids or just give what little you can afford.  It all makes a big difference.  If you know anyone who might be interested please spread the word.  As I posted yesterday we have a $2,500 matching donation from the Cabaud family so anything you give now, up to $2,500, will be doubled.

(Five of the Simama Sponsored kids smiling at school)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Matching Donation

Dear Simama Family,

One of the project's supporters, the Cabaud family, has made a generous matching donation of $2,500. This is great news for the Simama Project, but it requires that we raise the matching amount. Please help us raise the $2,500 that we need in the next few weeks. Your support is greatly appreciated.

As always, the donation link is located in the upper right hand corner of this blog. If you are interested in recurring donations, you can find the link by scrolling down on the right hand side. As always, all donations are 100% tax deductible through our fiscal sponsor Empowerment WORKS.


Friday, May 18, 2012

"These Are Your Children;" the Campaign For Street Kids

“These are the children of Nanyuki,” Joseph, former street kid now enrolled in school through the Simama Project said. He stood on a stage, surrounded by Simama employees and former and current street kids. He looked out into the audience, a mixture of Nanyuki citizens, street kids, and participants of the Campaign for Street Kids. Though when he spoke, he spoke directly to the citizens of Nanyuki. “These are your children. They are not dangerous. They deserve to be fed, sheltered, and the right to an education.” He paused for a moment. “I know,” he said, “because I was one of them.”
 (Joseph onstage speaking to the citizens of Nanyuki)

A few weeks ago, the Simama Project was invited to participate in a campaign for street children put on by Mt. Kenya Activista in conjunction with Actionaid. The idea was simple, but important: spark awareness around the issue of homeless children who live in the streets of Nanyuki. Volunteers, activists, students and community members mobilized and marched across Nanyuki. Our voice was heard through chants, songs, and flash dances. Our message was clear: despite them being the most neglected part of this society, the street kids are members of the Nanyuki community. We should take care of them instead of the more commonly used tactic, throwing them in jail.

As we marched and danced through the streets, the most incredible part of the day happened. Street kids came out of nowhere and everywhere, joining us. They didn’t know where we had come from or where we were going, but the joy was obvious and beautiful when they realized that those things didn’t matter. What mattered was that the very reason we were there at all was for them. For many of these kids, this was the first moment in their entire lives that they felt acknowledged, recognized, and respected. We waved for them to join us, and join us they did. They marched, sang, high-fived and danced with us until we reached our destination.

Mohammed, a boy who is in school but spends any free time looking for scraps of food wherever he can find them, joined us. Confused at first, he looked up at one of the Actionaid volunteers. I heard him say to her, “This is for me?”

“It sure is,” she replied to him with a smile. 
 (Mohammed at the rally)

The parade ended in Nanyuki’s central park, home to about 35 of the town’s hundreds of homeless youth. The program with fully stocked with skits, speakers, and even a dance competition for intermission (guess which part the kids loved the most?). Actionaid members put on a short drama highlighting common issues Kenyan children deal with that could potentially land them in the street.

The Simama Project took the stage afterward. In the spirit of the same solidarity the Project operates under on a daily bases, a large group of us ascended to the stage. First to speak on our behalf was Joseph, a former street boy himself who is now a very successful standard 8 student. He looked out into the audience and found his voice, surprisingly powerful and moving for a kid whose first public speaking appearance was at that very moment. He called upon the citizens of Nanyuki to take action. He urged them to embrace, instead of shun the street kids, to help, instead of ignore them. “We must take care of our own,” he said, “and we must do it together.”

The audience was visibly touched by his words. He stepped back into the group to an overwhelming applause.

Next to speak was one of the Simama Project’s founding board members, Josephine. Josephine is a champion for children’s’ rights and gender-based violence issues. After her, I had an opportunity to say a few words. I introduced the project to the community at large, many of whom had not yet heard of us. I encouraged community members to reach out to us. I offered the Project as a vehicle for change. We are here to help, I said, and are seeking to establish a relationship that is beneficial to the kids, which in turn will help create a better Nanyuki.

As soon as we got off stage, two men approached me. They said that they were part of a group of street kids that had listened to us speak.  They were interested in what we do, and they had more than fifteen kids who wanted to go to school.  I walked with him to meet the kids. I peered into about 15 faces with both hope and sadness. These were kids who clearly wanted to go to school. I weighed Simama’s mission against what we were immediately capable of financially. Eventually, with proper resources, we would be able to help them all.

Today, we could only afford to help one.
 (Meeting with the Bogoria Self-Help Group.  Kids who want desperately to go to school)

I left the decision up to the group. The results were close, between a small, young kid named Abdi, and Michael, a taller, slightly older kid. Ultimately, after going through the process of a case study and tutoring, Abdi became the newest Simama Project kid, and is now attending Il Polei with Alfred and the other kids.  Michael and the other 13 kids are still out there.  We hope to be able to find the resources to assist them shortly.
 (Abdi, studying for school)

The Simama Project is grateful to Actionaid for putting on a successful event that built upon the momentum of what we have been fighting to establish in this community. They took a serious cause and delivered an important message through fun and a unique way of creating buzz.

For more photos, check out our Facebook album at:

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Tough Way To Education

Here is another installment in the videos that the Danish Action Aid volunteers made. It is about John, one of the boys that I work closely with in the Simama Project.
As always please remember that the volunteers speak English as their second language and that this video was made in hours and not days. Hopefully it will provide some insight into what it is like for some of the youth growing up in Kenya.

Special thanks to Nadia Beekhuijzen, Jannie Oestergaard Neilsen, Trine Schousen Kristiansen and Mathias Isidor Andersen for making a great video!

PS. if by chance I look like I am on death's doorstep, it is because I was undergoing antibiotic treatment through an iv. I dont normally look like that...I swear. (or maybe I do) I am much better now...thanks.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Joyce: 2nd Year Update!

If you haven’t read about taking Joyce to school last year check it here. (You might want to read that one first, but dont have to)

The second day I was back in Kenya, I was driving into town and came across a group of local girls who were walking to town. Now Im normally not one to take the dangerous option of picking up hitchhikers especially teenage girls, but considering that they had an hour long walk ahead of them and it would take 15 minutes by car, I decided to live a little and take a risk.

It turns out the girls were students at St. Francis Secondary school in Dol Dol. The same school Joyce and Lekerimba attend. I asked them if they knew the girls and if they could tell them hello for me. They responded that they did, and they would say hello.

The next day at 8 am I was walking by the gate and I saw a girl staring at me smiling. I had no idea who she was, so I smiled politely and walked by. Ten minutes later I walked by again, going back to my house. The smiling face was still there, so I smiled again and continued to walk by. I heard a muffled voice proclaim “Matt!” and turned around and walked closer. It was Joyce looking much older and more radiant than I had ever seen, with the biggest smile on her face. I approached her ready for one of her limp-wristed greeting and was met with a bear hug.

(Joyce, with her new smile)

“I have missed you so much,” she said. “I have just been praying that you would return here safely, and here you are!”

It was Joyce…but not at all the Joyce I remembered. That Joyce wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t smile and definitely wouldn’t hug me. This Joyce wouldn’t STOP smiling. Later I was to find out, she wouldn’t stop talking either.

“One of my friends from school came to visit me and told me that I was greeted by a certain Mzungu and I knew it must be you!”

I asked her to make a list of things that we needed to get before school started next week and hand it to me. She sat there for a long while. After ten minutes had passed I asked to see her list. Her smile showed her embarrassment, as she walked to me and put the list in my hand.

The list said: “Money for shopping”

I tried to stop myself from laughing out loud, but I am pretty sure I failed. “I know you need money for shopping,” I said, “I need to know WHAT you will be shopping for.”

She shyly looked away and whispered “you know, there are some things that girls need.”

The cultural differences on this subject are great, so I tried to convey to her that she could treat me as though I was family. I understand though that even between male and female family members some of these feminine issues remain taboo. Because of these reasons I was very pleased when she finally handed me a list that included “under garments” and “feminine napkins”.

We agreed to meet the next day to go shopping and I bid her farewell. Five minutes later I walked by again and there was Joyce standing at the gate blushing. I walked closer to her and when I finally got to whisper distance she said to me, “My grandmother has invited you to come to our house, will you come?”

“How far away is your house?” I asked her.

“Just over this hill”

45 minutes later I am hiking through completely uninhabited hillside with Joyce by my side shooting out questions for me. “How was your trip to the United States?” She asked, “How are your nephews?” “Please tell me about your Aunt and the rest of your family.” “Do you think one day I will be able to visit the United States?” “Why are you not married?”

“-good question,” I began, and was about to explain that in order to get married you need to find a partner who is willing to be with you.

“If it were not for you, I would be married,” Joyce said, in a matter of fact matter

“What do you mean?” I asked, not understanding.

“Last year when I met you,” she started, “I was in a very bad place, I was very sad, and everyone said that if I was unable to go to school that I must marry a certain old man.” Arranged marriages are very common amongst the Maasai, and if a family is unable to take care of a girl the marriages often happen at a young age, oftentimes even younger than Joyce, who is 17. I was not aware that Joyce was to be married off. “My grandmother does not like the man, so she said that I could just stay at home, even though there would not be enough food.”

Just then we reached a clearing and saw her family in the clearing. “Ah, here we are, they will be so happy to see you!”

(Joyce's family in the clearing)

I came into the clearing and greeted Joyce's family. It was her Grandmother and her Uncle's wife and children, and another elderly woman who she said was related to her in some way or another. The older people did seemed pleased to meet me, but the babies were visibly afraid of me. It is likely they had never seen a mzungu before.

(Joyce's family, baby clearly not happy to see me)

Joyce welcomed me into her house and showed me around. The inside of a Maasai manyatta is amazing to me. First off they are built hobbit short, I had to bend over at the waist to get in the door.

(The entrance to Joyce's family manyatta)
The structure is partitioned off into four distinct rooms, one of which is a kitchen with an open flame and a very small hole or "window" to let the smoke out and light in.
(The Kitchen with it's "window")
This results in an inside that is always smokey, always smells of smoke, a ceiling that looks like it is charred and an inside is so dark that it was almost impossible for me to navigate.
(The "charred" roof which lets in very little light)
The family was very congenial and Joyce kept apologizing and explaining to me that they have no animals and no food to offer me. In Maasai culture animal ownership (along with a number of children you have), is the prime indicator of wealth. The fact that Joyce's family has no animals at all, no cows, goats or sheep is a sign that the family is very poor and possibly in danger of starving. Joyce's grandmother was walking around without shoes which is kind of dangerous since she lives in the bush. Even though it is not a common practice for the Simama Project, I made an exception and bought the grandmother some shoes (which she showed off the next day by unexpectedly walking to see me...she was visibly pleased with them).

As you may remember last year when I brought her to school for the first time I had my doubts about whether she was the right girl to sponsor. Now I feel so lucky that I chose to sponsor her. Everyone who see's her remarks that she seems like a different girl, much more confident, much happier. She is also in the top third of her class academically. Last year when I dropped her off at school it was the only time she was affectionate towards me, when she held my hand and wouldn't let go. This time it was very different dropping her off at school. She had shown so much affection the week before and almost treated me like her family. When we got to school I asked her if she wanted me to walk her in and she looked at me horrified shaking her head "no". I imagine this is what its like to drop your daughter off at high school.

(Joyce smiling from far away when I dropped her off)
Joyce, myself and the entire Simama Project would like to spend a special thanks to my Aunt Nancy and her partner Susan and their family, for sponsoring Joyce and making this great opportunity possible for her. There are plenty more students like Joyce who are unable to afford education, and the cost of supporting one of these students for a whole year is so low (relatively) for those of us who enjoy a western standard of living. For more information email me: