Monday, December 27, 2010

You Are a Philanthropist

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(Local orphan boys sitting in front of the Daraja sign)

Recently I have been reading about the push to get billionaires to donate half their fortune to charity led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Most recently 17 billionaires have signed up, pledging to give at least half of their fortune to charity either during their lifetime or after their death.  I am extremely encouraged by this.  This is a necessary step in the right direction.

The fact that these people are Billionaires is great because it means a HUGE amount of money will be going to charity to help make this world a better place.  More important than the money however is the mindset.  Every person should be making sacrifices and giving back.  Not just billionaires.  The fact is, speaking practically, for those billionaires having  500 million dollars is not a lot different than having billion dollars.  Either way you have more money than you know what to do with.  Not much of a sacrifice…but its a step in the right direction.  Reminds me of both a Chris Rock quote and a passage from the bible (both of which you will find at the end of this rant).

A more important step I think is getting the average person thinking like this.  I don’t mean giving away half of what you have.  For most of us this isn’t practical at all, its hard enough making ends meet.  The goal is to changing our way of thinking.  We should all be doing our part to make this world a better place.  This could be choosing NOT to spend $300 on a handbag and instead donating the money to charity, taking the money you would be spending on a pair of jeans and sending a child to school, or just spending one day a month volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

I am willing to bet that if you are the type of person who is willing to read through this whole boring blog about philanthropy you are also the type who will feel your life enriched by empowering yourself to help others. 

Check out the Giving Pledge.

Donate to Daraja Academy

Or Help me with my project with the Nanyuki Street boys.


If Bill Gates woke up one day with Oprah money he would jump out a ****ing window”

-Chris Rock

The Widow’s Offering
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:41-44 (New International Version, ©2010)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Joseph Geoffrey

I met Joseph at the beginning of my first trip to Kenya.  He was one of the street boys on the main street of Nanyuki. 

He is notable, because at 18 he is a little bit older than most of the other boys.   He has also abstained from glue use which is no small feat for a street boy of his age.

Joseph has been out of school for a really long time and the idea of him going back was quickly ruled out as an option  because of his age and lack of academic interest.

Joseph does have some marketable skills however.  His father was a shoe repairman and before he died he taught Joseph how to repair shoes.   The death of his father left him with nothing but a large family to support. He immediately took to the street begging for money and food everyday. 

Upon becoming close with his group of friends I was made aware that he had the skills to polish and repair shoes, he only lacked the equipment.

After consulting with social workers and verifying his claim I gave him a small loan (he never actually touched the money but I got him the equipment) to start up his shoe repair business.  A loan which he is slowly repaying.

Four months later (after I returned to Kenya) I had a chance to go by his stand and found him busy repairing shoes.  He is not going to make a lot of money doing this, but he earns enough to support himself and contribute to the well being of his family.  He has gone from standing on the street everyday asking for handouts, to supporting himself.

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(Joseph at his post)

The difference in his appearance was noticeable.  He has gained confidence and as he explained “I am working hard everyday”.

He has ambitious plans to build an awning over his bench so he can continue working even when it rains.  I am proud to know him.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Welcome Back!

My flight landed in Nairobi at 2am but my internal clock told me it was 3pm.  About 26 hours before I had boarded a United plane and began a multi-continent journey which led me from San Francisco, through Germany, Turkey and finally to Nairobi.  

I would have liked to start my journey to Daraja, but instead I checked into a hotel, mostly because Nairobi isnt the safest city for a foreigner to travel after dark, and matatus don’t leave until its light anyway.  As my cab driver said “they see you, a Mzungu, and they will come to beat you…they will even come to beat me.”  Awesome.

After a solid four hours of sleep and what promised to be my last warm shower for some time I appeared on the streets of Nairobi, ready to meet my destiny.

On my way to the bank I came to a large road and looked both ways before crossing.  While crossing I saw a man waving wildly at me, pointing.  He didn’t really look familiar to me so I just smiled politely.  People in Kenya are so friendly, I thought to myself.  It started to dawn on me that he is probably gesturing to someone behind me.  I spin around trying to avoid obvious embarrassment only to come face to face with a van going 50 MPH, mere feet away from me.  Naturally, it responds as vehicles in Kenya do when faced with pedestrians- SPEEDS UP.

I jump out of the way and feel the woosh of air around me as it misses me by literally inches.  I look back at the man to thank him for the warning, but he has long since gone on his way, and is probably unaware of my fate.

I look around hoping to find someone who witnessed the moment and could share it with me in a glance.  The throngs of people were unimpressed.  Motorists try to kill pedestrians in Kenya everyday.  I didn’t even get hit.  They think my close scrape with death is pathetic.

Mental note: People drive on the other side of the road here.  Welcome back.


(Nairobi intersection)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Il Polei Primary School


(Il Polei Primary School’s main building)

The next day a group of us hailed a sand truck to take us up the dirt road to visit Alfred at Il Polei primary school.  It is about an hour drive, and drives through animal conservancies on the way.  Seeing gazelles and giraffes is automatic, but sometimes you can see elephants, buffalo,  hyenas and Rhinos.  Lions and leopards exist there but stay well hidden and away from the roads for the most part so I have yet to see them on the way.


(Giraffe, on the way to Il Polei)

These sand trucks are a cheap, adventurous way of traveling but sometimes the speed at which they travel over the terrible dirt roads makes me question the safety factor.  Sometimes they lurch one way or the other so far that I can feel the truck tipping over and start preparing to fall out of it/die.

Il Polei is almost completely made up of Massai and once we arrive there the little Swahili that we have picked up is even more useless than it was before (and it was pretty useless before).

The sand truck let us off in the middle of town. The walk to Il Polei primary is about ten minutes from the center of town and after getting past the concrete and stone buildings that make up the town you pass a few authentic massai shambas (a family group of huts usually surrounded by acacia thorns to keep domesticated animals in, and predatory animals out) and an intense sandy ravine that I have only seen dry. 

Il Polei is a little bit off the beaten path and foreigners are relatively uncommon.  This makes a group of wazungu travelling through quite a spectacle.   All eyes were on us.  One group of ten kids was entranced by us and wouldn’t let us pass until I had touched all of their hands.  Another child was so scared of me that whenever I looked his way he screamed and ducked for cover behind his dad.

The school itself is rather magical.  I don’t know if its just magical to me because it was a place that came out of nowhere and offered salvation for this boy, or if other people have the same feeling about it.  It is on the tall side of a hill which overlooks a beautiful valley and becomes an uninhabitable mountain just beyond the school.

As we walked up the crest of the hill some students spotted us, some of them ran away to tell their friends, and others shouted greetings to us.   We continued towards the main building and bounding towards us in full uniform with a gigantic smile was Alfred!  After seeing that smile, all of my worries went away. 


(Alfred’s best friend in Il Polei is the brother of a Daraja student!)

Alfred had been there for only two weeks so I was just hoping that he was getting along with people, getting adjusted and so forth.  I was not at all prepared for the next thing that was coming.  “I am first in my class,” he said.  It really didn't register, or I didn’t believe it.  His only complaint about the school was the food.  “We just eat Maize plain,” he said.   PLAIN?  Poor kid.

Soon he came back from school for vacation and there in his hand were his test results:  NUMBER ONE IN HIS CLASS.  1/52 STUDENTS.  This was beyond my wildest dreams.  I knew he was a smart kid but this was incredible!  Just a little bit of work turned a street boy with no prospects into the number one student in his class, out of 52!  This had a profound effect on me, and while I do not expect the same result from other kids, I cannot stand by and do nothing while they sit in the streets. 


Alfred has completed his second term at school and is STILL RANKED #1.  I am told that if he continues to perform at this level until he graduates he may be able to get a full scholarship to a good private high school!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Journal entry: Alfred Part 4

Writing a blog is interesting because most people live faster than they write about it. This is also true for me. I am writing about events that took place months ago.  I recently stumbled upon a journal entry that I wrote the day before I went up to see Alfred for the first time:

  Tomorrow we go to Il Polei to visit Alfred.  He has been at school for about two weeks now.   I haven’t heard from him at all (which is a good sign).  I must admit however that I am nervous.  Nervous that Alfred has been miserable in Il Polei.  Through no fault of his own.  I imagine it is such culture shock for him.  He is a little kikuyu boy taken out of the city and brought to a school in the middle of the bush that is almost entirely made up of Massai.   Massai, the pastoral warrior tribe among whose chief concerns are their Cows and how high they can jump.  Alfred can’t jump very high and he is scared of Cows.

What if he never made friends?  What if he decided that these people are weird and he had nothing in common with them.  Even worse, what if they hated him and he was ostracized from day one?

What if he just can’t function in school?  He isn’t used to studying all day and night.  What if he is exhausted by his schedule and decided to give up.  What if he already gave up and headed home?   It would be pretty embarrassing for me to show up then.

I have to have a positive attitude.  I am sure it will turn out fine.


(Alfred the day before he left for Il polei Primary)


(Alfred with all his gear, dressed like a student)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Getting Into School: Alfred Part III

The recommendation from Mr. Hezron came as quite a relief. “Alfred has a legitimate case and should be helped, but he needs to attend Boarding school.” Boarding School?

When I started on this journey I expected to pay for a uniform and some school supplies. The problem for Alfred however was not that he couldn’t afford these things. He couldn’t afford them, so they were a problem, but the much larger problem was food. He was supporting himself by waiting all day for someone to buy him food. If he went to school he would come back and have nothing to eat at night, and nothing to eat in the morning when he left home.

So we had to find him a boarding school. Cost was an important factor but not the most important factor. We decided to focus on midrange to cheap schools in the area that had a good reputation. I talked to EVERYONE about school recommendations. All the teachers and staff of Daraja, Mr. Hezron, and the lady who works at the academic bookstore was particularly helpful. I felt like a soccer mom trying to find out the best school for my kids. I narrowed it down to a list of 6 schools.

Anticipating the Mzungu factor I had a teacher call the schools and ask in advance what the price was and what the application process was like. Some of the schools wouldn’t tell me until they met the boy so they were automatically put at the bottom of the list. We settled on a school called Nanyuki boarding as the first logical place to go.

(Alfred and myself, the morning of his admissions test for Nanyuki Boarding)

We showed up in the morning and I paid the application fee of 200 shillings (about $2.50). Alfred was to take an entrance exam that lasted five hours! I don’t think I would be able to take a five hour test. But the poor kid did it. When he came out he was smiling which gave me some hope. The woman who graded the test did it right in front of us. Math, English, Kiswahili, Science. He passed them all except the Math. They wanted 80% and he got 77%. Inwardly I was pleased that he could even do that well after spending a year on the street and out of school but we also needed to find him a school. The lady said that we might be able to get him in and she said that she would talk to the principal and text us that evening.

The next morning I received a text “your boy has failed to qualify for class 6 or class 5- secretary of Nanyuki Boarding”.

It was to be the first of a number of rejections. After making the poor kid take tests at 4 schools it slowly dawned on me: he might not get in anywhere.

After a month of calling places and applying we had had little luck. Mr. Wathitu the administrator of Daraja had an idea. He called a public school up in the middle of the bush. It is called Il Polei Primary and it is a public school. Since it is in Massai territory many of the children’s families are nomadic and might be fifty miles away at any one time of the year. Because of this Il Polei is a public BOARDING school. Mr. Wa (as we call him) talked to the principal and he said “Sure, send him up”. That same day Mr. Hezron called saying that he had pressured a private school in town into accepting the boy. Suddenly we had TWO options.

Il Polei being a public school was much cheaper. In addition it was a good distance out of town which would make it less likely that Alfred would run away. In the end Alfred decided he wanted to leave town and go someplace where there would be no stigma of “street boy” following him.

We got him the necessary equipment and clothing and took him up that next week.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nyama Choma

Kenyan restaurants usually serve nyoma choma which means cooked animal and that is exactly what it is. They will bring a leg of lamb, goat or cow right to your table and cut it into little pieces and you eat it with your hands and dip it into salt.

(Our server cuts Choma for us at our table)

They also serve the basic kenyan dishes that I wrote about in Everything and Hot Sauce. Choma is actually really good (and after spending months at Daraja only eating meat once a week it is sometimes VERY good). The problem with choma is that the Kenyan restaurants have a series of mzungu scams. I am pretty sure that most of them have been tried on me, often successfully.

The first time I went for choma was the first day we were in Kenya. We were in a large group and the waiter went and pushed two tables together for us and talked to the bartender and ordered our drinks for us. Upon ordering our food the waiter said that for such a large order they needed to get half of the money up front. Fortunately I was not one of the decision makers on this journey and we insisted on talking to the manager. We soon found out that our “waiter” didn't even work in the restaurant as he ran out the front door.

As we found out the next time we went (to a different restaurant) scams aren’t just limited to people who don’t work in the restaurant. We went into a well known restaurant in Nanyuki and we were greeted by the manager who sat us down at a nice table and began to make suggestions. We admittedly did not know what to order so we were happy taking his suggestions. To the table he brought the biggest leg of choma I had ever seen and 10 side dishes for 3 people. Way too much food for us, but not blatantly dishonest.

When the bill came I was a little surprised. It was around $25, which for a night out in the states is nothing, but for a meal for three at a local Kenyan restaurant is pretty outrageous. I started to feel a little ashamed for letting him order us so much food and then I looked at the bill and realized that the prices were twice as much as what was advertised. We called the manager over and asked him about this. “Those are the correct prices” he says as he reviewed the bill.

“But here (on the bill) it says pilau costs 120 shillings, and there on the wall it says 60 shillings,” my girlfriend pointed out.

“Oh yes,” said the manager, “those are the OLD prices.”

I looked at him incredulously and said “I see, you have the wrong prices posted on the wall of your restaurant. Perfectly clear.”

“Let me see that” he said as he quickly snatched the bill from my hand and ran into the back with it.

Later he came out with a reduced bill costing $10 less than the previous. We paid and got out of there but we were pretty unhappy.

The last time we went to Choma we were veterans in Kenya so we knew what to expect. Before we ordered I asked the server how much each dish cost and wisely compared it to the menu. We ordered one KG of choma. As it arrived at the table we were very pleased to find that it was quite large. Later when we got the bill we found out that they had charged us for 4 KGs. When the manager came out he explained that he had seen how many people we had so he had decided to order extra choma for us. He had ordered us 2 KGs.

“We were charged for FOUR” I said shaking my head.

“I know,” he said, “that was a mistake by your server. But you do have to pay for two.”

“If you had given extra choma to that table that they hadn’t ordered,” I said, pointing to a table with a Kenyan family “would you have made them pay for it?”

“Of course not,” he replied, “but you need to pay your bill.”

Such is the life of a Mzungu in Kenya. It’s a good thing it was tasty.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fainting: A Kenyan Pastime

I have a lot of experience with young people. I have in fact lived most of my life being one of them and consorting almost exclusively with them. I went through elementary school, middle school, high school, University and years working with kids as a camp counselor. Never once had I seen someone faint.

I have seen people faint in movies, and every time I dutifully suspended my disbelief, the whole time knowing that it doesn’t happen in real life.

Very soon upon my arrival in Kenya I was made aware of the fact that fainting is actually a Kenyan pastime. After playing a particularly heated football (soccer) game against another school one of the girls on the opposite team abruptly fell down onto the ground and did not move. Her teammates rushed to her side and carried her off of the field. She soon returned to consciousness and stood up and walked away. As an isolated incident this was surprising to me but no big deal.

The Daraja girls have recently been conditioning for long distance runs by running around the outside fence of our campus with staff members. One evening a girl had ran around the perimeter and sat down for a nap. Twenty minutes later her friends tried to wake her up but to no avail. Twenty minutes after that someone came and got me, distressed that she had still not woken up. I arrived at the scene to find her surrounded by her classmates holding up her legs and fanning her.

My first Aid training did not cover fainting, but I thought that maybe that was what you used smelling salts for. I didn’t know, I just knew that whatever had been done wasn’t working. The fact that everyone seemed so worried got me worried. She was breathing and had a pulse so I felt like it would probably be okay. I tried to calm everyone down and have them give her space.

Then she opened her eyes. But not in a good way. He eyes were glazed over and rolled into the back of her head. She wouldn’t respond to hands in front of her face. I felt her pulse again and I wasn’t sure if I could find it. I asked a teacher and she wasn’t sure either. Lets get her to a doctor I said. I pretty much had to insist, but I figured it is better to be safe than sorry.

We started speeding to the hospital over the terrible roads (previously mentioned). About two thirds of the way there (after an hour of being unconscious) she started responding. We took her to the doctor anyway who insisted that she get a blood test to make sure it was nothing serious.

It wasn’t anything serious. The biggest repercussion of the episode was that the entire Kenyan staff of Daraja made fun of me for days for insisting on taking a fainted girl to the hospital (even though it was admitted that 60 minutes is a long time to be unconscious). Since then we have had the regional athletic events. At the end of virtually every track event girls would drop like flies (pictured). Now I don’t pay any attention to it. It is just another aspect of the Kenyan landscape.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Alfred Part II: The Department of Social Welfare

Martin and I decided we should try to get Alfred into school but we were being cautioned by many people not to be scammed by the street kids. One of the teachers at Daraja had a close friend in the social welfare department named Mr. Hezron, and he advised us to talk to him about the boy so maybe he could shed some light on his story.

Martin and I took Alfred to the office of Mr. Hezron and Alfred waited outside. “I appreciate your interest in this matter, but I must caution you that most of these street boys are addicted to being handed money and do not want to work hard. Most of the boys that go back to school end up running away.” Mr. Hezron started “I will have someone of my department look into this but please don’t be encouraged.”

By this time we had grown pretty close to Alfred and though we had considered it, the idea that he might be scamming us was a hard one to swallow. I told Mr. Hezron that Alfred was outside and would like to speak to him. Alfred came in the office, and though he was obviously intimidated by the older serious man he answered his questions in Swahili. I found encouragement in the fact that Alfred was willing to be there answering questions. I was not encouraged by his inability to look Mr. Hezron in the eye however.

After speaking with him for some time Mr. Hezron looked at us and said “It seems likely that this boy is a candidate for help, I will have someone do the case study and you can pick it up in two days time.”

We left somewhat bolstered by the meeting. I was sure that if Alfred had just been looking for a handout that he would have balked at talking to the skeptical Mr. Hezron.

To Be Continued…

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Typical Day

I realized that I have talked a lot about my impressions of Kenya but I failed to really describe what I do on a daily basis.

I wake up between 7:15 and 8am in the fabulous rondoval that I live in. On Mondays and Fridays there is a flag ceremony where the girls put up the flag, sing the national anthem and other songs, and do some prayers before class starts.

The Rondoval I call home

I usually attend that and then eat breakfast. Breakfast is a kind of porridge called Uji that tastes a little bit like liquid sugar mixed with dirt (that is not an insult, I am trying to be descriptive). Usually there is something else with it like fruit (a green orange or a banana), a pancake, or a mandazi (a deep fried bread thing like a doughnut but without the sugar) and sometimes a hard boiled egg.

My duties at the school are to help with whatever they want. Sometimes that means working in the garden pulling weeds, cleaning out storage, finding the girls who need new shoes, getting the dorms ready for the new girls. I am also the unofficial videographer. Mostly however, in the morning, I have time to work on my projects that I will explain later.

Lunch is at 12:20 and it is usually Gatheri which is a combination of maize (like corn just bigger and harder), potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes mixed together. Sometimes we get beans and rice. Other times the dreaded Ugali with cabbage or kale (like spinach).

One of my biggest projects is that I implemented for use as a donor database for the foundation while I was still in the United States. I act as an administrator for the system so sometimes I have to change settings or add users or compile an email list for a mailing. Recently we have implemented Vertical Response as an email marketing system for our newsletter and event information. I also work with the other volunteers who are heading up the online marketing campaigns (Become a fan of Daraja Academy on Facebook to see what we are doing). Most of this work must be done off campus because it requires the internet but sometimes I brave the terrible cellular modem.

I am partially in charge of special evening activities for the girls. We have put on a bonfire, a talent show, a birthday party, improv games, a dancing night and a few movie nights.

I head up the Drama and Music Club with teacher Catherine. We meet on Mondays and we work with the girls on the performing arts. Right now we are working on a spoken word piece for the Kenya Music Festival. The girls are amazing at acting and singing. Other clubs that the girls can choose from are: The Grassroots Girls (helping them get in touch with grassroots organizations in the area so they can help empower women), The Media Club (teaching girls about journalism and multimedia including cameras, video cameras, facebook, twitter and email newsletters), the Art and Crafts club (working on visual art such as painting, drawing, bead working and sculpture), the Environmental Club (teaching about nature and ways to reverse the affects of pollution), and the Science Club (a place where nerds can get together and scheme for world domination).

In addition I have been supervising the P.E. program. The new volunteers that come in often teach P.E. and I have been trying to provide some continuity with the programs ie. making sure there is someone to supervise each activity and give them a grade at the end of the term. We have been playing football (read: soccer), volleyball, netball, cricket, rounders and cross country running amongst other things.

At around 530pm almost everyday I turn my eyes to the sky and watch the beautiful Kenyan sunset. The African sky is more beautiful than anything I have seen in my life. I don’t know if it is because of the altitude (we are around 6 thousand feet) or if it is a result of being on the equator or some other factor (atmospheric science majors, here is your chance to chime in and do some good for the world). The sky is full of a million clouds that are all perfectly defined against the backdrop of unbelievably blue sky. Furthermore the clouds seem so close, its like you can see every slight crevasse, it is almost possible to reach up and touch them. The sky also appears to extend far beyond where a “normal” sky would go. It seems to me that there is a full 180’ of sky and that I have only been used to 100’. I know this is not logical, but it is magical. The sunset exists not only in the West but it begins at three places in the sky, eventually echoing across the heavens in their entirety.

Dinner is at six o'clock so I have 30 minutes to eat before computer class. When I came to Kenya I brought a couple of donated laptop computers with me (thank you Dad, Skip and Tom for all your help in making that happen). The goal was to set up a computer lab for the girls. I have rounded up 5 working laptops and about a month and a half ago I started teaching the girls basic computing skills every weekday for about an hour. It is amazing to see how enthusiastic the girls are. Most of them have never used a computer so when they click a button with the mouse and something happens there is a collective gasp of “wow” from all the girls. When school resumes at the end of April I plan on teaching a computer class to the staff on weekends.

The electricity goes on at 6pm and stays on until 10 pm. Two days a week I tutor one of the girls in English. She has such a strong desire to learn and never makes the same mistake twice.

If I have waited this long to shower usually I will put it off until the next day. We are extremely lucky in that we have running water. It has taken some getting used to however because the solar panel that heats our shower water leaves much warmth to be desired. After sundown it is almost impossible to bear the inevitably cold showers. The water is also pumped from the river into a holding tank. When it comes out of the faucet it appears brown and I always find myself wondering how getting under it will possibly make me more clean. These are really trifling annoyances compared with the bliss that life in Africa has provided for me.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Does this look like the face of a future lawyer?

Meet Alfred Maina Njuguna, 15 years old, he is one of the many street kids in Nanyuki. He is part of Frank Bruno’s gang. He lives with his father in Liki village, one of the worst slums in Nanyuki. His mother is still alive but is no longer in the picture. She lives in a far away town with the rest of Alfred’s 4 siblings. Up until last year Alfred was a typical liki schoolboy. Broke and living in a little shack with no electricity, no water, and sharing a twin bed with his dad, but still a schoolboy.

About a year ago his father was doing a job as a day laborer and was riding in a truck with his employer. A car came and hit them seriously damaging his back. His father was now for the most part unable to do physical labor which is how they had survived previously. Alfred and his father started having to skip meals. At first they would skip lunch and then eventually dinner. Alfred would get home from school and there would be no food at home. He started leaving school to find something to eat.

He found that in the street he was usually able to find enough food or money to feed both himself and his father. They rely on well wishers to pay their rent every month which is 400 shillings (about $5.75).

He told me he wanted to go to school…but all the street boys say that. He told me he wanted money for a uniform…also a pretty common scam. We asked him some trivia questions: What is Barak Obama’s middle name? “Hussein” he said. Impressive, but Barak is a big deal over here since his father is Kenyan. Other trivia questions proved to me that this kid was not only charming but also pretty smart. He deserves to go to school if he wants to. A fellow volunteer Martin and myself decided to see what we could do about this. We will have to be careful to make sure he honestly wants to go to school.

To Be Continued…

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Street Kids

Nanyuki is like any fairly large city in that it has a population of street people. The difference between the street people of Nanyuki and most American cities is that in Nanyuki most of the street people are kids. There are 48 documented street kids in Nanyuki. Most of them are not homeless in the strictest sense of the word because they have a structure which they call home. If this structure were in the United States however it would be condemned and or the person who lived in it would still be considered homeless.

The kids range in age from 5 to 25 and they are a constant fixture on the streets of Nanyuki. There job is essentially asking Wazungu (foreigners) for money. Since it only takes 20 shillings (30 cents) to by them a meal for the day most of them are easily fed and even end up with a little pocket change to bring home to their often destitute parents. Oftentimes after they are fed they go to a “movie theater” to watch a movie for 5 shillings the movie theaters are little rooms made out of sheet metal and cardboard that have a small TV in them. The best part is that they sometimes hire people to interpret the movie into Swahili while it is playing. I am told that they can also spend 20 shillings playing playstation but I have yet to see it. Sometimes however they are unlucky and end up with no food for the day. As the day goes on they get more desperate for food and therefore more persistent.

Many of the young street kids and almost all of those older than 16 are heavy drug abusers. The drug of choice is huffing glue or petroleum products. The glue is usually put in a small plastic bottle and hidden (sometimes not hidden) in their sleeves or pockets. The huffers are notorious for not being able to control themselves even if they arent high. I have seen kids who appeared to be five years old with glue bottles in their mouth. I was particularly disturbed by two sisters both younger than ten completely out of their mind on glue.

(Two street boys display their glue bottles. The boys told me they are nine years old and have been huffing glue since they were five)

These are desperate kids and if they can’t find glue sometimes they resort to defecating in a bottle and burying it until it ferments. They then retrieve it and inhale the resulting vapors. Like I said…they are desperate.

There is also a group of kids who are poor but they aren't permanent street kids. They are usually kicked out of school maybe twice a year because they don’t have a proper uniform. Usually their clothes become so faded that the school colors are unrecognizable, or their shoes cease to hold their feet in them. These kids usually appear on the street for a few weeks or a month at a time. Their parents work a little harder and save up for the article of clothing and the kids disappear from the street.

Most of the young kids want to go back to school. Many of them don’t do glue…yet. But they will. I am told by the old kids that it is too hard to ask people for money each day. It is embarrassing. It is easier to inhale the fumes and lose your consciousness, even if little by little it takes your humanity with it. I am worried about these young kids who are so sweet and innocent. Kids whose only crime is that their parents don’t have money and only role models are drugged up wild men who barely have brains left in their heads.

I need to do something about this.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Anything and Hot Sauce

If there is anything I miss about the United States it would be the food. The girls at the school subsist on a diet consisting of a base like rice, noodles or ugali. Topped with beans, lentils, maize, cabbage, spinach or potatoes.

The cooks here do a fine job, and actually all of the dishes taste pretty good. The first week I was very happy with each meal. The issue for me is the repetition: the same things are cooked every day and night of the week. There are maybe 4 different meals that are alternated for fourteen meals of lunch and dinner in a week. All of which I take with a large portion of Hot Sauce, in some cases to add to the flavor, in other cases to wash it down while avoiding the flavor.

The biggest personal offender to me is Ugali. It is simply a cooked-up, edible version of flour. It is the consistency of play-doh, odorless, tasteless, and somehow still manages to completely disgust me. It is one of the staples of life here in Kenya and many people eat it for every meal. Thursday and Friday nights are Ugali nights and anyone who is capable of avoiding these meals usually does.

The major factor in my Kenyan diet that I find noticeably lacking is MEAT. We get meat once a week and it is usually goat meat mixed with rice. It is actually pretty tasty if one does not mind picking the bones out of the rice yourself. The one day we had chicken I think you could almost literally find every part of the chicken mixed into the rice, as it turns out a rather small percentage of the chicken is actually meat.

At issue here is a basic cultural difference. In Kenya eating is not for fun, it is for survival. The people who get ugali everyday are among the lucky ones. I dont know anyone from the states who goes to the grocery store and buys themselves a bag of flour as the main component of their meal. In America I eat things that I think taste good, otherwise I don’t eat. I have become addicted to fatty, fried, artificial flavors that are probably terrible for me. I mean really addicted…to the point where I am going through withdrawals. I sat in bed last night imagining Fajitas from Pancho Villa’s in Fairfax, burritos from the gourmet burrito place in LaFayette, Sushi from Tengu in Westwood, Tacos from Jack In The Box, Any Chinese food.

I have cravings for things I have never thought about in my life. Last week there was a day or two when all I could think about was an Orange Julius. I dont really know what an orange Julius is but I imagine it to be an ice cold frothy orange beverage. Actually I still really want one.

I honestly think that if the homeless shelters in the states served ugali no one would show up.
(pictures soon to come)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pleasures and Perils: The Roads of East Africa

(Nanyuki with Mt. Kenya in the background)

Nanyuki is the largest town near Daraja. It is about 25 km (a half hour driving) away and is the destination anytime I want to use the internet or buy anything (except a coke or a beer). Most days someone from the Daraja staff is driving into town and I can catch a ride, this is ideal. Otherwise If I want to get to Nanyuki I have four options: I can hire a boda boda which is a small motorbike for 400 kenya shillings (the exchange rate is about 75 ksh to $1, so the ride is about $5), I can hire a taxi for 800 ksh. I can take a Matatu which is essentially a van that travels back and forth between different locations and picks up many passengers on the way. The most exciting thing about matatus is that they are usually adorned with artwork and a hip name spray painted on the side. Sometimes there will just be a picture of a random celebrity from the states or Europe. My favorite so far was the Lil’ Bow Wow matatu. A matatu trip from Nanyuki to Daraja would cost about 150 ksh but would take probably at least an hour, and the wait itself could be another two hours. Plus if it gets full you might end up with someone sitting on your lap. Its a fun cheap way to make friends.

The road itself has both its charms and its perils. The charms include zebra, camels, baboons, and beautiful countryside. The biggest peril would be the road itself, half of which is partially paved, with gigantic potholes, a quarter of which is dirt and another quarter of which is dirt and covered with boulders because they have apparently been planning on paving it for the last THREE years and they don’t want people driving on it until its done. This forces the drivers onto the shoulder of the road, or sends them zig zagging between boulders, neither of which would be described as “safe”.

In theory people in Kenya drive on the left side of the road. In practice they drive on the left side, the right side, in the middle and on both shoulders. The road is covered with people walking and riding their bikes to town with huge bundles of sticks, the aforementioned animals huge sand trucks, military trucks and sometimes bandits.

(When charm becomes peril: A herd of Zebra crossing the road)

There is a sharp turn on the mostly straight road to Daraja and along the side of the road are boulders. I am told that late at night Bandits put the boulders in the middle of the road and wait for cars to come so they can rob them. The bandits arm themselves with machetes, clubs, spears, and sometimes guns. The road here is littered with shattered glass which leads me to believe that there is more to these stories than just talk. Taxi Drivers often refuse to drive you back at a certain point at night and sometimes they bring armed friends in the trunk as “bodyguards”.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Girls of Daraja Academy

The girls of Daraja Academy are from all over Kenya. They are accepted based on a few factors. First is academic, they are judged by their KCPE (which would be like a middle school version of our SAT test). Then an interview with some of the school faculty. The third and maybe most important factor is that the girls (and their parents or guardians) must be unable to pay for them to continue their education. Other factors that are considered include: Geographical location, tribal affiliation, and personal hardships (many of the girls have no parents, HIV/AIDs in the family, have been affected by violence, or have a lack of food and special consideration is given in these cases).

I am constantly amazed by their hard work and discipline. They wake up at 5am every morning to get ready for school, and do some cleaning chores, before breakfast at 730. Their weekly chores include but are not limited to: Cleaning the dining hall and dishes everyday, laundry (by hand), sorting the food (a process of picking out the bad kernels of beans, maize, and rice that we will be eating in the coming week) and cleaning their dorm/bathroom each day. On top of that they have a full academic schedule which starts at 730 am and ends at 9 pm with study hall everyday.

What is most amazing about these girls is the excitement that they bring to everything they do. Every chore is accompanied by 26 smiles, singing, and often dancing when possible. They are so happy, loving and most of all grateful for the opportunity that they have at Daraja.

I wish each and every one of you could meet these girls. My writing does not do them justice.

(pictured from top to bottom left to right: Nasibo, Hadija, Betty, Marylene, Catherine, Elizabeth)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Daraja Academy

Daraja Academy is East Africa’s first completely free secondary boarding school for girls. It is the organization that Paria and I have been devoting much of our time to the past six months, and it is where we are living for the next six months.

The campus itself is the site of the former Baraka school for boys from Baltimore MD (that was featured in the popular documentary The Boys Of Baraka). It is located approximately 25 km north-west of the town of Nanyuki, Kenya. The closest town to daraja is called Naibor (pronounced Nigh-Bo) and is maybe two km away.

The founders are Jason and Jenni Doherty, a couple from Marin county who both have a background in education and a passion for making the world a better place. They spent years researching and planning the best way to help the communities here. The ultimate decision was to help a limited number of girls but help them completely. Daraja accomplishes this by providing food, housing, uniforms and everything else the girls need on campus so issues of everyday survival will not hinder their education. The idea is that they will then be able to use their education to improve their community.

One of the most attractive things about this organization is the fact that there is such little overhead cost. There is only ONE employee making over $5,000 a year and even she is vastly underpaid. This allows the donations that people make to go directly to the needs of the girls.

For more information on Daraja Academy go to

Saturday, January 30, 2010

There is more to life than being really really ridiculously good looking

The hardest part of writing is finding the right words to start. You need to develop a voice, establish what you will talk about, and draw your audience in. Im not going to do any of that. It is too much work and frankly I don’t know how. So instead I will use this space as a journal that lots of people happen to have access to.

There is more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. A statement has rarely been so true. For the unhip out there this is an allusion to the movie Zoolander. If you haven’t already seen it there is probably a reason for that. If you have, you know it is hilarious. If you don’t think its hilarious you should stop reading this blog right now-There is nothing for you here. I find it to be a necessary parody of a crazy part of society that we have all become far too accustomed to. Zoolander is a supermodel who because of his looks and circumstance has become rich, famous and the envy of most people in the world. He has no talent, intelligence or common sense but people want to be like him. They want to BE him.

In our society we want to be rich, we want to be famous, and sometimes I think we forget the age old recipe for a happy life. This recipe has been passed down by many ancient societies and many religious texts which encourage among other things wisdom, humility, treating others well, charity, and devotion to something other than yourself. This is what motivates me to take this trip and hopefully some of you will choose to come along for the ride.