Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Arriving in Kenya

Saturday, November 15th, after taking a 3 a.m. shuttle to the airport, we arrived tired in Nairobi, Kenya at 7 a.m. We met in the lobby at 9 a.m. to begin our day. The agenda was full: a tour of several social entrepreneur (Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus’ concept of investing not to make a profit but to do good, while still recouping your principal) projects established by Kenyan UU leaders in outlying villages and regions. Here, "Faith in Action" is visible comm unity development work. I rode up front and since I wasn’t able to hear the conversation in the rows behind me, the driver, Michael Kamau, and I talked. Michael is not a UU, but his mother is. He works as a safari tour guide. Business is slow as a result of the conflict following the elections, but Michael feels that tourism will pick up again.

I asked him if he had ever been to a UU worship service and he had not, but last February he drove some UUs to the leadership training held in Nairobi and was amazed they were from all over Africa: Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Uganda, South Africa, Burundi and more. We talked about what Unitarianism is. Michael told me he would be attending his first UU service with us the next day.

As our Kenyan guests repeatedly acknowledged, American UU Janice Brunson has been a key participant in the development of many Kenyan UU projects.

Project #1
Our first stop was a school. Part of the vision of Kenyan UU leadership is to establish schools wherever there are congregations. Children greeted us with a song and a large sign welcoming UUA President Sinkford. After we took photos, the children returned to their classrooms. Lunch was being prepared in a room at the end of the school building. President Sinkford, Maria and I joined with the other leaders in serving healthy portions of steaming rice and red beans to the children. Every child got a plate. Popcorn and sweets that looked like bags of Trix cereal were passed out to eager little hands. The public schools in Kenya were established by the British system and we were told that the curriculum at the UU school meets the requirements set by the government.

Project #2
Our next stop was an environmental operation run by a UU congregation in another region. Rows of small trees and shrubs lined a sidewalk that led to a small building where the congregation meets for church. They sell the trees to people in the community in an effort to address the desertification that threatens local villages and wildlife. John Mbuguan, the regional director, has been involved in this operation for about four years, although, in this location for only a year. He said they sell 500 to 1,000 trees a month. Right now, in the period of the short rains, trees sell slower than during the rainy season.

Project #3
We drove then to a more densely populated township. Michael lives here and his mother, Nancy Kamau, was waiting for us in her shop. Inside we were surrounded by women's colorful suits and dresses hanging from floor to ceiling on every wall. Nancy, Jackline Wanjku and the other women in the room wore beautiful, handmade outfits. Most of the garments were women’s two piece tailored suits. A young woman walked around still doing her work--opening a seam--while we greeted each other and lined up for photos. When we were done, two women returned to their sewing machines. The machines were beautiful. I had never seen sewing machines decorated with butterfly and flower designs like these were.

Nancy, the director of her region, joined us in the van to lead us to the next project. We pulled up to a grassy area filled with young children, women and men and blankets spread out displaying their work. Once again, children and adults welcomed us with songs and applause. This is a micro-enterprise project where women make beaded jewelry, woven bags and baskets, crocheted mats, decorated gourds, and other things which they sell. The proceeds from the sales are shared among the women and help support their families. Bill Sinkford and Eric Cherry spoke with the regional administrator, while Maria and I picked out things that we could fit into our suitcases, which by now are pretty full. We all socialized and took photos, then piled back into the van.

Project #4
Our last stop was in the Rift Valley region. Justine Magara told me would see Maasai people here. We had a long, bumpy ride over heavily traveled dirt roads with jagged edges and rills carved by the rains. For weary travelers with little sleep thinking about the evening appointment back at the hotel, we questioned how far we were traveling. Every now and then, either Eric or I would doze off. But our patience paid off. Afternoon rain had come and was almost gone when we arrived in a small village. A few Maasai people dressed in beautiful purple and red garments passed by the van as we drove. Michael pulled up next to a small crowd surrounding a doorway with so much water running on the side of the road that he had to maneuver the van so that we could avoid getting our feet wet.

We were led inside a small building housing two large, blue metal machines. Once everyone was assembled, President Sinkford and his companions were introduced. We greeted one another with the African handshake-- repeating twice the grasping of hand then thumb, or a double hug, left side first-- then the presentation began.

The Poshomill, a grain grinding machine, is another UU micro-enterprise project here. It grinds corn into meal or flour or treats the corn into a mash. Corn is a staple in this part of Africa. The meal is used for porridge, much like cream of wheat, cream of rice, or hominy in the U.S. The mash is a favorite of older people. They explained how it works and cautioned us that the machine made a lot of noise. Dried kernels of corn were poured into a shoot. Everyone stood back and waited for the large, green button to be pushed. The machine revved up, got loud, and, on the other end, white-powdered grain poured out through a cloth into a bucket. It was a quick operation. The ground meal is sold to members of the local community. They showed us a van across the street that is used for distribution. I was struck by the anticipation and sense of pride among the assembled village leaders in showing us the Poshomill.

Nothing in our US experience can be compared to the economic development situation in Kenya. Since arriving in South Africa and encountering one community or organization after another, I have been mindful that nationally we in the U.S. are worlds apart when it comes to organized systems and the human rights of citizens. But face to face presence, conversation and caring bring us together in a global community. Meeting people in their homeland, listening to their stories, witnessing the life and structure of communities expanded my view in ways I never imagined. The journey toward wholeness has many more people traveling with us now.