Thursday, 23 February 2012

VSO Sector Conference 2012

Ok, maybe not the sexiest title of all my posts to date, but sometimes I think just say it like it is, and it was indeed the VSO Sector Conference 2012.

The conference is the annual event where all VSO volunteers Kenya and representatives from their partner organisations come together for a few days of networking, information sharing, and skills development.  There were about 80 of us all together over the few days, and it was a great time.

The event opened on the first night with Speed Introductions. It's like Speed Dating, but without the dating part.  Which probably is for the best.
The second day had a packed agenda.  In the morning we began by hearing three (tear-jerking) testimonials from beneficiaries of organisations which work in partnership with VSO.  There was Zachary, a blind young man in University, and Bernadeta, a Maasi widow who began a small local enterprise despite gender inequility in her community, and Evelyn, a Lou widow who fought for her rights to prevent being "inherited" (a practice by which the brother or father of the widow inherit the women into his household largely for sexual exploitation).  Because VSO doesn't send volunteers to directly deliver services, we are in most cases in offices working in capacity building functions and often don't get to hear these stories.  It was really very moving and powerful. 

This is Zachary, a beneficiary of an organisation working with VSO.  He shared his remarkable story with us.  Kenya is  not in anyway a friendly environment for people living with disabilities, and Zachary has overcome some significant challenges to become the first visually impaired or blind student at the University of Nairobi.
Bernadeta. A Masai widow who through a VSO volunteer was supported to set up a small jewellery business which has now grown tremendously serving 3 markets. Even though the VSO programme was around secure livelihoods, the programme has done a lot to support inclusion of women on all levels within that particular community.
After the testimonials, we had the opportunity to take part in a series of small workshops covering issues such as governance, environmental programmes, and gender equality.  The two workshops I attended were in Mainstreaming and Advocacy, which are actually related issues.  Advocacy is about bringing a voice to those who aren't heard (usually to make specific needs or issues known) and mainstreaming is about working to effect change in policies and programmes (social, economic and political) to improve the lives and situations of those who are marginalised.  The mainstreaming workshop focussed a lot on disability, as that is a key theme for VSO's work in Kenya, but I was able to consider work my organisation does which we don't always consider to be advocacy or mainstreaming.  

A workshop on Mainstreaming led by volunteers Dan and Ben.
We provide drop-in health and counselling centres for high risk HIV groups known as MARPS (most at risk populations).  In Kenya MARPS include sex workers, long distance truck drivers (known frequent clients of sex workers) and MSMs (men who have sex with men). We also provide economic empowerment support to these groups and work with local community leaders and businesses to share with them why our work with these groups is so important and how they can be involved in developing policies to ensuring open access to health facilities and small business start-ups. That's because prostitution and homosexuality are illegal in Kenya.  What I took away from both the workshops is that we need to do more to articulate and celebrate the work that we are already doing in these areas and develop a more thoughtful and coordinated approach to our advocacy and mainstreaming activity (trying to avoid mentioning developing an advocacy strategy - but there it is!)
And after a busy morning we stop for a good (and calorific!) Kenyan chai (tea) break.
In the afternoon the volunteers and partner organisations divided into groups for our specific sector workshops.  VSO currently works in three sectors in Kenya: Disability, Secure Livelihoods and Health (formerly HIV & AIDS), which is where my organisation sits. The workshop looked at the recent history of HIV&AIDS in Kenya and government policy on the issue.  In 1999 the then president declared that HIV&AIDS was a national disaster and it as an issue (both health and social) was brought under the Office of the President rather than being allocated within one of the two health departments.  As this was a verbal declaration it was never actually put into formal written legislation, however the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) was set up to coordinate efforts.  Until this year more than 90% of HIV&AIDS funding in Kenya comes from international sources, with more than half coming from USAID.  (Nearly 98% of my organisation's funding comes from US government sources - CDC, FHI, Walter Reed).

In 1999 the HIV prevalence rate in Kenya was near 15% and today it is near 6% - a tremendous result in less than 15 years.  So why so many concerned faces??  Because organisations, such as mine, have built themselves to fight the long fight against HIV&AIDS and find themselves now in a situation where AIDS is decreasing as a priority area and funding is quickly evaporating.  NACC will likely be absorbed into one of the health ministries, no longer a national disaster, and USAID announced a couple weeks ago that AIDS funding in Kenya will decrease by 44% in 2013.  HIV&AIDS will find itself alongside other health issues such as TB and cancer which also have significant socio-economic factors, and government policy and resources will start to focus on meeting a range of complex health issues in large regions of the country.

My neighbours, Andrea and Harvey.
So, what's to be done?  VSO's example is to start early and move away from exclusive HIV&AIDS focus to encompass wider health issues.  As well, it will be important for organisations to form partnerships and consortia with other organisations who offer different geographic coverage as future funding will likely require full country coverage.  It's a changing time in Kenya and for organisations such as mine, which actually spotted this coming a year or two ago and started to move then to offer more holistic services to those infected and affected by HIV.  I will be carrying the conversation forward so we begin to identify long term partners, brining us neatly onto the next picture...

On the final morning of the conference there was a World Cafe exercise on funding.  A World Cafe is where there are a number of tables each on a slightly different discussion topic around a room and delegates move between the tables to contribute to a number of on-going discussions.  It a very effective and efficient way of gathering input from many people on many topics in a short amount of time.  Fundraising is a topic which comes up in everyone's placement - regardless of the job title - so this was a very welcome and pertinent activity.  There were 8 tables covering topics such as corporate donations, raising core funding, and alternative resource mobilisation.  I hosted the table on partnership and consortia fundraising. I really enjoyed the exercise and came away having learned a lot from the contribution of those participating.  I look forward to write up as well to see what I missed at the other tables.

My colleague Charles who came as the representative from my organisation.
After 2 days the conference was over and people started making their way back to the far reaches of the country from whence they came.  But not before a little boogie - what an appropriate way to end a conference!  It was great and I look forward to next year.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Hiking with Harvey

On Sunday I went hiking (read: "walking along dirt paths") with my friend Harvey, another VSO volunteer.

There are many places to hike outside of Nairobi which are amazing and beautiful.  However they are difficult to get to by public transportation, therefore requiring expensive taxis, and entrance fees can be quite high and sometimes include the cost of 2 armed guards which escort you on the hike. Finding expanses of green space inside Nairobi is difficult.  Finding green space in Nairobi which is safe even more difficult.  And finding green space which is safe, easily accessible by matatu and inexpensive to enter nearly impossible. 

Hiking is one of my absolute favourite pastimes, and with exception of the epic hike of Mount Longonot over New Year's (read: "climbing up face of volcano and nearly dying"), I haven't had the opportunity to do much since arriving in Kenya.  So when Harvey asked if I would go hiking in Karura Forest, a park run by Kenya Forest Service, just a mile north of the City Centre, I was definitely keen to try.  

Harvey points to a tall tree.
Karura Forest is just beautiful.  It is covered in tall (and I mean tall!) trees which makes it cool and shady.  There is a creek with a lovely waterfall.  And there is a line of caves which were used by the Mau-Mau, freedom fighters pushing for Kenyan independence from the British in the 50s.  For wildlife there are monkeys (which we saw plenty of) and other more obscure animals such as bush pigs and dik diks which alluded us.

The park used to have a reputation of not being safe, with muggings not unheard of at all, but the Forest Service has put up a fence and placed askari (guards) every few kilometers or so.  It is very safe now - there were many families and joggers and people walking their dogs.  Sadly in the whole day I can't remember seeing a single Kenyan in the park - it was all wazungu (foreigners). 

Might seem strange to have a whole post about a Sunday morning hike (still read: "walk along dirt paths") but Nairobi can be a difficult city to live in.  It is dirty (dirt on the ground, dust and exhaust in the air) and it is aggressive.  Just getting to work each morning can involve arguing over the inflated "foreigner" price for transportation, an elbow or two in the ribs trying to get a seat on a matatu, narrowly avoiding 3 car accidents, crossing highways heavy with speeding traffic, walking more than a mile over dirt and rock paths covered in broken glass, and crossing the Nairobi River on a rickety bridge basically put together with a few planks of wood and some gaffa tape. That's just the morning commute.  Finding a piece of quiet, clean, safe forest may just be a saving grace.

Standing in one of the Mau-Mau caves.
There are 50km of hiking trails in the park, so plenty left to explore. And plenty more opportunity to spot that elusive dik dik (will get a photo for you Nick!).

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Kenya Wedding Album

You may remember from the Jamhuri Day post that my house-mates and I were invited to attend the wedding of the son of Barbara's boss, Josephine. Well last Saturday was the big day.  So big, that I took 226 photos.  While I won't put all of them here, I thought I would put enough to walk you through the day, a la photo album style.  Let's give it a go..

Andrea and I waiting for the wedding to start.  
The invitation said the start was at 10am, so we arrived at 10.45am.
The wedding actually started at noon.  You may be able to tell a bit from this photo that the church was quite modern with capacity for around 1000.  When the wedding started the church was about 1/2 full, but by the end it had mostly filled up.
The flower girls and rind bearers.
We were surprised by how Western the wedding was in format and style.  There was a typical procession of bridesmaids and groomsmen in matching colour-schemes.
One difference was that instead of playing music during this part, there was an MC narrating the activity.
Waiting for the bride, part 1.
We were surprised that most of the 600 some-odd guests were women.
Waiting for the bride, part 2.
Here comes the bride..
Praying for the couple.
The ceremony begins.
The service was in English and included a 20 sermon, exchange of vows and rings and blessing by the parents.
This is a rare unobstructed photo as you will see from the next one...
Cameras cameras everywhere.
Yes, catching glimpses of the service in between the camera men
and photographers was difficult.
"Yes, you're married now"
The aunties sing a song.
All smiles.
The bride and groom with the bride's family,
The wedding car.
Reception tent.
The reception was held at a sports ground and had two tent like this one on either side, one for bride's guests and one for the grooms.  In the middle of the two tents was a walkway, space for dancing to come, and most importantly...
The cake stand.
The cake wasn't cut until the very end of the reception.  Most of the cakes there are given as gifts to the parents and family of the couple. For the other guests the cake is cut into bite-sized pieces and a plate is passed around with a fork to take one -
but I used my fingers to pick one up.

Barbara and I waiting for lunch.

 Lunch included traditional Kenyan fare of beans, ugali, irio and rice.  There were also another 3 dishes with goat - but I don't eat goat so you don't get to see those.

After lunch there was some dancing. After 2 hours the wedding party had not yet arrived at the reception so the MC encouraged people to dance while we waited.
With Josephine, mother of the groom.
Arrival of bride and groom.
When the wedding party did finally arrive, all the women went out to escort the bride to the reception while chanting and kind of shuffle-dancing.  I don't know what was being chanted, but we joined in the shuffle fun.

Once to the reception, the proceeded through an arch, followed by two lines
of shuffle-dancing guests.

Kikuyu dress.
Both the bride and groom come from the Kikuyu tribe - the largest tribe in Kenya and most prevalent in the central province which surrounds Nairobi.  This is a traditional bridal dress which was presented to the bride.
There were a number of speeches given over the course of the afternoon.
None of which I understood. Not because my Swahili isn't good enough -
but because they were all in Kikuyu, the tribal language.  There was one speech given in Swahili so that the wazungus (foreigners) could understand.
That one I didn't understand because my Swahili isn't good enough.

And the prize for the largest wedding gift goes to...
The bride's family for this bed. The giving of the bed signifies that the bride has chosen to leave her home and make home with her husband. When she returns to her family's home it should be with her husband.
Most gifts to the couple were money and little brown envelopes were distributed throughout the afternoon for that very purpose.  Groups of people who did have gifts for the couple would come up in their groups (family, co-workers, church members - there were about 10 or 12 different groups) sing a song for the couple as a group and then present them their gift.  We had bought a card and gave them some money which we discretely put on the gift table.  Andrea and I tried to work out what our song and dance might be if were forced to go up.  Due to childhood continental differences, the only dance we both knew was the Macarena, and for that reason let's all be glad we weren't forced to go up!

And that about brings us to an end. One other thing I wanted to share is a song that became the theme song of the day.  It was played while the couple walked down the aisle after the ceremony and several times during the reception.  It is catchy and Andrea and I had it stuck in our heads for a couple days - so I decided to share that joy with you!  Here's a link to it if you are interested - although be warned that you will be humming it for a while!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

To the Field and Back

Last week I spent 3 days on my first field visit with work.  A field visit (a term newish to myself as well) is anytime staff leave the office and go to visit a location where the organisation actually delivers services.  For I Choose Life this is usually either a university, a high school, or a community health clinic.  I have had a field visit in Nairobi, where I travelled less than 5 miles to visit a sexual health drop-in centre in Nairobi’s Industrial Area which works specifically with sex workers and MSM (men who have sex with men – as gay men are called in developing countries).  On that occasion I was out of the office for less than 3 hours.  This time I was gone for 3 days.

Tea Field in Kericho

Of my team of 5 (yes, it used to be 6 but it is now 5) 3 are based in Nairobi and 2 are based in the Rift Valley.  The Rift Valley is the largest of the 8 provinces of Kenya and stretches all the way from Ethiopia in the north to Tanzania in the south.  It is where I spent a week travelling between Christmas and New Year’s, and despite the fact that it is the only place I have been outside of Nairobi – it is hands down the most beautiful part of Kenya.

One of our projects is based in Kericho.  This particular one has 15 staff and has several community sexual and reproductive health (SRH) sites spanning a 400km area.  As there were 2 other managers from the head office travelling with me on this visit, we were able to take a car and driver rather than matatu as the cost would have been comparable.

It took us around 5 hours to travel to Kericho. The first 3 hours were on good roads (“good roads” and “bad roads” are common vocabulary in Kenya) however the final 2 hours were bad roads.  And when I say bad, I mean bad.  The kind of roads that no one in the US or UK would consider driving down without a 4-wheel drive monster of a truck or SUV, Kenyans plunge onto in tiny two-wheel drive sedans.   Roads that are dirt and rocks and hole and dips.   Roads that despite it being 30C (90F) outside and no air conditioning you have to keep the car windows rolled up to prevent the dust stirred up by other vehicles coming into the car.  Yes, I nearly passed out.

But the journey was beautiful.  Kericho is most famous for growing tea, and there are tea fields everywhere – and they are beautiful.  I don’t know much about the tea industry in Kenya, except that like the coffee industry, most of the raw material is exported cheaply to the North – the UK is largest market for raw tea from Kenya (Unilever and their subsidiary PG Tips grow most their tea here).

Housing provided for tea workers.

Women working in the tea fields.

The town of Kericho is quite small.  Less than a quarter square mile covers the centre which has a couple of budget hotels, some clothing shops and barber, and two supermarkets.  Kericho is also the home to Walter Reed (the international development funders – not the hospital) and they have their large offices there (which we were able to visit as they are the primary funder for our programme there).

Charles and I

We spent 2 nights in Kericho and our time there was quite busy.  Myself, the Monitoring and Evaluation Manager and the Human Resources Manager (who I travelled from Nairobi with) all spent the first morning meeting individually with our team members.  I and Charles (who is my allocated staff member from that project, but who is also the programme manager) met to review the proposal he has been assigned to work on this month.  I mentioned in an early post that after carrying out an audit of the RM Team I was going to change the meeting structure from weekly team meetings to one monthly team meeting and monthly individual meetings with each of the team members.  The meeting went well – we were able to put together a good outline for the proposal and identify where there were gaps we needed to fill – such as bringing in more research to evidence the need for the programme and identify specific delivery partners.

During all team meeting.

Following our individual meetings, there was a large meeting with all the 15 members of the project and us managers from Head Office.  The team presented an overview of their work – a map with all of the project sites and activities, their objectives and targets achieved last year, and plans for the upcoming year.  The programme based from Kericho works across a number of themes: clinical services, counseling and economic support for Most at Risk Populations (MARPs) which include sex workers and their clients (especially long distance truck drivers) and MSMs, sexual and reproductive health education and testing services for high school and university students, ad community family planning services.   This was a great session which provided a lot of information – and most importantly it was great to be able to hear about the projects directly from the staff who deliver them rather than reading about them in reports. 

Myself and other managers then took time to present a summary of our areas of work and what we will be focusing on in 2012.  In my Resource Mobilisation plan for 2012 I have identified 3 main objectives we will be working to:
  • 1.       To develop and implement RM systems and processes that are accurate, organised and fit for purpose.
  • 2.       To develop RM human capacity so staff are skilled, confident and productive both as individuals as well as a team.
  • 3.     To realize increase in funding through improved donor engagement, strategic proposals and diversified income.

After completing the audit of RM activity within I Choose Life it was clear that this year really needs to focus on systems and staff develop – rather than having an arbitrary income target which was unachievable.  If this goes well, then the foundation is laid for ICL for years to come.

We then spent the rest of the day visiting the closest of the delivery sites – a sexual health testing centre and peer education programme taking place on a rural (30 min drive down a dirt road kind of rural) university campus.  Again, it was brilliant to be able to meet students involved and see first hand where the work of ICL is taking place – outside of the Head Office.  I’ve included a number of pictures from the visit below.

Clinical consultation room.

Meeting with the Head of Student Affairs.

Students playing volley ball after class.

One of the dorms.

In front of university administration building.

One of the unexpected great things about this trip was spending time with my co-workers and learning a great deal about Kenya through their conversations.   Politics is the hot topic in Kenya at the moment – you may remember from my post the other week – and politics is what was discussed in the car, during every meal, and in between meetings.  It was fascinating to hear my colleagues discuss things from their personal experience which I had only read about in the news.  They lived here in 2007/8 during the violence and were all affected by it in some way – as all Kenyans are.  They discussed the ICC ruling (for those who missed this – 4 prominent Kenyans, included 2 front-runner candidates for the upcoming Presidential elections, have been charged with crimes against humanity by the Hague), the political parties and potential candidates for Presidents and how Kenyans, in spite of everything, are still likely to vote along tribal lines.  They, like most, hope for peaceful elections – but have doubt that Kenya has moved far enough forward.

James (HR Manager), Peris (Research and Development Manager) and Charles

The next day we travelled to Nakuru to visit another of our projects.  Due to being called into a last minute meet and greet with Walter Reed we were quite late in getting to Nakuru – and therefore our time there was short and I have no photos.  The programme there is based on a university campus about 30 min outside the town of Nakuru – although they work across 11 universities over a 200km area.  There are only 4 full time staff and 2 interns.  This project trains university students to be peer workers – the focus of the programme (and the USAID funding for it) is predominately around sexual health with a focus of reducing unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections, although the programme also delivers components on economic empowerment, academic and career mentoring and leadership and governance (in line with the strategic direction of ICL).  Peer workers are trained over 11 weeks and then graduate the programme.  They then are supported to deliver the same programme with other students – hence how the programme is able to operate across 11 universities with only 6 staff.

Myself and other managers again had individual meetings with our staff in those programmes.  Mutie, the staff member I work with there, had done a lot of preparation on the proposal he is currently working on – specifically looking at how the peer workers can be used in community settings (working with at-risk groups such as out of school and unemployed youth) rather than in just universities.  Was a great meeting.

We finished up there and I was back in the car and back to Nairobi.  My next field visit to these projects will be beginning of March.