Wednesday, October 19, 2011

East Africa: Who What Where Why?

This post is an attempt to summarize what I have begun to refer to as my "self-funded, self-directed fellowship" ... otherwise known as my "East Africa Summer" - May 14 through Aug 22, 2011.

It all started with my Lehigh Comparative Politics class. Our TA Brian had spent a semester abroad in Kenya, and used to meet with a small group of interested students once a week, to show us photographs and tell us stories about Kenya. Years later two close friends, Sharon and Eric left at about the same time for Tanzania, to volunteer for extended amounts of time. I got to experience Tanzania vicariously through them. Then in January 2010 I watched the first Invisible Children documentary about the Lord's Resistance Army and Joseph Kony. I was really touched by Jacob's story, one of the Ugandan boys in the film, and started following Invisible Children's work. Over the course of the rest of 2010, things just kept piling on top of each other. I read Jacqueline Novogratz's book The Blue Sweater, and began going to Acumen Fund events. I started meeting people from San Francisco's social entrepreneurship community, while also reading about other young social entrepreneurs. I wanted my own experience, and I wanted to meet the social entrepreneurs in East Africa and hear their stories in person. Fortunately things culminated in my life in such a way that I was able to just jump in with both feet, and I began to plan an East Africa Summer.

The next part wasn't quite as easy. Invisible Children doesn't have a volunteer program in their Gulu, Uganda office. I had missed the Kiva Fellowship Program application deadline. I hadn't been to East Africa before and didn't have any friends there; I needed to plan out where I would be volunteering, and my return date. I remembered that the Daraja Academy of Kenya had invited me to volunteer at their campus in Kenya, after the successful athletic shoe drive that Caitie and I had organized the previous summer. I applied to volunteer at Daraja for a month beginning on May 14, and was accepted. Next, I needed to propose a project to be completed during my month's stay on campus. I am very interested in access to higher education and love mentoring my Level Playing Field Summer Math & Science Honors Academy students, so I proposed serving as a guidance counselor on campus, for the month. Daraja had a better idea - they needed help researching post-graduation opportunities for the students. Daraja is a young school - the oldest students are in Form 3 (high school juniors). So I would get to do some planning work, which sounded exciting! While I was quitting my job and giving up my San Francisco apartment, I figured that I might as well stay in East Africa for the summer. I reached out to one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who I had met several months prior to see if he had any suggestions. Garang said that he could use my help with a particular project in East Africa, and we decided that I would return to the USA on August 22. So I was all set! I gave notice, gave away a lot of my stuff, packed what was left, drove that stuff and my dog to my mom's in NY, and then I was off to the airport.

I lived on Daraja's campus outside of Nanyuki, near Mount Kenya from May 14 through June 14. I spent most of my time conducting online research, interviewing civil servants (Nanyuki is the Laikipia District seat so there is a government compound in town), helping students prepare for the Music Festival competition, attending Sunday student-run religious services, ran a Blue Sweater Book Club using twenty-five copies of the book that had been donated by the Acumen Fund, participating in the sports program, sitting in on the Women of Integrity Strength and Hope (WISH) classes, and in general trying to get to know the students and the Kenyan education system as well as possible.

I had trouble reaching Garang of New Scholars while I was at Daraja, due to poor telecommunications infrastructure in South Sudan. So at this point it was time to re-invent the summer plans! From Daraja I proceeded to Jinja, Uganda to visit an old friend, Meghan who was volunteering with Light Gives Heat for the summer. I spent about a week in Jinja learning about Meghan's work and meeting her fellow volunteers and the organization's staff, went to Sipi Falls, Bujagali Falls, went white water rafting on the Nile, and spent a lot of time meeting staff and guests at the hostel where I was staying, which is where I learned so much about Ugandan culture, the education system, credit, and development. From there I headed onto Kampala, the capital of Uganda where I was invited to stay with a fellow Pace Law Environmental Program alum, Elaine who was on a Fulbright and was living on the Makarere University Campus. Thanks to Elaine and a Kiva Fellow I met, Michele, got to know the expat community and life in Kampala. I also got to meet the founders of one of my favorite social ventures, AFRIpads! While in Kampala I also explored the city, and learned that Jacqueline Novogratz had tweeted about me! I left Kampala for a few days, to track chimps in Kibale National Park. While there I realized that the water filter that I brought with me from the USA was not working and began to drink bottled water, not realizing that my body was already fighting water-borne illnesses. I'd met two Australian travelers on my first day in Uganda, who had invited me to go up to Gulu, Uganda with them to visit the Invisible Children office. I'd also met Tom, a Ugandan who attends university in Michigan and is active with his campus' Invisible Children Club but was home for summer break, at a coffee shop in Jinja. Tom had introduced me to someone who works in the Invisible Children Gulu office. Visiting Gulu, meeting the Invisible Children staff, staying at one of the Invisible Children staff houses, going to Krochet Kids' compound ... I learned so much! I wrapped up my three and a half weeks in Uganda with one final Nile rafting trip, and goodbye-for-now's to my friends at the hostel, and Meghan. Leaving Uganda ... crossing the border back into Kenya ... that was hard. I loved Uganda.

I headed right back to Nairobi, to begin the third and final part of my East Africa Summer. I stayed at a hostel (Upper Hill Campsite) that had been recommended by my Australian friends, as well as a San Francisco Surfrider friend Jules, who had been through Nairobi recently. I met some people who had been traveling all over Africa, and had interesting stories to tell. Thanks to Michele's roommate in Kampala, I quickly found a room in a Western apartment to sublet, in the heart of Nairobi. I spent most of the next six weeks in Nairobi itself, doing work. Even though I had technically already finished my project for Daraja, I decided to continue my research, independently. I felt as if I was just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding, when I left Daraja. There was (and still is) so much to learn. But it wasn't all work - I took side trips to Maasai Mara National Park "on safari", up to Daraja's campus for a quick weekend to meet Daraja co-founder Jenni who had been out of the country while I was living at Daraja, and to Mombasa and Diani Beach on the Kenyan coast. I met some great fellow travelers white water rafting and on safari, who I later caught up with in Nairobi - Maria, Elien and Jan. I also did a few "day trips" within Nairobi's city limits - to the David Sheldrick Baby Elephant and Rhino Orphanage for the public daily milk feeding and then for the tuck-in, and to Nairobi National Park. I got connected to two Georgetown alums in Nairobi, Angela and Laney, and another American living in Nairobi, Karen. I had so much fun hanging out with them, getting advice about health care when my illnesses started keeping me down, and helping Angela out with the Amanai Art Club that she started for Nairobi street boys. I got to meet two of my friend Sharon's Kenyan friends, two Kiva Fellows in Nairobi, Richard and Nila, and my friend Sowmya's friends from her International Peace Masters Program, Wilson and Edith. I also got to meet Acumen Fund Nairobi office team member Suraj, who invited me to the launch of the Acumen East Africa Fellows Program where I got to meet Jacqueline Novogratz, and to TEDxKibera. Lehigh young alum Freedom warmly welcomed me to Kenya, and helped me plan and run a Lehigh Alumni Happy Hour in Nairobi. I mentioned that one of my plans for my summer was to meet inspiring social entrepreneurs, and to get to hear their stories. I got to meet Jessica Posner, who has been an inspiration to me from the time that I first learned of her work with Shining Hope for Communities. I also got to reconnect with Garang from New Scholars, while he was in Nairobi from South Sudan, and learned how I can help him with his work. I remain so passionate about the work that needs to be done - and opportunities - in South Sudan.

In addition to all of these activities, and learning Nairobi I continued on with the research that I began at Daraja. While touring social ventures in Uganda, I noticed that every venture had social workers on staff. I began to consider that bursaries (college scholarships) were not quite enough - the students need mentors, too. While in Uganda I got to meet with a US Embassy employee who helps Ugandan students access US universities, and then got to meet staff in Kenya who are doing a similar thing. I set up appointments and dropped in on nonprofits and corporate operations that empower Kenyan students via both bursaries and mentoring programs, including Akili Dada, KenSAP, and Equity Bank. (I was invited to attend the two-week long second annual Equity Bank Congress on Kenyatta University's campus, which was an amazing experience - got to meet inspiring students, and was able to collaborate with fantastic bank employees.) While conducting my research at Daraja I learned about some of Kenya's top students, and found that many attended two "national" boarding schools for girls, both located in Nairobi - Precious Blood Riruta and Kenya High School. I was invited to visit both campuses, and learned so much from meeting the Precious Blood students and Principal, and staff at Kenya High School. Meeting John, one of the current Acumen East Africa Fellows, turned some of my thoughts upside down. Wow - one of the best things from my summer was people's willingness to go out of their way to teach me, and help me with my work.

I left Nairobi on August 22, to fly back to the States feeling as if my work was just beginning. I'm still trying to draw conclusions from all that I saw, experienced, and learned this past summer. I remind myself of Jacqueline Novogratz's keynote at the East Africa Fellows launch event, when she reminded us that she has been doing this work for twenty-five years. I can't expect to have figured everything out in three and a half months. And yet ... the best thing is just to begin. Thanks to Sanergy, a eco-sanitation solution social venture in Nairobi, I found out about Kevin Starr's PopTech talk.

It's given me a lot to think about. I also learned a lot from a conversation that I had with Saul Garlick at SOCAP11 (Social Capital Markets Conference) last month. What do I care most about? What is the problem that I want to solve? Forget about the rest of it. Just start with this. I'm working on it, and will update here when I'm ready! But the main theme is empowering young East African women to create change in their communities through mentoring, education, travel and extended service learning.

Thanks to everyone who followed along with my adventures by reading my East Africa blog posts, and checking in with me. It meant a lot!

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