by Gwen Meyer, co-founder
Friends of Kenya Schools and Wildlife
When my husband John and I accepted an invitation for a three-week trip to Kenya in 2002, Africa was not even on our list of places we wanted to go. Nine years later, our NGO, Friends of Kenya Schools and Wildlife (FKSW), whose seeds were planted during that first visit, has transferred more than $200,000 in donations to support community development in six rural communities in Kenya.
With our Kenyan partner NGO, Network for EcoFarming in Africa (NECOFA), FKSW focuses on activities designed to help achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: alleviating poverty and hunger, providing access to nursery and primary education for girls and boys, helping to prevent and treat diseases, and providing access to clean water. In each community, residents participate in identifying priorities, making decisions, and implementing projects to improve the quality of their lives. As part of every project, a training component results in new knowledge and skills for participants, and ensures maintenance of the outcomes. The process endeavors to create community among participants and often is transformative in relationships and ways of working together.
Near Elburgon, a town in the temperate highlands of Kenya, the Molo Wool Project began four years ago. Members of the Karunga Women’s Group spin wool from their sheep and knit wonderful animal figures that have brought in approximately $20,000 in sales since 2007. The women have received advanced training in fiber arts and basic business practices. Income from the sale of the animals helps meet the needs of their families and enables them to contribute to a “revolving fund” which serves as a group banking system. Each woman, as she is able, puts money in the fund to buy shares that earn interest during the year and pay dividends regularly. From this joint account, women can also take out loans.
On Kokwa Island at Lake Baringo, members of the Kokwa Women’s Group use treadle sewing machines to make school uniforms, clothing and other products for sale. The earnings cover school fees for their children and buy household necessities. This year, the women implemented a chicken project in which each family on the island received a rooster and three hens, and started community and kitchen gardens in their five small villages for food and income.
Since reading the book Half the Sky, I’ve thought often about the chapter entitled “Grassroots vs. Treetops,” which tells the story of Tostan, the west African NGO working to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Senegal and other African countries. Tostan’s approach was to place FGM within the larger framework of community development. Besides educating entire villages about the practice and its dangers, the process included training for village leaders, formation of community management committees and a microcredit system to encourage small businesses. Following the lead of local women, Tostan involved religious leaders and the men in discussing human rights and health issues related to cutting to help prepare communities to make their own choices. In five years, more than 2,600 villages announced that they had ceased cutting, and Tostan hopes to end all cutting in Senegal by 2012. I recognize in Tostan’s approach what John and I are learning from our Kenyan partners about the fundamental transformation that can occur when members of communities understand themselves, each other and the issues. The process that makes this possible is essential for self-determination and successful long-term development and sustainability.
We’ve seen this evolution at Karunga and Kokwa. In both communities, the men stepped out of their traditional roles and offered to help the women with their projects. In response, the women made the men “auxiliary” group members. Men put together spinning wheels and looms that FKSW purchased for the Karunga women, helped with the planting of seedlings for a new tree nursery and provided land for a building where the women could gather to do their fiber arts and the community could meet. At Kokwa, the transformation went even further. In a community of fishermen where none had ever farmed and the members of the five villages on the island had never met as a group, the Kokwa women and representatives from each village discussed the chicken and garden projects the women wished to implement. The men then supported the women by collecting chickens and preparing the ground for the planting of seeds. But it was the students from the Kokwa Primary School 4K Club, participants in an FKSW-sponsored school garden project for the past three years, who taught their parents to plant, fertilize, weed and water their gardens.
In September 2010, the five communities celebrated together their first rich harvest. From the bounty, which included pumpkins, maize, sorghum, millet, cowpeas, kale and beans, the gardeners carefully set aside seeds for the next planting.