A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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There is no such thing as too many baby elephants. Or AP Fellows.

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 5th, 2011 | Africa

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A quick diversion from work, in honor of 4th of July.  This weekend, Charlotte and Cleia took a break from Enoosean to relax in the city.  Relaxing in Nairobi sounds counter-intuitive, but when you are coming from the Maasai bush, hot showers and grocery stores are welcome.  So finally, the Kenya branch of AP was united.

Kenya AP Fellows
Kenya AP Fellows

On Sunday, after convincing Cleia to join us, we made the trek down to Nairobi National Park near Karen and tried to make friends with the baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.  The orphanage takes in and rehabilitates orphaned elephants until they can be released into the wild – typically in Tsavo National Park.  For most, this takes over ten years, and there are different levels of care and human interaction the elephants receive, depending on their age.

The orphanage opens its doors to the public every morning (and evening if you decide to “foster” an elephant) and presents its babies to everyone (you can see profiles of the babies on the website!).  It is informal and comfortable (minus the jostling of wzungu), and the trainers encourage the elephants to interact with the crowd.  By the end of the hour, even Cleia had joined Team Baby Elephant.  There were quite a few squeals of joy among us.  And hundreds of photos.

The first group was the babiest of the babies (the Nursery Herd), including 9-month old Naipoki (wearing the blanket – meant to reduce the risk of pneumonia).

The Nursery Herd
The Nursery Herd


The second group was older, around 2 to 3 years old.  This is right when they start developing tusks and about the age they get weened off the milk.

The Elder Herd
The Elder Herd

Feeding Time
Feeding Time

The bond between the elephants and the keepers was incredible and enviable (at least for me).

Follow the Leader
Follow the Leader

Handy Arm Rest
Handy Arm Rest

A highlight was definitely the dog-pile that ensued right before the babies were led out.  What hams!

The Dog-pile Begins
The Dog-pile Begins

The orphanage does not discriminate and has rescued countless other animals, including a baby black rhino, which due to its blindness, was abandoned by its mother.

Baby Black Rhino
Baby Black Rhino

Mama Baboon
Mama Baboon

We also discovered this baboon family, complete with a baby hanging onto the mom’s belly (Dad had already run into the trees).  The mom was none too interested in us, which was probably for the better.  As the center is situated in Nairobi National Park, getting there requires driving through land still controlled by animals…including lions.  So we were quickly ushered back into the car.

I really enjoyed getting to know Cleia and Charlotte; it was great to hear about their experiences with the Kakenya Center.  I am looking forward to eventually getting to see Enoosean to get a feel for Maasai life, but it was also nice to share mine with them.

As always, more photos are available on Flickr.

A (Brief) History of the Railroad Expansion and Its Woes

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 4th, 2011 | Africa

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The history of the railroad expansion really starts with the history of Nairobi.  It was founded in 1899 in the middle of a swamp.  Breaking the distance between Mombasa (on the coast) and Kampala, Uganda, it was established because of the railroad, founded as a depot.  Six years after its founding, it became the capital of the British protectorate and then the capital of newly independent Kenya in 1963.

Independence increased the boom of urbanization, and the city centers began to swell.  Nairobi’s population more than doubled ten years after independence, and now its population sits at over three million.  The slum creation can be traced back to urbanization; the infrastructure of the city could not handle such a rapid influx of people; the people could not handle the high cost of living.  The general consensus is that there are 183 informal settlements or slums in Nairobi, which hold anywhere from 40 to 60% of the city’s population.  A Shack/Slum Dweller International (SDI) report estimates that 63% of the land dedicated to the settlements sits on public land that has been privatized since the particular slum came into existence.  The rest of the land is public land, either contested or uncontested.  The 60 meters of railway corridor in Kibera and Mukuru count as contested public land.

And that’s what the disputed land is, just a corridor of 60 meters – that’s 100 feet on either side of the railway – that stretch along 11km of track.  But the track has become an everyday part of life for these people; some traders literally sell their wares on the track, simply moving off when a train goes by.  It is a road, a community hub.  And while 60 meters doesn’t sound like a lot, the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) counts that there are over 4,600 homes, 4,300 businesses, 280 institutions (including churches, medical clinics, and schools), and 790 public facilities situated in those 60 meters.  And it seems to treat these figures as trivial.  The people of Ngazi Ya Chini, on the other hand, think those estimates are low.  It seems like not much has changed in a year…

The story behind Ngazi Ya Chini can be found on Christy’s and Louis’ blogs.

Here are the basics of the issues.  The expansion is going to happen, and it is scheduled to conclude in 2012.  The community is now trying to form a resettlement plan that is fair.   Or at least respond to the inaccuracies of the most recent RAP.  The World Bank’s Operating Policy 4.12 governs this. Hands down, no questions…it must be followed.

Ngazi Ya Chini
Ngazi Ya Chini

They want to be consulted.

OP 4.12 requires that those affected by the resettlement are consulted and participate in the planning and implementation.  As far as Ngazi Ya Chini is concerned, this has not happened.

They want equitable resettlement.

OP 4.12 also requires that the people who are involuntarily resettled be returned to a standard of living equal to that of their pre-displacement levels.  This includes their businesses, homes, communities, facilities, etc.  The RAP is vague on a lot of the actual plans, but the community wants the same amount of space for their homes and businesses.  If they had 6 meters for their home previously, it does not seem equitable to cram them into 3 meters.

The resettlement will disrupt markets.

Many of the venders along the routes have been there for years.  And the track is a prime location; it provides easy access, it is easy to find, it is established as a market area with captive consumers.  The traders who will be displaced will have a hard time rebuilding such a market.

The resettlement will disrupt community structures.

This plan will separate families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.  With two large walls planned, as well, it will also effective sever the neighborhood, making one into two.  Compensation for this sort of loss is hard to measure.

The RAP has holes.

There are many issues left up in the air, such as the actual plan, the amount of space, the available retained land for resettlement, the school issues…the list goes on.  The methodology alone is murky.  And as mentioned, Ngazi Ya Chini questions the actual data.

The government does have some valid reasons for the resettlement.  The trains are dangerous.  At least three derailments have occurred in the past two years.  The tracks are over a hundred years old and easily uprooted, which has turned into a protest tool for some residents.  The trains are running inefficiently, as they can only go around 12 mph through the crowded slums.  The uprooting stops the trains entirely, and capacity is decreasing, rather than increasing.  Maintenance crews have a tough lot, falling sick regularly, as many times the tracks become waste heaps for everything from scraps to human excrement.

That being said, the process needs to adhere to the stated guidelines.  A few solid bargaining points for the government does not excuse a shirking of accountability.  Especially when it comes to the Relocation Action Plan.  Because at a certain point, isn’t this all the Bank is going off of?

The 20th International Steering Committee Meeting: Reactions from a Peace Fellow

Beth Wofford | Posted June 29th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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On 27 and 28 June, 2011 The Decade of Roma Inclusion held the 20th International Steering Committee Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic. This event heralded the end of the Czech Presidency of the Decade and formalized the beginning of the Presidency of the Republic of Macedonia.

Translations were provided in English, Czech, and Romany
Translations were provided in English, Czech, and Romany

Enjoying my first Meeting of International Roma Leaders

It was quite the experience. As a young, inexperienced intern I found myself quickly overwhelmed with the number of people there and their influence: The Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic  (Petr Nečas) and Macedonia (Nikola Gruevski), George Soros of the  Open Society Foundations, government officials from all the Decade countries, representatives from high levels of the European Commission, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe. In addition, representatives of civil society were abundant, and I settled myself in the back of the room to observe the proceedings. (Not by choice – the rest of the seats were taken!)

The first panel discussion was titled “ Synergies between the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 and the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies.” I found this particularly interesting, as Ivan had me completing a comparison of the efforts and what the Czech Republic has (and has not done) to address these recommendations. The recommendations were all good, but I found myself thinking back to the previous blog post about rhetoric. Yes, the recommendations are valid, but what action is going to be taken to address such recommendations?

L-R: Katarina Mathernova, Gabriela Hrabanova, Lenia Samuel, George Soros, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea
L-R: Katarina Mathernova, Gabriela Hrabanova, Lenia Samuel, George Soros, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea

Katarina Mathernova (Senior Advisor, World Bank), Gabriela Hrabanova (Director, Office of Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs, Czech Republic), Lenia Samuel (Deputy-Director, DG Employment Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission), George Soros (Chairman and Founder of the Open Society Foundations), Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea (Director, DG Justice, European Commission)

Cooperation, monitoring, compatibility, policy. Buzz words were abundant throughout this panel. Perhaps it is my inexperience in such international meetings, but I felt let down. Where was the Decade? What had been DONE? What ACTIONS need to still be taken? This feeling was present throughout the presentations of the Czech Republic and its conclusions and the goals of Macedonia.

Then Kalman Mizsei of the Open Society Foundation presented. He spoke of the need to re-address what qualifies as a “strategy.” Not only should these strategies have goals, but they should have action plans included, quantifiable targets, a concrete budget, and a change from “business as usual.” Policies should not just be approved by Roma civil society, but they should be created by Roma Civil Society in a partnership with governments. He spoke of the need for someone to take responsibility – and pointed at the European Commission. That there needs to be a monitoring process and the European Commission should be responsible for giving feedback to governments about what they’re doing and what they need to improve upon.

Kalman Mizsei, Co-Chair Roma Policy Board, Chair Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma
Kalman Mizsei, Co-Chair Roma Policy Board, Chair Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma

Kalman Mizsei presenting at the 20th ISC Meeting of the Decade of Roma Inclusion

Of course I realize that this is more rhetoric, but it was something other than giving each other pats on the back for merely saying that things need to change. It was a criticism of the fact that things haven’t changed despite such rhetoric. Mr. Mizsei’s presentation was followed by numerous examples of good practices which have occurred throughout member countries.

In Macedonia education has been addressed with a scholarship program as part of the Roma Education Fund – Roma children are encouraged to compete with each other to get good grades and thus funding to go to secondary school. Students were present to talk about the effectiveness of the program – it provided an incentive to do well, it was a method of empowerment and independence for the students. Mentors are available for students, and have been seen to be especially effective in being a bridge between parents and students in navigating the educational system.

In Serbia 60 female health mediators have been trained to become a bridge between Roma communities and health institutions. They have been responsible for a significant improvement in health  – more children are getting vaccinated, women are getting pre natal care, and documents have been supplied to families so they can access health care. The health mediators found that there is nothing inherently unhealthy or dirty about the population – the commonly encountered diseases were almost identical to that of the general population. These health mediators were able to not only educate the Roma community, but dispel stereotypes which are often the most damaging aspects of a marginalized society.

Looking at the Czech Republic, I find myself disappointed in the lack of action. The lack of good practices. The fact that children are still routinely put in special schools. The fact that there are no policies for implementation. There are no groups to enforce action. The Czech Republic is still enabling the vicious cycle of discrimination and prejudice which have afflicted the Roma community for thousands of years. This is not to say the other Decade countries are perfect. (On the second day when the Romanian government presented I thought there might be a fight between Romanian Roma civil society and the government representative…but that is neither here nor there.) But as I have fallen in love with the Czech Republic, I find their failings particularly disappointing.

It is time for them to do something about it. The time for planning has ended, the time for action is upon us.

Streets of Nairobi

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 21st, 2011 | Africa

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A large part of my time in Nairobi has been spent driving to and from work and my host-home.  The drive spans the length of Nairobi, and in the morning can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  In the evening, we are lucky to make it back in an hour; typically it takes around two.

Needless to say, I finally remembered to start bringing a book.  But every once in a while, the ridiculous drive, traffic and sights inspired me to document the trip.  So, welcome to Nairobi (as seen from a car)!

If you get motion-sick easily, I recommend skipping this one.  Roads are not kept in the best shape.

In appreciation of “different”

Rebecca Scherpelz | Posted June 20th, 2011 | Africa

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Apwoyo from Gulu!

After one week in Uganda, I’m settling into my role as a Mzungu/munu visitor in a Ugandan world (“Mzungu” or “munu” are the local words for white person, foreigner, etc…basically anybody the locals can pick out as an outsider!). The welcome here has been wonderfully positive, and the generosity of friends and the kindness of strangers have gone a long way to help me feel at home. For the first few days, I experienced life with a fellow Butler graduate, Genni, who has relocated to Uganda to start a family and a new life! Special thanks to Genni, Julius, and baby Dominic for the amazing hospitality as I got my bearings in Ntinde (near Kampala), adjusting to the 7-hour time change, constant heat, and local food. Weebare!

Traveling to Gulu, it was a 6-hour bus-ride north. Heading that direction, the road becomes increasingly rough, the weather increasingly warm, and the lifestyle increasingly impoverished. Though poverty and struggle exists across all of Uganda (and much of Sub-Saharan Africa, for that matter), the post-war North is in the midst of a long and slow climb up following more than 2½ decades of war. Still, the overall attitude in Gulu – the largest city in the north – is one of incredible faith, eagerness, and yearning for a better tomorrow.

For me – a “munu” in Gulu – I’m constantly aware of how I stick out, for better or for worse. To be fair, the presence of a munu even a decade ago would have been more rare than it is today, as an influx of NGOs descended on the city, bringing with it workers, researchers, missionaries, peace builders, and young idealists (like me). Today, only in the more rural areas would the first “sighting” of a munu be an event (even a fearful one!) for a young child. Still, as I walk through town, attempt to buy mangos, stand by the road to meet friends, greet people in the local language, ride by on a boda-boda (local motorcycle, aka one-person taxi), and try to cautiously integrate my personal lifestyle with respect to Ugandan culture, I am ever-aware of sticking out. An attempted “Apwoyo! Atyi maber?” and a friendly conversation may quickly change the attitude, but without that personal contact, I worry that I am judged as an outsider. Someone different. And rightly so, as I am both! However, my own paranoia reads that as a judgment that I am incapable and inept, an invader sent to impose my Western ways or sit and be served. It may take me longer to fetch a 30-kilo gerry can of water and haul it the ¾ kilometer home…but I can do it. I might splash a bigger mess and still somehow end up with dusty feet when I bathe with a bucket and cold water…but I’m still clean. I might prefer different foods and eat a different portion as my stomach adapts to new flavors…but I’m well fed!

So why delve into my insecurities as a white American amongst black Ugandans? I realize it is a bit of a stretch, and pardon any offense in my comparison. But as I work to serve the population of Persons With Disabilities (PWD) in Gulu, I’m drawn to the idea that they, too, might have an idea of what it feels like to be an outsider…to be unjustly viewed as inept…to feel a step behind while striving to maintain the same dignities and opportunities as the rest, despite what the non-disabled population is offering. I’m only two days into my work with the Gulu Disabled Persons Union, but I am inspired by the inclusive nature and broad advocacy of the nine staff members, five of whom have a disability (including visual impairments, deafness, and a spectrum of mobility issues). Additionally, all 12 Board Members live with a disability. In spite of – or, rather, because of – their disabilities, productivity and devotion to the mission is strong. What many in the Gulu community may see as a fault is simply their way of life…neither better nor worse, just different.

So here am I, too – neither better nor worse, just different. We may all find ourselves where we feel like fish out of water…still, it can’t mean that the Deaf man doesn’t want to “hear” what you are saying; that a woman on crutches doesn’t want to enter the same building; that a munu isn’t interested in embracing a new way of life. Here, the GDPU is working tirelessly to help change this perception within the Gulu community; to increase the standard of living, both socially and economically for PWD; and to empower PWD to lead dignified lives. Time to get to work. : )

GDPU (Gulu, Uganda)
GDPU (Gulu, Uganda)

Welcome to Mathare, would you like a drink?

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 17th, 2011 | Africa

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(I apologize in advance for the length of this blog…I know I promised brevity.  I lied, just this once.  I’ll make it up to you with lots of photos?)

This past week, I have attended three meetings and am still attempting to get a grasp on the multiple issues facing slum-dwellers and the solutions.  A meeting on June 15th was the launch of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights’ report on the state of human rights in Kenya.  I haven’t read the full report yet, and it isn’t available online as of now, but I will report back on this one.

The other two meetings were community workshops on water tariffs.

Welcome to the Workshop!
Welcome to the Workshop!

Hakijamii, in collaboration with NPSN, plans different workshops in neighborhoods around Nairobi to educate people on the importance of clean water, their rights (there is a lot of buzz around the new constitution), and the costs associated.  Water in Nairobi is controlled by Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, which like many utilities companies, seemingly runs a monopoly.  Needless to say, people in the settlements have not seen much progress by the government nor actualized provisions, so trusting and paying NCWSC is not the instinct.

Teaching the Community
Teaching the Community

There are so many issues facing Kenya’s water, it is kind of difficult to find a starting point.  First of all, a lot of natural sources are contaminated.  Sewage drains directly into the rivers.  Clean-up efforts are in place, and there are treatment facilities capable of creating potable water, but costs are prohibitive.  NCWSC has committed to installing more water lines in the settlements, and they have plans to install proper sewage lines, but convincing the people to pay the high start-up costs is a challenge.  This is particularly so when they are paying a monthly fee for a sewage line that does not exist yet.

Additionally, water costs up-front seem unaffordable.  The cost to purchase a water meter for one’s home (in order to tap water directly into the home) is 5,000 shillings (around $57).  For many people, that is more than their monthly salaries.  After the start-up cost, the fees get more reasonable.  Monthly, they will pay a fee for water, depending on usage, but typically around 19 shillings for 10 m3 and another 14 shillings for sewage (for a total around 30 cents).  Problems arise because the promises of additional pipes are not fulfilled yet, and those that are are easily tapped.  NCWSC is also setting up water kiosks around the settlements for people to pay to access, but the cost of these are more expensive over longer periods of time, and many do not have water in them yet.

Water Projects on Hold
Water Projects on Hold

That is a really primitive explanation.  But hopefully, the idea comes across.  The goal is to make water affordable and accessible to the majority of urban homes.  So in a nutshell, that is how I was introduced to the Mathare settlement.

Mathare Far
Mathare Far

Mathare is a collection of settlements, and it is largely believed to be the second largest in Nairobi (after Kibera).  Population estimates range anywhere from 500,000 to one million.  And while Mathare is not famous like Kibera (which has roles on tv shows and was the filming location for The Constant Gardener), it is no less striking.  It was one of the hardest hit areas during the post election violence, but despite only three years time, it seems to have collected itself from the ashes.

(Photo from NYT Online)


I had been told I was going to a community workshop.  So dressed in a skirt and sandals (so inappropriate for a walking tour of a settlement!), we drove to Mathare Worship Centre.  What I was not told was that the regional NPSN director for the area, Christopher Maina, planned to take us around Mathare.  Besides the wardrobe miscommunication, I was thrilled.  As I mentioned in my blog about slum tourism, I am very mixed about the attributes of leading Westerners around settlements, but then again, this is what I am here to do…to learn about the actuality of life here and to try to impact changes, to advocate for these people.

We began with a tour of Kiboro Primary School, a government-sponsored school for kindergarten through 8th grade.  After touring the grounds and the water/sanitation facilities, the Head Teacher, Dorcus Mutinda, welcomed us into her office.  Of the 891 students, 30% are orphans.  Food is supplied by the World Food Programme and textbooks by the government.  Healthy habits are a large focus of the school, but water constraints make it difficult to follow everyday.  She told us, for example, that the smaller children tend to be pushed out of the way in the hand-washing line.  She spoke of the school’s challenges and needs, but also seemed very hopeful.

Dorcus Mutinda
Dorcus Mutinda

A Sea of Blue
A Sea of Blue

The children were excited and friendly and swarmed me, as usual.  Children are always a joy.  They don’t see me and think of what they do and don’t have.  They don’t see their socio-economic status, or feel bitter about my presence.  They see me and see a novelty.  A mzungu in their midst, willing to talk to them and interact with them.  For me, that unabashed curiosity and joy is the best way to temper the overwhelming feelings of sadness.  And unlike my time in the Nigerian Delta, the sight of me didn’t make any of them cry!  Already this visit was going smoothly.

"Clean" Water
"Clean" Water

Christopher then led us deeper into Mathare, in order to really grasp the water issues.  He showed us where the sewage runs into the river and the water lines that get tapped.  After about an hour, we headed back to the Centre to start the meeting.

I will save the descriptions of the disparaging conditions for another blog, especially since everyone always writes about how sad/dirty/poor/fill-in-your-word-of-choice the settlements are; I will have plenty of time for that with Kibera.  I will leave you with the positive attributes of Mathare.  These people are living.  Yes, the conditions are bad and the government needs to step up efforts to confront these issues.  Yes, more could be done by the people of Mathare to improve such issues like waste disposal, but these people are making the best of what they have.  I didn’t hear one complaint; I didn’t have a single person ask me for anything.  I was welcomed, by adults and children alike, into their lives.  I saw people working, relaxing, doing chores, laughing, getting on with life.  Three years ago, this settlement was torn apart by factionalism and violence.  I have been so impressed with the resiliency of the Kenyan people.  They are educated on the issues; they know the reality of the situation, and they are working for change.  But do they whine about it?  No.  A ray of hope that community efforts, spearheaded by groups like Hakijamii and NPSN, are giving them an outlet to try to actualize change.  And that is beautiful.

I have droned on enough now.  As always, my Flickr set has more photos and information accompanying each photo.

Planes, trains, and automobiles. My first week in Dong Hoi

Ryan McGovern | Posted June 16th, 2011 | Asia

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It took a 10 hour bus trip, 13 hours of flight time, and a 12 hour train ride on the reunification express, but I finally arrived at my destination in the picturesque town of Dong Hoi Vietnam about a week ago. Besides the typical adjustments a foreigner usually has to make in a new land,  I’ve had plenty of time to get to know the staff of my host organization and learn about their expanding role in the community, plans for the future, and how I can best serve them during my short time here.

Quang Thuan commune gate
Quang Thuan commune gate

While the staff at AEPD have done all they could to fill me in on all their current projects, there’s no substitute for seeing it up close with your own eyes. So this past Tuesday, I was taken out for my first trip to the field to see the impact that AEPD has on the community, meeting with 3 individuals who’ve been supported by AEPD. Accompanied by Mr. Luan, one of the 7 outreach workers for the organization and Mrs. Nga, the monitoring and evaluation specialist who will undoubtedly be acting as my translator for the majority of my trip, we traveled to the Quang Thuan commune about an hour away from Dong Hoi. There is a beautiful gate at the entrance of the commune, with an inscription that roughly translates to “Nothing is more realizable than freedom and independence”. The slogan no doubt is in reference to Vietnam’s complex history that has endured occupations by the Chinese, French, and Americans, but after meeting several of AEPD’s beneficiaries, this could easily serve as the motto for the organization.

The first gentleman I met was Nguyen Ha. Mr. Ha is a disabled veteran of the third Indochina war when he fought for his country in Cambodia. Ironically, it was after the war when his injury happened. A bomb landed close to his hut in central Vietnam and he lost the bottom half of his right leg, and now makes due with a prosthetic limb. When he is wearing trousers, you probably wouldn’t even realize he’s disabled. He moves swiftly around his farmland, and in general seems perfectly mobile. Ha received support from the government for his injuries, but with rapidly rising prices it was not a sustainable income. He owns slightly less than 4 acres of farm land that he uses to cultivate rice, working around 8 hours a day. AEPD in 2010 provided Mr. Ha with 6 million VND to purchase a cow. It may not seem like much, but it makes his labor much more productive and he’s seen his income rise from 1 million VND per month to 1.5 million. Also, the cow’s value has nearly doubled since it was purchased as a calf. He plans to eventually sell the animal for a small profit and invest the returns in his business and buy new livestock.

Nguyen Ha
Nguyen Ha

A short drive from Mr. Ha’s home we met with another AEPD client, Le Thi Be. Unlike Mr. Ha, Ms. Be is not survivor of UXO or landmines. She contracted an extremely high fever when she was 3 years old that caused her right leg to become paralyzed, which she described as having a “heavy leg”. AEPD’s role has expanded greatly since it became an independent organization last year, serving not only landmine survivors, but all persons with disabilities in the Quang Binh and neighboring provinces. Be operates a tailoring shop inside her home in the Quang Thuan commune, and is a single mother to her 3 year old daughter Taang. AEPD helped Ms. Be purchase a sewing machine, workstation, and display case for her shop. While her income is still very low, it has risen by 40% since she received support from AEPD, and she expects it to steadily increase throughout the year.

AEPD beneficiary Le Thi Be
AEPD beneficiary Le Thi Be

For our last stop, we visited Mr. Nguyen Van Thanh. Thanh used to work as a farmer and served as a high ranking commune officer until he was victimized by a landmine while he was working in his rice field, losing both his hands and one of his legs. He was 36 years old at the time and his life took a drastic turn in the blink of an eye. He went from earning a comfortable living, able to support his mother and disabled father, to receiving just 560,000 VND per month from the social services unit of the government, which wasn’t enough to support 3 people. Luckily, AEPD was able to reach Mr. Thanh and supported him with free training and a 10 million VND grant which he used to purchase chickens and netting to build a coop. Poultry farming has significantly raised his standard of living, nearly tripling his monthly income.

Nguyen Thanh
Nguyen Thanh

I’ve never been a fan of explaining currency figures in terms of US dollars, as it distorts true purchasing power and takes some issues out of context, but that’s just the economist in me talking. It can however be a powerful tool to provide some frame of reference for those in the western world. The exchange rate for VND to USD is approximately 20,000/1, and for VND to EUR 29,000/1. If you consider Ms. Be’s monthly income in terms of USD, it’s about $25 per month. Before she received assistance however, her monthly income was around $15. Mr. Ha’s labor currently nets about $75 a month, an increase of $25 monthly. If these amounts seem like a meager wage, that’s because they are.

Whenever I hear these kinds of figures, I usually ask myself how it’s even possible to survive on such low incomes. The answer is complicated, and I’ll probably never truly comprehend the struggles it entails. Prices are of course low enough in the commune where they are able to buy essential items and they often will get help through neighbors or friends when times get really tough. I think it’s important to consider how much more difficult life would have been if AEPD hadn’t reached out to them. In some cases, their incomes increased by over 50%. I find it remarkable how a simple sewing machine or a cow could have such an impact on their livelihoods. For the disabled in Quan Binh provence, AEPD is more than an NGO. It’s an avenue to a better life, not though charity, but through their own faculties and determination. This short trip was invaluable for me. It’s one thing to read about what the AEPD does in a brochure or on a website. Meeting their beneficiaries face to face has provided some much needed context.

Finding My Feet

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 16th, 2011 | Africa

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I am still getting settled into Hakijamii, which is easy and hard at the same time.  As I’ve said before, the staff is great, so growing comfortable with them has been easy.  They have been so welcoming and even let me follow them around like a lost puppy (especially when we venture out of the office).  The bustle of Kenyatta Market has become nice background noise; there is definitely a rhythm to life here.  I still haven’t found my way around the maze of narrow corridors, though, and I’m not sure I ever will.  The market is quite the thriving exchange, even on rainy days.

What has been the most difficult is finalizing my work product goal and figuring out the “system.”  I knew coming into this experience that NGO work can be frustrating on its own; add in a new culture and the challenge is bigger.  Hakijamii is shockingly organized.  Their filing system is all online and is so structured, the day-to-day operation is seamless…what is less apparent is the way Hakijamii operates in the larger system, or I suppose how I can function with them in the larger system.  There are so many active organizations in Kenya, and while the NGO community here is really inclusive, I am having trouble seeing where I can be operational.

I’ve had a continuing dialogue with AP about this and what would be the best takeaway from this fellowship for everyone: Hakijamii, AP, Kenyans, and me.  I will be contacting Ngazi Ya Chini to see what the status is of the railroad expansion and how I can assist, hopefully with their legal team.  Luckily, there aren’t too many railroads cutting through the largest settlement in Nairobi, so I know where they live.  If I can’t get a hold of anyone soon, I can march down to Kibera to talk to some people (that sounds gallant, but really what I mean is, “I will closely follow on the heels of one or two Hakijamii staffers,” like that lost puppy again).

I need to write about my experiences at the past few meetings I’ve attended, but for the sake of brevity, I will save that for another blog.  In the meantime, here are just a few photos of lovely Kenya.  You can click on the photos to be taken to my Flickr album, which has more explanations for each photo.


What is she doing?
What is she doing?

Hair Salon
Hair Salon

Angel Trumpet
Angel Trumpet

Kenyan Mud
Kenyan Mud


Funding a Country

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 13th, 2011 | Africa

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It is an interesting time to be in Kenya.  The “mastermind” of the 1998 US Embassy bombing was shot at a checkpoint.  Squatters are petitioning the government for title to their land.  An Olympic gold medalist has died at age 24.  The country is gearing up for elections in 2012, which would mean the end of the coalition government that many feel is ineffective.  The new constitution is (supposedly) being implemented, and the largest budget in Kenyan history was just determined.

The budget is set at 1.15 trillion Kenyan shillings.  That is about $13.2 billion.  15% of that is to be divided up between the 47 counties of Kenya.  The constitution states that the budgeting at the county and national level must be participatory, transparent, and accountable.  This article explains the budget a bit better.

Hakijamii has been working on government accountability and proper allocation for the past four years.  Louis blogged about the People’s Budget last year, and this year it has grown.  With the changing constitution, groups like Hakijamii and NPSN wanted to involve the community more.   This year, more than 15 groups met multiple times to make suggestions to help the government prioritize the real needs of the people in the settlements.

One final meeting occurred on June 7, 2011.  As the budget determination occurred the next day, the meeting served as a last chance to air suggestions and proposals to take to the Minister of Finance, Uhuru Kenyatta.  There was a good amount of entertainment throughout the meeting, but my favorite was this group in the video.  They were a crowd-pleaser, inciting laughter, cheering and singing.  They are calling out to the leaders, Raila and Kibaki, asking for help.  It was roughly translated for me, so I will try to pass along the translation.

**Fast facts: Mwai Kibaki is the President, and Raila Odinga is the Prime Minister.  The details of the tragic and disputed presidential election of 2007 are too complex to address here, but in short, a power sharing agreement was reached in 2008, creating the post of PM and a coalition government.

In the song, they are asking Odinga (Raila) to throw them up so they can fly, because they can’t afford the price of fuel.  They will fly, so long as they get to work.  They are asking Kibaki to give them a constitution; even just one chapter, so long as they have a constitution.  They are also asking Kibaki to give them land, even a plot sized 10x10, as long as they get the title.

You can also view my photo set on Flickr, which includes some of the stills from the meeting, plus other photos!

This could be the beginning of an existential crisis.

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 9th, 2011 | Africa

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I was perusing blogs about Kenya today, and I happened upon a woman who blogs from the perspective of an expat living in Nairobi.  Africa Expat Wives’ Club is not exactly the perspective I am trying to learn about, but it does offer an interesting take on life in Nairobi, some of which it is easy for me to relate to (even though I’m not an expat).

What particularly struck me was a thoughtful and candid post she did on UK celeb personalities spending a week in Kibera for the BBC called Rich, Famous, and in the Slums.  The premise is that celebrities are dropped off in Kibera with only 200 shillings (around $2.30) and are meant to survive as members of the community do, but with a takeaway point: Earn a living, eat, find shelter, learn meaningful lessons along the way.

I have yet to watch it, as I can’t seem to find a viewable version online, and something about illegally downloading while abroad makes me really nervous (ok ok, it makes me nervous in the US, too).  I can see the value in this, though…particularly for those four people, they will (hopefully) walk away from the experience with a lot more respect, compassion, understanding and mental fortitude.  For example, Angela Rippon has developed a relationship with a school in Kibera, providing textbooks and other resources.

There are a lot of articles about this program.  And a lot of debate.  From a Western perspective, it is easy for us to extol the virtues of expanding one’s point of view and keeping an open mind…empathy is a beautiful part of human nature, and it seems like that cannot be achieved without walking in the other’s shoes.

But at what point is it patronizing?  As this article from The Wall Street Journal asks, are these people being used as props?  Additionally, this article from the Daily Nation offers a stark contrast and compelling argument – I highly recommend reading it**.  What about the people of Kibera?  They are humans, not marketing ploys.  Isn’t this dehumanizing?  Why is Kibera a tourist destination?  But it also gets to a more complicated point – where is the government?

I suppose I will stay out of this debate, and try to walk a fine line (I am here to work in informal settlements, after all).  It’s such an individualized lesson we each learn, isn’t it?  People will take from it what they take from it…this is as true of slum tourism as it is of formal education, zoos, relationships, any experience.  Yes it’s true, I learn best by first-hand experiences.  It’s hard to really understand without seeing it for myself.  But in this case, that value is not inextricably linked to objectification.  I hope to leave Kenya with a mutual understanding with the people I get to work with, interact with.  We can learn from each other.  So what I see, from the people of Kibera (and beyond – this isn’t distinct to Kenya) and from the participants in the BBC’s show, is courage.

**I also highly recommend this short article from the New York Times.

Fellow: Kristen Maryn

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