Thursday, February 18, 2010

My New Blog

If you're still reading this blog, thanks for your perseverance! I was working Stateside with Nuru for the past 10 months, and now I'm back in Kenya working as the Water and Sanitation Program Manager. I will be blogging here very infrequently if not at all. I will be blogging about my Safari Maji, my water adventure, at least every Thursday on the Nuru website. I'd be so grateful if you would follow me there!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Fabric of Kenya

I was on a little break for the last two weeks. Doug and I got settled in our new place in Chicago, we rested up after a very intense few months in Kenya, spent some quality time together, got some great alone time in as well and got a chance to process the amazing adventure that we’ve been on the past few months. It was wonderful, although very chilly- it’s definitely still winter here in Chicago, and I haven’t felt my toes since we landed.

I’m not a big souvenir person, but I did want to take something home with me that captured the essence of Kenya and Kuria specifically. In a certain corner of the market gorgeous bolts of colorful fabrics with wild and whimsical patterns hanging in the tiny storefronts caught my eye day after day. This fabric is called a “kitenge”, pronounced ki-tan-gay and it is used as a wrap skirt, a headscarf (as shown on my friend Elizabeth below), a baby-carrier or to make a tailored dress, the Sunday-best variety. Kangas, which are also worn by women in Kenya are similar to kitenges, but kangas always include a border and a proverb and are thinner fabric than kitenges.

Christine and Elizabeth, Water/Sanitation Leaders

Kitenges (and kangas) are sort of the essence of Kenyan women. I began to feel an obsession coming on- I started noticing kitenges everywhere in the community- and I kept dreaming up projects that I could create using this brilliant fabric. I realized that this fabric would be my souvenir from my adventures in Kenya.

During my break, I ended up creating some sweet wall hangings and stitching up some bold decorative pillows from the kitenges, and I had a blast doing it. I imagine a quilt project sometime in the future too.

As I carefully cut from the colorful yardage I recalled all the stories of brave women I met, their struggles, their unrealized dreams due to limitations in their lives, their beauty and their bravery. I shed tears and whispered prayers for my friends. I remember the looks on their faces and the tears falling from their cheeks as they told me stories of their lives and then their huge teethy smiles when they talked about how things have changed since Nuru began in Kuria.

My new handmade décor, I realized, is my way of bringing the women of Kuria into my home- all they have taught me, their strength and their hopes and dreams. They inspire me every day to keep hoping and to keep fighting with them against extreme poverty.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In Between

I’m writing this post from the Amsterdam airport. Although it was fitful, I did get a bit of sleep on our 8-hour flight from Nairobi. We somehow ended up sitting in the very last seat on the plane, which do not recline all the way. Poor Doug didn’t get much sleep at all (he’s currently in a lounge spread out on a few chairs attempting to rest up before our next leg). Somehow I’m fairly awake and I feel great, maybe the bright lights and the vibrant décor are helping out.

I’m sitting here tucked behind a tiny little “museum” next to the baby care lounge and the casino (this place has everything), and I’m just overflowing with gratitude, having spent the past 6 months working in Kenya empowering leaders to bring clean water and sanitation practices to their community, laying the groundwork for Nuru’s Water/Sanitation (WatSan) program, doing what I always dreamed of…

As I left Kuria, Kenya rooftop rainwater catchment devices were being constructed on homes by the WatSan representatives themselves, and we’re getting ready to drill deep wells in locations throughout the community that desperately need clean water. It’s amazing to see all the plans I made and partnerships I fostered actually get implemented!

I feel sad to leave Kenya and my position as WatSan Program Manager, yet I’m excited about my new position as Director of Partnerships. I’m looking forward to setting up a home again in Chicago (Wicker Park!) with Doug, a sweet place for us since it was where we dated and had our very first apartment. I’m also grateful to have a little break before we hit the ground running for our new positions. We both really gave this last run in Kenya all we had, and we’re a bit worn out.
I’m glad to have some time to process all that I’ve learned about the plight of the poor- girls kept out of school because of water collection, hungry children forced to care for younger siblings, early and senseless deaths of family members, women abused and shunned…
and all the striking beauty I’ve seen- spectacular sunsets, layers upon layers of constellations, brilliant lightning storms, rolling green hills covered in banana trees and endless farms, deep valleys with trickling springs and the songs of exotic birds, warm enthusiastic greetings at every turn, a community of courageous individuals learning and laboring together…
I’ll deeply miss my wonderful Kenyan friends, especially Lucas, my partner in this crazy adventure. I was grateful to be able to visit Lucas and his entire family in their home the day before I left Kuria. His wife, Christine prepared a delicious snack for us and we sat together with all their precious children (Monica, Veronica, Gabrielle, Elizabeth and Florence) and ate and drank fanta, soaking up our last moments together. Lucas shared some words that will stay with me forever- about the respect we have for each other, the work we did together and the solid foundation that was laid. He vowed to continue in the same determined spirit, and we spoke of the day when the community will be transformed, when they will lift themselves out of extreme poverty.
So, here I am in Amsterdam, between Kenya and the U.S. I’m grateful for this “in-between” time, not yet fully gone, not yet fully home. For the next few hours I’ll remain here both physically and in my heart, fighting to hang on to every moment I experienced, to recall every face, every story…

Monday, March 16, 2009

Saying Goodbye

Our beloved friends who make up the Nuru community development committee (“the CDC”- the local leadership team that we’ve developed these past 6 months) threw us an incredible going away/welcoming party on Sunday. They sent out invitations to all the Nuru leaders in each program area and even printed agendas for the event with the title prominently displayed at the top: “Nuru Tea Party”.

The funny thing is that there wasn’t a drop of tea at the party. It was actually way bigger and better than a tea party. All our friends showed up dressed to impress, heartfelt speeches were made by many including the chiefs, an incredible meal was served, fantas and cokes were flowing throughout the day, and there was even a live band playing traditional Kurian music, the kind that you can’t possibly sit still listening to. It was a rockin’ party really, with lots of love and dancing too!

Philip, the chairman of the CDC explained to the group that Meghan, our new education program manager, knows how to dance because she had worked in Sudan and was familiar with African culture. He then turned to me and announced: “But, Nicolay [that’s what he calls me] you surprised me. We see that the music moved in your legs.” I took that as a compliment.

It was a truly special day filled with unforgettable moments. I was especially touched when Lucas presented me with a very generous gift- a plush jacket adorned with rhinestone flowers. I think all my talking about how cold it is where I come from got him worried. What a sweet gesture from my good friend. I’ll definitely miss Lucas and his whole family.

Another favorite moment was when I got to dance with all Lucas’s kids Kurian-style to the music- Monica, Veronica, Gabrielle and Elizabeth. And those kids can dance!
It was wonderful to have such a marking moment- an opportunity to honor the CDC, say good-bye to our good friends and co-laborers and to officially welcome Foundation Team 2 to Kuria. I’ll never forget it!

Friday, March 13, 2009

One Week Left in Kenya

I want to give you an update on all the exciting stuff that's going on in Nuru’s Water/Sanitation (WatSan) Program…

Wells! We filed a permit application with Kenya’s Ministry of Water and they let us know that we’d get authorization to drill much sooner than we expected. I can’t wait to launch a “Water for Schools” project that gets wells drilled at local schools and brings clean water to thousands of school children and families around the school.

BH2O+! Nuru is hosting a nationwide campus water awareness event on April 23 called “Be Hope to Her” I’m really excited about the event, and how it could make the “Water for Schools” well projects a reality.

Empowerment! We have developed a full local watsan team. Six trained volunteer leaders are now working with Lucas, our Field Manager.

Water Supply! We’re testing out rooftop rainfall catchment systems on six homes, and we’re starting construction early next week. I’ll keep you posted! This project will bring a water source to people’s homes. This means that it will save women 20 hours/week (the time they spend collecting water from the spring) and provide a cleaner water source for their families.

New Management! We have a new WatSan Program Manager, Chris Clarke who will take over the program that I began here. Chris’s blog will be your new source for regular updates on the water & sanitation projects here in Kuria, Kenya. Check it out:

New Job! I’m leaving Kenya next Friday morning, re-making a home in Chicago and starting my new job as Director of Partnerships!

My life is going to change dramatically over the next week. Here goes...

The adventure continues!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reflections on the Bronchials

Sometimes I think that getting sick helps me let go a bit, keeps me humble. It reminds me that I’m human, a somewhat fragile being subject to the elements, pollution and allergies. Don’t get me wrong, being sick is a frustrating experience for me. I loathe it and I kick and scream through it, especially at first or when it drags on after I feel like I’ve put in my time.

For fear of sounding like a wuss, and I almost hesitate to post this, but I’m sick again. I hope I’m near the end, but I had a weeklong struggle with bronchitis. It’s something I’m familiar with, being an asthmatic and luckily, I even had the antibiotics on hand just in case.

So, I believe I’m on the upswing. I have my energy back, but I still have a nagging cough that I wish would let me rest . I must say, it’s times like this that make me so grateful to have access to medicine. Without the antibiotics, this thing would go on for weeks or even months (believe me, I’ve tried to go the “tough it out” road before). And lots of people here face just that. They’re asthmatics with no inhalers and definitely no antibiotics to bail them out of bronchitis. They don’t even have simple drugs that we all have continuous stocks of in our medicine cabinets- things like aspirin and ibuprofen .

Lots of people here suffer from asthma (and other respiratory tract issues) because they grow tobacco. Not only does tobacco-growing require application of harsh chemicals (and I rarely see farmers wearing masks), but to dry the leaves the tobacco is placed into a smoke house, which billows dangerous particles. These smoke particles get trapped in the lungs of children playing in the yard and the women with babies on their backs and men loading the smoke house with racks of tobacco leaves.

Watch our latest video- “Kuria Project: Episode 4” (click on link on the right)- it captures this perfectly.
And, it gets worse…
Then, in the big tobacco company shed, women literally stomp on crates filled with tobacco leaves to produce a nice compact square for the tobacco company to pick. Once, while I was waiting for Lucas, a man from the tobacco company was in town for a pickup and offered to give me a tour of the shed. I never told him who I was or what I was doing. I noticed that the women had cloth masks hanging around their necks. I asked about them. He said that they were required to wear them, but even if they actually wore them over their noses and mouths, it wouldn’t help, they’d still be breathing in the toxic fumes.

He ended our conversation by saying something like this:

“Every year less and less people plant tobacco. ...You people are doing a good thing here. You are teaching the people to farm [train them how to use good maize seed and fertilizer]. The land is fertile, and the yields will be very good.“

The thing is, no one here really even smokes. They just grow tobacco or their parents or neighbors do, and now they have asthma. And that’s yet another reason why we’re empowering our friends here to plant maize, a new cash crop without the side effects. Another reason why I’m so grateful for Nuru’s holistic strategy…because health, agriculture, water/sanitation, education and small business, they’re all interconnected.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Tribute to My Cousin Sue

Today I want to write a little different post than I usually do. I’ll call it a tribute- to my dear cousin Sue who passed away a couple days ago.

Sue is a special person to me who lived with passion and flare. She was quite a presence- with the loudest, most infectious laugh in the room and the most animated gestures and hair-flipping during story-telling. Ever since I was a little girl I remember looking up to her and just wanting to be near her. She spoke her mind with boldness, fought for causes she believed in, sought hard after truth and listened intently with an authenticity that made you feel like she loved every minute of being with you. And she loved her family!

You see I (or should I say we, all of us Garretts) grew up in what I’d call a man’s family. At Garrett family reunions there’s lots of shouting (the kind that everyone enjoys, although maybe not the new in-laws), very intense card games (euchre!) usually accompanied by chain-smoking, continuous rotations of softball and eating… like I said, a man’s family. But, Sue always held her own with the guys. She knew how to put them in their place and love them all at the same time. And she was the one who sort of held the family history together, teaching us about our roots and who (in our huge extended family) were our second cousins and who were “twice removed”. I’m still not sure if I know what that means even though she explained it to me every year.

But, what I love most about Sue is her humility and her passion. She was able to admit where she went wrong and be grateful for where she was…even in dying. Although I was away in Kenya while she was suffering in great pain from cancer (it broke my heart not to be able to see her), I was able to email her a couple times. Here’s a bit of what she said to me in those exchanges; to think she wrote these words facing death really touches me:
“Our wonderful God has been blessing me with peace, joy and lots of love and expressions of caring. He is so faithful. So many times in my life I've turned away from HIM and he loves me back to him any moment. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for all he's done for me all my life and especially now.”
When I think of Sue, one story keeps replaying over and over in my mind:

The first opportunity I got to go to Africa was in 2004. The church I was going to invited me to join a trip of young professionals to looks at projects being done by various humanitarian organizations and think about how our church could partner with their work. They asked me, because someone told someone else that I was a water resources engineer. What they didn’t know was that this opportunity was exactly what I had been looking for, and a passion for using my technical skills in the developing world was bubbling up within me.

I knew that I needed to be on this trip, so when I got the phone call, despite the lofty fund-raising and time off work required, I instantly committed to be part of the team. I was thrilled! I wrote a letter about it and sent it out to close friends and relatives. I brought a few along with me to the annual Garrett family reunion. When I handed Sue hers, she tore it open, sped through it mouthing the words with a huge smile on her face and getting to the closing line that asked a question like: “Do you want to be a part of this?” she emphatically answered out loud as she stood up: “YES! I want to be a part of this!” And, although she recently lost her job, she whipped out her check book and gave me a generous donation that helped send me on that trip.

That’s Sue. I'm inspired by her, I love her, I miss her and I can’t wait to see her again…in a little while.