The Village Savings & Loan Association (VSLA)

15 12 2012


 “A shilling saved is a shilling earned” 

It’s hard to believe that this is my second holiday season living in Kenya.  Last year I vacationed at the coast and, in the absence of mass marketing, it didn’t really feel like the holidays.  I was running errands in town yesterday and did see some Christmas decorations but there is no seasonal shopping frenzy here.  This year I’ll be experiencing a simple Christmas in the village and, with a church right next door, it’s sure to be a cultural emersion.  Still, I’ll be with you in spirit, envisioning you enjoying your holiday traditions.

The last 18 months have been enlightening and given me a whole new perspective on how I want to live going forward.   1 year of unemployment + two years living in the developing world = lots of time to reflect on conspicuous consumption and the choices I will make in the next chapter of my life.  Whether or not my Peace Corps experience will dramatically and/or permanently change my lifestyle remains to be seen but I already sense a shift in my priorities and vision for the future.  Shopping has sort of been a sport/hobby for me in the past. and, while I can’t say I’m not not going to want things anymore (okay, I want an iPad so bad, it hurts), I envision being more of a minimalist.  It’s not my intention to place a value judgment on the American way of life; it is not intrinsically good or bad. It is that way of life, after all, that often drives achievement AND it is satisfying the desire for goods and services that catalyzes economic growth.   American children are raised in an environment where they understand that while money can’t buy happiness, it can buy a pair of Nikes, a ski vacation, a bicycle or an XBox.  They also experience the reality that, as the Rolling Stones pointed out, “you can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”.  We were raised in a culture where we crave things and experiences that are very rarely free and where that line between want and need, can easily become blurred.

Financial literacy and planning is something that we tend to take for granted and it is a focus area for capacity building in Kenya.  With a population of 40M, approximately 60% live on less than $1 a day.  In an ideal world, a couple would size their family according to how many children they can afford to feed, cloth, house and educate. Unfortunately, family planning and financial planning are both rare, particularly in the rural areas.  Children’s school fees typically absorb much of a household income and the concept of discretionary income is a foreign one.  The idea that it is wise to routinely put aside some money each week in anticipation that some unexpected need may arise is a difficult one to convey.  The benefits of saving have to be demonstrated and it has to be practiced regularly in order for it to become a habit.

In America, we give our little ones a small weekly allowance to introduce them to the concept of currency.  A little later, they’re expected to earn their allowance by being responsible for simple household chores.  The piggy bank teaches them that by delaying gratification and saving money, even a little bit at a time, they can accumulate enough to spend on sweets or a coveted toy later on.  In school they’re tasked with selling wrapping paper or candy to raise money for a cause.  Participating in a walkathon and securing sponsors teaches them that volunteerism and charitable giving can be rewarding.  In their early teens they are encouraged to earn money to spend as they choose by delivering newspapers, babysitting etc. and deposit some of those earnings in their own bank account.  American kids grow up playing the game of LIFE where pat of play is to choose a path, see the impact that education has on available job opportunities and how those jobs translate into salary which determines what kind of house you can afford.  It also illustrates the financial impact that the number of children they have has on the family budget.  The game of Monopoly doesn’t necessarily spawn real estate moguls but it does emphasize that personal finances are affected both by conscious choices and by chance.   Going off to college is often when a young adult has the opportunity to learn how to budget for food and entertainment.  It may also be when they first experience writing checks and using a credit card.  When they get their first job they will likely assume responsibility for paying their own bills.  Hopefully, they have the benefit of enrolling in a retirement plan where savings are automatically deducted from their salary.  By the time they are independent, they have established an attitude about money that is likely to influence their financial decisions for many years to come.

The Village Savings & Loan Association (VSLA) structure has had a proven track record of success throughout Africa for many years.  It is a community-based approach that has the power to turn the act of saving money into a matter of routine.  It provides an alternative means for building personal savings to those who, for a variety of reasons, may be resistant to traditional banking.  Some do not trust large institutions or have transportation challenges or cannot afford to pay account maintenance/transaction fees or may not meet the qualifications for receiving small loans.  It incorporates procedures to ensure transparency, which significantly reduces the likelihood of corruption.  It also places the responsibility for governance with the group’s members who tailor the constitution to meet their needs and elect the officials presiding over their meetings.  Members are expected to make a weekly deposit of 1 ro 5 “shares” (share price is typically 50 -100Ksh).  A member can request a loan for up to three times the value of the shares they have in their account.  They pay interest (usually around 10%) monthly until the loan is repaid which must be done within three months.  While savings do not earn interest, at the end of each cycle (9-12 months is recommended) the loan fund is liquidated and members are paid out for their shares which have increased in value due to interest accrued.  Afterward, a new cycle begins.

Tujijenge is a huge CBO of 240 members spread across three counties (see October post).  On average, about 80 people attend the monthly meetings.  At the last monthly meeting I did a presentation to educate everyone about VSLAs.  I extracted key points from the official VSLA Program Guide that encourages the formation of groups of 10-25 members who know and trust each other and are committed to following the process.  I described the VSLA kit that includes all of the supplies needed for administration and explained that the group’s members will share the 11,000Ksh cost.  We had a Q&A session to address any concerns raised, the biggest one of which was theft.  43 Tujijenge members added their names to the signup sheet and 37 of them already have a history of saving.  Isaiah (Tujijenge’s Secretary) and I identified 4 regional groups to start.  We will begin with a group of 12 and a 4-6 weeks later roll out a second group of 18.  In the meantime, we will recruit additional members for the remaining 2 groups which each have only 6 members signed up.

Tamani Group, one of 4 VSLAs that have launched since this post was first published

Tamani Group, one of 4 VSLAs that have launched since this post was first published

It usually takes a few weeks to get the VSLA ready for launch.  In the kickoff meeting Isaiah and I will I’ll be reviewing the VSLA concept, going through the constitution template, discussing the purchase of the VSLA kit, choosing a location and day for weekly meetings, discussing the election of VSLA officials and describing how the meetings will be conducted. The group will customize the constitution to define the share price, minimum and maximum number of shares to be deposited each week, fines for various transgressions (i.e. unplanned absence, tardiness, talking during the meeting), interest rates on loans and whether or not members will make a weekly contribution to a social fund for emergency grant requests.  Isaiah and I will actively facilitate the meetings until the group members have internalized the processes and are able to operate autonomously.

I have high hopes that this system will enable us to get these VSLA groups implemented and self-sufficient quickly and that it will have a significant, positive impact on the financial outlook of its participants.  I will report on progress in the Comments of this post so, if you want to be alerted when I add an update, please add a Comment now and check the box that says “follow this post”.

Happy Holidays!

Update July 29, 2013:  As I prepare to depart Kenya, I am pleased to report the accomplishments of the three most active VSLAs launched during my service.  All together 92 members have, so far, saved 145,100ksh, collected 23,055ksh of accrued interest on loans and contributed 12,860ksh to a social fund!  In addition, each of the group raised 11,500ksh to pay for the VSLA kit.  Two additional groups have received their VSLA kits and are preparing to launch.  Please join me in applauding them for their commitment to financial independence.

Ksh coins

Stamp Out Breast Cancer in Kenya

18 11 2012

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With Thanksgiving coming, I am reminded once again of the things we so often take for granted and even complain about.  I am very grateful that I have access to a standard of healthcare (yes, even during my Peace Corps service) that many in this world cannot even imagine.

Many people’s lives have been touched by breast cancer in some way.  In all likelihood, you have either been diagnosed yourself, have lost a family member, friend or coworker or know someone who is fortunate enough to call herself a survivor.

Breast cancer is now the number one killer of women between the ages of 35 and 55 in Kenya.  It strikes one in nine women in the country, killing many of them due to late diagnosis.  In 2011, breast cancer claimed the life of one of Kenya’s national treasures, Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai.  In 2012, Kenya’s own Health Minister flew to the United States to undergo breast cancer surgery, an option impossible for most women here.

Because most women do not have access to treatment for advanced stages of breast cancer, early detection is critical.  This can only be achieved if women and girls are encouraged to perform routine self-examination.

These paintings, created by Kenyan artists, incorporate a Breast Cancer Awareness postage stamp issued in Kenya in 2008.  By purchasing one, you can help to fund a project to produce public health education materials.  Posters placed in health clinics, and Community Health Workers armed with pamphlets, will ensure that women and girls are taught the proper method for detecting lumps and other abnormalities before it’s too late.

A dear friend, Lois Alter Mark, has agreed to help us by promoting the project on her website stylesubstancesoul and handling the sales transactions.  To appreciate, and hopefully purchase one of, these unique paintings go to

Please join me in thanking the artists, all of whom I am pleased to call my friends, for making this possible.  Edward Orato, Jairo Okoth, George Omondi Odongo, Erick Ayoti Omurwa and Victor Nyambok helped to realize my vision for this project and agreed to accept fair market value for their paintings, understanding that their work would be sold for significantly more money, with the proceeds funding a breast cancer awareness campaign.  I think you’ll agree, they’re spectacular.

Jairo, Erick, Odongo & Orato (Victor not pictured)

Jairo, Erick, Odongo & Orato (Victor not pictured)

This project was inspired my Mom, my sister Meredith and my dear friends Leslyn and Margaret who have faced cancer with amazing strength and my great aunt Jean who died of breast cancer many years ago when survival rates in America were not nearly as promising as they are today.

Chapter Two

7 10 2012

Hiatus over, wasn’t nearly as painful as a TV writers strike…..

Why has it been so long since I shared??  The truth is, I simply didn’t want to blog for the sake of blogging when I didn’t really have anything “blogworthy” to say.  Lacking inspiration since my March post, I figured my frequent Facebook posts would prevent me from falling off your radar entirely.

In the last ten months I spent Christmas through New Year’s visiting Jen (PCV) at the coast, joined Josh (PCV) for a consulting gig at Lily Pond Arts Center in Nanyuki (near Mt Kenya), sat on planning committee for Lake Victoria Tourism Association Expo & Gala, hosted Joani‘s visit from America, went on safari to Maasai Mara, hiked Kakamega Forest, attended TEDx Kisumu, observed chefs at work in kitchen of Haandi Indian Restaurant, sold furniture for PCV who departed suddenly, hosted several coach surfers (, judged a Junior Achievement Regional Exhibition, said farewell to PCVs (Rich, Daniel, Leigh, Michael, Rachel and others), experienced the emergency room (syncopal episode, all cardio tests normal), traveled to America for Mom’s surgery, spent time in Nairobi for Security Warden training, PCV/Staff brainstorming session for redesign of Peace Corps Kenya’s Community Economic Development (CED) sector, mid-service medical/dental exams, represented PCVs at two Volunteer Advisory Council, participated in a security consolidation drill, attended wonderful art exhibition at Kiboko Bay, provided consulting to Riat Focusing Youth Group (the only JA group that has remained engaged, they received technical training, prepared a business plan and continue to raise capital for their poultry business), worked with artists creating paintings for breast cancer awareness campaign (details in future post), celebrated my birthday with friends, compiled donor solicitation and loan justification packets (including narrative and financial breakdowns) for Pendeza Weaving to pursue a cash infusion to achieve their goals, and moved to a new dwelling!  I have also done lots of networking, bought more paintings, had the pleasure of meeting PCVs Ryan, Blake and Elise’s parents and made some new friends.

You can take the girl out of the city…

For the last few months my Peace Corps Supervisor and I have been evaluating ways to ensure that my remaining year of service is both satisfying and impactful.  As a result, I have a new site assignment, working with Tujijenge Community Based Organization (CBO) while participating in program development and piloting of the CED redesign we have branded “BLUE”.  Pendeza Weaving has shifted to one of several ancillary projects along with my work with local artists and youth groups.  As my site assignment has changed, so has my housing.  I have given up the conveniences of city life, electricity, running water, a flush toilet, decent internet connection and privacy for a house in the village, spectacular rural views, a feeling of community and a preschool class of 6 yr olds who find me fascinating.  Now that’s what I call fair trade!

The best part about living in Kisumu was that I would often get visits from PCVs who live in villages within a few hours commute to town.  For them, it’s been a chance to shop at Nakumatt, eat pizza and get away from it all.  For me it was constant traffic noise, road construction, gaping holes in the sidewalk, having people shout mazungu at me from across the road and way too many visits to Nakumatt.  I now have the best of both worlds living in a rural community only 10km (50Ksh/20 minute matatu ride) from Kisumu town.  My friends call me when they’re coming to town so I can meet up with them and now it’s a treat for me too.  I do need to give some focus to recovering my Kiswahili language skills since I’ve been speaking mostly English for the last year.

I live on the VOI Pentacostal Church compound that also houses a preschool and a caretaker. I am a short walk from the tarmac and have a small three-room house (kitchen, living and bedroom) with a washroom next door and choo out back.  Preschoolers enjoy our shared yard whenever they are set free to run off some of their infinite energy, Monday-Friday between 7:30a-3pm. On Saturday afternoons the church choir practices in the schoolroom.  On Sundays I am awakened at 6:30 to the church PA system playing its subtle reminder to everyone within earshot that it is a day of worship.  After last weekend’s services which lasted until 1pm, I enjoyed a lovely visit and lunch with the pastor and church committee members.  Mamas were still sitting outside my door well into the afternoon and a few youth hung out in the church until early evening. Here’s a shocker, I may actually drop in on the 7:30-8:30am youth service from time to time.  I’ll be awake anyway, it’s in English, it gives me more community exposure and I may find candidates for BLUE there.

I’ve been here less than two weeks and I already feel like I live in a neighborhood.  Mildred and Lilian, the teachers, are very friendly and invite me to join them for lunch of rice and green grams (legumes) whenever I’m around.  Jane does the cooking for the school (mid-morning porridge & lunch) and I have hired her to wash my clothes and clean my home once a week as she welcomes the extra income.  I often use the church as an office since it has electricity and fortunately I have a five-socket surge protector or we would all be vying for use of a single outlet.  The CBO Chairman’s family lives right up the road, which was quite a relief the day the caretaker accidentally locked me out of the compound.  Kevin, the CBO Project Coordinator, and other CBO Committee members also live nearby.  My market days are Wednesday and Sunday and I am lucky that Kiboswa Market is only about 1km away.  My nearest PCV is Blake who is about 30 minutes away which is nice since he is also working on the CED redesign.

Tujijenge (We Build Ourselves)

The CBOwas created by The Noreh Foundation.  Joy and Joshua Noreh own a fertility clinic in Nairobi, the first clinic in all of Kenya to perform IVF.  Joy was also the staff Medical Officer for Peace Corps Kenya up until five years ago, so we are “tuka pamoja” (on the same page) when it comes to what a Peace Corps Volunteer’s role is.  Tujijenge has ~250 members residing across Kisumu, Vihiga and Nandi counties.  The Foundation purchases livestock and allocates it to members who meet the criteria for providing shelter and adequate care.  Since last December 42 members have been given a cow and 26 members have each received five broiler hens and a cock.  The Noreh Foundation and CBO Committee monitor for any signs of neglect and hold members accountable, removing any animal that is malnourished, restoring it to health and redeploying to another member.  The program is structured to be self-sustaining by treating the livestock as a loan to be repaid.  In exchange for a cow, the farmer must return the first two calves to the foundation and farmer who has received poultry must return four chicks.  Once the cows have given birth milk production and revenue generation can begin.  We live in a milk deficit region, which means that in order to meet demand, local production must currently be supplemented by imported milk.  Interestingly, goat’s milk is far more nutritious than cow’s milk (especially beneficial to people whose immune systems have been compromised) and sells for more than four times the price.  By breeding broiler hens the population and poultry sales will increase.  Surplus broiler eggs can be sold to other breeders for three times the amount as those sold for consumption.  Plans are underway to deploy goats and rabbits in the near future and then possibly pigs and fish ponds someday.

I met with the CBO Committee to discuss what I will focus on and here’s what we agreed to:

1. Village Savings  & Loan (VSLA)

  1. Add loan process to existing table banking system
  2. Adapt USAID’s model as needed

2. Tujijenge Self-Help group

  1. Organize CBO members who are HIV positive and/or are disabled
  2. Explore possible income generating activity (IGA)
  3. Facilitate IGA startup and capacity building to ensure sustainability

3. Technical Training & Resource Library

  1. Explore Demand Driven Extension Services from District Livestock Production Office (DLPO)
  2. Coordinate customized training seminars
    • Habitat
    • Healthcare (vaccinating, symptoms of illness)
    • Feeding / proper nutrition
    • Breeding
    • Veterinary services
  3. Gather technical manuals & best practices for raising cows, poultry, goats & rabbits
  4. Explore value addition products (yogurt, cheese, pelts)
  5. Getting products ready for market (branding, social networking)

4. Market Introduction: Rabbit

  1. Survey consumers
  2. Develop materials (nutritional comparisons, butchering instructions, recipes)
  3. Leverage to encourage consumption

5. Market Penetration – establish sales channels in target markets

  1. Manure – farmers
  2. Meat (beef, goat, chicken) & eggs – restaurants, caterers & dukas
  3. Cow’s milk – schools
  4. Goat’s milk – healthcare institutions UNTAPPED MARKET!

I have my work cut out for me and, with only a year left, I need to hit the ground running.  My ease at making this transition reminds me how adaptable I’ve become and how much I’ve learned since I arrived in Kenya.  Earlier this week I went to visit the DLPO in Hamisi.  A beautiful drive but way farther from my site than I had anticipated.  The visit was well worth it and just two days later the District Livestock Production Officer and his local Extension Officer attended a scheduled meeting with Tujijenge cattle and poultry farmers in order to assess their training needs.  Attendees were receptive and our first seminar has already been scheduled for Oct 25.  The DLPO also delivered a set of pamphlets, the start of what I hope will be our growing Resource Library.

Kenya’s Future, Kenya’s Youth

27 03 2012
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt
Out-of-School Youth at Shepherds Rock Community Development
Note: I will report on the group’s progress with the Junior Achievement program by adding comments to this post.  If this topic interests you and you want to be alerted when I have an update or anecdote to share, simply submit a comment on the post and flag the Notify me of follow-up comments via email checkbox before submitting your comment.  I suspect I’ll also be asking for your advice from time to time.
What is Junior Achievement (JA)?
  • Dedicated to developing Financial Literacy, Entrepreneurship and Workplace Readiness since founded in the US in 1919
  • Has been providing business and economic education programs for students from primary school to university and, most recently, to out-of-school youth
  • In 124 countries, and expanding: In Kenya schools since piloted in Nairobi 2002-2007 and extended to out-of-school youth in 2009
  • Thanks to the efforts of over 270,000 volunteers, JA is able to reach over 9.3 million students worldwide each year

What can Junior Achievement do for Kenya?

  • Kenya’s population is 38M and 9.1M are youth ages 15-24.
  • It is estimated that only 20% of youth will find employment in the formal sector.  We hope to empower local youth to take responsibility for creating employment opportunities for themselves.
  • This is in alignment with Kenya’s Millennium 30 goals.  To learn more about this initiative go to

What is a youth group in Kenya?

  • Registered with the government Ministry of Gender and Social Development as either as a Self-Help group or a Community Based Organization
  • Mobilizes youth and catalyzes action
  • Creates an environment which enables youth to facilitate their own development

How can a youth group benefit from this experience?.

  • I will represent JA and work with several out-of-school youth groups.  The program will unfold over a 5-6 month period during which time participants will create a company that will develop, market and deliver a product and/or service.
  • I have been provided with guidance, a framework and resource materials enabling me to be a program facilitator.  At the end of my engagement, participants will decide whether to liquidate the company or continue operations.  If I enjoy the work and feel that I’m being effective, I may startup other groups.  The youth will:
    • Understand and explain the benefits and profits of a free enterprise system.
    • Understand how businesses determine and set prices.
    • Understand clearly the different forms of business (product vs. service, B2B vs. B2C).
    • Understand typical corporate organizational structure, roles and responsibilities and departmental interdependencies.
    • Use a systematic approach to solve business problems involving gathering data, evaluating alternatives and developing company strategies that include business, production, financial and marketing plans.
    • Read and interpret basic financial reports
    • Practice workplace survival skills: teamwork, organizational & time management skills, oral presentation & written communication skills, business ethics and dependability.
    • Share in any profits realized from the venture

Progress Report – March 24

Before we even decided to launch Junior Achievement at Shepherds Rock, I met with the Thomas, the Director of SRCD and a few representatives of the youth group, to assess their level of interest.  I was accompanied by Josiah, a JA staff member who oversees my region.  Josiah delivered a formal presentation about the history of the organization, its mission and the various programs offered, emphasizing the Company Program.  I was pleased that they organization was eager to move forward, we scheduled a recruitment event and Thomas, CEO of SRCD, agreed to get the word out.

At the next meeting I conducted an orientation to familiarize youth group members with the JA program and determine who was eager to participate. While we discussed the importance of meeting our commitments and being punctual, I realize this might be a challenge in the beginning.  We were successful in recruiting 10 members that day and I was told we might have a few stragglers who would come to the next meeting.  I reiterated that JA’s role is to provide the Company Program framework and resource materials and to facilitate the process.  I emphasized that what participants get out of this experience is largely up to them.  I explained that they would be expected to live by 4Cs:

  • Commit to give your all, demonstrated by consistent and active participation
  • Communicate effectively, with JA facilitator and your peers
  • Cooperate with coworkers, teamwork is essential
  • Celebrate our successes, let’s work hard AND have fun!

In return, they can expect to have fun while getting hands on experience with every aspect of starting/operating a company and how to conduct themselves in the workplace.

At the end of the orientation I fielded questions and polled all attendees to confirm their readiness to commit to the program.  One thing that has struck me as a challenge is that I really have to coax the youth to say what’s on their minds.  I hope this experience will make them more comfortable expressing themselves in public.  Everyone completed a questionnaire to establish a baseline against which JA will measure our success in capacity building.  In Kenya, youth is defined as up to the age of 35.  Our JA recruits range in age from 20 – 28 and all are female, with the exception of one 38-year-old male.   Almost all have completed secondary school and a few have attended university.  I had the group choose the day and time of our meetings and they decided to stick with Saturdays at 10am.  The Kenyan people are notorious for arriving late to meetings.  This probably sounds awful but they don’t even deny it.  If you were to take a poll, you would find that it’s not uncommon for meetings to start several hours late.

Almost everyone showed up for our next meeting.  I identified the various departments that make up a company, described their functions and the types of work that the employees perform.  We also talked about how the interdependencies impact each department’s ability to accomplish its objectives so that the company can achieve profitability.   Before we ended the session, everyone completed a job application that included education, work and other related experience.  They also had an opportunity to specify a department preference as well as an alternate.   I let them know I’d review the applications and we would soon conduct interviews to staff positions on the Board and within each department. We reconfirmed that we would meet the following Saturday and, as usual, I emailed everyone the meeting minutes.  I’m glad that I’ll be able to transition that responsibility to the company Secretary once we’ve completed job placements!

This past Saturday we had agreed to meet for brainstorming ideas for products and/or services.  In the previous meeting I asked that each member come to the next meeting prepared with one or two ideas to contribute.  I set the expectation that this would be the meeting where, once we captured all of the ideas, we will run each through a sort of litmus test, posing a series of questions that will help us to assess their relative feasibility and provide the group with a means to select one for implementation.  Armed with a flipchart and markers, I was excited for what I envisioned would be a lively, interactive discussion.   Needless to say, I was disappointed when only two members showed up for the meeting.  One had excused herself the week before and two texted their apology about an hour before our scheduled start time.  Veronica and Caroline, the two youth who came, were on time AND had clearly given a lot of thought to the task.  Their enthusiasm took the sting out of our poor attendance and we plunged into brainstorming.  We came up with a substantial list of possibilities to consider.   We agreed that we would continue brainstorming, hopefully with a larger group, in the next meeting.  In the meantime, they graciously agreed to split the list of members and personally call each to encourage them to come to the next meeting.  I am the eternal optimist and am keeping my hopes up but, regardless of the turnout, we will proceed.  Plenty of companies have been started by one or two people with passion and, the way I see it, if during my service in Kenya I can help even one person to significantly improve their earning potential so they can afford to educate their children, it will have been time well spent.

The Gift of Service

31 12 2011


Someone once asked Anthropologist Margaret Mead, “What is the first sign you look for, to tell you about an ancient civilization?”  Ms. Mead replied, “A healed femur.  When someone breaks a femur, they can’t survive to hunt, fish or escape enemies unless they have help from someone else.  Thus, a healed femur indicated that someone else helped that person, rather than abandoning them and saving themselves.” 

The United Nations designated Dec 5 as International Volunteer Day [for Economic and Social Development].  I surveyed my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and learned that many of us had our first experience as a volunteer in our early teens (one began at age 7!): working in an animal shelter, building a home for a family in need, as a hospital “candy-striper”, organizing a fundraiser auction, being a mentor, making baby blankets, at a homeless shelter, participating in a community cleanup event, exposing the children of migrant workers to books, being a companion for a senior citizen, participating in church youth group activities, working at a “store” stocked with donated items so that impoverished families could shop for Christmas presents.

These experiences paved the way for involvement in more ambitious projects: campaign worker, disabled children’s organization, March of Dimes Bid for Bachelors Auction planning committee, HIV/AIDS awareness and support activities, Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts,  teacher’s aide, Counselor at Hospice camp, Planned Parenthood volunteer coordination, Save Darfur Foundation, Dining for Women giving circle, The Homeless Garden Project, Amnesty International, Hillel, building a community center, food drives, Heartbeat Pregnancy Support Center, Environmental Affairs Board, fundraising, “Program Energy” teaching kids about exercise and nutrition, facilitating children’s art & crafts activities, performing chores for the elderly, Reach Out & Interact club, ACS’s Relay for Life Chairperson, Christmas adopt-a-family.

Many of us live privileged lives.  Unlike giving money, giving your time allows you to see the impact you’re having on people’s lives. Volunteering is a way to give back and have some fun at the same time, either on your own or as a family bonding experience.  If the truth be told, my volunteer experiences with organizations that serve my local community, as well as those that benefit the developing world, have not been entirely selfless pursuits.  Sometimes our day jobs are not as gratifying as we’d like them to be and, because we receive a salary in exchange for our work, we are not likely to be thanked simply for showing up.  On the flip side, in non-profit world, the donation of our time, skills and talents can be a highly valued asset to an organization struggling to operate with finite resources.  When I have volunteered I’ve been told, again and again, how much my help is appreciated, even when the tasks I’m performing are not awe inspiring.  Volunteering can also provide low-risk opportunities to dip your toe into uncharted waters like fundraising, event planning, community outreach, volunteer coordination, teaching and even farming.  You can “shop” around for an organization whose mission resonates with you.  You don’t necessarily need to be prepared to make a long-term commitment or to volunteer every week, you can find a placement that fits into your life.  If you link up with an organization and come to find out that the work you’re doing for them isn’t satisfying, go ahead and try out something else.  For a volunteer experience to be worthwhile it needs to be a win-win.

I hope your holiday season is filled with a joy that you can find a way to share with those less fortunate throughout the coming year.


23 11 2011

It’s at this time of year, with Thanksgiving approaching, that we typically reflect on what we are thankful for.  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all because it has nothing to do with religion and is simply about enjoying people and food.  This year I am reuniting with a few nearby Peace Corps volunteers for as traditional a Thanksgiving meal as we can pull together with local ingredients and minimal kitchen appliances.   This will surely be lots of fun but I’m still gonna feel nostalgic thinking about sitting around the Watsons’ table, where I’ve felt like a member of the family, for so many years.  There’s only so much you can say immediately before everyone digs in to devour, in a coupla hours, a meal that took days to prepare. When its your turn to share you’ve gotta be brief, and well, everyone knows, brief is just not my style.

Anyway, I haven’t been very consistent about expressing gratitude over the years and have been downright awful about writing thank you notes.  I am painfully aware of this every time I receive one from you (especially Sue, Mary Lynne, Leslyn, Catharine) containing the sweetest sentiment .  Some of what I’m feeling grateful for is the touchy-feely stuff but, frankly, there are also things that I’m realizing I took for granted in my American life that I will appreciate so much more once I return.  Have I mentioned that life is hard here?  Note: Any resolutions to change and grow as a human being will be deferred to my January post.

  • Family.  You can’t pick ’em, they can be maddening at times and they may resist seeing past who you were, long enough to recognize who you are now.  That said, every one of them is there for me and I hope they believe that I am there for them, even if I am a continent away.  I am so very thankful that her fight to survive cancer has not broken my sister’s spirit.  Tragically, my mom was widowed at 37 and left to raise 3 kids, ages 6-9, all by herself.  In truth, I can’t really begin to imagine how I ever would have managed to keep it together in her situation.  Shoulda, woulda, coulda…whatever, at the end of the day, I think we’d all agree that we turned out pretty well so Thanks Mom!  Now Mom is struggling to take care of my stepdad as his health declines and each of us has something different to contribute as we work together as a family to sort that out.
  • Friends.  My friends are THE best because I carefully select fabulous people to build bonds with that last a lifetime.  With some, I have been treated like I am actually a member of the family.  I include my friend John here, my “wuzband”, because I am so glad that our friendship has survived our marriage.  John has always believed in and supported me, and is managing our finances and real estate in my absence so that I can relax and live life.  I am so excited to be seeing my fellow PCVs in just a few days.  I hope that the bonds I’ve formed with some of them will withstand the test of time.   For now, we share our lives via text, phone, blog, Facebook and, if we’re lucky, the occasional visit or training event.  Sadly, after Peace Corps we’ll scatter.   This is the fourth time in my life that I’ve moved somewhere where I didn’t know anybody.   I really appreciate how comforting it is to be to be surrounded by people with whom you have a shared a history.  While the opportunity to reinvent myself has always exhilarating, I do enjoy simply being myself with people I know and trust and with whom I can completely let my guard down.  Building true friendships takes time and so my social life here is a dramatic contrast to my life in California.   Fortunately, I can be pretty content when left to my own devices and I have had no shortage of PCV visitors here.  That said, I could go for a walk on the beach with a friend, the impromptu visit, a casual evening out, Chinese takeout and Netflix, a night of dancing to The Bonedrivers, a whacky theme party.
  • Physical and mental health.  Relatively speaking, though there are days when I feel every one of my 50+ years in my aching back and you would not believe how many times I have to get up in the middle of the night to pee.  Oh, and I’m missing a body part but it’s nothing I can’t manage without.  In recent years, three of my most beloved people on this earth suffered through the treatment that enables them to be called cancer survivors today. I’m currently living in a place where people still contract polio and children die from mosquito bites.  As I see my stepfather struggle with the effects of Parkinson’s disease I realize how vulnerable we really are.   I keep telling myself that playing games (Scrabble, Solitaire, Minesweeper, Sudoko) will keep me as razor sharp as my sarcastic wit.  We’ll see.  I’m also glad that I received an education as I’m living in a country where that is not a given.
  • Financial stability.  Maybe money can’t buy happiness but it’s a lot easier to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment in life when you have a roof over your head and food in your belly.  It’s scary to think how one’s financial outlook can change so dramatically through circumstances both within and beyond our control.  A world event. a bad decision, a miscalculation.  Whatever happens, I am more aware than ever before of just how very fortunate I am.  I am living in a country where some people simply can’t afford to eat every day and where there are often shortages of basic staples.  Service and philanthropy are what I owe in exchange for this good life that I have largely “inherited” just by virtue of the fact that I was born in America.
  • Comfort.  Bed, couch, chair.  I have not slept or sat in true comfort in five months.   The furniture that most people here can afford is very uncomfortable and plastic lawn chairs are everywhere.  I would occasionally love to lay down on something that is not my bed.   Also, I’m so glad I have a little battery operated handheld fan (tradeshow swag from ages ago) that fits in my purse it  has been a life saver.   December is the hottest, driest month here but hey, I wanted to go somewhere hot so I’m not complaining.
  • Peace and quiet.  I have NEVER in my life lived amidst such a cacophony and the fact that I don’t have windows means I hear everything.  Traffic whizzes by throughout the day and night, trucks brake with a squeal or blast their horns at all hours but mysteriously, all is usually quiet from 3-5am when the drivers must pull over for a little shut-eye.   The tethered dog next door is clearly miserable, crying for hours, begging to be freed.  Our rooster doesn’t limit his crowing to sunrise, the free-range chickens cluck all the time and there are these birds whose calls sound like a lunatic laughing.  I hear goats bleating from time to time and there is a sound emitted from a donkey that sounds like its either being beaten or it’s giving birth, who know!  Stuff falling from the trees and the sky onto my tin roof.  Lately, some dude has been hammering on metal for hours at a time.   Most of the time the noise doesn’t get to me but there are moments where I long for silence.  Fortunately, I can go to my alternate universe in Bondo where I find peace and tranquility and am pleasantly awakened only by the chirping of birds.
  • Food.  When I return home I anticipate that going to a supermarket will be overwhelming at first.  Living in Kisumu I have access to a supermarket and more variety than most of my peers.   People in the villages often have nothing to choose from besides maize, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and bananas.  That said, supermarket shopping is expensive for those living within their Kenyan means so I do get all of my produce at the outdoor market.   Getting proper nutrition can be challenging but I’m doing okay so far.  I did get a fridge (given to me for free!) and that has made a HUGE difference for me.  I am now eating better and drinking a lot more water, which has significantly reduced the frequency of the headaches I was getting way too often.  As you know, I’m a foodie.   I love to eat and talk about food and shop for food and watch cooking shows and read cookbooks.  I really enjoy cooking for others but what I miss the most is the pleasure of cooking with friends.  It seems many Kenyans are wary of trying unfamiliar dishes so I have to lure my PCV friends here to satisfy my need to feed.
  • Technology.  Loved it before, don’t know how I’d fare without it now but, fortunately I don’t have to.  Telecommunications and internet access is entrenched here.  The ability to feel connected to people and aware of world events, despite the delta in distance and time zone, is a gift.  It makes me feel safer and less isolated. Listening to my iPod, watching TV shows on my laptop, text check-ins with PCV friends, occasional phone calls to America, visiting the Facebook pages of family and friends and web surfing are still a relaxing ways to pass time.  That said, it’s been nice to know that I can step away from the gadgets and not experience some kinda crazy withdrawal.
  • Infrastructure.  Have I mentioned life is harder here?
      • Logistics.  First of all, you know I’m directionally challenged.  Well, I had to make my own map of the city because apparently they don’t exist.  Really.  I went to Google maps, took screen shots, went to a Cyber Cafe to have them printed and spliced them together with band-aids.  When streets do have names they don’t have signs and it’s rare that you have any success when asking for directions.  Though I’m far less dependent on the map than I was a month or so ago, I feel more confident walking around town knowing that it’s in my bag.
      • Transportation. Not surprisingly, I don’t miss driving.  What I do miss is being able to get where I want, when I want, in relative comfort with little hassle and ambiguity about the cost.  An excellent public transportation system managed by local government is a joy to behold and I’ll remember that every time I ride the subway in NYC, D.C., London or wherever.
      • 411.  There is no directory assistance and therefore you cannot “let your fingers do the walking”.   Want the phone number to the police station?  Go there and ask them for it.  Need to buy a gas burner to cook on?  Walk to 12 petrol stations and 6 supermarkets to confirm that nobody has one in stock.  You can’t even get one station to phone its sister station because they don’t have the phone number.  Oy, can this really be true??
      • Postal service.  Everyone says it’s pretty corrupt here (actually, they say that about government in general).  I don’t know this from personal experience because I’ve discouraged people from sending me things but, when Peace Corps ships me my medication refills they send it via courier.  The simple act of shipping a package to the US is a major ordeal here.
      • Waste Management.  Since day one, it has been so hard to get used to seeing garbage scattered about virtually everywhere you go.  In many places trash ends up on the ground simply because there are no convenient receptacles to put it in.  There are no trash bins because there are no companies to empty them.  There is a huge business opportunity here.
      • Water.  This is a huge issue here.  I live near the 2nd largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in the world and yet many people do not have water piped to their homes.  Every morning I heat water to take a bucket bath and reminisce about feeling squeaky clean, a luxury I can only expect to experience during a hotel stay.  When I yearn to be submerged in water I go to a local resort and pay 200ksh to use the swimming pool.
  • Personal safety.  Being on unfamiliar turf can be a little unsettling at times.  Here I am not the cocky New Yorker, riding the subway alone at all hours of the night.  I don’t feel like I’m in imminent danger but there are some crazy things happening in the world and lately, in this country in particular.  Peace Corps staff has been diligent about communicating when incidents occur and I trust that they are doing what is necessary to minimize risk and keep us all safe.
  • Conveniences.  Not a day goes by that I don’t realize just how easy I have had it.  I am confident I could easily manage without a microwave and a dishwasher but not without running water, a kitchen sink (been there/done that, for A YEAR in Santa Cruz and now here), clothes washer and dryer.  I will never again complain about having to do laundry when I toss it into a machine and go do other things while my clothes are magically scrubbed.   I needed a wooden dowel and had to have one made by a furniture maker.  I need some heavy poster board and, well, apparently it just doesn’t exist here.
  • Beauty.   Recently,  a hellaciously bumpy 4+ hour  bus ride was made tolerable because through my window I was treated to the most spectacular views of lush, green tea plantations.   Paintings by my favorite local artist distract me from the mud walls and lack of light in my dwelling.  This is a bird watcher’s paradise with many species in vibrant, often iridescent, colors.  Even the livestock and poultry treat the eyes to gorgeous combinations of earth tones.  These days, I am constantly seeing images I want to capture and share.  Even the sacks of grains at the market beg to be photographed.
  • Movie theaters.  There’s nothing quite like sitting in the dark in front of the big screen and having a shared experience with a bunch of strangers while eating buttery popcorn.   Yeah, people can be downright rude sometimes but I realize now that’s the way movies were meant to be seen.
  • The Ocean.  I do miss being at the beach and can’t wait to join friends at the coast during Christmas vacation!

I hope you’ll have a Thanksgiving surrounded by the people you adore, eating the things that you crave, feeling gratitude for everything good that you have in your life.   Btw, just in case I forgot to mention it……..

Pendeza Weaving

31 10 2011

It’s about time I gave you the lowdown on what I’ve actually been doing here in Kenya. My primary assignment is to help Pendeza Weaving to expand their business so that they can provide employment and economic empowerment to more of Kenya’s citizens.  This is a marketing video slideshow I produced at the recommendation of the local Ministry of Tourism.  It includes photos of the manufacturing process, samples of Pendeza’s merchandise and glimpses of the people who make it all happen.  It will play in the Ministry’s lobby and be shared with local tour operators, resorts and the Kisumu Airport Manager.  It will also play continuously in Pendeza Weaving’s stall at upcoming craft exhibitions.

William and Margaret Okello are technically my supervisors though I think of them more as peers. They are wonderful people who have built this business gradually over the last 30 years.  They currently have 19 employees who perform the work of spinning, dyeing, weaving and tailoring of Pendeza ‘s textile products.  They also work with numerous independent contractors, most of whom spin yarn at home.

William concentrates on Product and Operations and Margaret focuses on Sales, Marketing and Community Outreach/Education for local farmers.   Just a few years ago Pendeza added operations in the town of Bondo and registered with the government as a Community Based Organization (CBO).  Safaricom provided a grant to build the facilities which remain only 43% complete with the allocated budget exhausted due to cost overruns.  William and Margaret are attempting to persuade Safaricom to fund the building’s completion.  Their goal is for the Bondo location to become self-sustaining and introduce a variety of value-added services tailored to the needs of its employees.  Once the Okellos have accomplished their objective they intend to turn the Bondo operation over to the community who will manage it and share in its profits.

While I was brought here to focus primarily on Sales and Marketing, all aspects of the business are interconnected and so all have been scrutinized.  William and Margaret have put up with my endless probing and have responded with candor as they are equally invested in my service being productive. As you know, I don’t have a degree in Marketing or Business and had the briefest of sales careers.  That said, by virtue of the fact that I’m an American who has been marketed to constantly for the last 50+ years and who has bought a lot of stuff during that time, I’d say my credentials are sufficient for the task at hand.

While I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about Pendeza or the textile industry in general, I have learned a great deal so far through observation, online research and field trips.  I recently visited Kenana Knitters in Njoro and was in awe at what they have achieved in both community development and operational excellence.  500 women earn income through piece work and profit sharing and have access to a savings plan, preventative healthcare screenings, seminars including HIV awareness and family planning, literacy classes, a computer lab, electronics charging stations and onsite childcare.  The manufacturing, quality control and fulfillment processes truly set the bar.  The level of engagement of the women and the many ways in which Kenana Knitters has had an impact on their lives is inspiring.  I’ve compiled everything I’ve learned into a business and opportunity analysis covering these components:

  • Administration (bookkeeping practices, trend & profit analysis, budget)
  • Product / Operations (raw materials, manufacturing processes)
  • Competition / Product Differentiation
  • Customers (database, demographics, purchasing trends)
  • Sales Channels (retail, wholesale/export/internet)
  • Marketing / Promotion (activities & collateral materials)
  • Outreach / Education / Tourism (visibility in community, artisan skills, tourist destination)
  • Community – Bondo (Community Based Organization impact)

For each business area I’ve documented the current state, opportunities to explore, challenges we might encounter and strategies for overcoming those challenges.  Starting next week, and over a period of time, we’ll sit down together and go over my findings section by section.   We’ll validate the information captured, makes edits as needed, discuss the opportunities and dependencies and reach consensus on priorities.  Ultimately, I’m hoping we can distill the information down to an actionable and sustainable plan that can be executed during the duration of my service as well as recommendations for continuing to move forward after I’ve gone.  While I’m hoping we can accomplish this before Thanksgiving, the Okellos are quite busy preparing for several craft exhibitions they’ll participate in before the end of the year.

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with my site assignment!


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